Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the third Roman Emperor, is better known by another name: Caligula, a name synonymous with decadence, cruelty and madness. His reign was marked by excess, huge building projects, the largest gladiatorial battles Rome was ever to see - men and animals killed in their hundreds - conspiracies, assassination attempts and sexual scandal.
Rufus as a young slave grows up far from the corruption of the imperial court. His master is a trainer of animals for the gladiatorial arena. Rufus discovers that he has a natural ability with animals, a talent for controlling and schooling them. It is at the arenas that Rufus meets his great friend Cupido, one of Rome's greatest gladiators.
It is his growing reputation as an animal trainer and his friendship with Cupido that attracts the cruel gaze of the Emperor. Caligula wants a keeper for the imperial elephant and Rufus is bought from his master and taken to the imperial palace. Life here is dictated by Caligula's ever shifting moods. Caligula is as generous as he is cruel, he is a megalomaniac who declares himself a living god and simultaneously lives in constant fear of the plots against his life. But his paranoia is not misplaced, intrigue permeates his court, and Rufus and Cupido find themselves unwittingly placed at the centre of a conspiracy to assassinate the Emperor.