This month, the History Channel's web site carried an article entitled "7 Things You May Not Know About Caligula".Clearly, they couldn't decide on their intended readership, with items veering from Number 1, "Caligula wasn't his real name", to Number 4, "He may not have built his famous floating bridge, but he did launch pleasure barges in Lake Nemi" -- if you don't know his name [it was Gaius], you're probably not likely to be familiar with his "famous floating bridge"!
Gaius the Glorious Leader?
However, as a grumpy old emperor with an interest in Britannia, it was Number 5 that caught my attention: "He set in motion the conquest of Britain". Really?
The items continues:
Caligula is often remembered as a selfish and capricious ruler whose ineptitude weakened the Roman empire during his four-year reign. But if his leadership skills were so abysmal, some scholars have argued, how did he wind up annexing new provinces, expanding westward and formulating a feasible plan to take over Britain? Although Caligula got no further than the English Channel and was murdered soon after, his preparations for the invasion would allow Claudius to begin Rome’s successful conquest of Britain in 43 A.D.Annexing new provinces?! Expanding westward?! (Did he have secret designs on America?) And formulating a feasible plan to take over Britain?!
Annexing New Provinces?
I'm sorry, History Channel, but Caligula is not known to have annexed new provinces. The historian Cassius Dio records that "Gaius sent for Ptolemy [the King of Mauretania], son of Juba, and learning that he was rich, had him put to death and ..." (59.25.1). Sadly, the text breaks off there, but it's clear that the opportunistic Caligula bumped off the unsuspecting king in order to acquire his kingdom. Not really the best example of a rational emperor exercising his leadership skills by "annexing new provinces".
Okay, so the History Channel may be technically correct that mad, bad Caligula did extend the Roman empire (westwards?!), but it certainly doesn't upset our notion of a selfish and capricious ruler, better known for his ineptitude than for any supposed leadership skills.
Planning to Conquer Britain?
Worse still, ancient historians are pretty much agreed that Caligula's "abortive invasion of Britain" was an unmitigated disaster, which -- if it really aimed at conquest -- was badly planned in the extreme, but which -- most likely -- was actually an absurd attack on the god Neptune!
Ever since J.P.V.D. Balsdon's book on The Emperor Gaius (Caligula) (1934), scholarly opinion has swung between the two opposites: was Caligula simply misunderstood and maligned by his biographer -- as the History Channel web site would like us to think --, or was he simply mad, bad, and dangerous to know?
Again, I'm sorry, History Channel: I'm firmly in the second camp!