Caligula tells the story of the Roman emperor through the eyes of his beloved sister Livilla. I came into this book cold, not at all familiar with Caligula’s story. The author hints at Caligula’s fate though, by starting his novel with an explanation of “damnatio memoriae.” It’s a modern term that basically means emperors who are despised by the Roman senate are vilified upon death, and wiped from history instead of granted divine status.
The book begins with Caligula and Livilla’s childhood, and the tense political climate that surrounded their family. They came from royal lineage and so were fairly close in succession to the throne, which made them a target for other political families, particularly the emperor’s capricious right hand man.
I enjoyed the part about the family having to keep an eye out for danger on all sides, and Caligula and Livilla’s mother and grandmother in particular seemed like formidable women. Unfortunately, I also found this part to be a bit dry, and I never really connected with any of the characters. Part of it is that the author seemed to have his characters already fully formed as historical figures in his mind, so there’s little sense of the children they must have been. Even as a child, Livilla spoke and thought like an adult. Understandably, it’s because the story as a whole is narrated by an elderly Livilla remembering her past, so a childish voice would’ve felt contrived. But the detached narrative tone also ended up making me feel detached from the story. It felt more like plodding through the narrative beats of history rather than seeing the world through the eyes of a five year old child constantly living in fear.
Caligula as well seemed an uncannily perceptive child. From Livilla’s narration, he was cautious about expressing feelings even as an eleven year old. While Caligula’s older brothers made serious mistakes due to youthful arrogance, Caligula always seemed preternaturally controlled. So when he becomes emperor and, triggered by one event or another, suddenly begins acting irrational and cruel, it felt out of character.
Turney did a good job in making Caligula sympathetic. The emperor was constantly targeted by vicious and untrue rumours, and I felt especially bad for him when circumstances lead to him becoming paranoid and pushing away everyone who was close to him. As narrator, Livilla felt less defined, which is ironic because she’s the central character through which we’re experiencing these events. But beyond being utterly loyal and devoted to her brother, her personality was more something she told us about than actually exhibited.
I couldn’t help comparing Caligula to the novels of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, which I absolutely love. Part of it may be that I’m just more familiar with and interested in the story of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and that whole cast of characters. But also, Gregory and Weir’s characters felt real to me; they were compelling figures and they made me want to read about their lives. In contrast, Livilla felt flat, and Caligula, though certainly a tragic figure, never really felt charismatic or larger than life.
Still, overall, it’s not a bad book, just a bit dry. I did Google Caligula’s story a few chapters in, but I may possibly have appreciated it more if I’d been more familiar with Caligula’s story in advance.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.