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I wanted to read ''Caligula'' by Douglas Jackson, as I am a big fan of the 1970s television series ''I, Claudius'' which introduced me to the brutal Emperor Caligula, then played brilliantly by John Hurt. Reading the book, it was John Hurt's face who popped into my head whenever the character of Caliluga appeared in the book!
Douglas Jackson was not an author I was aware of before reading this book, but the blurb sounded promising and I looked forward to reading it. I should, however, had paid more notice to the quote on the back cover from the Daily Mail, describing the novel as ''visceral''. This word alone sums up the negative points of the book.
The story centres on Rufus, a slave in Rome, who is an excellent hero for this type of book and we soon come to like him. In the earlier parts of the book, he is an animal trainer for a man called Fronto. We see Rufus becoming attached to a particular leopard he raises from young and trains every day.
Soon the leopard is taken into the gladiatoral arena, along with other big cats Rufus has trained. Here, they meet brutal fates and I must warn you that I cried throughout Chapter III and would advise animal lovers to avoid this. Usually, crying whilst reading is a good thing, as it shows an emotional attachment to the characters and a level of caring which authors long for.
But, in this case, it was different. The deaths of the animals are described in minute detail and are appalling - not a quick death, but a long drawn-ourt tortorous one. While arguments can be made that it is integral to the story and the mood, I hated this chapter and wanted nothing more than to throw the book away, so no one else had to read such upsetting scenes. But I persevered.
To be fair, the story improves after this chapter, but I'll leave it up to you as to whether you want to bother with it. It isn't the greatest novel, but I did get into it and enjoyed following Rufus's life through the pages.
He ends up at Emperor Caligula's service and we discover some of the horrors of his notorious reign. This section seemed realistic and it helped having seen ''I, Claudius'' to picture the scenes described here. Lovely Claudius turns up too and once again, Derek Jacobi's face took over this role.
Rufus has a long-standing friendship with the gladiator Cupido and both characters continue to associate together, as they both work for the Emperor. Cupido is strong, brave and a typical hero. Rufus is not quite as physically strong, but seems to have a softer centre, although both are likeable.
The novel ends up being a kind of political thriller, as Rufus and Cupido become embroiled in the secrecy and intrigue of the Roman court, with the pro- and anti-Caligula factions trying to draw them in. This section is quite interesting and the novel just about manages to stay one step ahead of the reader and not become too predictable.
It did seem rather a macho book too, definitely a ''boys' own'' kind of runaround. Although there are female characters in ''Caligula'', the males dominate in every way and I did think the novel would be better suited to male readers in their twenties and thirties.
Overall, I did end up enjoying the novel and read the last hundred or so pages in one sitting, but I am not sure whether it was worth the pain of that awful chapter III.
Approach with caution!
*A version of this review has previously appeared on the Bookbag website.*