Purported Tomb of Caligula ~ Followup

I’ve been sort of thinking aloud on Twitter and/or Facebook on this one and am thinking this whole Caligula tomb thing needs some sort of followup post. At some point yesterday I tweeted


… although it was somewhat heartening to start seeing headlines like:

… all of which had sensibly paid attention to Mary Beard’s post on the matter. Later in the day, however, I found myself tweeting:


… in response to headlines coming from sources further down the journalistic pantheon:

… and several others which clearly are already indexed in Google. But clearly I — along with plenty of folks (like you!) who know better — wasn’t the only one who was perplexed by the way this story had spun out of control. Tip o’ the pileus to Francesca Tronchin for sending along the coverage from the Italian version of National Geographic. They too, could not understand how the story had gone from ‘statue discovery’ to ‘tomb discovery’ and suggested quite plausibly:

Ma cosa c’è di vero negli articoli circolati fino ad ora? Difficilmente la tomba di Caligola, generata forse dalla fantasia di qualche cronista straniero che ha mal interpretato il termine “tombarolo”, nato quando gli scavatori abusivi violavano usualmente tombe, ma esteso oggi a indicare chi saccheggia ogni sorta di sito archeologico. Di certo c’è solo il salvataggio, dalle mani di uno scavatore clandestino, di una porzione di statua di epoca romana. Mancano invece del tutto immagini e attribuzioni ufficiali della stessa, così come elementi certi sulla sua provenienza.

… for those of you who don’t read Italian, they suggest that some foreign journalist has mistranslated the term ‘tombarolo’, which, once upon a time did apply strictly to folks who dug up ancient tombs and sold things illegally, but now applies to any purveyors of illicit antiquities. This is surely correct.

The same article, however, raises a point which is often brought up in relation to Caligula but which didn’t actually happen. Ecce:

Caligola, odiato per la sua dissolutezza e la feroce crudeltà, non solo venne ucciso da una congiura, ma fu poi sottoposto a quella che i latini chiamavano damnatio memoriae, una vera a propria cancellazione civile e morale. Essa comportava la distruzione di tutto ciò che poteva ricordarlo, rimuovendo la traccia storica di quel che egli aveva fatto, delle sue proprietà, della sua immagine pubblica, delle sue gesta; venivano distrutte le iscrizioni che lo citavano e i monumenti che lo raffiguravano, ed era proibito tramandare in famiglia il suo praenomen.

… that is, they are suggesting that Caligula underwent damnatio memoriae and, as defined by them, involved the complete removal of anything associated with him, his public images, deeds, and inscriptions which pertained to him. It was also supposedly forbidden to transmit his praenomen in his family. Not sure where that latter bit comes from, but this is a somewhat ‘standard’ definition of what damnatio memoriae involved. Interestingly, however, our ancient sources are somewhat clear that it didn’t happen. The account of the aftermath of Caligula’s assassination is somewhat problematical in one of our sources — Cassius Dio — because the relevant section is greatly reconstructed (for lack of a better term) from Byzantine epitomes. From the fifth-century account of John of Antioch, e.g., comes a bit which is usually appended to the end of Dio’s 59th book (translation here via Lacus Curtius):

Now he was spat upon by those who had been accustomed to do him reverence even when he was absent; and he became a sacrificial victim at the hands of those who were wont to speak and write of him as “Jupiter” and “god.” His statues and his images were dragged from their pedestals, for the people in particular remembered the distress they had endured.

This statement seems to be the source of claims that Caligula did undergo damnatio memoriae. But compare a couple of more excerpts: the first from Suetonius at the end of his Life of Caligula (ch. 60 via Lacus Curtius):

One may form an idea of the state of those times by what followed. Not even after the murder was made known was it at once believed that he was dead, but it was suspected that Gaius himself had made up and circulated the report, to find out by that means how men felt towards him. The conspirators too had not agreed on a successor, and the senate was so unanimously in favour of re-establishing the republic that the consuls called the first meeting, not in the senate house, because it had the name Julia, but in the Capitol; while some in expressing their views proposed that the memory of the Caesars be done away with and their temples destroyed. Men further observed and commented on the fact that all the Caesars whose forename was Gaius perished by the sword, beginning with the one who was slain in the times of Cinna.

