Top positive review
Dando-Collins Shoots For A Sensationalist, Accurate Portrayal Of Caligula's Reign Which Entertains.
Reviewed in the United States on October 4, 2020
'Caligula: The Mad Emperor of Rome' by Stephen Dando-Collins is an interesting beast to be sure. The trade paperback edition I own is about 225 pages in length. I'd never read a book by Dando-Collins, I had very little in the area of preconception on what to expect upon diving into it. On the surface, 'Caligula : The Mad Emperor of Rome' is structured in a way that's relatively similar to some of the contemporary biographies on Caligula which adopt a more scholarly, factual approach in regards to their composition & substance, such as Anthony Barrett's 'Caligula : The Corruption of Power' & Aloys Winterling's 'Caligula : A Biography', but the resemblance is only skin-deep, as this book is very dissimilar to either of those two, in many ways. There's a short introduction, followed by the work itself, which is apportioned with additional notes & annotations which correspond to sections in the back of the volume, providing the reader with supplemental information to enrich his or her enjoyment of the book. And it is an enjoyable read to be sure. There's a lot to be said for the way 'Caligula : The Mad Emperor of Rome' is written, because it reads quickly & doesn't bog you down with detached historical citations & overly studious observations if you're just a casual Roman history fan looking for a stylishly-penned, mostly historically-accurate narrative of Caligula's story. If that's what you're looking for, that's exactly what this book provides.
'Caligula : The Mad Emperor of Rome' is composed of twenty-nine chapters, & with the exception of perhaps two of them, all are of easily-digestible size. The writing is mostly above-average & laced with 21st-century comparisons, similes & analogies to assist new readers in immersion with the era of history 'Caligula' takes place in. Aspects of Roman culture, or famous people in Caligula's time are given modern comparisons (i.e. - Agrippina the Elder & Germanicus are likened to Jackie Kennedy & J.F.K.). I've a feeling a lot of hardcore history fanatics are going to cry foul about this book, for a lot of reasons, but I think it's absolutely important for people to understand that this was meant to be a more universally accessible, historical narrative accounting of Caligula's life & reign. It wasn't supposed to be the de facto successor to Barrett's 'The Corruption of Power'. Is 'Caligula : The Mad Emperor of Rome' perfect? Did I encounter anything while reading it that bothered me? I did, & I will elucidate upon what they were, later on in the review. Are they deal-breakers? Hell no. Because there are a ton of things about this novel that I was a huge fan of, its accessible-yet-stylized appeal being only one of them. But the things about it that bothered me, they bothered me almost enough to leave a bad taste in my mouth about the book when I was done with it.
For the people reading this review that aren't familiar with Gaius Caligula's history, I think one of the most glaring truths to be ascertained early on is the dominant female presence the women close to him fostered in the young man's childhood & subsequent reign. Early on, every male that could have cultivated paternal or filial protection for Caligula was either poisoned, assassinated, or exiled/starved to death. As a result, Gaius looked to his beautiful, formidable mother, Agrippina the Elder, to serve as a role model to emulate. His paternal grandmother was Antonia the Younger, daughter of the legendary Marcus Antonius. And Caligula had three royal, Roman patrician sisters with Agrippina the Younger, Julia Drusilla, & Livilla, who were all the adult blood relations remaining to him by the time he seized power in 37 A.D. In 'Caligula : The Mad Emperor of Rome' I feel that Dando-Collins does a superb job of bringing the females in Caligula's life to the forefront of the narrative & keeping them there, as they should most assuredly be, as much as possible for the purposes of the story. Because it's a documented historical fact that Caligula both relied upon & showed favoritism to women while he was in power, which really should not come as a surprise, due to females playing such an instrumental role throughout his life. Gaius had such affection for his sisters that his desire was for the Roman people to view the three on a comparable level as his own. And the majority of Gaius Caligula's female 'calesti sanguine ortam' (that's Latin for 'blood relatives') were famous for their charisma & for their beauty.
Actions Caligula precipitated, such as ordering the manufacture of commemorative Roman currency celebrating his mother Agrippina & his three sisters is mentioned. He effectively utilized the overpowering sex appeal (all of Caligula's sisters & his mother were reputedly gorgeous to behold) to provide a constant visual reminder of the dominant female Julii presence to the citizens of Rome. Dando-Collins even brings the seldom-mentioned sexual tutelage which Gaius received personally from the renowned Roman courtesan Pyrallis into the narrative, which impressed me, in its attention to detail.
