Caligula by Allan Massie<br></br>Nero by Edward Champlin

Orgies of spin at a monsters' ball
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The Independent Culture

The ancient historian Suetonius wrote a devastating account of the earlier Roman emperors as characters who were wayward, repulsive and sometimes downright disgusting. It was eminently readable history. Since then, a steady process of rehabilitation has taken much of the fun out of ancient Rome. Robert Graves did an excellent job on the spitting and shuffling idiot, Claudius. Marguerite Yourcenar, in her Memoirs of Hadrian, turned that pederastic profligate into an art-loving secular saint.

Allan Massie has dedicated much of his writing life in fiction to creating pleas for kindness to emperors, starting with Augustus. Not too difficult a task there, perhaps, but Tiberius was a bit more tricky, and now Massie has got to Caligula - a seemingly hopeless case. What can you do with an emperor (from AD37 to 41) who made his horse a consul, had sex with his sister, and felled a priest instead of the sacrificial animal?

Explain it away, on the grounds that "tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner", is Massie's answer. If we know more about the emperor, and Massie gives us this knowledge in the form of a novel, then we will understand all in a different light.

So the nomination of his horse as consul is a telling satirical comment on the contempt in which the Republic and its ancient offices were held. Whacking the priestly attendant was a clumsy accident at which the jocular emperor laughed heartily. And Caligula's sister was the only person who could really understand him.

The tale is told through the eyes of a Roman officer on the staff of Caligula's father, Germanicus. It follows the career of the son through to his ignominious end, murdered by two members of his own bodyguard. Essentially, Massie argues in extenuation of all Caligula's brutal idiocies that since absolute power corrupts absolutely, the man who wields it cannot be held morally responsible for his actions. This seem an extraordinarily perverted piece of moral logic.

But, reason apart, does the novelist perform his task? Does he make us believe in his message? "Yes, the emperor was vicious, cruel, wayward," Massie says, but on the other hand he was "born to be tender-hearted". This Caligula never convinces; his brattish savagery is too easily explained away.

The greater underlying story, of the decline of the values of Republican Rome to the mad demagoguery of the empire and its installation of hereditary power, has been too often told to have anything new for us. The book seems to have been written to complete the set of Massie's novels about Rome.

If there's one thing everyone knows about Nero, emperor from AD54 to 68, it is that he fiddled while Rome burned. Edward Champlin is professor of classics at Princeton University and an authority on material from all sources, ranging to ancient Egypt and Persia. His biography proposes to focus on Nero's relationship with history, and the elements of myth that have entered our assessment of him, but Champlin ends up pleading for the defence.

He claims not to have produced a rehabilitation of Nero but rather a re-assessment of the historical accounts, examining the way in which Nero's posthumous reputation was created, and pointing out that there was a tradition which regarded the drunken incestuous profligate emperor as a hero. However, this tradition appears on closer inspection to have been created by Nero himself.

There is some of the curious pleading one finds current among ancient historians: "we know of three, and only three, histories, all lost, which deal with Nero's reign and were written by his contemporaries. Understanding them is crucial to understanding the era." Armed with this extensive lack of sources, Champlin gives us a new hero.

Did he set light to Rome? Well, possibly, but Champlin explains that his motive was that he really wanted to rebuild the city. So that's all right then.

What else is on the charge sheet? There's the small matter of committing incest with his mother, Agrippina, and then successfully murdering her after she gamely survived one attempt at drowning by means of a collapsible ship. Actually, so Professor Champlin explains, Agrippina had tried to seduce Nero, and this upset him so much that he had her dispatched. Like that of Orestes, Nero's was a case of justified matricide. Not guilty!

Then we have the scurrilous tale that he entered the arena dressed up as a wild beast and worried the genitals of prisoners tied to stakes. Surely we can retain this colourful element of the Wicked Emperor story? Alas, the prof has no problem explaining it away. It was an artistic rendering of sexual inversion and, anyway, maybe the alleged victims were "compliant actors in a bizarre piece of theatre": male and female prostitutes earning a few extra denarii on a day off.

But what about the highly damaging allegation that Nero kicked his pregnant wife to death? Here Champlin produces the most barefaced arguments in attempted extenuation. She was nagging him; he'd had a bad day at the races; anyway, it was probably only one kick. "It was a tragically domestic incident," says the prof, and furthermore the sorrowful husband made amends by giving her a lavish funeral.

You can still hear this sort of thing chanted in courtrooms by tenth-rate lawyers defending brutes and bullies. It is a shock to find it in the pages of a serious work. Overall, this book, for all its academic apparatus, is a shameless study in spin and reconstruction. It should be compulsory reading - for politicians.

Jane Jakeman's novel 'In the Kingdom of Mists' is published by Black Swan