Mary Beard on Caligula

As folks in the UK know, Mary Beard was recently on the telly doing some Caligula revisionism … see Adrian Murdoch’s roundup of the reviews (Reviews of Mary Beard’s Caligula … he also mentioned a while back that another Caligula doc which he played a role in is now up at Youtube: Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror Now Online). Just prior to its appearance, however, Dr Beard did give us a hint of her mindset:

Our modern idea of tyranny was born 2,000 years ago. It is with the reign of the Caligula – the third Roman emperor, assassinated in 41 AD, before he had reached the age of 30 – that all the components of mad autocracy come together for the first time.

In fact, the ancient Greek word “tyrannos” (from which our term comes) was originally a fairly neutral word for a sole ruler, good or bad.

Of course, there had been some very nasty monarchs and despots before Caligula. But, so far as we know, none of his predecessors had ever ticked all the boxes of a fully fledged tyrant, in the modern sense.

There was his (Imelda Marcos-style) passion for shoes, his megalomania, sadism and sexual perversion (including incest, it was said, with all three of his sisters), to a decidedly odd relationship with his pets. One of his bright ideas was supposed to have been to make his favourite horse a consul – the chief magistrate of Rome.

Roman writers went on and on about his appalling behaviour, and he became so much the touchstone of tyranny for them that one unpopular emperor, half a century later, was nicknamed “the bald Caligula”.

But how many of their lurid stories are true is very hard to know. Did he really force men to watch the execution of their sons, then invite them to a jolly dinner, where they were expected to laugh and joke? Did he actually go into the Temple of the gods Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum and wait for people to turn up and worship him?

It is probably too sceptical to mistrust everything that we are told. Against all expectations, one Cambridge archaeologist thinks he may have found traces of the vast bridge that Caligula was supposed to have built between his own palace and the Temple of Jupiter – so it was easier for him to go and have a chat with the god, when he wanted.

So the idea that Caligula was a nice young man who has simply had a very bad press doesn’t sound very plausible.

All the same, the evidence for Caligula’s monstrosity isn’t quite as clear-cut as it looks at first sight. There are a few eyewitness accounts of parts of his reign, and none of them mention any of the worst stories.

There is no mention in these, for example, of any incest with his sisters. And one extraordinary description by Philo, a high-ranking Jewish ambassador, of an audience with Caligula makes him sound a rather menacing jokester, but nothing worse.

He banters with the Jews about their refusal to eat pork (while confessing that he himself doesn’t like eating lamb), but the imperial mind is not really on the Jewish delegation at all – he’s actually busy planning a lavish makeover for one of his palatial residences, and is in the process of choosing new paintings and some expensive window glass.

But even the more extravagant later accounts – for example the gossipy biography of Caligula by Suetonius, written about 80 years after his death – are not quite as extravagant as they seem.

If you read them carefully, time and again, you discover that they aren’t reporting what Caligula actually did, but what people said he did, or said he planned to do.

It was only hearsay that the emperor’s granny had once found him in bed with his favourite sister. And no Roman writer, so far as we know, ever said that he made his horse a consul. All they said was that people said that he planned to make his horse a consul.

The most likely explanation is that the whole horse/consul story goes back to one of those bantering jokes. My own best guess would be that the exasperated emperor one day taunted the aristocracy by saying something along the lines of: “You guys are all so hopeless that I might as well make my horse a consul!”

And from some such quip, that particular story of the emperor’s madness was born.

The truth is that, as the centuries have gone by, Caligula has become, in the popular imagination, nastier and nastier. It is probably more us than the ancient Romans who have invested in this particular version of despotic tyranny.

In the BBC’s 1976 series of I Claudius, Caligula (played by John Hurt) memorably appeared with a horrible bloody face – after eating a foetus, so we were led to believe, torn from his sister’s belly.

This scene was entirely an invention of the 1970s scriptwriter. But it wrote Hurt into the history of Caligula.

The vision even spread to comics. Chief Judge Cal in Judge Dredd was based on Hurt’s version of the emperor – and appropriately enough Cal really did make his pet goldfish Deputy Chief Judge.

But if the modern world has partly invented Caligula, so it also has lessons to learn from him and from the regime change that brought him down.

Caligula was assassinated in a bloody coup after just four years on the throne. And his assassination partly explains his awful reputation. The propaganda machine of his successors was keen to blacken his name partly to justify his removal – hence all those terrible stories.

More topical though is the question of what, or who, came next. Caligula was assassinated in the name of freedom. And for a few hours the ancient Romans do seem to have flirted with overthrowing one-man rule entirely, and reinstating democracy.

But then the palace guard found Caligula’s uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain and hailed him emperor instead. Thanks to Robert Graves, Claudius has had a good press, as a rather sympathetic, slightly bumbling, bookish ruler.

But the ancient writers tell a different story – of an autocrat who was just as bad as the man he had replaced. The Romans thought they were getting freedom, but got more of the same.

Considering what happened then, it’s hard not to think of the excitements and disappointments of the Arab Spring.

That said, long-time readers of rogueclassicism will know we’ve dealt with some of these questions ourselves in the past:

Mary Beard at Town Hall

From the New York Review of Books:

On February 5, The New York Review celebrated its 50th anniversary at Town Hall in New York City. In this recording from the event, Mary Beard discusses the Review’s coverage of the classics from its first issue through to the present day, and the “inextricable embeddedness of the classical tradition within Western culture.”

