The BBC posted and interesting piece last week about a documentary on the Emperor Caligula.
The name certainly conjures images, doesn’t it? Oh yes. More so than the full Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.
Caligula definitely has more power, largely due to the stories behind the name.
You might envisage John Hurt in the television drama of Robert Graves’ I Claudius, his mouth bloody after eating the baby which he had put in his sister’s belly, believing himself to be Jove.
Or, perhaps more disturbingly, the image of Malcolm McDowell cavorts into your thoughts amid flashes of naked bodies and the bloody bits and pieces of Caligula’s victims in the infamous, star-clad film originally scripted by Gore Vidal, Caligula.
These are the images that we have of Caligula today. They are built on ancient sources and popular culture that described the reign of this most disturbing of Roman emperors.
|Malcolm McDowell as Caligula|
But is the portrayal of Caligula as an insane, perverted, and brutal maniac-of-an-emperor accurate? Is it fair?
Caligula had an interesting life as a boy. He was with his father, the Roman hero Germanicus, and the army along the northern frontier camps and it is said that this is where he got his nickname. ‘Caligula’ is a diminutive version of the word for military, hobnailed boots called ‘caligae’. He became ‘Little Boots’ because of the smaller pair of caligae he wore.
Maybe Caligula was a cute little boy? Odd to think after all the rumours.
The Emperor Tiberius was responsible, more or less, for killing Caligula’s family and so, ‘Little Boots’ ended up spending time with his great uncle, Tiberius, on Capri. This island is where the Emperor retreated to in his advanced years and it is rumoured that much depravity took place there, and that Caligula learned that behaviour.
|Caligae - hob-nailed boots|
But actually, the first six months of Caligula’s reign as emperor were said to be good and moderate. He fell seriously ill around that time however, and afterward the chroniclers speak of a young man who believed himself divine, and who became the most cruel, extravagant and perverse of tyrants.
I’m not an expert on the reign of Caligula and, in fact, it seems that few people are.
Caligula’s reign as Roman emperor is one of the most poorly documented in Roman history.
Since that is the case, it seems understandable that countless generations would cling to the tales told by Suetonius so many years after Caligula’s death: that he had sex with his sister on a regular basis, that he made his horse a consul and that he forced senators’ wives to have sex.
If you can make it up, it probably fits the historical and popular culture bill when it comes to Caligula.
The other side of the argument says that all of the salacious tales were invented, pure fabrications created by Caligula’s, and the Julio-Claudian’s, enemies.
|Villa Jovis, Capri|
Perhaps. But must not there be some basis in fact?
Certainly, the senatorial and Praetorian conspirators behind the assassination of Caligula (he was the first emperor to be assassinated) needed to justify their actions.
Some believe that Caligula had tried very hard to increase the power of the Emperor and further minimize the Senate. This would make him a lot of enemies – enemies who would write the history of his reign long after his death.
There is real power in writing after the fact – which is why we must approach any source, modern or historical, with a degree of caution.
Even our views of the most famous and popular (even well-documented) figures of history can be flawed. History is written by the victors, or at the least by the survivors. Everyone, especially emperors, had enemies, even if they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ rulers.
|John Hurt in I Claudius|
Popular media, such as film and fiction, can reveal to us certain aspects of historical people but we must take everything with a grain of salt. We have to accept that what we are reading or seeing might be based on subjective sources that had a particular goal in mind.
However, learning how a generation of people viewed a particular person (even though the stories may not be true) can also be useful. Their hatred, love or fear etc. must have come from somewhere!
Was Caligula as mad as they say or as we believe? Perhaps.
His depravity has made some good storytelling over the centuries. I suspect that some of it is true. But, like all good stories, things have been elaborated on for sheer entertainment value, especially when the man himself was safely dead.
I highly recommend Robert Graves’ I Claudius if you have not already read it. It’s a modern classic, as is its television dramatization starring John Hurt and Derek Jacobi.
On the other hand, if you have the stomach and libido for it, the film version of Caligula is a terror-filled, pornographic representation of Caligula that brings all of the most salacious tales of him to life.
We should, however, end with a quote from Suetonius who seems to be one of the main sources of all the tall tales that have been passed down the ages:
“…he (Caligula) could not control his natural cruelty and viciousness, but he was a most eager witness of the tortures and executions of those who suffered punishment, revelling at night in gluttony and adultery, disguised in a wig and a long robe, passionately devoted besides to the theatrical arts of dancing and singing, in which Tiberius very willingly indulged him, in the hope that through these his savage nature might be softened. This last was so clearly evident to the shrewd old man, that he used to say now and then that to allow Gaius to live would prove the ruin of himself and of all men, and that he was rearing a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the world.”
(Caius Suetonius Tranquillus; Lives of the Twelve Caesars)
As I said, history is written by the survivors.
Thank you for reading.