Rome’s Most Infamous Emperor: Was Caligula Mad or Bad?

Today, pundits and psychiatrists furiously debate the definition of ‘madness’. Where do narcissism, self-delusion, and an apparent inability to conceive of consequences of actions cross the boundary between childishness and mental derangement? The story of Caligula offers some enlightening insights into the issue, and into the modern political debate.

Painting of a broken statue of Roman Emperor Caligula ( Aaron Rutten / Abode Stock )

Roman Historians: He Was Mad

Third-century historian Cassius Dio was convinced that Caligula was deranged and: “continued to act the madman in every way.” What else could explain his deadly rages and cruel whims? Seneca, who knew and crossed rhetorical swords with Caligula and survived to tell the tale, did write of Caligula’s ‘insane’ acts. Equally, as German scholar Aloys Winterling points out, Seneca also accused Alexander the Great of acting insanely at times, just as he accused Roman women of the ‘insanity’ of wearing too much jewelry. In fact, Seneca was of the opinion that Caligula was merely wicked. “I think nature produced (him) as an example of the effect of supreme wickedness in a supreme position,” Seneca told his mother.

Wicked, many of Caligula’s acts were, but ancient Roman biographer Suetonius was convinced that Caligula suffered from mental illness. More recent scholars have been split on the question of Caligula’s sanity. In the 18th and 19th century, says 20th-century Caligula biographer Anthony Barrett, the prevailing scholarly view was that Caligula was, “a totally deranged madman.” Edward Gibbon typified this view. Gibbon felt that both Caligula and Rome’s 11th emperor, Domitian, were quite mad, and he repeatedly expressed this view in his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , a work that educated and influenced Britons and Americans for well over a century. By the 1930s, the pendulum had swung the other way, with the likes of J.P.V.D. Balsdon and Chester Starr offering reasoned, rational explanations for some of Caligula’s seemingly irrational acts.

Marble portrait bust of the emperor Gaius, known as Caligula. Metropolitan Museum of Art. ( Public Domain)

Modern Critics: He Was Not Mad

In 2003, Aloys Winterling went as far as criticizing other historians for, “inventing the mad emperor.” Winterling felt that Caligula was bad, not mad, and made the point that Tacitus wrote, at the commencement of his Annals, that historians of his day deliberately and maliciously distorted their accounts of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero .

Rome’s Most Infamous Emperor: Was Caligula Mad or Bad? - History

Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody — Caligula

TOPICS: Education History
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and thus we have Emperor Joe.

That is the way they think.

I come from a line of Jacobite Scots and ex-Brits who participated in the “Fuck You Mad King George” Rebellion.

Guy Clark

Hmm. we may be headed for some of the same before too long.

And Malcolm McDowell knew d**n well what the film “Caligula” was all about and enjoyed it. He’s lying to protect his “reputation”.

Well it’s been a while and sources can be flaky at times in this Age of the Great Media Freak-Out, but the version I’ve seen is that Little Boots was wildly popular with the common folk.

His alleged craziness involved the elites of the patrician class - guess what you’d call Rome’s version of Rodeo Drive.

“At some games, he ordered an entire section of the audience to be thrown to the wild beasts because there were no more prisoners to be used and he was bored”

I hope at least he picked those sections that were doing ‘the wave’.

But seriously, if that’s true, one would think the word would get around, and that would put a serious dent in attendance at the games.

As America sinks deeper into decadence, such vile monsters as Caligula, Nero, and Tiberius appear more and more reasonable to those sick with decay. We can expect them to proclaim contemporary vile monsters as heroes.

However those of us capable of resisting the decadence and remaining true to truth see all this monstrosity for exactly what it is. We remain aware of the hideousness of these monsters and the monstrous decadence that empowered them, and we see it all in the monstrous decadence of the 21st century and its adherents.

It's worth reading the article about the Emperor Elagabalus at the same site:

Elagabalus, a transsexual monster, was ridiculed and vilified during the 19 centuries after his reign but resurrected as some sort of hero by those wallowing in the 21st-century decadence of Western Civilisation. The final remark of the article: "Today, Elagabalus is one of the historical icons of the LGBTQ movement."

If present trends continue, expect Caligula, Nero, and Tiberius to be resurrected as some kind of heroes to those sick with decadence.

Then what? Hitler? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot?

There's nothing new about monsters or decadence. Only the stupid think there is.

