Book Review: Caligula (The Damned Emperors #1) by Simon Turney

CaligulaAbout the Book

Caligula: loving brother, reluctant ruler and tortured soul.

The five children of Germanicus are cursed from birth. Father: believed poisoned by the Emperor Tiberius over the imperial succession. Mother and two brothers arrested and starved to death by Tiberius. One sister married off to an abusive husband. Only two are left: Caligula, in line for the imperial throne, and his youngest sister, Livilla, who tells us this story.

The ascent of their family into the imperial dynasty forces Caligula to change from the fun-loving boy Livilla knew into a shrewd, wary and calculating young man. Tiberius’s sudden death allows Caligula to manhandle his way to power. With the bloodthirsty tyrant dead, it should be a golden age in Rome and, for a while, it is. But Caligula suffers emotional blow after emotional blow as political allies, friends, and finally family betray him and attempt to overthrow him, by poison, by the knife, by any means possible.

Little by little, Caligula becomes a bitter, resentful and vengeful Emperor, every shred of the boy he used to be eroded. As Caligula loses touch with reality, there is only one thing to be done before Rome is changed irrevocably. . .

Format: ebook, hardcover (480 pp.)     Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Published: 8th March 2018                      Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Our narrator is Livilla, sister of Caligula, meaning the reader gets an insider’s perspective on Caligula as brother, son, confidante, protector but also as cruel and tyrannical ruler.  At times, it did seem a little convenient that Livilla managed to be in the right place at the right time to overhear important conversations but, on the other hand, it’s perhaps reasonable that her position in the imperial family would have given her freedoms not available to other women.

What the author does superbly well is bring to life the atmosphere of perpetual suspicion within the imperial household, the need to be continually on your guard in case a casual glance, a gesture or a misplaced word should provide an opportunity for an accusation of disloyalty or treason.    It’s a world where violent, cruel and frequently gruesome death is a daily occurrence and an ever-present possibility.  Where you learn not to react to death being meted out on a whim in front of you because, if you do, you might just be next.

At one point, Livilla asks her brother, “When did we turn into the very people we used to fear?”  The book makes a persuasive case for how a loving brother and intelligent young man might be transformed by repeated betrayals, disappointments and bereavements into a brute.  And how, after years of the self-imposed restraint necessary to navigate the murky waters of Imperial Roman politics, the dam might eventually burst and paranoia take the place of sensible mistrust of others’ motives.  Livilla nails it when she says, ‘You see, he had spent eight years wearing a mask of silent, stoic humility in order to survive in a world of wicked and dangerous masters.’

I certainly enjoyed being asked to consider a different view of Caligula from that in other books I’ve read, such as Robert Graves’ I, Claudius.  The book eschews some of the more lurid myths commonly associated with Caligula and the author writes interestingly about this in his Historical Note.

I found the book a thrilling, compelling read and I will definitely look out for future books in the series.  The author has written several other series set in ancient Rome under the name S J A Turney and I’ve added a number of these to my bookish wish-list. Caligula is highly recommended for historical fiction fans who enjoy the intrigue and scandal of Roman history – and have no fear of open windows.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers Orion Publishing in return for an honest and unbiased review.

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In three words: Compelling, powerful, immersive

Try something similar…I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith


Simon TurneyAbout the Author

Simon lives with his wife and children and a menagerie of animals in rural North Yorkshire, where he sits in an office, wired on coffee and digestive biscuits, and attempts to spin engrossing tales out of strands of imagination while his children drive toys across his desk and two dogs howl as they try to share a brain cell.  A born and bred Yorkshireman with a love of country, history and architecture, Simon spends most of his rare free time travelling around ancient sites, writing, researching the ancient world and reading voraciously.

Following an arcane and eclectic career path that wound through everything from sheep to Microsoft networks and from paint to car sales, Simon wrote Marius’ Mules and, with help and support, made a success of it. Now, with in excess of 20 novels under his belt, Simon writes full time and is represented by MMB Creative literary agents.

Simon writes Roman military novels in the form of the bestselling Marius’ Mules series based on Julius Caesar’s campaigns, Roman thrillers in the Praetorian series, set during the troubled reign of Commodus, medieval adventures in the Ottoman Cycle, following a young Greek thief around the 15th century world, and a series of Historical Fantasy novels with a Roman flavour, called the Tales of the Empire.

Caligula is published under the pen name Simon Turney.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Caligula (The Damned Emperors #1) by Simon Turney

  1. Hmmm. It would be interesting to read a different interpretation of the historical Caligula that I know. I’ll have to look up “I Am Livia.” The title alone makes me want to read it without knowing what it’s about.

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