Suetonius said that Caligula, even in his nineteenth year, could not control his inherent cruelty and viciousness.
Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus)
Throughout the centuries the name of Caligula has been synonymous with madness and infamy, sadism and perversion. It has been said that Marshal Gilles de Rais, perhaps the most notorious sadist of all time, modelled his behaviour. on that of the evil Caesars described by Suetonius, among whom is numbered Caligula. Of recent years, however, Caligula has acquired his apologists, e.g. Willrich; so also, with more reason, has the Emperor Tiberius, whose reputation has been largely rehabilitated by modern scholarship.
Our knowledge of the life of Caligula depends largely on Suetonius, whose work De vita Caesarum was not published, until some eighty years after the death of Caligula in A.D. 41. Unfortunately that part of Tacitus’s Annals which treated of the reign of Caligula has been lost. Other ancient sources are Dio Cassius, whose History of Rome was written in the early third century and, to a lesser extent, Josephus, whose Anhtitates Judaicac was published in A.D. 93, and Philo Jadaeus, whose pamphlet Legatio ad-Gaium and In Flaccum may be considered as contemporary writings. It seems probable that all these ancient sour¢es are to some extent prejudiced and highly coloured. Suetonius’s Gaius Caligula in De vita Caesarum is full of scabrous and sometimes entertaining stories, on some of which little reliability can be plated.
Nevertheless, the outlines of Caligula’s life-history are not in doubt, and a useful summary is given by Balsdon in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Caligula was born in Antium on 31 August A.D. 12, the son of that popular prince, Germanicus Julius Caesar and of Agrippina. From the age of two to four years he was with the army on the Rhine frontier with his parents, and it is said that here he received his name ‘Caligula’ from the soldiers because of the miniature military boots that he wore. In A.D. 18-19 he accompanied his parents to the East. There Germanicus died in Antioch in A.D. 19 in rather mysterious circumstances, and Caligula returned to Rome with his mother. After her arrest and banishment to Pandateria by Tiberius, he lived with Livilla and Antonia, his grandmother, until A.D. 32, when Tiberius sent for him to join the imperial household on Capreae.
Caligula had been pontifex in AD 31 and was quaestor two years later, but had held no other official position. Nevertheless, after the death of his brother Drusus in AD 33 he was declared co-heir to Tiberius along with Tiberius Gemellus, his nephew. On the death of Tiberius, Caligula was strongly supported by Macro, prefect of the Praetorians, and acclaimed sole Emperor on 16 March AD 37.
At first he sproke disrespectfully of Tiberius and paid honor to the shades of his dead parents and brothers. He appears to have ruled admirably, possibly under Antonia’s influence. Antonia, however, died on 01 May 37 AD.
In October of the same year Caligula became seriously ill. Philo thought that his mind was unhinged as a result. After his recovery, he caused both Macro and Tiberius Gemellus to be put to death. He then quarrelled with the Senate, became entirely autocratic and changed his attitude to the memory of Tiberius, blaming the Senate for many of the faults attributed to the late Emperor. In the winter of AD 39-40 he went to Gaul and the Rhine, and possibly intended to invade either Germany or Britain. To this period belongs the story of Caligula ordering his troops to collect shells on the seashore. Certainly no large military operations were, in the end, undertaken.
Suetonius reports that “He was so passionately devoted to the green faction [in the Circus races] that he constantly dined and spent the night in their stables, and in one of his revels with them he gave the driver Eutychus two million sesterces in gifts. He used to send his soldiers on the day before the games and order silence in the neighborhood, to prevent the horse Incitatus from being disturbed. Besides a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones, he even gave this horse a house, a troop of slaves and furniture, for the more elegant entertainment of the guests invited in his name; and it is also said that he planned to make him consul.”
One of the foundational principles of transparent government is that the rules need to be prescribed in advance. William Blackstone, in describing this principle, wrote that it is important the government not only prescribe, but promulgate the laws in the most perspicuous manner available, “not like [Emperor] Caligula, who . . . wrote his laws in very small character, and hung them up upon high pillars, the more effectually to ensnare the people” (according to Dio Cassius).
