Barbarian yarn might put Roman noses out of joint
John "Bridge" Martin
Originally appeared in ERBAPA #78
Edgar Rice Burroughs did not write his Caesar-era historical novel, "I Am A Barbarian," until the closing decade of his life, but the seeds for what became this story were sown long before, in Burroughs’ school studies when, in a Latin curriculum, he read Caesar’s "Commentaries."
That, plus further study of Edward Gibbon’s "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," and poems such as Thomas Babington Macauley’s "Lays of Ancient Rome" gave him an early excitement for and interest in the Roman culture, according to Irwin Porges in his massive volume, "Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan."
Other books about the Roman empire fell to Burroughs’ reading appetite throughout his life, and many are listed as references in the prologue of "Barbarian."
So, a lifetime of interest in the subject of ancient Rome led up to Burroughs’ writing of this novel after he turned 65, but it then sat in limbo until finally resurrected and published 17 years after his death.
There are "Romans" today, in the "Eternal City" of Rome, Italy, but the Roman empire itself is long gone. If it still existed, Mr. Burroughs’ novel might be considered by its citizens to be "politically incorrect," for the volume is quite blunt about the personality and behavioral defects of the people who conquered the world, yet had no notable moral fiber of their own.
Burroughs, through the first-person voice of his protagonist, Britannicus Caligulae Servus, lifetime slave of Caligula, speaks often in the book’s pages about the shortcomings of the Romans as a whole.
It is instructive to gather them from the various chapters of the book and put them together to see what type of picture Mr. Burroughs painted of the Romans, a picture he no doubt drew from his reading and research of a lifetime.
Here are some elements of that picture:
Roman soldiers – Although admitting they were "not a bad lot," Britannicus noted that all of them had in common a chief desire which was not the "glory of Rome," but their own personal enrichment with "money and loot. They were a spoiled lot; and the officers, all the way up to the commanding general, were afraid of them." (Page 14, all page numbers from the Ace paperback).
Roman commoners – "The Roman populace, the common herd, the plebs have always aroused within me a feeling of disgust and loathing. They are ignorant, stupid, cruel, debased by generations of virtual mendicancy." (page 51) "…undisciplined beggars….without loyalty or courage or honor, and they are rotten with vice and crime." (161)
Roman patricians – "…haughty, arrogant, and heartless to those of lesser blood, unless they have great wealth, and a fawning sycophant in the presence of the emperor." (160)
Roman royalty – "How proudly will future Romans be able to point to their heritage: Epilepsy, insanity, scrofula, adultery, murder and incest will be their inalienable imperial legacies." (90) Said Britannicus to the slave girl Attica who would become his wife: "The house of Agrippina is as full of Caesars as a German beard of lice – and they are about as annoying." (108)
Britannicus got his first impressions of the Romans as a boy, much the same as Burroughs did, and perhaps the author was speaking biographically and vicariously when he said, through the little slave boy: "Years of association with them have not tended to improve the opinion I then formed as a little boy of ten; in fact, quite the reverse." (16)
From this volume, we learn that the Romans, though world conquerors, were actually not imposing people, taken individually: "The Romans are not a tall race – my father (a tribal leader in ancient England) had towered above them –but their great numbers, their loud boastings, their terrific oaths metamorphed them into giants in my small mind." (22). And, in speaking of the architecture and monuments of the eternal city, "The Romans seem to have an obsession for the colossal. Perhaps, because they are undersized themselves…." (78)
Burroughs gives Romans, collectively, poor marks in these categories as well:
Fairness – "I wheeled just in time to meet number one, who had regained his feet and some of his senses and was coming for me with Roman courage: a dagger aimed at the back." (105)
Sportsmanship – "Every dirty trick to which a charioteer might resort in order to win, even though they might result in the injury or death of horses and men, was countenanced and applauded. It was typically Roman." (187)
Trustworthiness – "…among Romans one seldom knows whom one may trust." (281)
Modesty – "The Romans love to hear themselves talk." (102)
Happiness at others’ good fortunes – "As soon as you started up -- freedman, freeman, citizen, office holder – then someone below you started sitting up nights brewing poison or sharpening a dagger." (43-44)
"Diversity" is a word that is often heard in politically correct circles of today. Burroughs wrote about diversity in the Roman empire. In describing various nationalities, he used descriptive terms which would likely be frowned upon today as "stereotyping," but otherwise seemed to be praising this group of diverse people in Rome, until his typically Burroughs barb at the end of the passage:
"Never before had I seen so many people congregated, nor such diverse nationalities and clothing. There were tall, blond Gauls and swarthy Spaniards; black Ethiopians in long white garments; hairy Germans garbed in the skins of beasts; Greeks; Jews; beadred, burnoosed, dark-visaged men from the deserts of Arabia; in fact, representatives of all the races of the world that is the Roman Empire. There were Romans in short tunics belted at the waist; these were the plebs and the slaves, the latter in their distinctive white tunics. And in that great throng there were even the togas of the more prosperous, and people of nearly every nationality, women and children, as well as men…. It was, on the whole, a good-natured, well-behaved multitude, apparently as happy here and as well amused as though watching defenseless men being torn to pieces by wild beasts in the amphitheater." (79-80)
Perhaps Burroughs most damning indictment of the Romans, though, was in their lack of accomplishments, other than military and architecture:
In speaking of their short stature, Burroughs made a comparison with their massive structures, which he suggests "…gives them a sense of vicarious grandeur to produce colossi; or it may be that they thus felt they were creating something – a nation which never created anything other than new means of destroying life, but copied everything from the Greeks, even to their gods, which were Greek gods with Latin names." (78)
Burroughs said essentially the same thing when he spoke through Britannicus to call the Romans "…a race of people whose only contribution to human ‘progress’ has been the invention of new means of destroying human life and whose only noble achievements have been copied from older and nobler civilizations which they sought to destroy." (249)
In Burroughs’ study of the Romans, he must have found some thoughts to spark some admiration for the emperor Tiberius, for even Tiberius is credited with thoughts similar to the slave boy Britannicus about his fellow Romans, especially his fellow aristocrats: "The fawning nobles and senators, whom Tiberius held in contempt, as he did all sycophants…." (159)
Tiberius and Tibur, emperor and legionary, were two who were the exception to the rule among Burroughs’ Romans.
Tiberius, though absolute ruler and, indeed, one who practiced all the vices and cruelty to enemies of the Romans, yet by simple acts of kindness inspired loyalty in the little slave boy. Tibur, the former gladiator turned Roman legionnaire, whose fondness for young Britannicus first sprouted when the bold slave slapped young Caligula in response to a salivic assault (and got away with it), was a friend throughout the story.
And in one other nod to the "good side" of the Romans, Britannicus did acknowledge that, when taken as a slave of the Chatti to be a slave of the Romans, the change "…was not for the worse, for the Romans were clean and they had food, being powerful enough to take it from one and sundry wherever they chanced to be." (12)
The book ends in a satisfactory enough manner, but leaves one wondering about the future of Britannicus. Earlier in the novel, in the midst of his woes with the Romans, he had dreamed of escape and repatriation to ancient Britain: "…I could make my escape and start back for Britannia. I had no doubt but that, once out of the city, I could travel half the length of Italy, cross the Alps, traverse the country of the Helvetians and that of the Belgians, and cross the channel to my native land." (60-61)
However, in penning his memoirs later, he had to admit that the words were spoken with youthful bravado: "Would that I still retained that sublime self-confidence!" he said. (61)
Burroughs may have intended further adventures for Britannicus, since Caligula at last was sent to his reward. But whether he stayed to seek his fortune among the lying, cheating, dirty, stuck-up – and short! – Romans, or whether his dreams led him elsewhere, we are left to ponder ourselves.
One of the treats of reading Edgar Rice Burroughs is learning new words, which he always manages to seed into the text. These are just a few I didn’t know the meaning of or had never heard of before:
Lupanar – This is probably a Latin word as it isn’t in my dictionary. Mr. Burroughs at least makes its meaning (a brothel) obvious through the context in which it is used.
Scrofulous – What a great word!! Tell someone they’re "scrofulous" and they won’t know what to think. The word was used to describe some of the Caesars and refers to little swellings, perhaps tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands in the neck. The disease is sometimes known as "king’s evil." A secondary definition for the word, however, is "morally corrupt, degenerate." It appears that either definition would fit some of those Caesars.
Bilious – Agrippina Minor, a brat sister of Caligula, was described as having the face of a "bilious sheep." This again, as in scrofula, is a medical condition, pertaining to bile, or to a disease of the liver, characterized by headaches, indigestion and nausea. A sheep with all that might have a "sick" expression on its face, and so, apparently did Agrippina Minor.
Pestiferous – Britannicus describes Caligula as his "pestiferous master." Again, the word is a medical term. The dictionary gives three definitions and all of them seem to fit Caligula: infected with an epidemic disease; dangerous to morals or to the welfare of society (noxious, evil); annoying, mischievous, bothersome.