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:

Caligula’s Bridge

The Express has a piece (for reasons unknown … but  it’s written by Matthew Dennison, whose 12 Caesars is getting reviewed all over the place) about the excesses of assorted emperors. Here’s the incipit:

IN AD 37 the new Roman Emperor Gaius, better known by the nickname Caligula, built a bridge across the sea.

It stretched three miles across the deep blue waters of the Bay of Naples at ancient Rome’s most fashionable seaside resort of Baiae.

But Caligula’s was no ordinary bridge. It was a temporary, floating structure built on wooden pontoons, a costly and impressive feat of engineering. It served a single purpose before being dismantled.

On a day of boiling heat watched by crowds of spectators, Caligula rode across the bridge. His armour glinted in the sunlight, for the 24-year-old emperor had dressed himself in the golden breastplate of the legendary Greek hero Alexander The Great.

On the following day Caligula made the journey in reverse, this time riding in a chariot, followed by soldiers of his personal guard.

It was a pointless piece of showmanship, lost on the majority of the crowd, several of whom fell drunkenly to their deaths in the sea after two days’ partying.

One historian claimed Caligula pulled the stunt to disprove a prophecy that he had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae.

Whatever his motives, this eccentric and expensive prank was typical of his short reign. […]

This is one of those incidents from Caligula’s life which I have long believed has been misunderstood greatly by historians — both ancient and modern — because it is usually put in the context of Caligula’s ‘madness’ and/or ‘massive ego’. Cassius Dio puts this incident in the events of the year 39 (as Barrett notes, p. 211) — connected somehow to the impending German campaign — and describes it thusly (59.17 via Lacus Curtius):

1 Gaius, however, did not care at all for that kind of triumph, as he did not consider it any great achievement to drive a chariot on dry land; on the other hand, he was eager to drive his chariot through the sea, as it were, by bridging the waters between Puteoli and Bauli. (The latter place lies directly across the bay from the city of Puteoli, at a distance of twenty-six stades.) 2 Of the ships for a bridge some were brought together there from other stations, but others were built on the spot, since the number that could be assembled there in a brief space of time was insufficient, even though all the vessels possible were got together — with the result that a very severe famine occurred in Italy, and particularly in Rome. 3 In building the bridge not merely a passageway was constructed, but also resting-places and lodging-room were built along its course, and these had running water suitable for drinking. When all was ready, he put on the breastplate of Alexander (or so he claimed), and over it a purple silk chlamys, adorned with much gold and many precious stones from India; moreover he girt on a sword, too a shield, and donned a garland of oak leaves. 4 Then he offered sacrifice to Neptune and some other gods and to envy (in order, as he put it, that no jealousy should attend him), and entered the bridge from the end at Bauli, taking with him a multitude of armed horsemen and foot-soldiers; and he dashed fiercely into Puteoli as if he were in pursuit of an enemy. 5 There he remained during the following day, as if resting from battle; then, wearing a gold-embroidered tunic, he returned in a chariot over the same bridge, being drawn by race-horses accustomed to win the most victories. A long train of what purported to be spoils followed him, including Darius, a member of the Arsacid family, who was one of the Parthians then living in Rome as hostages. 6 His friends and associates in flowered robes followed in vehicles, and then came the army and the rest of the throng, each man dressed according to his individual taste. Of course, while on such a campaign and after so magnificent a victory he had to deliver a harangue; so he ascended a platform which had likewise been erected on the ships near the centre of the bridge. 7 First he extolled himself as an undertaker of great enterprises, and then he praised the soldiers as men who had undergone great hardships and perils, mentioning in particular this achievement of theirs in crossing through the sea on foot. 8 For this he gave them money, and after that they feasted for the rest of the day and all through the night, he on the bridge, as though on an island, and they on other boats anchored round about.

