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Volume 0428

CHAT #25


Chapter Summary and Analysis of ERB's
Chapters 1-6 by David Adams

Jeff Jones: I Am A Barbarian - FP - ERB, Inc. Publishers

This novel was written between April and September, 1941.  He only wrote one more full length novel after this one, Tarzan and "The Foreign Legion" (1944).  Burroughs died in 1950. I Am a Barbarian was not published during his lifetime, first appearing in hardback on September 1, 1967 published by ERB Inc.

Porges wrote:  "Burroughs' fascination with Roman history had led him, in Tarzan and the Lost Empire, written in 1928, to devise the strangest of anachronisms -- a Roman civilization, its ancient customs unchanged, existing in the heat of Africa.  This interest was revived in 1941, but Burroughs, instead of a fantasy work, chose to create a pseudohistorical novel about the Roman emperors.  The main character, son the a chief of the Britons made captive by the Romans, becomes the personal slave and companion to a four-year-old boy whom he calls "Little Boots."  Only ten himself, Britannicus soon realizes that he is serving the grandnephew of the emperor, one who bore a name that would be indelibly recorded on the pages of history -- Caligula."

Lupoff wrote:  "This lightly fictionalized biography of the emperor Caligula, as told by the slave Britannicus, is a radical departure in style and attitude from any other work of Burroughs.  In my opinion it is an excellent work, one of his best, and deserving of wide attention."

Chapter Summary


This is a free translation of the memoirs of Britannicus, 25 years the slave of Caligula, emperor of Rome from A.D. 37 to 41.  They were written on papyrus sheets (indicated in chapter 2).  Burroughs used the following works while writing this historical novel. Trevelyan, George Macaulay - History of England Caesar - Caesar's Commentaries Suetonius, Gaius - Lives of the Twelve Caesars Baring-Gould, S. - The Tragedy of the Caesars Capes, W.W. - The Early Empire Mooney, William West - Travel among the Ancient Romans Preston, Harriet Waters, and Dodge, Louise - The Private Life of the Romans Showerman, Grant - Rome and the Romans Tucker, T.G. - Life in the Roman World Jones, H. Stuart - The Roman Empire Dill, Samuel - Roman Society Ferrero, Guglielmo - Women of the Caesars Johnston, Harold Whetstone - The Private Life of the Romans

"The book is dedicated to:  my son, Numerius Tiber Britannicus"

Chapter I
A.U.C. 769 [A.D. 16]

The father of the writer [Britannicus] was the grandson of Cingetorix was a painted blue barbarian.  His grandfather had been king of Kent, but he was merely the chief of a small tribe in the north of England.

This warlord decided it would be a good idea to conquer the Belgians, however, he [and his family] was defeated and sold in slavery to the Chatti, a German tribe.  From thence, he passed into the hands of a Roman general, Germanicus, who defeated the Chatti.   The general's wife, Agrippina was there and their son, Caligula, who chooses Britannicus as their personal slave.

Britannicus is only ten-years- old, but he comes from a noble class of Britons, and he does not know fear.  Caligula is only four.  He is known affectionately as "Little Boots" because of the caligae that he wore.

Britannicus learns to speak Latin, the oaths of the soldiers first.  He is named Britannicus Caligulae Servus by Agrippina.  Little Boots called him Brit.  Agrippina hates Brit, but she has to put up with his presence for her son's sake.  The Julian line of emperors are mentally disordered.

Brit and Little Boots play together in the Roman camp.  Once when Caligula spit on Brit, he was slapped by him which nearly led to his death.

Brit makes friends with a legionary who was an ex-gladiator, Tibur, a man with more brawn than brain, but a man with a great heart.  He learns that Little Boots may someday become the emperor.  After a year in Germany, they all went back to Rome.