Personally I liked John Hurt in I CLAUDIUS from 40 years ago on PBS. Go tit on DVD.

I also read the books by Robert Graves.

I tried to set through the X rated version of that film. It was so bad I fast forwarded through the last of it.

I will take I, CLAUDIUS any time over CALIGULA.

Lol. Sorry Sans-Culotte. I work for a person now that fits the Peter Principle to a T. But I’m not worried about him forcing me to commit

Yup. A two-bit Mussolini for sure.

You are absolutely correct. He had a good first year. But then he got sick supposedly and the crazy came out. You can only take some of the stories with a grain of salt. Supposedly two Senators visited his bedside and said they would give their own lives to have him back. He miraculously recovered. And then had them commit suicide. He told them the Gods would be offended if they didn’t keep their word. They committed suicide. They tried to truly “cancel” him and remove any and all references to his name and banned any Roman citizen from naming their child Caligula. But he must have been so bad it didn’t matter. Truly infamous.

Elagabalus . Good example. Are you familiar with Hadrian’s tranny lover from Bithinia? While Hadrian is considered one of the better Emperors he was a little to Greek for the Roman sensibilities.

Keep in mind he was a grandson of Mark Antony and probably shared the hatred of the Julians for the patricians and senate.

The senate was slowly strangling the republic with their greedy ways - they owned and farmed most land in Italy with slaves, making it near impossible for plebs to farm, forcing them to rely on the bread and circuses lifestyle of the common Romans.

Caligula’s fondness for yoking patrician elites and senators was one of his redeeming qualities - in my book at least.

A bold defense of Caligula. However, Caligula was a Julio-Claudian himself, son of Germanicus and Aggripina the Elder. Neither have any relation to Marc Antony. Not sure if that is typo.

Totally agree with the 2nd paragraph in your comment. But after he fell ill he was literally insane. And by most’s estimation the worst Roman Emperor of the entire Empire. Though I think there are some other contenders.

I’m not sure what “yoking” means but the needless arbitrary blood and death and sleeping with Senator’s wives at dinners, is not a redeeming quality - in my book.

“Octavia the Younger (Latin: Octavia Minor 69/66–11 BC) was the elder sister of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus (known also as Octavian), the half-sister of Octavia the Elder, and the fourth wife of Mark Antony. She was also the great-grandmother of the Emperor Caligula and Empress Agrippina the Younger, maternal grandmother of the Emperor Claudius, and paternal great-grandmother and maternal great-great-grandmother of the Emperor Nero.”

great omitted for brevity sake

Julius was the “Bald Lecher”
Augustus regularly deflowered virgins for sport.
Tiberius’ villa at Capri was debauchery central.
Mark Anthony - married to Octavia while consort of Cleopatra.

Sulla’s butcheries make Caligula seem tame by comparison.

The history of Caligula was written by those who worshipped Brutus, Cato, Cicero, Cassius, Pompey et al.

In Roman times surrendered soldiers were marched “under the yoke” before being paroled.

It was considered a disgrace worse than death.

Something moderns will never understand.

Thanks for the info. I stand corrected. Keeping up with these family trees is insane. Thanks for the clarification. I actually think Sulla was bloody but it was because of Marius’ ego. And he, like Cincinattus, went home to farm after he cleaned up the mess Marius made. You could call George Washington bloody too, but it was for a good reason. While Caligula on the other hand was an insane murderer, considering the life he lived it is no wonder. Glad I found you Hank, I’ve never met anyone who put up a staunch defense of Caligula. I don’t know how to do ping lists yet. But I prefer to be contradicted on my views. The only way you learn. And you got the juevos to buck 2000 years of consensus. Nice to meet you. I intend on posting about Cincinattus this today, time permitting.

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Viewpoint: Does Caligula deserve his bad reputation?

The Roman emperor Caligula's name has become a byword for depraved tyranny, used as a popular benchmark for everyone from Idi Amin to Jean-Bedel Bokassa. But was Caligula really mad and bad, or the victim of a smear campaign, asks historian Mary Beard.

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.

Caligula with Mary Beard is broadcast at 21:00 BST on 29 July 2013 on BBC Two

Caligula was a massive spender

In just one year, Caligula squandered the enormous personal wealth (2.7 billion sesterces) left by his uncle Tiberius. Years later, Emperor Nero would envy Caligula’s spending prowess.