At about this time he forestalled a conspiracy on his life, led by Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, (not to be confused with Publius Cornelius Lentulus) who was thereafter executed in early October in 39 AD. After his return to Rome he went in fear of assassination, governed with extreme cruelty and accepted extravagant honours approaching deification. He was responsible for great unrest among the Jews by a proposal to set up his image in the Temple of Jerusalem.
Suetonius reports that “His approaching murder was foretold by many prodigies. The statue of Jupiter at Olympia, which he had ordered to be taken to pieces and moved to Rome, suddenly uttered such a peal of laughter that the scaffoldings collapsed and the workmen took to their heels; and at once a man called Cassius turned up, who declared that he had been bidden in a dream to sacrifice a bull to Jupiter. The Capitol at Capua was struck by lightning on the Ides of March, and also the room of the doorkeeper of the Palace at Rome. Some inferred from the latter omen that danger was threatened to the owner at the hands of his guards; and from the former, the murder of a second distinguished personage, such as had taken place long before on that same day. The soothsayer Sulla, too, when Gaius consulted him about his horoscope, declared that inevitable death was close at hand.”
He was murdered in his palace on 24 January AD 41, along with his fourth wife Caesonia and his infant daughter and was succeeded by his uncle Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus. Suetonius reports that “As he lay upon the ground and with writhing limbs called out that he still lived, the others dispatched him with thirty wounds; for the general signal was ” Strike again.” Some even thrust their swords through his privates….. With him died his wife Caesonia, stabbed with a sword by a centurion, while his daughter’s brains were dashed out against a wall.”
Sorting Truth from Fiction
Of the accuracy of the above summary there can be little doubt. Suetonius has said that Caligula, even in his nineteenth year, could not control his inherent cruelty and viciousness, was an eager witness of torture and execution and revelled in singing, dancing, gluttony and lechery. If the modern assessment of Tiberius’s life on Capreae made, for example, by Maranon (1956) is accepted, however, it difficult to reconcile this with Seutonius’s description of the young Caligula on Capreae.
Among the allegations made by Suetonius is that after the death of Tiberius, Caligula lived in habitual incest with all his sisters, especially with Drusilla, with whom he contracted some form of ‘marriage’. It appears certain that he was greatly grieved when Drusilla died and caused her to be consecrated. Many modern authorities discount this story of incest. Suetonius also alleges that Caligula had homosexual relations in both roles, among others with Mnester, his favourite actor whom he embraced in public, and with Marcus Lepidus and Valerius Catullus. He is also said to have importuned and ravished many women of rank, selecting them at dinners and other social occasions in his palace, and that, when short of money, he opened a house of ill-fame in his palace, where both matrons and free-born youths were exposed for hire.
Suetonius also claims that Caligula used to exhibit his beautiful wife Caesonia in a state of nudity to his friends. He is also said to have affected peculiar dress and sometimes wore women’s clothing, including the garb of Venus, to have invited the Moon to his bed, to have talked to Jupiter Capitolinus and to have set up a temple to his own Godhead.
Among the atrocities listed by Suetonius are the feeding of criminals to the wild beasts when cattle became expensive, the branding of men of rank who were also sometimes caged or sawn asunder. Other cruelties included the protraction of death by intermittent beating with chains or by many small wounds. He is said to have cut out a man’s tongue to silence him before having him thrown to the beasts. He revelled in torture and execution while at table and openly gloried in his power to have anyone decapitated at his nod.
He cast down statues of famous men and deprived Rome’s oldest and noblest families of their ancient devices, e.g. removed the surname of ‘Magnus’ from Gnaeus Pompeius. He denigrated the works of Homer, Virgil and Livy. He even had shaved the heads of men who showed fine growth of hair. There was no one of such low condition or such abject fortune that he did not envy him such advantages as he possessed.
Suetonius described Caligula’s personal appearance as tall and pale with a large body and thin legs. His head was bald but his body hirsute. He was sound neither in body nor mind: as a boy he was troubled with the ‘falling sickness’. In youth he was at times unable to walk, stand up, collect his thoughts and to hold up his head. He was tormented by insomnia, never sleeping more than three hours at a time and experiencing vivid dreams. To this weakness there was added, paradoxically, extreme assurance but excessive timorousness so that he was afraid of thunder or lightning and even of the smoke from the crater of Mount Etna. In his “History of Rome”, Dio Cassius emphasizes Caligula’s essential contrariness, his madness, sadism and his incestuous tendencies. Josephus also presents Caligula in a less monstrous light, but shows him to be unbalanced in his mind by power.
