Massie's effort at the third Claudio-Julian Emperor, Caligula, one of history's atypical evil leaders is presented in a sympathetic slant here, more pages devoted to understanding the plight of a man upon whom greatness was thrust, but who was ill-equipped to deal with leading the world's greatest empire than actually detailing the nature of his brutality. Caligula, an emperor, whom for Massie at least, used the Empire as his plaything, floating in a fantasy world and he never sniffed a glimmer of the reality it really meant.
The story is narrated as unofficial biography at Agrippina's request, by an anonymous man of senatorial rank who became Gaius' closest confidante. Massie runs through the complexities of the Julio-Claudian family and the ptolemaic murders that went on as each side of the family fought for political pre-eminence after Augustus' death. He moves through the Roman world of Tiberius, all the time seeking to explain the reasons behind Caligula's paranoia and desperate need for people to like him. Mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts are all portrayed as either heroically felled by evil relations (such as Germanicus) or as politcal vipers scheming to get puppets on the imperial throne whom they could control. It all moved towards a manipulated, ever fearful leader who was never comfortable on the imperial throne Augustus had created out of the republican ashes.
Massie takes us through the usual Suetonian stories about Caligua, from his gallivanting across the Bay of Baiae, ensuring his horse, Incitatus, became a consul, the nightly trips to the Subaru, to his incestuous love for Drusilla (whose death removes the only person he ever really loved and trusted) at the same time seeing it through the inextricably entwined narrator whose own life it shaped by the understandable madness - his loss of his wife, Caesonia the prime example - that assails Caligula. Midway Agrippana almost apologies for his behaviour when she says: "Gaius is the most cursed of all. He destroys everything he touches. It's his madness. It can't last." (p169)
By the end Caligula's brief tenure is over, ended at the point of a praetorian sword, Claudius is emperor and our narrator is in exile. This is Massie's Apologia for Caligula, an attempt to redress the Suetonian image of the man who should never have been king which has been further confounded by films such as `Caligula' and you come away with a slightly sour taste of a twenty first century apology for everything. Namely, it was is upbringing that was reponsible for the man he became. All sense of justice and culpability is removed and familial problems are the root cause. There is an acceptance that personal responsibility is not an option and that he was a product of the system. Somehow, it doesn't quite hold water. Massie's style is as languid as ever and he protrays a world of decadence and fantasy that doesn't bring ancient Rome to life but certainly acts as an apology for the image that history has created of Caligula.