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Ancient Rome

Caligula, 2

Marble portrait bust of the emperor Gaius, known as Caligula, A.D. 37–41.


Foreword: Caligula, A Historical Enigma

by José Manuel Roldán

Thirty stab wounds ended the life of Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus on 24 January 41, barely four years after he succeeded Tiberius, Augustus’ heir to the imperial throne. He had not yet reached the age of thirty, which was, however, more than enough time for his memory to be stigmatised forever as a paradigm of cruelty, under the nickname that his father’s soldiers had given him in his childhood: Little boot.

The life and reign of Caligula have been a topic of unresolved debate and controversy since antiquity, although it seems impossible to banish from the popular imagination the gloomy and disturbing image that his name alone arouses. And yet, this image of an inept, bloodthirsty, unpredictable and monstrous tyrant that tradition has handed down to us seems more like a melodramatic and simplifying label, invented not so much to define the character as to avoid a coherent explanation of the apparent contradictions in his behaviour: a simplification that has pontificated with the diagnosis of madness the many nooks and crannies of a complex personality.

This diagnosis has served to ‘explain’ the dozens of anecdotes with which the ancient literary tradition has traced the outline of the emperor, converted into as many examples of erratic and perverse behaviour, as support for a trivial stereotype: the bloodthirsty monster, capable of any outrage, about whom there has been no scruple in inventing even imaginary crimes to give greater consistency and morbidity to the character, already condemned from the beginning to play this role. Examples are the descriptions offered by Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, later plastically recreated in a well-known BBC television series; the image of the emperor in a 1953 film, The Robe; Albert Camus’ drama Caligula; Pepe Cibrián’s Argentine musical Calígula; or the shameful monstrosity of Tinto Brass in a pornographic film produced for Penthouse. Titles and titles of so-called ‘historical’ novels have piled up with Caligula as the protagonist. Thus, Calígula, una novela sobre el perverso emperador romano, by P.J. Franceschini and P. Lundel; Calígula, el dios cruel, by S. Obermeier, or Calígula, by M.G. Silato, to offer only examples published in Spanish.

The label, on the other hand, was quite simple. It was hard enough to follow faithfully the outlines drawn by the Roman literature of the imperial period itself, which was unanimous in its vilification of Gaius. But are these sources reliable? A preliminary step, therefore, in approaching the life of Gaius would be to take this tradition into account and look into it objectively. Only two authors knew Caligula during his lifetime: the writer Seneca and Philo, a Jewish philosopher from Alexandria. The former, an intriguing and quarrelsome courtier, was nearly condemned to death by Gaius; the latter went to Rome as spokesman for a delegation of Alexandrian Jews to the emperor and left his impressions in the pamphlet Embassy to Gaius. The rest wrote their works after Caligula was dead: Flavius Josephus, a Pharisee Jew of the Flavian period, included in his Antiquities of the Jews, published in 93, numerous facts about the reign, though in connection with problems of his people; the Annals of the great historian Cornelius Tacitus, a few years later, can only be used to illustrate the youth of Gaius, because the books on his reign—VII and following—have been lost; the Life of Gaius, by Suetonius, secretary for a time to the emperor Hadrian, is the only complete biography of Caligula, but its tendency to sensationalism forces many of its facts to be called into question; finally, Dion Cassius, the Anatolian writer, between the 2nd and 3rd centuries, in his Roman History, while providing a good deal of information about Caligula’s rule, is too far removed from the events and therefore influenced by the sources he used in his account.

But in the analysis of these sources one decisive point must be borne in mind: by whom they were written and for what audience. Except for the two Jewish writers, Philo and Josephus, whose interlocutors were their fellow countrymen in Alexandria and Jerusalem respectively, the rest wrote mainly for the Roman social elites and, more specifically, for their most influential representatives, the members of the Senate, to which they all belonged, except Suetonius, otherwise closely linked to the circle of a conspicuous senator of the Trajanic period, Pliny the Younger. In the case of a clearly anti-senatorial figure like Caligula, this finding is highly significant. The audiences of these writers would not have entirely accepted a representation of Gaius that portrayed him in a positive light. A sentence from Tacitus’ Annals is illuminating in this respect: ‘The deeds of Tiberius and Gaius, as well as those of Claudius and Nero, were falsified out of fear while they were alive; and written, after their death, with hatred still fresh’.

But at the same time, regardless of the true intentions of their authors, these sources are an invaluable source of evidence for understanding the emperor’s views. Views, as we shall see, marked by the aspiration to move away from the elaborate, but also mistaken, political construction devised by Augustus—an autocracy disguised in republican garb in favour of open monarchical domination. All the emperors who tried to advance in the logical deployment of the powers implicit in the Principate were stigmatised, as opposed to those who prudently maintained the fiction of separation, however illusory, of powers between the prince and the Senate. Thus was born the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emperors, which, overcoming the barriers of antiquity, still continues to influence our own judgement.

Caligula undoubtedly occupies a prominent place in the second group, not so much for his governmental action as for his manifest hostility towards the senatorial collective, which took revenge, after his death, by heaping rubbish on his memory and denying him the essential element that distinguishes the human being: reason. Caligula was treated as a madman for persecuting the aristocracy. But his successor, Claudius, who tried to respect the aristocracy, was considered an imbecile.

Nevertheless, and as a predictable reaction, since the beginning of the 20th century historical research, aware of the partiality of the documentary sources, has tried to correct this negative image. A long article by H. Willrich, published in 1903, first drew attention to the positive aspects of Caligula’s work and his motivations, over and above the simplistic label of madness. Subsequent studies have taken up this point of view, with new or more substantiated arguments, to become, on occasions, veritable apologies, as far removed from the historical truth as the very sources they seek to correct. Thus, it is not surprising that there is also no shortage of works which, while accepting Gaius’ madness without further ado attempt to explain it using psychoanalysis or clinical points of view, thereby indirectly recognising the reliability of the ancient sources.

These sources are certainly full of inconsistencies and difficulties in their correct interpretation, but it is also true that it is not possible to do without them as a guiding thread. It is the task of the historian to winnow out the fictional elements they contain, to separate them from the consistent data with which a plausible picture can be reconstructed. Plausible, but not authentic. And that is precisely the greatness and the misery of the historian.


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Editor’s note: Emphasis is mine. It perfectly portrays what I meant in the last paragraph of my previous post on Caligula.

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