Modern commentators such as T.S. Jerome (Aspects of the Study of Roman History, Chapter 18, New York and London, Putnam – 1923) emphasize the unreliability of the testimony of Suetonius and Dio Cassius on the grounds that their accounts do not completely tally. He also suggests that the evidence of Philo Judaeus and Josephus is suspect because of the profound hatred engendered among the Jewish nation by Caligula’s proposal to erect his statue in the Temple of Jerusalem. Jerome suggests that on his accession Caligula’s conduct was exemplary and that this probably continued for about one year. He agrees that Caligula may have been an epileptic, but states that mania is rare in epileptics. It might be pointed out, however, that while true mania is rare, many epileptics are subject to states of exaltation and excitement not unlike true mania. Jerome suggests that alcoholism may have been partially responsible for Caligula’s behaviour.
M.P. Charlesworth (1933, ‘The Tradition about Caligula’, Camb. hist. J., IV, 105, 1934, ‘Gaius and Claudius’, Chapter 20 in Cambridge Ancient History, Cambridge, vol. x.) also questioned the reliability of Suetonius and Dio Cassius on the grounds of inconsistency with inscriptional evidence and puts more reliance on Josephus. Charlesworth thinks that Caligula’s atrocities possibly occurred only in the last year of his reign, and that they may have been engendered by fear and suspicion. It seems certain, however, that in the year AD 40 Rome experienced a reign of terror – a tyranny requiring men to flatter and be servile and in which the informant flourished. It cannot be doubted either, Charlesworth concedes, that Caligula envied eminence in any sphere of life. Charlesworth concludes that Caligula’s life in the end was possessed by an insane self-exaltation.
J.P.V.D. Balsdon (1934, The Emperor Gaius (Caligula), Oxford) gave a detailed and scholarly analysis of the life of Caligula, but to some extent this might be considered apologist. Balsdon thinks that Tiberius in the late years of his life was paranoid, but by no means the depraved debauchee portrayed by Tacitus and Suetonius. His companions on Capreae were educated Greeks and Chaldeans so that the notorious ‘Spintrians’ seem to vanish under the light of modern scholarship.
Balsdon ably minimizes many of the accusations made against Caligula and thinks that his serious illness may have been a ‘nervous breakdown’. Balsdon points out the important fact that there was no popular hostile feeling against the Emperor until about January AD 41, when new and much resented taxes were levied. He further suggests that Caligula’s belief in his own divinity, his appearances dressed as Venus or Jupiter, the prostration of his subjects, the kissing of feet were the normal practices of Hellenistic monarchy. If this be true, it might be extended to include incest which occurred in the Ptolemaic family in Egypt. As for his interest in bloody spectacles, Balsdon makes the point that here he was at one with the entire Roman people.
Balsdon further suggests that Caligula was profligate only with his personal fortune and not with the State monies. He is described by Balsdon as cultured, well-educated and a literary critic with original views. His personal life displayed only in an exaggerated fashion the weaknesses of his time-prodigality, immorality, hedonism, cruelty and extravagance in all things. His rapid succession of four marriages Balsdon does not consider unusual, nor does he think it established that Caligula was guilty of incest. Nor does Balsdon believe that Caligula was a habitual drunkard, although it is admitted that he may have been epileptic.
It is indeed difficult to understand Caligula’s early popularity unless he were a normal and attractive personality at that time. Although Philo Judaeus believed that Caligula’s illness in AD 37 altered his character radically, Balsdon points out that other authorities are not clear on this point. Josephus dated his change of character to AD 38 or 39; Balsdon goes so far as to consider that there was no clear-cut change and that he may never have been truly mad. He adduces his cruelty to fear following the plot on his life in AD 40. At the death of Caligula the populace were neither downcast nor exultant. In conclusion Balsdon thinks that the accounts of Suetonius and Dio Cassius were probably coloured by more recent political hatreds. He points out also that it is a great pity that Tacitus’s account of Caligula’s reign in the Annals has been lost and feels that it is probable that Tacitus considered him violent and tempestuous rather than mad.