In one of the later chapters, Dando-Collins goes into a great amount of depth, thoroughly elucidating upon one of the least-explored areas of Caligulan lore, that being the decadent, extravagant & flamboyant coterie of imperial freedmen that Gaius surrounded himself with while he ruled. The handsome Greek Gaius Julius Callistus, his hedonistic daughter Nymphidia & her son Nymphidius Sabinus are seldom found in Caligulan works that I've read, but they are often-mentioned here. His 'ab epistulis' (secretary of correspondence) Obulus & his imperial spymaster Protogenes appear as well, & perhaps most notorious of all, the infamous Jew-hating Egyptian Halycon, an ex-slave whose razor-barbed insults & humiliating mockeries would often create lurid spectacles which entertained the emperor for years. 'Caligula : The Mad Emperor of Rome' does appropriate justice to the seldom-visited areas of hedonistic pleasure & decadence of Caligua's reign that historical sources often omit or minimalize due to their limited impact on significant events.
'Caligula : The Mad Emperor of Rome' also demonstrates another strength that I haven't seen done quite to the level of effectiveness that Dando-Collins manages to pull off here : He successfully uses accredited historical sources from antiquity & combines them with modern biographical works to draw some nice conclusions for folks who might be newcomers to Roman history looking to get their feet wet. Suetonius' 'The Twelve Caesars' is frequently mined for subject matter, as is Tacitus' 'The Annals','The Histories','Agricola' & 'Germania', not to mention Cassius Dio's somewhat-suspect 'The Roman History' & numerous works by Philo of Alexandria, Pliny the Elder, the philosopher Seneca ('Epistles' & 'On Firmness'), even Petronius' 'The Satyricon' managed to wriggle in there. These aforementioned classical works are complemented by various modern bios written by a robust group of authors : Barrett's & Winterling's work with 'Caligula : The Corruption of Power' & 'Caligula: A Biography' I've mentioned already, & Lee Fratantuono's 'Caligula : An Unexpected General' as well as the less-recent J.P.V.D. Balsdon's 'The Emperor Gaius' also make appearances & references. If you've read some of these titles I just mentioned it does enrich the experience of reading this book, but it's definitely not required to do so. The historical background you need to have fun with this book is pretty much zilch, Dando-Collins does a good job of fleshing things out for readers.
There's also a comparison of Donald Trump to Gaius Caligula as the topic for the final chapter in the book which should get people appropriately riled up. There's also some quasi-cryptic statement by the author in the beginning that specifies that Trump's election helped with the book being published, but the chapter at the end which I just described makes that initial statement, well, weird, because it makes it seem that Dando-Collins has a negative impression of certain related topics. Doesn't really factor into my opinion of the book, either way. I look at the overall experience I had with it, which would be positive overall. The Trump chapter is actually pretty interesting, all told. Dando-Collins utilizes contemporary works on the President such as 1987's 'The Art of the Deal' that Trump co-authored with Tony Schwartz & Bob Woodward's 'Fear : Trump in the White House' from 2019. He compares Trump & Caligula in several categories which are intriguing to contemplate.
Now, for the complaints, of which there aren't a ton, but enough to warrant mentioning in passing. There are some fairly irritating grammatical issues in 'Caligula : The Mad Emperor of Rome'. Not really words mis-spelled, as much as sentences not making sense because wrong or misused words are used multiple times in the same sentence. Usually it's very easy to figure out what an author is talking about if there's a gaffe in the sentence but there's also random quotations that start & stop where they shouldn't. There's just a bit more carelessness here than I would think to be the norm. Not a lot more, but a bit. Also, some of the quotes used, mostly from Suetonius' 'The Twelve Caesars' are used very liberally, & probably with artistic intent, which work very well for the narrative Dando-Collins is weaving, but may not necessarily be correct in their context. It probably will mean little, & less to anyone other than history buffs, but I thought I'd mention it, nonetheless.
Overall, I would recommend 'Caligula : The Mad Emperor of Rome' for people looking to read a stylized, fun narrative of the 'Mad Emperor' Gaius Caligula's reign. It reads like a well-directed episode of HBO's classic drama 'Rome' but with well-integrated 21st-Century commentary to keep readers engaged & engrossed in the storyline. The story of Caligula's life & reign would be a marvelous premise for an HBO Original Series, I'm quite sure they could do SO much better than the sub-par Penthouse 'Caligula' B-movie from the 1970's. Books like this could help with the subject matter being more popular. Anyway, the book is great, I wholeheartedly recommend it to you if what I've written about it, appeals to you at all. Hope it helped you with forming an opinion of whether or not you want to read it.