Suetonius describes it very similarly, and also seems to put it in the context of 39 A.D. (19, again via Lacus Curtius):

1 Besides this, he devised a novel and unheard of kind of pageant; for he bridged the gap between Baiae and the mole at Puteoli, a distance of about thirty-six hundred paces, by bringing together merchant ships from all sides and anchoring them in a double line, afterwards a mound of earth was heaped upon them and fashioned in the manner of the Appian Way. 2 Over this bridge he rode back and forth for two successive days, the first day on a caparisoned horse, himself resplendent in a crown of oak leaves, a buckler, a sword, and a cloak of cloth of gold; on the second, in the dress of a charioteer in a car drawn by a pair of famous horses, carrying before him a boy named Dareus, one of the hostages from Parthia, and attended by the entire praetorian guard and a company of his friends in Gallic chariots. 3 I know that many have supposed that Gaius devised this kind of bridge in rivalry of Xerxes, who excited no little admiration by bridging the much narrower Hellespont; others, that it was to inspire fear in Germany and Britain, on which he had designs, by the fame of some stupendous work. But when I was a boy, I used to hear my grandfather say that the reason for the work, as revealed by the emperor’s confidential courtiers, was that Thrasyllus the astrologer had declared to Tiberius, when he was worried about his successor and inclined towards his natural grandson, that Gaius had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding about over the gulf of Baiae with horses.

Of course, all this will likely be familiar to the sorts of folks who would visit rogueclassicism, but way back when I was doing my first Classics-related degree, lo those decades ago, and was writing my paper about Caligula’s assassination, it struck me that this might very well have been an incident that has ‘shifted’ in our sources in order to augment the ‘madness’ of Caligula. What if, instead of being something which happened prior to the departure for Germany — and the aborted invasion of Britain — it actually was a response to that famous incident. Consider how it is fragmentarily described in Dio (59.25 via Lacus Curtius):

And when he reached the ocean, as if he were going to conduct a campaign in Britain, and had drawn up all the soldiers on the beach, 2 he embarked on a trireme, and then, after putting out a little from the land, sailed back again. Next he took his seat on a lofty platform and gave the soldiers the signal as if for battle, bidding the trumpeters urge them on; then of a sudden he ordered them to gather up the shells. 3 Having secured these spoils (for he needed booty, of course, for his triumphal procession), he became greatly elated, as if he had enslaved the very ocean; and he gave his soldiers many presents. The shells he took back to Rome for the purpose of exhibiting the booty to the people there as well.

… and Suetonius (46 … Lacus Curtius again):

Finally, as if he intended to bring the war to an end, he drew up a line of battle on the shore of the Ocean, arranging his ballistas80 and other artillery; and when no one knew or could imagine what he was going to do, he suddenly bade them gather shells and fill their helmets and the folds of their gowns, calling them “spoils from the Ocean, due to the Capitol and Palatine.” As a monument of his victory he erected a lofty tower, from which lights were to shine at night to guide the course of ships, as from the Pharos.81 Then promising the soldiers a gratuity of a hundred denarii each, as if he had shown unprecedented liberality, he said, “Go your way happy; go your way rich.”

Back when I was writing my paper, the ‘party line’ on this incident was essentially that of JPVD Balsdon, whose 1934 book on Caligula suggested that the soldiers had actually refused to make the crossing (pp 90 ff) and I suspect that is the view that many still hold today. If so, it is not difficult to imagine Caligula going back to Rome and deciding that invading Britain by trireme wasn’t going to happen.  Even if they didn’t actually refuse — there seems to be only one trireme involved here; clearly not enough for an army — Caligula’s little boat ride may have been a literal pre-invasion ‘testing of the waters’ to see how rough the seas were. What if he did take inspiration from Xerxes and actually planned to build a boat bridge across the Channel to march his soldiers across? The bridge at Baiae then becomes a possible military feasibility exercise which may have had merit, especially when we hear of him tarrying for a day ‘on the other side’, given that it would probably take about a day to march across the channel on such a bridge. Of course, bridging the 20+ miles of the Channel would be a bit more involved than the two or three of the the Bay of Naples, but it seems to me it just might be the sort of thing a Caligula might think of doing after all his ‘preparations’ in Germany and environs. Something to consider, anyway …

Kermit as Caligula?

Strange one from the Independent:

It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights – Kermit the Frog is in appearing in a tale of dictatorship, violence and sexual depravity.