Chapter II
A.U.C. 770 [A.D. 17]
Brit is impressed with the size of Rome, but thinks it is a brutal place.  They go to live at the villa of  Antonia, the mother of Germanicus.  Agrippina gives birth to Drusilla. Agrippina gets mad a Brit again and threatens to have his throat cut, so he runs away and finds Tibur at the camp of the Praetorian Guard with the aid of Vibiu, a legionary he meets along the way.  The Praetorian's are called out to look for Brit and easily find him when he is spotted in camp by Antonia's majordomo, Serenus. Next, Brit and Little Boots put a frog in Agrippina's bed.  Caligula confesses that he hates his brothers, Drusus (age 10) and Nero (age 11) and wishes they were dead. Agrippina bad-mouths the emperor, Tiberius. Brit blames Nero for the frog.

Chapter III
A.U.C. 770 (A.D. 17)

Nero comes to get revenge, but Little Boots screams and lies to his mother that Nero has struck him with a big stick and threatened him with a dagger.  Germanicus comes in, and Brit tells the truth, so Caligula gets a spanking. They all go to the Forum to watch the triumph of Germanicus.  They sit in the loge of the Emperor Tiberius, who was of "the scrofulous rather than the epileptic branch of the family."   Tiberius gives Brit a good place to see the parade, and Brit would gladly have died for him. The procession is described in detail.  Brit sees his father and mother in chains.  They held their heads high.  He never saw them again.

Chapter IV
A.U.C. 770 [A.D.17]

Brit attends lessons with the 5-year-old Little Boots and learns to read and write Latin and Greek.  He reads Homer, Livy and Cicero, but he also listens to the wild stories of his friend, Tiber, the ex-gladiator. Agrippina is mad at Brit again (actually, Caligula has tried to drown his own sister) so he wanders into the rougher section of Rome to escape punishment.  He gets in a fight with a Roman boy and is dragged off to a filthy prison.  Two men fight over him, and one is killed.  The "winner" is hauled off by a guard, and Brit fears that he might be crucified before he gets "home" again.  The man is then beaten to death by the guards. When the guards learn that Brit belongs to Caligula, he is returned. Caligula has screamed himself voiceless in his absence.  Germanicus tells him not to run away again and that he will protect him from Agrippina.

Chapter V
A.U.C. 770 [A.D. 17]

Brit begins to keep notes on his observations of the family in a code developed by Marcus Tullius Tiro, the private secretary of Cicero, which was known as Notae Tironianae. Germanicus and his family are transferred to Syria.  Through the machinations of Brit and Caligula, Tiber is brought along.  On the way to the ship, several points of interest are discussed:  The Campus Martius, the theater of Marcellus, the Portico of Octavia,  the Theater of Pompey, and the mausoleum of Augustus. They travel on a trireme warship, which is also described in detail in comparison with the ship of Hiero, the tyrant of Syracuse.  Brit sees a body floating in the Tiber, and his friend, Tiber, tells him that his father and mother probably ended up there as well.  From this moment Brit hates Rome "with a bitterness that has never receded."   He vows that someday he will get vengeance by killing a Caesar.

Chapter VI
A.U.C. 770-771-772-775 [A.D. 17-18-19-22]

Germanicus learns that Piso has been made governor in Syria.  Agrippina thinks is placed there to spy on him.  Agrippina has another daughter, Julia Livilla (who was later murdered by Messalina, wife of Claudius, the emperor who succeeded Caligula.) Germanicus banishes Piso and suddenly dies himself.  Agrippina thinks he has been poisoned.  The family of Germanicus  returns to Rome.  Brit studies for 10 years:  the works of Cicero, Flaccus, Livy, Aristotle, Homer, Aristophanes, Euripides, Euclid. Tiber is assigned to the Imperial Guard stationed at their house. Caligula develops a taste for bloody contests in the arena.  Claudius is fondly described and the treacherous Sejanus.  Tiberius favors the children of Germanicus, and Brit says that the vilification of his name came largely through the lies of Agrippina.  "A slave in an imperial household knows more of history than the historians."

Some Thoughts on I Am A Barbarian
David Adams

The following are a few thoughts on some of the themes I might follow someday in writing a better essay on ERB and SPQR.  I am making them public to Bill Hillman's site because I feel a need to continue my series of "Chats."  Since I am moving on to other Burroughsian matters I do not have the time to flesh these ideas out as much as they deserve. Burroughs and Rome is an abiding thematic and structural part of his novelistic adventures.  I believe there is no other underpinning as great as this one other than the obvious Darwinian connection. When I was a lad, I carried my Latin text book next to my stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  They always seemed to compliment each other in my own mind, and as I have continued to read his stories the connections seem more solid today that ever before.

