There are few emperors whose name alone invokes as visceral a reaction as that of Caligula. Born Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus on 31st August 12AD, the name Caligula – a cognomen received by the troops under his father’s command from the Latin for “little boot” – has become synonymous with the brutality, torture, and carnal indulgence he revelled in. Whilst the Roman historians who chronicled his reign centuries later have contributed to the modern understanding of a megalomaniac with more concern for his professed divinity and extravagant lifestyle than effectively ruling the Empire, those contemporaneous with his rule provide a notably different perspective. A lack of primary evidence coupled with polarised sources make discerning the man from the legend an onerous task. Determining whether Caligula was truly insane or simply a callous tyrant is largely open to conjecture, but an examination of both the literary and archaeological evidence can help paint an imperial portrait of the most infamous of the Caesars.
The most prominent Roman sources on the life of Caligula are Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars and the Roman History of Cassius Dio, written in the second and third centuries respectively. Both works provide detail on his ascension to Principate and the disastrous decline which would result in his enduring legacy; however, it is important to note that both were written significantly retrospectively after his reign. One of just two extant sources from the time of his rule is Philo’s Legatio ad Gaium (Embassy to Gaius). Philo relates his diplomatic mission to the imperial court in order to plead with Caligula to protect the Jewish people in Alexandria – by then a Roman province – from swelling religious intolerance. His mission would ultimately prove futile. Rather than offer assistance, Caligula instead ordered a monolithic statue of himself to be erected in the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem so that it may be venerated as a god. This incident encapsulates Caligula’s preoccupation with his own divinity and led to modern adaptations of his life (notably Robert Graves’ novel, I, Claudius) supporting the premise that he believed he had “metamorphosed” from a man into a deity. However, Philo, along with both Suetonius and Dio, note that the early years of Caligula’s reign were, by stark contrast, much more promising.
As was conventional amongst the most popular emperors, he spared no expense on lavishing gifts upon his subjects which gained him the favour of the Roman people. In a manner replicating Augustus’ rule, he placed the Senate on an equal par with himself and reinstated legislation, such as the publishing of imperial accounts, that had been expunged by Tiberius. However, he was not afraid to demonstrate his wealth in manners which appealed to the sensibilities of the aristocracy, from elaborate charioteering displays to lavish banquets. This excess, although gaining him the favour of his citizens, eventually led the young emperor into serious trouble. By the third year of his reign, Dio reports that his lavishing great expense on public games, gladiatorial shows and performances had entirely exhausted imperial funds. According to Philo, this change was not merely financial mismanagement on the part of the emperor but symptomatic of a much greater shift in his mental state. Eight months into his rule, a disease was reported to have affected Caligula so grievously that his previously Augustan approach to empire was replaced by chaos. Amongst the most exuberant shows of his prodigality was in “bridging” the Bay of Baiae with his naval fleet which, states Suetonius, was a means of outdoing the bridging of the Hellespont accomplished by the Persian king Xerses some 500 years earlier. This act of hubris seemingly corroborates the notion of a “mad emperor” and one who, like Xerses, believed that his divine status could control even nature.
Beyond the literary sources, there is a resounding lack of material surviving from the time of Caligula’s reign with which to substantiate the textual evidence. Whilst much has simply been lost to time, it may also be the result of an attempt to erase him from the annals of history. Reserved for only the most egregious of emperors, the practice of damnatio memoria – a term first coined in the seventeenth century, meaning “condemnation of memory” – involved the destruction of images and effacing of monuments dedicated to the accused. Caligula’s uncle and successor, Claudius, managed to prevent a complete erasure of his image by having statues safely removed as indicated by the great number of which survive today. However, examples of defaced coinage as well as several imperial statues of Caligula, such as those at the Basilica of Velleia, with their heads replaced to that of Claudius is indicative of public sentiment. Even the nature of his death reveals a great deal about how Caligula was perceived in life.
His debauchery, narcissism and ruthlessness would eventually lead to his assassination at the hands of his own Praetorian Guard, an incident depicted by historian Josephus; where once he had been popular amongst his associates “hatred grew up instead, and it was their conspiracy against him that cost him his life”. Whilst documents from his reign are largely missing, archaeological evidence can help bridge the gap between the literature and the man himself. In 2003, excavations at the Roman Forum unearthed an extension of the Domus Tiberiana – the Palace of Tiberius – at the foot of the Palatine Hill. The discovery indicated that it had at some point been extended to incorporate the Temple of Castor and Pollux in order to serve as a vestibule. The extent to which Caligula believed his own divine status is hard to ascertain from the literary sources alone but this finding suggests an attempt to elevate the imperial residence to the realm of the gods.
The portrayal of Gaius Caligula in the writing of ancient authors has led to a modern interpretation of the mad emperor, an autocratic megalomaniac whose promising imperial reign was quickly ended by a lifestyle of hedonism, indulgence, and cruelty. Although the validity of the history provided by Roman authors cannot be conclusively ascertained, in every narrative Caligula epitomises the tyrannical emperor. Whether he was consumed by an illness which severely affected his cognitive functions and the extent to which his evil deeds actually occurred is still very much debated, but ultimately, Gaius Caligula remains as complex a figure today as he was to the writers that immortalised him.
Written by Tristan Craig
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Owen, Richard. “Find shows Caligula ‘madder than we thought.” The Times, August 13, 2003. Available at: https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/apps/doc/A106568901/AONE?u=ed_itw&sid=AONE&xid=f86e4963.
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