Friday, January 18, 2019


L. Fratantuono, Caligula: An Unexpected General. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2018. Pp. xiv, 288. ISBN 9781526711205. £25.00.

Reviewed by David Woods, University College Cork (

Version at BMCR home site


Fratantuono is a specialist in Roman literature, probably best known for his commentaries on the Aeneid, who has recently been turning his hand to Roman military history. The present book represents his third volume of military history to be published by Pen & Sword in three years, where his first was on the battle of Actium in 31BC and his second was on the career of the late Republican general Lucius Licinius Lucullus (d. 56 BC).1 Yet it is a rather odd book. The most obvious problem is the almost total disconnect between what the title and the comments on the back-jacket lead one to expect and the actual contents of the volume. The title, with its emphasis on Caligula as general, and jacket-comments such as "this is a unique assessment and reappraisal of Caligula's military career and abilities," lead one to expect a clear focus on military affairs. Given the brevity of Caligula's reign and the short amount of time that he actually spent campaigning on the frontiers, one naturally expects extensive discussion of military developments on various frontiers up to his reign, an exhaustive analysis of the scanty sources for his military achievements, and a short summary, perhaps, of the effects of his policies on subsequent reigns. Yet what one actually encounters is a systematic paraphrase or summary of all of the various literary sources for the reign of Caligula, everything that they say about every aspect of his reign, regardless of whether it has the slightest military significance at all, followed by a short biography of Caligula, all concluding in a brief analysis of his foreign policy in general, not just of his military policy. Consequently, most students of Roman military history who purchase this book will feel duped, and rightly so. This is a pity, however, because any student or general reader wanting to learn about the literary sources for the reign of Caligula as a whole would find this book quite useful.

The main body of the book consists of twelve chapters. The first chapter engages in what is little more than a paraphrase, with the occasional explanatory comment, of the first section of Suetonius' life of Caligula dealing with Caligula the princeps, while the second chapter repeats the process for the second section of his life of Caligula, dealing with Caligula the monstrum. The third chapter repeats the process for what Dio Cassius has to say about Caligula, the fourth chapter for what Tacitus has to say about him, and the fifth chapter for what Josephus has to say about him. Chapter six basically summarises Philo's De Legatione ad Gaium, while chapter seven does the same for his In Flaccum. Chapter eight identifies and summarizes all the various anecdotes told by Seneca the Younger about Caligula, while chapter nine repeats the process for Pliny the Elder. Chapter ten is a bit of a jumble, beginning with a short discussion of the lost early imperial sources for the reign of Caligula, proceeding through brief descriptions of the epigraphic and numismatic evidence for his reign, and concluding with descriptions of what various fourth- or fifth-century sources have to say about him, chiefly Eusebius of Caesarea and Orosius. Chapter eleven presents a short biography of Caligula, while chapter twelve analyses his foreign policy as a whole. Finally, one notes that although Fratantuono says a few introductory words about each of the authors whose work he essentially paraphrases, these tend to be biographical in nature rather than historiographical.

No single event or deed of the reign of Caligula is ever subjected to a rigorous analysis where the evidence of the various often contradictory primary sources is systematically contrasted and compared in order to reach a reasoned conclusion. The same is true of the secondary sources. Their often highly conflicting arguments and conclusions are never properly compared and contrasted in order to expose why it is that (mostly) intelligent scholars can reach such different conclusions about the same topics. Hence anyone expecting a detailed exposition of the various arguments concerning, for example, the nature of Caligula's activities on the Rhine frontier in early 40, or the nature of his subsequent activities at the English Channel, will be sorely disappointed. Yet there is a wealth of secondary material on these two topics in particular and such discussion would surely have been of strong interest to the readers of the sort of books published by Pen & Sword.

The final bibliography is, as the author himself admits (p. 251), "highly selective, even idiosyncratic," and rather misleading also, since it does not include the numerous journal articles that the author cites in the footnotes. However, there are some obvious omissions from the footnotes even, and it sometimes seems that the author is not entirely au fait with more recent journal publications, whether on the Julio-Claudian period more generally or on the reign of Caligula in particular. For example, he follows the Oxford Latin Dictionary in assuring the reader that a spintria was "a type of male prostitute" (p. 194), despite the fact that Champlin has decisively proven otherwise.2 Similarly, he reveals no knowledge (p. 149) of the recent debate concerning the significance of the quadrans depicting the pileus, culminating in an article by Elkins (with which I thoroughly disagree, but that is not the point).3

There are some minor inconsistences concerning such issues as the age at which Caligula delivered the funeral oration for his great-grandmother Livia, variously described as 17 (p. 5) and 16 (p. 68), and one cannot reconcile the initial claim that he spent over a year across the Alps (p. 166) with the actual dates of his movements as next recorded (pp. 167-68), but the only real howler lies in the claim that the Historia Augusta was composed during the "late third or early fourth century" (p. 153), about a century earlier than any modern expert would allow.4

Finally, one notes that there are eight glossy pages of colour photographs (four double-sided pages) bound into the centre of the volume, and they ought to have provided a wonderful opportunity to draw some of the relevant art and architecture to the attention of the readers: a photograph of the military boot, the caliga, from which Caligula took his name (p. 4) would have been both interesting and relevant, as would have a photograph of the sestertius depicting Caligula addressing soldiers from a platform (p. 149). Yet one is actually presented with what appear to be a series of random landscape photographs more suited to a brochure advertising a Mediterranean holiday than an academic book, whether on Caligula as general or any other classical subject. For example, I cannot understand the need for even one photograph of the sun setting over the sea off eastern Cyprus (beautiful as it is), but to include a second photograph of a similar sunset is totally mystifying.

In conclusion, despite its title, this book does little more than survey and summarize the main literary sources for the reign of Caligula. Anyone desiring a detailed discussion of the military history of his reign must look elsewhere. Anyone hoping for a standard biography of Caligula must look elsewhere also. But anyone desiring a very basic introduction to the literary sources for the reign of Caligula needs to look no further.


1.   The Battle of Actium, 31 B.C.: War for the World. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2016; Lucullus: The Life and Times of a Roman Conqueror. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2017.
2.   E. Champlin, "Sex on Capri," TAPhA 141 (2011), 315-332.
3.   N.T. Elkins, "Taxes, Liberty, and the Quadrantes of Caligula," Numismatic Chronicle 174 (2014), 111-117.
4.   See, e.g., A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (New York: OUP, 2011), 743-782, dating it to 375/80, where even this is substantially earlier than many other scholars would allow.

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