Caligula: The Corruption of Power
by Anthony A. Barrett
Yale University Press, 334 pp., $27.50
by Barbara Levick
Yale University Press, 256 pp., $25.00
Since ancient times, much of the historical writing about communities governed by monarchies has taken the form of royal or imperial biography. Many scholars have deplored this, objecting that too much concentration on rulers removes attention from the realm as a whole and concentrates it on the capital, encouraging the biographical historian to follow the historians of ancient times, usually members of the governing elite, to assign excessive importance to the fortunes of that body while neglecting the social and economic history of the kingdom or the empire and the administration of its provinces. In the case of the Roman Empire “bad” emperors like Caligula and Nero, it is argued, made life uncomfortable for the upper class but did not seriously interfere with provincial administration. Thus in his first notable article the most eminent Roman historian of our time, Sir Ronald Syme (1903–1989), refuted a widespread assumption that the “bad”, emperor Domitian must have left the Empire’s finances in a parlous state.
Still, one can understand the popularity of imperial biography. First, the history of kings and emperors and royal families makes entertaining reading. This is particularly true of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Roman emperors, with which I, like many other people now living, first became acquainted through the classical dictionary of the Reverend John Lemprière, first published in 1788 but often reprinted since, the last time appearing in New York in 1984. Valeria Messallina, the wife of the emperor Claudius, according to Lemprière “prostituted herself in the public streets, and few men there were at Rome who had not enjoyed the favours of the impure Messallina.” Since the population of the city at that time has been estimated at about a million, Messallina would have to have had a busy time. The reign of Claudius’ predecessor, Caligula, offers even better material for this kind of thing; even if not clinically insane, he was on any view notably capricious and eccentric.
The history of this dynasty is the subject of two of the most successful historical novels of modern times, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves. The struggles for the succession which from the time of Augustus, the founder of the dynasty, were going on inside the imperial family provided Graves with the material for an enthralling narrative. He had made a careful study of the ancient sources and in using them did not go beyond what is permissible in a writer of fiction. The Hungarian producer Alexander Korda, whose company London Films was successful during the Thirties, began making a film based on these novels, Claudius being played by Charles Laughton, an ideal actor for the part. Unfortunately this film was never completed, but during the Seventies parts of it were discovered and shown on British and, later, American television with considerable success. This led to a new television film, and this in turn to the making of a more recent movie about Caligula which presented an even more highly colored picture …