… and then from the beginning of book 60 of Dio, outlining the events as Claudius took power (section 5 via Lacus Curtius):

He destroyed the poisons which were found in abundance in the residence of Gaius; and the books of Protogenes (who was put to death), together with the papers which Gaius pretended he had burned, he first showed to the senators and then gave them to the very men they most concerned, both those who had written them and those against whom they had been written, to be read by them, after which he burned them up. And yet, when the senate desired to dishonour Gaius, he personally prevented the passage of the measure, but on his own responsibility caused all his predecessor’s images to disappear by night. 6 Hence the name of Gaius does not occur in the list of emperors whom we mention in our oaths and prayers any more than does that of Tiberius; and yet neither one of them suffered disgraced by official decree.

… unless the two passages from Dio (or more correctly Dio and John of Antioch) are taken together with the passage from Suetonius, one really can’t see the big picture of what was going on during this brief revolution. Clearly Gaius was assassinated and shortly thereafter, unspecified folks were dragging his statues down. There was talk of restoring the Republic and all sorts of anti-imperial sentiment being bruited about. When Claudius comes to the purple, he is put in the somewhat difficult position of bringing all sorts of disparate groups together to agree to let him rule. He couldn’t really dishonour his nephew by damnatio memoriae because that was unprecedented in an imperial context and the familial connection probably would have created a situation where his own ‘legitimacy’ to rule was questioned (as if he didn’t have enough baggage in that area). So that’s out as an option. At the same time, he can’t allow the remaining images of Gaius in the city to remain on view and become a rallying point for those ‘Republic-restorers’ and similar groups. So he has those images removed under cover of darkness. We do know that some statues of Gaius survived, of course (pretty much every article on the purported tomb find has one) and we also know that some were worked into images of other emperors (see, e.g., chapter two of Eric Varner’s Mutilation and transformation: damnatio memoriae and Roman imperial portraiture, which is partially available via Google Books; he looks at the evidence in detail and seems to suggest an ‘unofficial’ damnatio memoriae).  We also have plenty of coins bearing the likeness of Caligula (even if the bronze ones were recalled) as well as inscriptions.

Speaking of coins, however, we probably should gloss  — in the interest of ‘full disclosure’ — the other bit of ‘evidence’ which is often mentioned in regards to Caligulan damnatio, namely, that his bronze coins were melted down (Dio 60.22.3):

These were the honours the senate bestowed upon the reigning family; but they hated the memory of Gaius so much that they decreed that all the bronze coinage which had his likeness stamped upon it should be melted down. And yet, though this was done, the bronze was converted to no better user, for Messalina made statues of Mnester, the actor, out of it

Whatever the case, it is clear that there was no official decree of damnatio memoriae successfully levelled against Caligula.

That said, another thought that occurred to me as this story unfolded this week was that the whole ‘Caligula’ thing might be getting big play in assorted European newspapers as the ‘epithet’ seems to be increasingly applied to Silvio Berlusconi in his latest bit of bunga bunga -ery. We’ll see how that plays out …

2 thoughts on “Purported Tomb of Caligula ~ Followup

  1. The CBS piece is a wreck. It poorly quotes Mary Beard’s article (CBS quotes her as saying “According to the book “Suetonius’ Life”…” when she actually said “According to Suetonius’ Life (chap 59)…”). And the image they use (and say that it is “much like the one seen here”) is actually not much like the one seen there. Caligula’s seems to be authentic and marble, while the one they show is bronze and a modern copy (not to mention not of Caligula in the first place). At least Atlantic Wire quoted Beard correctly and used a marble statue (which is tiny but might be of Caligula).

  2. Surely, Berlusconi’s bunga bunga is more reminiscent of Tiberius’antics in his pool at Capri (according to Suetonius) than what Caligula got up to.

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