The monograph on Tiberius by Maranon (1956, Tiberius: a Study in Resentment, London) goes far to restore the reputation of that Emperor. Maranon interprets the actions of Tiberius as being motivated by resentment and possibly influenced by his addiction to alcohol. Nevertheless, Maranon does not consider that Tiberius was mad, although he may have been of schizoid personality. It seemed probable that the scandalous stories of Tiberius on Capreae are fabrications and that Caligula probably behaved normally there. Maranon believed that Caligula was undoubtedly mad – a typical epileptic from childhood with fits and deliriums of cruelty and sexual aberration. It is well known that epilepsy tended to occur in the Julian family. Caligula’s grandmother Julia was alleged to be epileptic as was also Agrippina II. Gaius Caesar, eldest son of Agrippa and Julia, was said to be mentally dull and melancholic while Agrippa Posthumus, third son of the same marriage was brutal, violent and depraved.
Albert Camus (7 November 1913 – 4 January 1960) was a French philosopher, author, and journalist. His views contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as absurdism. Camus contrasts individual insanity and collective insanity in his play Caligula. At times, for quite arbitrary reasons, Caligula executes someone from his court. This seems arbitrary and frightenging. Yet, Caligula is contrasted against sane military officers who engage in terrible acts of war where thousands upon thousands of civilians and soldiers are killed. So, who is insane?
Bob Guccione’s (former publisher of Penthouse Magazine) “Caligula” [first released in 1979], based on Gore Vidal’s original script, may very well be the most controversial film in history. Only one movie dares to show the perversion behind Imperial Rome, and that movie is “Caligula,” the epic story of Rome’s mad emperor. All the details of his cruel, bizarre reign are revealed here: his unholy sexual passion for his sister, his marriage to Rome’s most infamous prostitute, his fiendishly inventive means of disposing of those who would oppose him, and more. The combined talents of cinematic giants Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and Shakespearean actress Helen Mirren, along with an acclaimed international cast and a bevy of beautiful Penthouse Pets, make this unique historical drama a masterwork of the screen. Not for the squeamish, not for the prudish, “Caligula” will shock and arouse you as it reveals the deviance and decadence beneath the surface of the grandeur that once was Rome.
Robert Graves (1895-1985) was an English poet, translator, and novelist, one of the leading English men of letters in the twentieth century. He fought in the Great War and won international acclaim in 1929 with the publication of his memoir of the War, Good-bye to All That. After the war, he was granted a classical scholarship at Oxford and subsequently went to Egypt as the first professor of English at the University of Cairo. He is most noted for his series of novels about the Roman emperor Claudius.
Graves’s legendary tale of Claudius, a nobleman in the corrupt and cruel world of ancient Rome during the rule of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, is a truly compelling listening experience. Derek Jacobi defined his career when he starred in the 1976 Masterpiece Theatre miniseries “I, Claudius”. Jacobi is so strong in this role, it seems created especially for him. Jacobi’s compelling voice demands his audience’s undivided attention from start to finish and in doing so delivers an unforgettable performance as Claudius yet again.
The people of Rome do not realize the extent of Caligula’s madness and continue to be enthusiastic about his reign. By the time John Hurt shows up as Caligula, the character has already conspired to murder his father and committed incest with all three of his sisters. His mother and brothers have been arrested but he doesn’t care one bit about them. He is careful to toady up to his Uncle Tiberius, buying him pornography and giving him advice on how to bring down his traitorous henchman, Sejanus. Caligula becomes a monstrous villain who wields absolute power. To him, power is a game. Caligula’s popularity begins to diminish as the people of Rome tire of his strange behavior. Hurt plays Caligula as a troubled man who–very briefly–seems to recognize he is mad.
It seems to be certain that Caligula, during the later years of his reign, showed undoubted mental derangement characterized by self-deification, sadism, perversion, great extravagance, pathological envy, possibly some degree of paranoid change, intractable insomnia and vivid dreams. It is probable that at the time of his accession Caligula’s personality was normal, and it is certain that he suffered a severe illness at the age of twenty-five years. Philo Judaeus believed that thereafter his mind was unhinged. This seems entirely possible and not improbable. If this is accepted, then we may speculate on the nature of this illness. It is suggested that this may have been epidemic encephalitis which is known to produce mental changes not inconsistent with those which have been described in Caligula.