The ancient historian Suetonius wrote a devastating account of the earlier Roman emperors as characters who were wayward, repulsive and sometimes downright disgusting. It was eminently readable history. Since then, a steady process of rehabilitation has taken much of the fun out of ancient Rome. Robert Graves did an excellent job on the spitting and shuffling idiot, Claudius.

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My desktop encyclopedia dispatches Caligula in one swift sentence as a "cruel and insane Roman emperor who promoted his horse to the office of consul". History associates him with torture, megalomania and incest.

In his fifth imperial chronicle, Allan Massie sides with Camus in positing Caligula as an existentialist who laughed darkly into the bloody void opening up before him and the empire over which he briefly ruled. Our narrator is a nobleman, Lucius, commissioned to write Caligula's biography by the Empress Agrippina — wife of stuttering Claudius, mother of Nero and sister of the late, "by few lamented" Emperor Gaius.

Uncertain of Agrippina's spin-doctoring purpose in resurrecting her brother's reputation, Lucius resolves to write a first draft for himself and his heirs, to try to make some sense of Caligula's reign and to assess his own role in it.

It is this uncensored draft, with its frank asides and personal digressions, that we read. It's an uphill march at first. It takes nearly 70 pages for Lucius to remind readers of the tangled Julio-Claudian family tree from which Caligula sprouted. Born under the efficient but unloved Tiberius, he was the son of the hero-general Germanicus, raised in the army camps.

Little Gaius was the darling of the troops, who carried him on their shoulders as a moptop mascot and gave him the nickname "Caligula", meaning "little boots", or as Massie translates, "Bootikins".

Fearing Germanicus's popularity with the legions and the people, Tiberius may well have ordered Germanicus to be poisoned. Lucius is uncertain. But he accepts that after Germanicus's widow makes public accusations echoed by the mob, Tiberius has little choice but to take most of Gaius's remaining family out of the equation.

So Gaius is raised in an atmosphere of suspicion and ambition as the closet elimination of those closest to him takes place. Bedhopping and betrayals undermine greater objectives now that the "Republic" of Rome is merely a political front for tyranny, in which idealists are as dangerous as those seeking personal gain. Little wonder that the boy develops without respect for life or virtue.

Disassociated from his emotions, he seeks physical sensation in the beds and brawls of brothels, roaming sleepless in the moonlight. He becomes emperor in the second half of the book, adopting Lucius as his chief political adviser. He wants to do a good job, and Lucius excuses his support for the young ruler's later sadism by claiming that he always hoped Caligula would return to the nobler aspirations of his first months in power.

His crooked path to Rome was paved with the odd good intention. But was he mad? It's a question we ask of any dictator, any mass murderer - look at how we scrutinised pictures of Saddam Hussein emerging from his spider hole. Massie's Lucius equivocates. Certainly, he sees Caligula as unbalanced, "too much for us", spoiled in every sense.

He grew to enjoy the screams of his victims and cackled at the thought he could slit dinner guests' throats at will. David Robson reviews Caligula. But it was a mad world, in which good men such as Lucius claims to be felt they could not afford both virtue and life. Caligula, his biographer argues, may have seen things too clearly.

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Caligula by Allan Massie

He has lived in the Scottish Borders for the last 25 years, and now lives in Selkirk. Born in Singapore , where his father was a rubber planter for Sime Darby , Massie spent his childhood in Aberdeenshire. He was educated at Drumtochty Castle preparatory school and Glenalmond College in Perthshire before going on to attend Trinity College, Cambridge where he read history. He has been The Scotsman's chief fiction reviewer for a quarter of a century and also regularly writes about rugby union and cricket for that paper.

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