Author – Douglas Jackson
Published – 2009
Genre – Historical fiction
I was lucky to get a copy of this book as part of the Transworld Book Group Reading Challenge. I’m a big fan of fiction set in the days of the Roman Empire, so I was looking forward to reading about one of the era’s most notorious characters.
Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the third Roman Emperor, is better known by another name: Caligula, a name synonymous with decadence, cruelty and madness. His reign was marked by excess, huge building projects, the largest gladiatorial battles Rome was ever to see – men and animals killed in their hundreds – conspiracies, assassination attempts and sexual scandal. Rufus as a young slave grows up far from the corruption of the imperial court. His master is a trainer of animals for the gladiatorial arena. Rufus discovers that he has a natural ability with animals, a talent for controlling and schooling them. It is at the arenas that Rufus meets his great friend Cupido, one of Rome’s greatest gladiators. It is his growing reputation as an animal trainer and his friendship with Cupido that attracts the cruel gaze of the Emperor. Caligula wants a keeper for the imperial elephant and Rufus is bought from his master and taken to the imperial palace. Life here is dictated by Caligula’s ever shifting moods. Caligula is as generous as he is cruel, he is a megalomaniac who declares himself a living god and simultaneously lives in constant fear of the plots against his life. But his paranoia is not misplaced, intrigue permeates his court, and Rufus and Cupido find themselves unwittingly placed at the centre of a conspiracy to assassinate the Emperor.
My first impression was that this book was mis-titled. It features Caligula as a character, but it is by no means a study of him as a person, more he’s a catalyst for much of the action. There are only a few short chapters where we actually see Rome from his perspective, but these are few and not particularly insightful.
My second feeling was that this was too gory. Of course I expected some gruesome scenes – Caligula was renowned as an insane tyrant, but I’m afraid the early part of the book featured some very nasty scenes with animals which I had to skip over. Violence to people, especially in this historical context is fine, but when animals are involved I’m afraid I just don’t want to know.
So the story is about Rufus, a slave sold to an animal trainer, he finds that he has a way with the animals and a skill for training them to perform. The use of animals for combat in the arena brings Rufus into contact with some of the gladiators – including Cupido, a young gladiator with whom he strikes up a friendship.
Rufus’s life is thrown into turmoil when Caligula demands that he becomes the keeper of the imperial elephant. Once taken into the Emporer’s household he finds himself caught up in the web of intrigue which surrounds the Emporer. As well as the several factions who would all see Caligula dead, there is the Emporer himself to contend with. His moods are notorious – charming and generous one minute, having people barbarically executed the next. Despite Rufus’s efforts to keep a low profile he manages to find himself in the heart of the action.
I found the book a lot more enjoyable once more of the intrigue and action got underway and Rufus (and his elephant) are characters that you want to survive the horrors that take place around them.
Score – 3/5