6 DECEMBER 2003, Page 46

The emperor who made his horse consul

Barry Unsworth

CALIGULA by Allan Massie Sceptre, £17.99, pp. 279, ISBN 0340823135 The field is crowded, but among cruel and wicked dynasties the Julio-Clauclians must take pride of place, outperforming rivals like the Borgias or the Plantagenets or the Ottomans by quite some way. They have taken on a sort of sinister life far beyond the ascertainable facts of history. In popular imagination the very names make a litany of depravity and crime: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero. It is one of the great achievements of Allan Massie's Roman novels — Caligula is the sixth in a sequence that covers a period from 49 BC to 70 AD — that he restores to these monstrous rulers their full due of human complexity.

The novel takes the form of what purports to be a biography, written soon after Caligula's death by the aristocrat and soldier Lucius, a confidant of the emperor, some 20 years older. He is summoned from retirement to perform this task at the request — which it would be very dangerous to refuse — of Agrippina, Caligula's sister, a schemer and poisoner of great note, who after a long and murderous career, was finally put to death by her son Nero in 59 AD. She wants a flattering portrait of her brother, but Lucius decides to write the truth of things first, then offer a doctored version for official consumption. What we get is the first version, warts and all.

The warts are many and of large proportions. Caligula was incestuous, homicidal, increasingly crazed. He was fond of torturing his victims personally and enjoyed hearing their screams. He believed that the moon goddess Diana visited his bed on a regular basis. He would summon senators in the middle of the night, dance for them in the dress of a Syrian dancing girl, then have them whipped for not applauding enthusiastically enough. Massie does what he can to bring a more sympathetic light to bear on this half-demented creature, giving due weight to his lonely and fearful early youth, his unpreparedness for power, his initial good intentions. But it is difficult to regard him as in any way likeable. Nor does he provide a fitting example of character destroyed through absolute power — he was too much damaged to begin with. What we do get in this novel is a deftly drawn and totally engrossing picture of a governing class corrupted to the point of moral dissolution by a grotesque misuse of autocratic power untrammelled by any institution capable of resisting it. Fear is the pervasive element here, a climate of terror in which enemies are indistinguishable from friends, where to hear words spoken is just as dangerous as to speak them.

This sense of navigating in a society on the brink of ruin is brilliantly conveyed through the voice of the narrator Lucius, eloquent, equable, shrewd, increasingly disillusioned. The time shifts are managed with great skill, the narrative moving back and forth from immediate impression and experience to occasions for revision and reassessment occurring later. The novel succeeds in that most difficult of enterprises, which is to trace the moral progress of the biographer's life alongside that of his subject. We follow Lucius from his youthful soldiering on the frontiers of empire through the years of political experience and deepening knowledge of the world and of himself. Considerable discipline is needed for this. Sidetracks that must have seemed tempting to the author are rigorously avoided. We would like, for example, to have more than a brief mention of what Lucius felt coming upon the corpses of Varus's legions scattered in the German forest where they were ambushed and massacred, one of the greatest disasters ever suffered by Roman arms. But such a shift of focus would take us too far away from the complex interplay of politics and psychology which is the novel's great distinction and which provides scenes of memorable dramatic force: the paranoid Tiberius, isolated and sick with power, digging his fingers into Lucius' thigh as he tries to enlist him as a spy; the popular and attractive Germanicus faced for the first time with mob psychology in the form of mutiny by troops who he had thought loved him.

Caligula is an impressive addition to a sequence of novels that in their sustained interest and detailed recreation of a society at once alien and familiar must rank as one of the most important historical chronicles in contemporary fiction.

Barry Unsworth's The Songs of the Kings was recently published in paperback (Penguin, £7.99).