To get a better grasp of the size of the inherited wealth, we should think of the costs of goods at the time of Caligula. For example, a loaf of bread cost one sesterce, a cow eight hundred sesterces, a male slave 2,000 sesterces, and a farm cost 100,000 sesterces.

Oracle prophesied Caligula had no more chance of being emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae. Just because he could, Caligula ordered a two miles long pontoon bridge to be built across the Bay of Naples near the town of Baiae.

As a result, the citizens of Rome suffered from famine because Caligula used grain boats for his bridge.

Caligula spent lavishly on two enormous ships that were built for him on Lake Nemi, Italy. Ships were a technological marvel of the time. Also, they were the largest ships in the ancient world ever built. They were decorated with marble statues and trees. They even had plumbing, heating, and baths. We could say Caligula owned two luxurious yachts.

Caligula Against The Senators

Statue of a youth on horseback (probably Caligula), early 1st century CE, The British Museum, London

Six months into his reign, Emperor Caligula fell seriously ill. It is unclear what exactly happened. Was the young emperor poisoned like his father, did he have a mental breakdown, or did he suffer from epilepsy? Whatever the cause, Caligula became a different man after his recovery. The rest of Caligula’s reign was marked by paranoia and unrest. His first victim was Gemellus, Tiberius’ son, and Caligula’s adoptive heir. It is possible that while the emperor was incapacitated, Gemellus plotted to remove Caligula. Aware of the fate of his ancestor and namesake, Julius Caesar, the emperor reintroduced purges and targeted the Roman Senate . Around thirty senators lost their lives: they were either executed or forced to commit suicide. Although this kind of violence was perceived as a young man’s tyranny by the elites, it was, in essence, a bloody struggle for political supremacy. In taking direct control of the Empire, Caligula set a precedent, which would be followed by his successors.

The infamous story of Incitatus , the emperor’s favorite horse, illustrates the context of this conflict. Suetonius, the source of most gossip about Caligula’s depravity and brutality, said that the emperor had such a fondness for his beloved stallion that he gave Incitatus his own house, complete with a marble stall and an ivory manger. But the story does not stop here. Caligula broke all the social norms, proclaiming his horse a consul . Bestowing one of the highest public offices in the Empire upon an animal is a clear sign of an unstable mind, isn’t it? Caligula loathed the senators, whom he saw as an obstacle to his absolute rule, and a potential threat to his life. The feelings were reciprocal, as the senators equally disliked the headstrong emperor. Thus, the story of Rome’s first equine official could be just another of Caligula’s stunts – a deliberate attempt to humiliate his opponents, a prank intended to show them how meaningless their job was, since an even horse could do it better. Above all else, it was a demonstration of Caligula’s power.

Nero (Reigned from 54 – 68 CE)

Emperor Nero (37 – 68 CE) is another character with a heinous reputation. However, like Caligula, Nero had a slow start to tyranny. Actually, Nero assumed the title of emperor in 54 CE when he was still a teenager and was dependent on the calculated guidance of his mother, Agrippina the Younger. Nero's first five years were a very stable time for Rome. Scullard writes that Agrippina “meant to rule through her son,” so this brief window of cultural prosperity was likely thanks to her.

Events took a turn for a worse after Nero was convinced that his mother was plotting to murder him, and he had her assassinated. This action drastically altered Nero, and he retreated into lavish spending and delusions of grandeur. Like some of his predecessors, Nero also fell into deep paranoia, and executed many of those closest to him without restraint.

All of these twists and turns culminated in the Great Fire of Rome from July 18-19, 64 CE. Most sources believe that Nero started the fire, as he wanted enough space to build his “Golden House,” which included a 30-meter-tall (98-feet-tall) statue of himself. Nero, in turn, accused Christians of starting the fire, resulting in the arrest of many. Although it was unlikely Nero ever played the fiddle while Rome burned, he may as well have.

The Fire of Rome by Hubert Robert, 1785 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain])

Mad -- or Just Angry?

A new book claims that the notorious emperor Caligula got a bad rap. Scott McLemee scrolls through it.

