I Am a Barbarian is only one of two historical fictions written by Burroughs, the other being The Outlaw of Torn, but unlike Torn this novel slavishly follows historical fact. Though written in 1941 this novel wasn’t published until 1967 after Burroughs’ death and in my opinion probably one of the weakest of his novels.
The story is in the form of memoirs written by Britannicus a barbarian who lived the bulk of his life as slave to Caligula the mad Roman that became an even crazier Emperor. Our protagonists was enslaved at about the age of ten to be the playmate of then six year old Caligula or “Little Boots” as the military called him. To those uninitiated to this fascinating time period the book is very informative as we learns about the genetically predisposed madness of the Julian family, epilepsy and madness key factors, and the political maneuvering that resulted in many assassination plots. Unfortunately the majority of the book reads like a history lesson and not the fun pulp adventure one expects from Burroughs. Britannicus is the reader’s window into this world of palace intrigue and devolving sanity but as the events of this time period are fairly well documented our protagonist is limited in what he can or can’t affect. This severely hamstrings Burroughs’ ability as a storyteller.
Aside from the numerous nonfiction characters we are introduced to a few fun fictional ones; there is ex-gladiator Tibur who is a monster of a man and brutal fighter but who becomes a good friend to young Britannicus and even Caligula, then there is Numerious a charioteer who becomes an even closer friend to Britannicus which is unusual to say the least as they are both madly in love with the beautiful slave girl Attica. The relationship between Britannicus, Numerious and Attica is easily the books strongest element but it is unfortunately a rather small element compared to the litany of crimes and foul deeds of Caligula that Burroughs recounts in great detail. Most surprising is Burroughs’ writings of Caligula’s debauchery and insane murderous whims which come across rather dryly to the point of tedium. Considering we’re talking Caligula here that’s pretty bad.
From the title one would assume we would be getting something like a cross between Ben Hur and Conan the Barbarian but our “hero” barely gets anything to do; he saves Attica from a couple of assailants and later with the help of Tibur saves her from the beasts in the Coliseum but that’s it. I’m not saying every Burroughs hero has to be John Carter or Tarzan but in the case of I Am a Barbarian all we get is a passive observer who barley impacts anything at all, and that isn’t something one expects with a book with this title.
So if you are a fan of Burroughs, and like me enjoy reading about the Roman Empire, you may get some enjoyment out of this, but if you are looking for a thrilling adventure story your best bet is to check out any of his other books including the aforementioned Outlaw of Torn which is also historically based but a hell of a lot more fun.