A Look at Edgar Rice Burroughs’ I Am A Barbarian
by Bill Ward
“I thank the gods that I am a barbarian and so feel no responsibility for the acts of Romans.”
-Britannicus Caligulae Servus
If the nickname “Little Boots” doesn’t fill you with dread perhaps it will in the original Latin: Caligula. The byword for depraved tyranny, the quintessential Mad Monarch, Caligula’s brief reign as third Emperor of Rome has been the fascinating stuff of prurient legend and scandalous rumor for nearly two thousand years. A megalomaniac combining arbitrary cruelty with a wicked sense of humor – flinging coins to the poor after first heating them in a brazier, turning the Imperial Palace into a brothel to pimp the wives of senators, ordering his legions to attack the oceans and gather seashells as plunder, appointing his favorite horse to the Senate – this “viper for the people of Rome” is like a joke you’re ashamed to laugh at, or a car crash from which you can’t look away. Separating the truth of Caligula’s reign from the rumors and embellishments is the mostly impossible task of historians – but using it as a backdrop for titillating fiction is the job of storytellers, something Edgar Rice Burroughs’ I Am a Barbarian does with page-turning success.
As with Robert Graves’ brilliant novels of the Julio-Claudian dynasty I, Claudius and Claudius the God – which surely must have inspired Burroughs — I Am a Barbarian is a first-person account of life under the early Emperors. Both works, too, draw heavily from one of the most entertaining ancient sources for any period of history, perhaps the original proponent of ‘print the legend:’ Suetonius’s gossipy and scandalous biographies of the first Twelve Caesars. But whereas Graves gave us events from the perspective of an Imperial insider, Burroughs chooses a slave for his protagonist: one Britannicus Caligulae Servus. His name tells you who he is: a Briton, slave to Caligula. Captured along with his family, young Britannicus – or Brit as he would be known – becomes the personal slave to the bratty son of Germanicus, a spoiled tyke dressed in a child’s Legionary costume, complete with tiny caligae: the heavy-duty sandal boots of the Roman soldier. What would one day become a veritable epithet for insane evil began life as a cutesy nickname for a kid playing dress-up.
Burroughs, as is characteristic of the author who was one of the biggest defining forces in pulp, the writer who launched both John Carter of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes upon the world of popular fiction in the same year, 1912, moves with fluid confidence from incident to incident in young Brit’s life. Brit, the son of a chief and grandson of an even more legendary warlord, holds his own against the unfair slings and arrows of the cruel and arbitrary ‘royal’ family. These are the most compelling moments in the book, as Brit stands up for himself – the first time, even daring to smack the younger Caligula when the little monster spits on him – and repeatedly escapes execution by a hairsbreadth. The interdependent relationship between him and Caligula forms the central pivot of the book, the arrogant and demented future emperor unwilling to part with the slave who is the only person to ever stand up to him – even while he continually threatens and fills Brit’s life with the dread of literal crucifixion.
Indeed, Brit is almost crucified in I Am a Barbarian – the culmination of numerous close calls with Rome’s cruel caste system. It is usually his Imperial connections that get him out of such scrapes, just as it is always his sense of barbarian honor that gets him into them. Looking at this book’s Boris Vallejo cover, which is clearly designed to appeal to sword-and-sorcery fans, and going on the title itself, you might get a very different idea of just what kind of novel Burroughs has written. “I Am a Barbarian” isn’t the yawping warcry of a bloody sword upraised, the shout of a destroyer treading jeweled thrones, but rather an assertion of an honorable identity at odds with the worst excess civilization may produce. As Robert E. Howard said: “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” That sentiment is practically the thesis statement for Burroughs’ novel, in which a slave from outside the bounds of empire exceeds his master not only in intellect and education (the book is, after all, his own written account of events, long lost) but most especially in morality. Whether it is saving the life of the infant sister “Little Boots” attempts to drown, or saving his soldier friend from a death sentence in a salt mine by confessing his own guilt, or refusing to run over another friend in a chariot race and consequently costing Caligula the sum of a massive bet, Brit time and again gets into mortal peril simply by refusing to bend the knee to a corrupt and capricious system, and most especially to that “human atrocity” Caligula.
“I suppose Romans will always be Romans until the end of time; that is if both they and the supply of poison and daggers hold out.” There is an underlying humor to much of Brit’s account of his life in Rome, and his cool, contemptuous off-handed remarks describing Romans as “a race of mean and unscrupulous beggars,” or his characterization of the two elements of the Julio-Claudian dynasty as the “epileptic” and “scrofulous” branches of the family tree never failed to raise a giggle. Burroughs excels at unfolding a narrative that combines travelogue, personal stakes, and History’s Hit Parade with breezy pulp pacing to create a compelling read. And, just when you think the scene on the front cover is never going to happen in the book, it does – though the participants are dressed a bit more appropriately.
But there is a bit of a miss-match in my opinion between the authorial voice, the main thrust of the narrative, and the culmination of the story. Brit, while still a youth, learns that his parents had been executed as part of Germanicus’ Triumphal Parade, and he vows vengeance – one day he will kill a Caesar. Aside from continuing his policy of moral courage and barbarian inflexibility in the face of the arbitrary arrogances of the Caesars, we never get much of a sense that he is someone within whom the fires of revenge burn. Beyond his acerbic asides and general air of contempt for his masters, Brit’s overwhelming focus is on living his young man’s life of friendship and burgeoning love, all while dodging the occasional flashpoint instance of Imperial wrath.
Which leads to what I think is the weakness in this page-turningly grand romp of a novel, an unearned climax. The burning hatred that Brit should have for Caligula just doesn’t come through on the page, and the details surrounding the ultimate events in the story feel rushed. This novel was only one of two historical novels Burroughs would write, and it wasn’t published until after his death. I can only speculate as to why that may be, but one possible reason could be that Burroughs or his editors felt it needed more work to truly rise to the level at which it aimed. The cynical authorial voice and black humor, the fluid pacing, are tremendous strengths of I Am a Barbarian, but these same strengths seem somewhat at odds with the weighty events of the climax – even to the inclusion of an ill-timed joke on what would be the worst and most significant day of the protagonist’s life.
If I Am a Barbarian fails to telegraph its tragedy I think it’s because Burroughs, like the audience, is having too much fun navigating the Rome of the early Caesars with a skin-of-your-teeth pulp pacing that sees our hero subjected to one trial after another while lightly entangling himself among the famous events of the era. A more grimly driven protagonist could have perhaps justified himself in the closing act, but perhaps the more sanguine Brit makes for a better narrator in the final cut, and certainly the world he inhabits is played for color and excitement, not bleak tragedy. And perhaps, in the final accounting, it’s also that authorial focus that sets our barbarian narrator refreshingly apart from his civilized counterparts.
The header image is ‘A Roman Emperor (Claudius),’ painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (c. 1836–1912)