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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

“Caligula: The Corruption of Power”, by Anthony A. Barrett


334 pages, Yale University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0300046533

In his book Caligula: The Corruption of Power, Anthony A. Barrett provides an excellent, balanced view of Caligula in his work. Much like the title of the book implies, he attributes the emperor’s downfall to his own corruption and flaws, not insanity. Barrett uses the ancient sources well by analyzing the style of the historian and dismissing the details that are too extreme and those that do not make sense. The book flows from chapter to chapter quite well, never being dull or boring and is written in such a way that it falls between being for a general audience and those with prior knowledge, but leans more toward the academic side (not that this is necessarily a bad thing).

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus – Caligula, or “Little Boots” as the Roman Legions in Germany dubbed him when presented to them in complete, miniature legionnaire gear as a child – was something of an enigma, not helped by the fact that his brief Imperium presumably was recorded by Tacitus in what is now a lost volume of the Annals. As Barrett notes, only too much of what written accounts remain were written by people who intensely disliked him. What Barrett does is discard the opinion and stick to the known facts. Once he does this, there is insufficient remaining, so he has to interpret what he knows and make reasonable guesses. On the whole, I think Barrett does an excellent job; the account is plausible, and in the end the reader has a fair account of what happened. The problem with Gaius is that there are so many contradictions; nevertheless Barrett's account is at least in account with the writings of Josephus and Suetonius, which is more than can be said for a number of other accounts. I have carried out a certain amount of independent research on Gaius, and while there are inevitable parts of his life that really cannot be properly accounted for and validated, I believe this book is about as good as anyone is going to get on this topic.

With the amount we really do not know about all of these classical figures, it's a wonder we can come to any conclusions at all. And yet, Mr. Barrett tries to read between the lines, reconcile conflicting accounts, and distill a reasoned, if speculative, look at one of Rome's most infamous emperors. What I really like about this book is the author's admission, in several places, that his opinion was just that, his opinion. Well thought out and supported though it was, he freely admits that reliable historical facts are hard to come by based on the accounts that have survived. Still, if nothing else, the author is able to show us two things: the inner workings of the empire in the power struggle between the Senate and the Royal House of Augustus, and how classical history should be researched, reasoned and viewed.

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