Fiction Book of the Month: Simon Turney on Caligula

The bestselling author discusses his revisionist novel based on the infamous emperor of Rome.
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Simon Turney, Caligula is the first of two novels based on Emperors of Rome that have rather, shall we say negative reputations (the second is Commodus)? Caligula was the 3rd Emperor after Augustus and Tiberius, but why did you want to write about him in particular?

Originally it was the suggestion of my phenomenal agent that I tackle a big Roman character like Caligula. I was dubious about that particular emperor initially. After all, the public image of the man is clearly based on the 1970s portrayal by Malcolm MacDowell, and I was not sure how I could possibly write a readable novel about the man. And I almost decided against it altogether when I then went and watched that same movie. Then I picked up a book by Aloys Winterling, which is the first revisionist approach I’ve seen to the emperor, which pulled apart the historical image and dug deeper to try and divine the truth. As soon as I saw what he’d done, I wanted to do the same, but on a grander scale, and as a novel. That led me to pulling apart the historical sources myself and expanding on what Winterling had done, with a view to making it the first portrayal of a realistic Caligula.

Let’s get down to business. Did Caligula pursue incestuous relations with his sisters, and did he appoint his horse as consul?

I think the question of his sisters is hard to answer. He was clearly devoted to Drusilla, and though Suetonius and Cassius Dio both damn him for incest with his sisters, both were writing long after he died and working from extant histories and rumours. We are told by Dio “Towards his mother, his sisters, and his grandmother Antonia he conducted himself at first in the most dutiful manner possible” at the start of his life and by Suetonius at the end “his sisters on their return from exile dug [his body] up, cremated it, and consigned it to the tomb.” These suggest heavily a man with respect for his sisters who, even after his death, retain sufficient respect to see him buried properly. This does not sound like a man who had abused them, does it? More on the horse to follow…

Which has done more harm to his reputation: portrayals in film (Caligula , 1979) and TV (I, Claudius, 1976), or the primary sources: Suetonius and Seneca?

I would say that every source that mentions Caligula has done him irreparable damage. The primary sources were all written by men Caligula had spent his reign ruining, embarrassing and disenfranchising, and it is no surprise therefore that they are anti. The modern portrayals are all based on those biased ancient sources, and so they are certainly no better. The only difference is that more people have come to hate him from modern film than from ancient sources, purely because more people have watched the films than had read the sources.

The novel is written from the point of view of his youngest sister Livilla, and is sympathetic. Did you enjoy writing about a character like Caligula, who has a certain reputation, and you can subvert the prevailing view of him?

Caligula at the Met

That seems to me rather like two questions. I wrote the book from Livilla’s POV because she was the only character who could cover Caligula’s story from beginning to end. It was nice being able to see their world through her eyes, a person who was close enough to see it all, without being a mover of it all. I liked Livilla. But yes, it was thrilling to produce a novel of Caligula that was more than sensationalist madness. For two thousand years he has been a byword for excess and dangerous madness. To be the man to buck that trend was astounding. And in truth, without wanting to blow my own horn, I have to believe that my portrayal is the closest to the truth.

Was Caligula mad?

Lord, no. He was nervous, angry, clever, and dangerous, but no, not mad. Most of the stories of Caligula from ancient sources can be put aside for one of two reasons. Either the sources contradict one another, rendering them worthless, or they are so unrealistic and outlandish that they are clearly a fantasy. All the things generally cited as signs of his madness can be explained away. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Caligula made his horse a senator, yes? Actually, even his detractors (Cassius Dio) only say he ‘planned’ to make Incitatus a consul. Given Caligula’s renowned dark and acerbic humour, it seems likely that what he actually said was something along the lines of “If THAT’s all the sense I can expect from a consul, I might as well make my HORSE one.’ Similarly the carrying of chests of shells and rocks from the French coast back to Rome does sound mad it they are considered the spoils of war. But the legions involved revolted, and some sort of punishment would be due that. Carrying boxes of rocks back to Rome does sound like something a bitter and angry man might order.

Would you go for dinner with Caligula if invited?

Actually, his meals were generally pretty peaceful. I would have to. Even with the dangers, I would want to attend, to hear his dark wit, to witness the golden prince of Rome.

Caligula expanded the empire during his reign, and also embarked on campaigns in Britain – do we know much about these, and how successful they were?

The assassination of Caligula

Caligula annexed Northwest Africa without the need for a war, by a little political chicanery and assassination, and similarly took several eastern regions under the banner of Rome. Had his legions not revolted at Gesoriacum, leading to the infamous ‘chests of shells’ scene, it is highly likely that he would have invaded Britain a few years before Claudius, acquired the name Britannicus, and be remembered as the man who first annexed this island.

Commodus’ reputation among the public has been sealed by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator. Do you have sympathies with him?

With Commodus being my second Damned Emperor, I think that’s a given. Actually, I think of the four I cover in my books, my greatest sympathy lies with Commodus. While other emperors might have been dark or vicious, a read through of the sources with an eye on the symptoms leads to a very real possibility that Commodus was bipolar, which would explain his darker moments as well as his golden, glorious excesses. I think Commodus has been maligned more than most emperors.

Will we see a third emperor in the series?

It so happens that I have just finished editing book 3, which will be released by Canelo. I am bound by secrecy, so I can only say that his name rhymes with Pomitian, and he was a First Century damned emperor. Better still, I am now embarking on book 4!

Simon Turney is a bestselling novelist and historian and author of Caligula, the first in his Damned Emperor series.

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