Back in the distant 1970's somewhere before I started reading Burroughs again I wrote a poem that might be aptly applied to Edgar Rice's Barbarian.  Here is the fur-wrapped Barbarian who kicked down the gates and continues to kick them down no matter how much we snuggle under the covers.

Incantation For Dream-Time

Dream time.  Fur-robe of toothy animal.
Bear-robe, fox-shawl, magic robe of hair,
Lord, Mother, hand-sewn by small fingers
With fur ears & tail.  Bone calendar time,
Ice-cave makers in secret, spiral dream time.

Chess game move:  horse to opposing witches.

At my demise a city rises
    then sinks into Celtic slime.

Forgotten men before red Caesar-time.

Old skulls warn a grin broken teeth spine
    in plain stone niches.

I was a boy in blue boy in Bath
At the god in Irish rain time.
I the watcher in three stars
The carry coverner of the hills.
I was wearer of horns in dream time
Before discrimination of fools arrived.
I cannibal whistled to my enemies
in weeds down below fence town
carving careful tattoos in the sun
I grave dancer twelve-year ollave
blue broth drinker upland
in dream time before the groves were cut down.

This a mind with cunning honey
Gospel writers did not extinguish.

                                           (River Styx  Magazine -1979)

Ace Paperback Edition with cover by Boris


Inside Cover Illustration - Japanese Edition

Page 124 Japanese Edition

Page 148 Japanese Edition

Page 16 Japanese Edition

Page 188 Japanese Edition

Page 248 Japanese Edition

Page 276 Japanese Edition

Page 56 Japanese Edition

Page 83 Japanese Edition

Attitude and Style

This novel is written in a witty, entertaining manner.  In the early chapters, the boy, Britannicus, presents a running commentary on Rome and Romans in a way that sometimes reminds one of Huckleberry Finn -- a child wise beyond his years.

The story is well-informed by ERB's classical background, and the historical details are accurate and generally worked into into the story through the voice of "the barbarian" Brit, who is really the most level-headed one of the whole bunch.  This is not a heavy-handed historical piece, but rather a view of the Roman world  as seen through the eyes of a sassy slave who manages to poke fun at his masters with impunity because of Caligula's devotion to him from childhood.

I Am A Barbarian is a satire on the Roman world as seen through the eyes of a Twentieth Century man.  The Barbarian protagonist is a Swiftian hero who stands outside the society into which he has been thrown and thus is in a position to comment on what he sees without being blinded by the norms of the society.  The typical Burroughsian hero is nearly always this kind of an outsider (Tarzan, John Carter, David Innes, etc.) which gave ERB the opportunity to compare and contrast the social, economic, and religious practices of a great variety of Lost Civilizations with a kind of Yankee individualism that he personally espoused.  The influence of Twain on Burroughs is obvious in much of his writing, and I Am A Barbarian is no exception.

In the Pellucidar Series, the scientist, Abner Perry, brings modern inventions into a Stone Age world much like Twain's "Connecticut Yankee."  Brit cannot act completely in such a superior way in this Roman novel since he is part of his own time, yet his personal views reflect a moral superiority over the degenerate "civilized" Romans.  It is another Burroughsian case where "raw " is superior to "cooked" to use Levi-Strauss's terminology.  The wise-child barbarian easily sees through the falsehoods of a powerful adult civilization, and thus Brit is another fairy tale hero who proves that common sense can see that the Emperor is indeed naked no matter how much he might parade in his new clothes.

In a sense we should read the title "I AM A BARBARIAN" as Burroughs himself.  He is the wonderful boy playing in the Roman world as he may have in his imagination as a military school cadet and as he continued to do throughout his writing career.  He was the outsider who could see society for what it was simply because he was always out there on the outer fringes.  Burroughs was the barbarian who never fit into the serious literary world, yet he was an enormous financial success that applied at least a little salve to his wounds.  The position of the barbarian-primitive outsider was often morally superior in the tales of Burroughs, and he may have felt this way himself in his position as a writer on the outside of the mainstream writers of his century.