Few people go down in history by their childhood nicknames, which is probably for the best. But such was the destiny of Gaius Caesar Germanicus, the emperor of Rome from 37 to 41 A.D. and the son of a much-loved commander of the Roman forces stationed in Germany. The father dressed young Gaius up in a kid-sized legionnaire&rsquos uniform, to the delight of the troops, who dubbed him Caligula, meaning &ldquoLittle Boots.&rdquo

The moniker stuck, although the last thing anyone remembers about Caligula is the cuteness. A couple of on-screen depictions of his reign are indicative. It was presented as the height of decadence in Caligula (1979), the big-budget, pornographic bio-pic produced and directed by Bob Guccione Jr., with Malcolm McDowell as the emperor, featuring numerous Penthouse Pets-of-the-Month, smouldering in lieu of dialogue. (Also, Helen Mirren, minus toga.) I have promised the editors not to embed any video clips from it in this column. Suffice it to say that the film was terrible, and Gore Vidal, who wrote the script, seems to have disowned it just as soon as the check cleared.

Better by far -- indeed, unforgettable -- was John Hurt&rsquos turn as the mad tyrant in &ldquoI, Claudius,&rdquo the BBC miniseries from 1976. He portrayed Caligula as terrifying and monstrous, yet also strangely pitiful. Power corrupts, and absolute power sounds even more enjoyable. But having every whim met without hesitation does not make the descent into insanity any less agonizing, even for Caligula himself. By the time the emperor is assassinated (at the age of 29, after not quite four years in power), Hurt makes his death seem almost a mercy killing.

The BBC program was adapted from two novels by Robert Graves, who drew in turn from the accounts left by Roman historians -- in particular, The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. (It was also an influence on Guccione&rsquos film, if not quite as much as Deep Throat.) Most of the really lurid charges about Caligula come down to us via Suetonius: the incest, the cross-dressing, the plan to name his favorite horse to an important position, his effort to pay soldiers with sea-shells&hellip.

And, most damaging of all, Seutonius records that Caligula proclaimed himself to be a god. He had altars to himself set up around the empire so that the public could worship him. Other sources confirm this, including the Jewish writers Josephus and Philo. They indicate that Roman officials put up statues of Caligula in synagogues, and that the emperor even tried (unsuccessfully) to plant his idol in the most sacred part of the Temple in Jerusalem.

According to Seutonius, the emperor walked around the palace chatting with the other gods. He would ask people whether they thought he was greater than Jupiter. You didn&rsquot have to be a monotheist to find that sort of thing revolting.

But what if all of these claims about Caligula were wrong, or at least overblown? What if he was, in fact, completely sane -- his awful reputation the product of a smear campaign?

In 2003, Aloys Winterling, a professor of ancient history at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, published a book arguing that the emperor&rsquos strange behavior was, in effect, normal Roman politics carried to extremes. Caligula played hardball with his enemies, giving them every reason to exact posthumous revenge. But the truth could be separated out from the slanders. The volume is now available in English translation as Caligula: A Biography, from the University of California Press.

Winterling&rsquos reassessment of the legend of the mad emperor is hardly as contrarian as it may sound. By the 19th century, classicists had enough fresh material to work with (inscriptions on public buildings, for example, and documents of everyday governance) to feel less dependent on the accounts left by Roman authors. They were learning to take the ancient chronicles with a grain of salt. Suetonius, for example, reports things with all the confidence of an eyewitness, but in fact was writing 80 years after Caligula&rsquos death. Evidently he never heard a rumor about the emperor he didn&rsquot record. That makes his tell-all biographies very entertaining, and even useful in a way, but not exactly reliable.

So there were grounds for reasonable doubt. Revisionist accounts of Caligula have appeared from time to time, suggesting that his reign was not wildly different from that of other emperors. When Winterling published his book in 2003, it coincided with the centennial of the landmark study by Hugo Willrich that first made the case for Caligula as rational politician. (This is unlikely to be a total coincidence, but the translated edition says nothing about it one way or the other.) Winterling even expresses concern that some modern accounts have &ldquogone too far in transforming a ruler depicted as immoral and insane into a good one whose actions were rational.&rdquo

The figure portrayed in Caligula: A Biography was a rational and competent leader, but &ldquogood&rdquo is not a word that comes to mind. He was capable, when pushed, of extreme viciousness, ranging from savage humiliation to torture and execution. Making him angry was never a good idea, but neither was trying to flatter him. The targets of his wrath were almost always his fellow aristocrats &ndash which, according to Winterling&rsquos analysis, is a crucial bit of context to keep in mind.

The core of his argument is that even Caligula&rsquos wildest behavior reflected the instability of the political order, not of his mind. The transition from republic to empire in the decades prior to his reign had generated a rather convoluted system of signals between the Senate (the old center of authority, with well-established traditions) and the emperor (a position that emerged only after civil war).

