Routledge (2015) h/b 384pp £105 (ISBN 9780415658447)
This book forms part of the Routledge series ‘Roman Imperial Biographies’. It is a second edition, published with a slightly revised subtitle: Abuse of Power (rather than Corruption of Power). The text has been revised by its author and the new edition takes into account scholarship published since the first edition appeared in 1989. The structure is largely unchanged. Essentially it is chronological, with a focus mainly on the succession from Tiberius and the years of Caligula’s short reign as Roman emperor (AD 37-41).
The book is aimed at the professional scholar as well as the intelligent general reader. On this spectrum, I would say that the book is positioned more towards the scholarly end. It seems that the author might not himself have chosen the biographical format, which ‘imposes undeniable limitations on the serious study of any historical period’. But scholars like Professor Barrett must accept that ‘perversely or not, people are fascinated by figures like Caligula.’ The scholar is therefore asked to address this popular fascination and can offer ‘a study that seeks to take proper account of scholarly research and archaeological evidence.’
There is some excellent detective work in the book, such as the careful use of literary, epigraphical and archaeological evidence to conclude that the legions XV Primigenia and XXII Primigenia were formed by Caligula as part of his preparations to invade Britain (which he never did). Barrett thoroughly examines his sources, if only to conclude that they are ‘of limited value’. The result is the most secure outline of events that can be achieved.
The inevitable downside of this sober and scholarly approach is that very little can be said about Caligula with any confidence. Barrett successfully argues that there is too little evidence to conclude with certainty that Caligula was insane. Similarly, he probably did not bankrupt the empire. He probably did not commit the atrocities that are attributed to him. He probably did not kill as many people as one might have thought (the list of his named victims is not particularly long) and some of them probably deserved it (e.g. Gaetulicus). The lurid figure who may have attracted our interest in the first place, the incestuous, sadistic maniac, in this book turns out to be an ordinary, run-of-the mill autocrat such as the world has seen many times over.
Giles Gilbert—Woodbridge School