Slavery in the Works of ERB

"In many of the books dealing with invented civilizations, the kind of slavery common in the ancient world and independent of race prevails: conquered or captured or unlucky peoples become slaves, a norm quite different from that of the European slave trade in modern times.  Even Tarzan becomes a slave, though he invariably never stays one for long and sometimes organizes slave rebellions.  Blacks, we are told, are subservient by tradition, not nature, and strike back when they can against abusive masters.  The commonness of slavery in the novels reinforces the idea that slavery is "natural" among civilized people, but does not function in a racist way. "

("Taking Tarzan Seriously" by Mariana Torgovnick)

Slavery is common on Barsoom.  Even John Carter has slaves, however the institution is perhaps most notable among the First-Born, the Black Pirates of Barsoom.

The First Born do no work.  The men fight--that is a sacred privilege and duty; to fight and die for Issus.  The women do nothing, absolutely nothing.  Slaves wash them, slaves dress them, slaves feed them.  There are some, even, who have slaves that talk for them, and I saw one who sat during the rites with closed eyes while a slave narrated to her the events that were transpiring within the arena.

(Gods of Mars, chapter 11)
The Therns, the last remnant of the ancient white race of Barsoom make slaves  of pilgrims making their final journey down the River Iss. These luckless victims were treated like cattle and sometimes eaten by the Therns, but then they were considered to be lower beings.  Perhaps the most famous slave of the Therns was Thuvia, who was kept as a "play-thing" for 15 years before John Carter arrived.

Moon Men

The Kalkars  treated the American Indians as slaves in the Moon books. The white nomads of the post-Kalkar 24th and 25th centuries used them thus as well, but were kinder to them, and upon moving on left them to their own land.


The Ant Men of Minuni have a society in which the slaves greatly outnumber the masters, however they rise to a kind of middle class over the generations, and nobles marry slaves in order to keep their bloodlines free from inbreeding.  Any slave thus espoused is raised to the caste of his or her spouse and greed from slavery.

These examples could be multiplied ad infinitum from the works of Burroughs.  One might certainly question Torgovnick's statement above that race played no part in ERB's views of slavery since it seems to negate the entire American experience which was a part of Burroughs' heritage.  This is a problem that was discussed in an interesting article in the Ancient History Bulletin 7.3 (1993) which can be found on the internet at that site.  In this article Walter Scheidel (Universitat Wien) concludes that:

"Arguing the very existence of a slave mentality amounts to forcing an open door in that it has never been seriously denied.  Trying to recover it from poor scraps of evidence may bear but scarce fruit.  A single genuine account of an ancient slave could well be more revealing than the hints extricated from all mantic texts taken together."

This is precisely what ERB had given us, albeit in a fictional form. Of course, the bottom line is the fact that we learn more about Burroughs' own views about slavery and in I Am A Barbarian his own personal views of the ancient world than we do about history itself.

Rapacious Rome

A remarkable scene takes place in chapter four when Brit is in a Roman prison.  Here Burroughs hints at an intended homosexual rape that is thwarted by a guard.  Two men fight over him.  He only comments, "I wondered why they fought so because of me.  I was young then.  I did not know, but I had a presentiment that something terrible might happen to me no matter which one was victorious.

The first man, a great brute, accosts him, calling him "my chick."  The second man, a loathsome fellow, half-decayed from some horrid disease tells Brit, "I like your looks, little one.  You and I shall be great friends."  After the fight, which leaves the loathsome one dead, the brute is taken away by the guards and beaten to death.  A woman prisoner comments, "It is a good thing for you, lad, that those two are out of the way.  There are others here almost as bad; but they will be good for a while after this."

As far as I know, this is the only case in all of ERB's writing where such a scene takes place.  Prison scenes are common in Burroughs, but usually the prisoner finds a true friend there after a preliminary fight that the protagonist always wins.  Of course, these encounters are usually between adult males, and the hero of the tale is nearly always a very powerful alpha who is never really threatened by anyone.