The audio is here:

Mary Beard Talks About Roman New Year and Religion

Nice little video on the BBC:

… and Dr Beard, OBE reflects on the production:

[question in passing: does the UK have a semi-religious ‘Thought for the Day’ programme on TV early in the a.m.? Such used to be the case in Calgary when I was a wee lad … it was always the thing you were waiting to end (it was only 15 minutes long or so) so the cartoons could start]

Pompeii’s Pyroclastics Phollow-up

T’other day we had a couple of postings mentioning the final hours of Pompeii, both of which used the dreaded “lava” word in their various descriptions (which commenter Walter Muzzy pointed out: Blogosphere ~ Top 5 Representations of Pompeii (from Pop Classics) and Reconstructing the classics: from Pompeii to Athens. (Mary Beard)). It apparently also got the ‘ire’ of Dana Hunter over at Scientific American going enough to write Mary Beard:

[…] So how could Cambridge Professor Mary Beard, who had actually written books about Pompeii, get that important geological detail so very wrong? I figured I’d better ask. We had a brief conversation on Twitter, which brought to light the fact that she uses the word “lava” as a way of saying she’s not a volcanologist, and her book isn’t about the eruption but about life in Pompeii (not just the last few minutes of it). Fair enough. I asked her if she could at least use ash instead, to spare the feelings of geologists everywhere, and we ended up deciding that the Italian word “fango,” which means “mud,” must be popularized. It wasn’t mud that destroyed Pompeii, but the pyroclastic flow deposits did get reworked into lahars by water after deposition, so I’ll take it.** I’m glad Professor Beard wrote this article, and I’m even glad she made geologists the world over grind their teeth, because it’s a thought-provoking look at how we react to the people of Pompeii. It also points out that the city we see today is a lot more put together than Vesuvius left it. And her intentional use of the word “lava” makes us look harder at what really happened to Pompeii. I think a lot of us see the restored ruins and think of ash raining down, almost gently. Sure, it suffocated people and buried them, but it also lovingly preserved the buildings. Look! Even crockery is intact!

… the article goes on to give a very nice discussion of the various phases of destruction at Pompeii.

Plebs

In case you’re wondering what Mary Beard has been up to lately …. from the Independent:

The much-loved classicist Mary Beard continues to conquer the airwaves, this time as an advisor on Plebs, a new sitcom set in Ancient Rome.

“She’s given us a few pointers,” says Tom Basden, co-writer of the show, with Sam Leifer. “She’s interested in the normal, powerless city folk of Ancient Rome, the graffiti on toilet walls, that kind of thing.”

The six-part series, which will air on ITV2 in the Spring, follows the lives of three 20-something men who move to the big city to make their fortune and meet girls. Think The Inbetweeners in togas.

“The idea was to make the historical setting by-the-by and root it in modern concerns. We wanted to stay away from the clichés of camp silliness or austere classical actors,” says Basden, whose credits include Fresh Meat, Party on Radio 4 and There Is a War at the National Theatre. “Tonally, it’s much more Seinfeld than Up Pompeii.”

Tom Rosenthal (Friday Night Dinner) and Doon MacKichan star. As for the title, any echoes of a certain political scandal are purely fortuitous.

“We had the title for ages and we thought it was good but the Conservatives have done us a great favour in ensuring that every last man on the street now knows what it means,” says Basden.

… wonder if it’ll make it to this side of the pond …

Bloody Peasant! Oh What a Giveaway!

OK … so we erstwhile colonists are sitting here enjoying our lattes and watching the strangest bit of class(ical) name-calling going on in the motherland. It seems that one Andrew Mitchell MP took umbrage at a policeman and referred to him as a ‘pleb’! Here’s a timeline of how what is being branded a ‘scandal’ unfolded:

More interesting from our point of view is that all the newspapers feel a need to explain what a plebeian is and there is much handwringing over whether it’s a bad word or not. Mary Beard has written a couple of items:

Edith Hall also pondered the question:

Possibly connected is a column by Harry Mount:

… and so the BBC decided to interview Edith Hall and Harry Mount on the subject:

… and of course, in all this I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of my favourite scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

‘New’ Fragment of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti Found

Right now my Twitterfeed is overflowing with excitement over the apparent discovery of a fragment of the Res Gestae in Sardis. Mary Beard actually broke the story at her blog an hour or so ago … here’s an excerpt:

Well a new article by Peter Thonemann in Historia 2012 puts the kibosh on that. Because he has realised that a tiny and otherwise insignificant fragment of Greek text published in 1932 in a volume of the inscriptions of the town of Sardis (Buckler and Robinson, 1932) was actually (as Buckler in an unpublished letter had already suspected) a small fragment of the Res Gestae. And Sardis is not in the province of Galatia, but in the province of Asia.

… you’ll want  to read her whole article for what is being kiboshed and the Galatian reference:

That said, the Historia article is — as always — inaccessible to us poor peons whose coporeal forms do not penetrate the ivory walls of academe, but the standard collection of inscriptions from Sardis is available at the Web Archive … I’ve paged through it and can’t really find anything that looks res-gestae-ish, so perhaps it is in a supplement. Whatever the case, it would be interesting if some computer program could be written which compared the various collections of inscriptions found everywhere in the Greco-Roman world. I bet more fragments of the RG would show up (as well as multiple copies of other documents, I suspect).