In 1941, Edgar Rice Burroughs appeared to low on originality. The Tarzan series was in a slump, his latest series (Carson Napier of Venus, begun in 1935) lacked the flare of his Barsoom and Pellucidar novels, and his next series -- the ever-so-brief Podola/"Farthest Star" tales -- never went anywhere. Then, too, Burroughs was becoming immersed in his duties as a reporter and war correspondent. Most likely influenced by Robert Grave's I, Claudius Burroughs wrote his second historical novel (it would be poor sportsmanship to call it I, Barbarian), a sweeping epic about the life of Caligula as viewed from the eyes of a slave.
Opinions on this book widely differ. Some consider it one of his best novels; some fell it is pure dreck. Unquestionably, it is the most un-Burroughs book that Burroughs ever wrote.
The book is written from the viewpoint of the great grandson of a fierce chief of a small tribe in Briton. By age eight, our narrator was driving war chariots into battle for this tribe. A reversal of fortunes caused the tribe to abandon Briton, crossing the channel in an attempt to conquer Belgium. This attempt did not pan out and the entire surviving members of the tribe were captured and passed around for two years before becoming the property of the Roman general Germanicus (nephew and adopted son of the Emperor Tiberius) and his cruel wife Agrippina. ("Agrippina was a bitch," we soon learn.) For some reason, the pair's spoiled four-year-old child Caligula liked our narrator. Agrippina named our narrator Britannicus Caligulae Servus; we never learn his original name.
Germanicus and his legions were based on the Rhine. Caligula often roamed the camp and was well-liked by the soldiers, who called him "Little Boots." As he grew older, the spoiled and petulant child became meaner and began to exhibit the insanity and the epilepsy that ran through the Julian bloodline. Despite being a slave, Brittanicus remained unwavering in his dignity and pride, refuring ever to bend the knee. Early on, when Claudius spat at him, Brittanicus slapped the boy hard across the face -- something that should have had been crucified on the dread Via Flaminia. Britannicus avoided that fate then but grew up in the knowledge that his life depended on the caprice of Caligula and his half-mad mother.
As the years went by, Caligula grew madder and crueler, taking delight in the pain, torture, and death of others. In this he was in good company -- each of the descendants of Caesar vied to be the most corrupt. The jockeying for power in Rome, and for who would eventually succeed Tiberius, led to a long bloody trail of murder and betrayal. And then there was one: Caligula, who became emperor in 37 AD.
During the first year of his rule, Caligula appeared to be a good ruler and was well-liked by his people. Then he had a long epileptic seizure, emerging to plunge Rome into a sadistic and debauched hell.
The first two-thirds of the novel centered on Britannicus, his experiences in Rome and with Agrippina, Caligula, and the entire tainted descendants of Julius Caesar. We follow him through his growth, his meeting and falling for a fifteen-year-old slave girl, and his stint as a champion chariot racer. Unlike most Burroughs' heroes, Britannicus does not have much action and show his heroism only twice in the novel. What we do get is a semi-detailed view of ancient Rome from the eyes of one who hates Rome and all things Roman.
The final third of the book concentrates on Caligula's horrific four-year reign with almost a catalog-like listing of his atrocities. Burroughs goes over Caligula's depravity with an almost prudish-like sensibility.
As flawed as it is, I enjoyed the book. Because the novel is so unlike Burroughs, it may be one of his best books. But it would have been much better if the author had not shelved it, but had bothered to complete a final draft.