With Brit, Burroughs allows a vulnerability in a child character that is rarely found in other novels.  The Son of Tarzan rapidly develops into a man and the man-killer, Korak.  Dick and Doc in the Tarzan Twins are threatened with becoming a cannibal feast.  Rape (mostly intended) and physical abuse in the stories is the usual fate of females alone.

Meriem in The Son of Tarzan suffers from appalling child-abuse at the hands of the Sheik.  She is beaten black and blue, kicked, thrown, cuffed, however, sexual abuse does not directly occur, nor is there even such a hint.

The fact that Burroughs wrote pulp fiction with themes common to this genre has often acted as a sort of excuse for his writing as though he applied no psychology of his own to the stories.  Even though he may have used common fictional themes, there is no reason to remove him from critical observations that are used to make discoveries in form and methods applied to every other author.

That there is an undergirding of the threat of rape in many of ERB's stories has been remarked upon by many commentators.  That slavery and bondage is a recurring theme of his work is equally well documented. These thematic practices can be easily discovered by reading nearly any one of his novels.  In some ways, I Am A Barbarian can be read as a novel of bringing these themes into the real world instead of the imaginary ones which was his usual arena of literary endeavor.

Eternal Rome

The world of Rome was in many ways the real world of Burroughs.  Here the gods and heroes mingled together in ways that I believe are reminiscent of his own mind when he acted as a writer, or rather as an amanuensis for what was passing in his subconscious whenever he took up the pen.

It is hard to separate Rome from any of ERB's novels.  The ancient world is always there in one way or another, even if it is in the simple naming of a character.  Burroughs never strays far from his classical roots even in the wild west of Barsoom or the jungles of Africa with its multiplicity of Lost Cities.

I picture a boy reading Greek and Latin on the last frontier of America, which considered itself the new Rome, especially in its grandiose public architecture.  It is probably the fact that ERB loved riding horses and daydreaming more than books that he became the writer of adventure yarns instead of a writer of historical fiction.  He certainly had the capacity for extensive research, which is always evident in his writing, however, his fertile imagination always outstripped his love of facts.

Burroughs loved the exotic.  His novels run riot with tangles of strangeness and oddity.  Where Holtsmark see the classic balance of Homer and Greek literature in Burroughs, I see the excesses and lavish display of Imperial Rome.  Burroughs was a pleb who wanted to enter the patrician class, but at heart he was always the barbarian knocking at the gates.  He knew that his folks were the ones who toppled Rome, not the ones who built it up.

A Brief Selection of Novels about Ancient Rome

1889 - Wallace, Lew:  Ben-Hur:  A Tale of the Christ
1896 - Sienkiewicz, Henryk:  Quo Vadis?  (Nobel Prize for Literature 1905)
1900 - Davis, William Stearns:  A Friend of Caesar
1926 - Ben-Hur, silent film
1926 - Rostovzeff, M - "Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire"
1926 - Toga parties - roaring twenties -  where did this come from? Fraternities-Greek organizations
1928-29 - Burroughs, Edgar Rice:  Tarzan and the Lost Empire
1929 - Anderson, Paul L.:  With The Eagles
1930 - Anderson, Paul L.:  A Slave of Catiline
(There is an internet site on novels based on ancient Rome.)

Several "Fun"  Books about Caligula

Barrett, Anthony A.   Caligula:  the Corruption of Power.  Yale U. Press, 1989.
(Barrett's book is the first major treatment of that emperor since Balsdon's in 1934.)
(Read the excellent 21 page review of this book by Barry Baldwin (University of Calgary) on the internet at the Ancient History Bulletin site.  It is number 4.6 (1990).  Suetonius is more fun, but this is the absolutely latest research on Caligula.)  Yes, he was a monster!
Camus, Albert.   Caligula (a play)
Graves, Robert.   I Claudius and Claudius, the God

David Nkima Adams
Text and original art by:
David Adams
Nkima Chattering From The Shoulder
Read 'em all at:
ERBzine 0396

Our sincere thanks to Tom Lindgren who provided the illustrations from the
Japanese edition of I Am A Barbarian

Volume 0428

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