Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review - I Am a Barbarian by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Short review: Britannicus is the slave of the notorious Caligula, and reports on the depraved doings of the hated Emperor.

A fading empire
A struggle for succession
An insane victor

Full review: Published after his death, I Am a Barbarian is distinct from Burroughs' usual output of pulp science fiction and jungle adventures. The book follows the life of Britannicus Caligulae Servus, personal slave and companion to the boy who grew up to be the notoriously infamous Emperor Caligula.

On a grand scale the history of the book is basically accurate, dealing with the waning years of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius and the bloody infighting amongst his various potential heirs as they vie for the right to be first in line for the throne upon his death. Given that the first in line to inherit the throne is also the primary target of everyone else's assassination attempts, being first in line is portrayed (pretty much correctly) as something of a dubious honor. Of course, being further down the line is also not much better, as those closer to the throne plot to make sure that their lower ranking rivals meet unfortunate ends as well.

In many ways, it is clear that Burroughs was inspired by the fading imperial glory of Rome when creating his Barsoom series, and to a lesser extent his Tarzan series. The imperial magnificence and cruel civilized decadence of Rome is repeatedly contrasted in Britannicus' mind with his uncivilized upbringing among the proud, brutal, but honest and forthright warriors of Celtic Briton. Despite reaping the fruits of Roman civilization in education and to a certain extent opportunity (despite his status as slave), the cruelty, depravity and cowardice of most Romans disgusts him, allowing him to feel superior to his captors, much like Tarzan and John Carter, as honorable barbarians among lesser civilized men, do.

Most of the book is a worm's eye view of Roman history, although only so much of a worm's eye as a favored slave of a member of the Julian family and eventual Emperor could be. Despite being Caligula's favorite slave, Britannicus is still a slave, and is often threatened with brutal punishments or death, which, as he is the protagonist in a Burroughs' novel, he stares down with an unflinching courage. The day to day life of the inhabitants of Rome is shown with all of its injustice and cruelty on full display. This plebian view of Rome is the meat of the book and the portion that is best told.

Of course, a story about the rise to power and reign of Caligula can only end badly, and this book gives the reader the full measure of brutal vile depravity, culminating in sorrow for Britannicus and doom for his Emperor. Despite the somewhat lurid Frank Frazetta cover (which inflates one scene of the book with beefcake sensibility to an almost unrecognizable state), the book is noteworthy for its historical accuracy and unflinching look at the inherent nastiness of Roman civilization from the perspective of one who found himself under the Roman heel. Like Britannicus, Burroughs seems to feel both drawn to and repulsed by Rome and its inhabitants, and both seem to rest comfortably in their assumed British superiority. Even so, this book is quite good, and much better as a volume of historical fiction than I thought it would be.

Although it isn't a masterwork of the history of the time period like The Twelve Caesars, or even I, Claudius, I Am a Barbarian is a decent account of one of the most turbulent and compelling eras of Roman history. If you are looking for history leavened with a dash of Tarzan and John Carter atmosphere, then this book should be on your to read list.

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