Plebeian Scum! — a review of Caligula: Divine Carnage
While recently discussing Roman history, a friend of mine passed along a book called Caligula: Divine Carnage for me to peruse. He warned me, “I’m not sure how much of this is accurate, but it’s a great read even if it isn’t true. Think of it as Roman History according to the National Enquirer.”
Having now suffered through this literary abortion of a book, I am inclined to agree that it was a great read — in the same way that road accidents are fun to watch — though I disagree that the National Enquirer was the spiritual adviser to it. The Weekly World News would be much more appropriate; all it needs is Bat Boy.
The book bills itself as “...a shocking catalogue of incest, transvestism, torture, slaughter, and perversity....” Personally, I would call it thinly disguised pornography in a loose historical setting written by two idiots who had an encyclopedia article and that Bob Guccione movie as their only references.
The two buffoons brave enough to put their names on the cover are Stephen Barber and Jeremy Reed. I cannot find any biographical information about them except a throw-away comment on the back, which identifies them as “award-winning authors.” Undoubtedly, that “award” was probably something like the prize for the “best tall tale” contest held in England each year. Barber and Reed, if their prose style and spelling preferences are any indication, are both British, and this book serves as Exhibit A in the case against ever allowing an Englishman anywhere near a word processor.
I will be generous and say that 5% of this book is historically accurate. Indeed, that is probably what is most perplexing about this: given the vast wealth of dirt and absurdity that are amply documented about Rome’s nuttiest Emperor, it is a mystery why Barber and Reed would chose to go into uncharted territory and brazenly make up lurid bullshit. For historical accuracy, this book is more manure than McVeigh used to bomb the Oklahoma City fed building.
Examples of inaccuracy can be found on almost every page, ranging from minor to major. Minor example: Caligula’s last words, per Barber and Reed, were “testicles!”, when in reality they were “Strike again - I still live!” (spoken to his assassins.) Major Example: the cause of his sister Drucilla’s death. Barber and Reed would have us believe that she died from complications arising from a 8-day marathon of sodomy held with anybody willing to get in line for a poke. In reality, scholars are divided: Drucilla either died of hemorrhagic fever, or was killed while pregnant by Caligula himself (most likely the baby’s father!) in an effort to free the fetus in a personally-botched cesarean section.
Sometimes the authors aren’t even trying to pretend to be accurate, but brazenly make up bullshit on the fly. We get ample and vivid descriptions of Caligula at various Coliseum games, but in their ten seconds of research Barber and Reed seem to have overlooked that Caligula died in 41AD and the Coliseum wasn’t built until 80!
Indeed, the book offers up an entire chapter exposé on the great gladiatorial games that are flights of fancy undoubtedly used as an excuse to give lurid descriptions of the sex supposedly going on in the stands. When Barber and Reed finally remember that there was armed combat going on center stage, their descriptions are equally ludicrous. We are led to believe that it was common practice that a skilled gladiator could decapitate an opponent in one swoop, catch the body, and then maneuver it to write the Emperor’s name on the ground with the arterial spray. Of course, things just get silly (not that they weren’t already) when we “learn” that thousands of species became extinct from having been hunted and used in the great games, and this had such a traumatic impact on the ecosystem of north Africa that it shifted from being a lush jungle to the dry desert it is today.
For some reason, my favorite part was learning about lions:
The animal used most frequently in the arena was the legendary Libyan lion: the most magnificent specimens of this mutant species grew to eleven feet in length, with enormous paws armed with razorsharp claws of saber-size dimensions; even their engorged testicles were as large as a man's head. The Libyan lion was the ultimate killing machine, especially if deprived of its usual diet: in the wild, on the then-fertile terrain of the Idehan Marzuq, it could lay waste to two hundred wildebeests and ostriches in one sitting. Armies of slaves were expended to capture those majestic beasts – they were impervious to tranquilizer arrows, and the only way to subdue them was for a particularly handsome slave to present his shapely, exposed anus to the lion's mighty sexual apparatus; then, once the act of copulation (which invariably proved terminal for the unfortunate slave, due to unsustainable blood loss) reached its critical point and the lion was momentarily distracted, a gang of a hundred or more whooping slaves would wrestle the lion to the ground and throw a net over it.
Aside from the ludicrous concept that presents, the above offering also gives a good example of the wretched prose employed throughout. I can only hope that these idiots used the royalties to buy a thesaurus. It is absolutely no exaggeration to say that Barber and Reed use the term “plebeian scum” to describe the Roman populace on practically every page. Those words sort of melt into your mind after a while, and I found myself saying it aloud at random, inappropriate intervals for at least a week. I suspect something akin to monitor burn here.
Despite, or possibly because, this book dealt so pathetically with a subject I know a good deal about, I actually enjoyed it. The road-kill analogy from above serves well. You know it’s sick and wrong, but you can’t help but keep looking, or in this case reading. This to me is more of a comedy, because the wretched writing style and unabashed lack of accuracy are kind of funny, in a slapstick sort of way.
I have also discovered it is possible to make a drinking game out of it. Get a case of beer, and a copy of this book. Take a sip every time some historical “fact” is presented that is obviously wrong. Take a swig every time a sex act is referenced, and pound the rest of the can upon the use of the term “plebeian scum.”
You’ll be wasted before you finish a chapter.