Audiences will see the children’s character, along with hero He-Man and clown Ronald McDonald, in a much darker way later this month when new versions take to the stage for English National Opera’s UK premiere of the German composer Detlev Glanert’s opera Caligula. Members of the chorus will wear costumes reminiscent of the famous figures of fun to represent a society living in terror. Other costumes will include those inspired by Miss World-style beauty-pageant contestants, show girls, a doughnut and a turkey. Costume designer Alice Babidge said that while people might associate the characters with “colour and movement and fun, light fluffy things”, there were things that were “sad and different and frightening” about her surreal interpretations.

Based on Albert Camus’ play of the same name, which he wrote as a response to Hitler and Stalin, Glanert’s 2006 opera examines the rise of the modern dictator. Both versions chart the rule of the tyrannical and decadent Roman emperor Caligula, whose life, following the death of his sister and lover, Drusilla, loses meaning. He pursues a destructive path of cruelty, murder and depravity.

The ENO’s production is the latest from the imaginative and acclaimed Australian director Benedict Andrews, who last month directed Hollywood star Cate Blanchett in Sydney Theatre Company’s staging of Big and Small (Gross und Klein) at the Barbican.

The opera’s 40-strong chorus represents Caligula’s people. Andrews said their unusual costumes – which provide a contrast in Act II to the fine suits, fur and diamonds that characterise a wealthy society in the first act – are used “to portray the abused citizens of a totalitarian state”. “They are examples of a populace living in terror, perhaps forced to dress up by Caligula. A senator says, ‘It is all a dream. He will change all of his nightmares into corpses.’ These unusual costumes help form a portrait of this nightmare society… a society whose ruler Caligula has gone insane.”

Andrews, who last year directed the ENO’s powerful production of The Return of Ulysses at the Young Vic, has set Caligula in a football stadium in a nameless, fictional state run by a military dictatorship. “The staging concept comes from studying images of ancient Roman stadiums, and of contemporary sports fields,” he said. “I was struck how these places have been co-opted by the forces of state terror, ie the National Stadium in Chile under Pinochet… The stadium becomes filled with people, sometimes they seem to be real, at other times creatures from Caligula’s imagination.”

Artistic director John Berry said that Andrews, “one of the hottest directors” in theatre, not only had an “amazing visual sense” but was also a wonderful director of performers. He added that Caligula’s score did not put any barriers in front of an audience new to contemporary opera. “It feels very modern but it also has a romantic air to it,” he said. “It’s emotional, it’s atmospheric. It varies from absolutely explosive music that is highly technical to music that is incredibly simple.”

via: Kermit the Frog joins the chorus – in ‘Caligula’ (Independent)

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem iv idus junias

Drusilla (?), sister of Caligula.
Image via Wikipedia

ante diem iv idus junias

  • 17 B.C. — ludi Latini et Graeci honorarii (day 6)
  • 38 A.D. — death of Drusilla, the much-beloved sister of the emperor Gaius (Caligula)
  • 86 A.D.. — ludi Capitolini (day 5)
  • 120 A.D. — martyrdom of Gaetulius and companions at Tivoli
  • 204 A.D. — ludi Latini et Graeci honorarii (day 7)

This Day in Ancient History: kalendas junias

Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 CE). ...
Image via Wikipedia

kalendas junias

  • rites in honour of Carna, a nymph who was somehow associated with the health of bodily organs
  • Saecular Games (day 1) — celebrating Rome’s thousand-year anniversary
  • 388 B.C. — dedication of the Temple of Mars (and associated rites thereafter)
  • 344 B.C. — dedication of the Temple of Juno Moneta (and associated rites thereafter)
  • 259 B.C. — dedication of a Temple of the Tempests near the porta Capena (and associated rites thereafter?)
  • 37 A.D. — the emperor Gaius (Caligula) gives the people a congiarium
  • 67 A.D. — the future emperor Vespasian captures Jotapata
  • 165 A.D. — death of Justin Martyr
  • 193 A.D. — emperor-for-a-little-while Didius Julianus is deposed; Septimius Severus is recognized as emperor at Rome