BMCR 1991.01.01

Caligula: The Corruption of Power

, Caligula : the corruption of power. Imperial biographies. London: B.T. Batsford, 1989. xxvi, 334 pages. ISBN 0713459873

This biography of Caligula is written in essentially the same spirit as the earlier one by Balsdon. Barrett regards Caligula as a sane, intelligent ruler and attempts to rationalize his actions. Suetonius and Dio are dismissed as biased, and Barrett sees no need to take their judgments of Caligula seriously. In my own forthcoming book on Caligula (Thames & Hudson, Spring 1991) I challenge this twentieth century view of the Emperor and argue that Caligula was simply crazy. Since I set forth my opinions of those matters at some length in my book, I shall say no more here.

One might legitimately ask, however, how Barrett’s book compares with Balsdon’s. It is much better. Balsdon refused to call Caligula by his popular name, preferring to use Gaius, since Caligula did not like his nickname. Barrett, on the other hand, notes that Caligula did not like Gaius either. Although Barrett rationalizes Caligula’s behavior, he does not do so as relentlessly as Balsdon did and is more judicious in his conclusions, especially about Caligula’s deification. Balsdon virtually suppressed some of the worst stories about the Emperor, but Barrett finds a place for most of them at various points in his narrative.

Barrett excels at treating the archaeological evidence for the reign of Caligula. He includes detailed discussions of the palace, the Gaianum, and the bridge at the Bay of Naples. Barrett also deals with the numismatic evidence with expertise. Sadly, the fact remains that there really is no significant new evidence about the reign of Caligula since the publication of Balsdon’s book more than fifty years ago. Present biographies must be based largely on a re-examination of what Balsdon and his contemporaries knew in the first part of this century. A few bits and pieces of new material, mainly epigraphical and archaeological, permit minor corrections of detail, but it is not new evidence that justifies new biographies—merely new methods of approach.

Barrett includes a useful appendix of Caligula’s victims and another one on coins, inscriptions and sculpture. There are additional appendices (not listed in the table of contents) at the end of some of the chapters. Probably the most distinctive difference between Barrett and Balsdon is that Barrett obviously writes for the general reader as well as the classicist. His bibliography and notes are full and complete, on points of detail he frequently shows good judgment, and his approach to Caligula is consistent throughout. He compares Caligula to Stalin and Hitler, however, when a more apt comparison would be with Idi Amin or the Emperor Bokassa.