Monday, 15 October 2012

Caligula: Cool, Calm, or Mad, Bad?

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!


  1. Ancient sources I know of sure didn't pull any punches describing Gaius. You'd better hope you could stutter, limp, and twitch your way right out of his sight.

  2. I'm distracted by ther awesomeness that is John Hurt as Caligula.

    I tend towards thinking he was fairly unbalanced, though I do enjoy the argument, and have several colleagues ready to defend both him and Nero (who I read as less mad, but definitely a terrible ruler)

    1. Yes he nailed the role. Also had a wonderful dance scene. Oh hell, I loved the whole thing, I keep updating my copy(vhs, cd, etc.).

  3. Hard to argue that 'Little Boots' wasn't completely out of his mind.The only real question is when he lost it. For the brief period before his famous 'illness' little was written and it might not be too much of a stretch to believe he was somewhat coherent and probably capable of being a decent figurehead. Whatever happened to his brain seems to have brought some pretty strange ideas to the fore. From my own area of study (numismatics) Caligula is interesting but not too unusual.The variety is somewhat limited and displays none of the megalomania you would expect having read the story (or seen the movies). While the use of coinage to advertise the 'Regime' became much more refined later on (a certain A Pius had almost 150 issues in gold and silver alone),Caligula had 1 Aureus 1 Quinarius 1 Denarius 4 Sestertii 1 As and 1 Quadrans devoted solely to himself and a 'slightly' larger series in gold and silver with himself on obverse and either his father Germanicus or grandfather Augustus on reverse. By far the three most interesting coins of Caligula are in the large Ae sestertius and depict,Gaius standing on platform 'haranguing' five soldiers,The 3 sisters Agrippina Drusilla and Julia and one without an obverse bust (standard for sestertii up till Caligula)but with Caligula on reverse sacrificing in front of the Temple of Augustus. While the innovation of the Imperial portrait on the sestertius was something new, the bulk of the rest of his issues are purely dynastic. Large quantities of bronze honored Augustus Germanicus Agrippa his mother Agrippina (Senior) and even his deceased brothers Nero and Drusus. The issues seem to have been somewhat 'modest'. The lone issue to even hint of something 'odd' would be the copper As. The single variety depicts "Vesta seated left holding patera and scepter". On the better examples it is clear that Vesta seems to have a rather high forehead and a 'longish' nose. When you add in the fact that 'her' breasts seem ... not quite right (a bit too high up) you are left with the strong impression that it is Caligula ..... 'in drag'.

  4. Would be nice to have that little dissertation filled with links...

  5. I'm actually surprised they didn't harp on the horse-made-consul issue, though it could have been quite the 8th point: he didn't make his horse a consul, nor he tried.

  6. Amazing blog! I do like reading something like this. An ancient story indeed.

  7. This is interesting. Most of us focus on the troy of sparta's story since it was on the movie and movies are easier to understand than reading, I think!

  8. That is an extremely smart written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and return to learn extra of your useful information. Thank you for the post. I will certainly return.

  9. Thanks a lot for this post! Actually, history of ancient Rome is very interesting and there are a lot of things to discuss