Caligula the Dictator

BBC Magazine ponders the nature of dictators, and inter alia, chats with some Classicists:

[…] Roman Emperor Caligula was one of the earliest autocrats, known for his short temper and erratic behaviour.

“He ordered boats to be rounded up and put in a line across the Bay of Naples, so he could walk across them from one town to another,” says Dr Benet Salway, a senior lecturer in history at University College London (UCL).

He also loved race horses, and was said to have lavished his favourite horse with a house, a troop of slaves, and wine in golden goblets.

Caligula’s erratic behaviour, which also included ordering troops to gather sea shells during a campaign against Britain, led many to question his sanity.

However, Prof Peter Wiseman, a classicist from the University of Exeter, believes that Caligula “knew exactly what he was doing. He simply exploited to the full the possibilities for absolute power and self-indulgence”.

Similarly, Dr Salway believes Caligula’s young age – he was 24 when he assumed power – and lack of experience, may explain his actions.

“It’s easy to see how someone given absolute power, without any preparation, could let it go to his head… it’s a bit like if you made a teenager prime minister, without giving them any previous training.

He may have also been testing the limits of his power, he says. “Every time people pandered to his demands, it probably fuelled him, and made him believe that he was all powerful.”

But not everything that is said about the eccentricities of leaders should be believed. The story that Caligula made his horse a consul – one of the highest official positions in Rome – is thought to be a myth.

“No horse ever became a consul,” says Dr Salway. Historical sources do say that Caligula promised to do this, he adds.

“But it sounds like a joke, borne of frustration with members of the senate, who Caligula had a bad relationship with.” […]

Way back when rogueclassicism was still finding its voice, we dealt with the ‘process’ (sort of) of how the horse story became ‘horse fact’ in the context of Oliver Stone and Alexander ….

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