One of Penguin’s Little Black Classics range, I picked this up for less than a quid during a recent odyssey to an amazing bookstore (I tend to make pilgrimages to book stores in the way someone else might visit cathedrals or other holy sites). I may have lost 3 hours and a decent amount of money, but I did walk out with two bulging bags of treats. The Little Black Classic range is great for this kind of shopping, enabling you to walk away with the short-read versions of basically half a library while still having money left over for lunch, and Caligula was just one of many that accompanied me out of the store that day.
Seeming to fit in with my current trend of reading things that make me feel slightly better about the state of the world these days, Caligula is based on Seutonius’ biography, which is the work that has pretty much shaped our idea of what one of history’s biggest maniacs was like. (Yes, even worse than Trump, but no-one show him this, OK? He might get ideas).
Pretty much all I knew of Caligula was what I’d seen on clip shows of the Malcolm McDowell film (I’ve never seen it whole), but it turns out that wasn’t really that far off the mark. While initially rather a popular ruler, helped by his propensity for throwing fortunes into crowds of the masses, holding lots of spectacles and bestowing honours left, right and centre, Caligula would soon prove to be stranger than fiction. Committing incest with all three of his sisters was only the cherry on top of a very squicky sundae.
Amongst his biggest feats of infamy were:
- Declaring that he should be treated as a God and holding conversations with statues of other gods, replacing all of their heads with his own and establishing a shrine to himself whilst making sure that he and his life-sized golden statue wore matching outfits every day.
- Making his highest ranking officials run for miles alongside his chariot and, after inviting spectators to a bridge dedication ceremony, tipping them into the water and leaving them to drown.
- Being ugly and bald himself, compensating by frequently absconding with the wives of his dinner guests before returning to their husbands to rate their sexual prowess, while making sure that those with good heads of hair had the backs of their heads shaved and having one attractive fella strangled.
- Behaving savagely towards his own family, murdering one young relative for drinking anti-venom as a precaution against poison, and forcing his father-in-law to cut his own throat with a razor.
As a book, this one was a very, very quick whistlestop tour through Caligula’s reign (it’s probably an hour’s reading, tops), but one that I enjoyed and that also definitely succeeded in making me feel infinitely grateful that there are at least still a few obstacles to stop our current deranged leaders from doing whatever the hell they want.