The problem came from deep uncertainty over how to understand the role that Julius Caeser had started to create for himself, and that Augustus later consolidated. The Romans had abolished their monarchy hundreds of years earlier. So regarding the emperor as a king was a total non-starter. And yet his power was undeniable &ndash even as its limits were undefined.

The precarious arrangement held together through a strange combination of mutual flattery and mutual suspicion, with methods of influence-peddling ranging from strategic marriages to murder. And there was always character assassination via gossip, when use of an actual dagger seemed inconvenient or excessive.

Even those who came to despise Caligula thought that his first few months in power did him credit. He undid some of the sterner measures taken by his predecessor, Tiberius, and gave a speech making clear that he knew he was sharing power with the Senate. So eloquent and wonderful was this speech, the senators decided, it ought to be recited each year.

An expression of good will, then? Of bipartisan cooperation, so to speak?

On the contrary, Winterling interprets the flattering praise for Caligula&rsquos speech as a canny move by the aristocrats in the Senate: &ldquoIt shows they knew power was shared at the emperor&rsquos pleasure and that the arrangement could be rescinded at any time&hellip. Yet they could neither directly express their distrust of the emperor&rsquos declaration that he would share power, nor openly try to force him to keep his word, since either action would imply that his promise was empty.&rdquo By &ldquohonoring&rdquo the speech with an annual recitation, the Senate was giving a subtle indication to Caligula that it knew better than to take him at his word. &ldquoOtherwise,&rdquo says Winterling, &ldquoit would not have been necessary to remind him of his obligation in this way.&rdquo

The political chess match went smoothly enough for a while. One version of what went wrong is, of course, that Caligula became deranged from a severe fever when he fell ill for two months. Another version has it that the madness was a side-effect of the herbal Viagra given to him by his wife.

But Winterling sees the turning point in Caligula&rsquos reign as strictly political, not biomedical. It came when he learned of a plot to overthrow him that involved a number of senators. This was not necessarily paranoia. Winterling quotes a later emperor&rsquos remark that rulers&rsquo &ldquoclaims to have uncovered a conspiracy are not believed until they have been killed.&rdquo

In any event, Caligula responded with a vengeance, which inspired at least two more plots against him (not counting the final one that succeeded) and so things escalated. Most of the evidence of Caligula&rsquos madness can actually be taken, in Winterling's interpretation, as ways he expressed contempt for the principle of shared power -- and, even more, for the senators themselves.

Giving his horse a palace and a staff of servants and announcing that the beast would be made consul, for example, can be understood as a kind of taunt. &ldquoThe households of the senators,&rdquo writes Winterling, &ldquorepresented a central manifestation of their social status&hellip. Achieving the consulship remained the most important goal of an aristocrat&rsquos career.&rdquo To put his horse in the position of a prominent aristocrat, then, was a deliberate insult. It implied that the comparison could also be made in the opposite direction.

So Caligula was crazy &hellip like a fox. Winterling reads even Caligula&rsquos self-apotheosis as a form of vengeance, rather than a symptom of mental illness. Senators had to pretend to believe that he conversed with the gods as an equal. Declaring himself divine gave him ever more humiliating ways to make them grovel -- to rub their noses in the reality of his brute and unchecked power.

It was one-upsmanship on the grandest possible scale. Beyond a certain point, I&rsquom not sure where anger ends and madness begins. But Winterling makes a plausible case that his reputation was worse than his behavior. The memory of their degradation by Caligula gave the aristocracy every reason to embellish his real cruelties with stories that were contrived later. In the period just after the emperor's death, even his worst enemies never accused him of incest that charge came decades afterwards.

So his reign may not have been as surreal as it sounded, but rather a case of realpolitik at its nastiest. Still, it won't be Winterling's portrait that flashes before my mind's eye the next time anyone mentions Caligula. It's a fascinating book, but it can't displace those indelible images of John Hurt in the grip of his delusions, screaming in pain from the voices in his head, and doing terrible things to his sister.

Salvaging the Nemi Ships

There was no shortage of attempts to salvage the Nemi Ships over the centuries. Most, however, did far more harm than good. The first salvage effort came about in the mid-fifteenth century when the Lord of Nemi, Cardinal Prospero Colonna, commissioned the renowned architect Leon Battista (the designer of Rome’s original Trevi Fountain) to devise a way of pulling them up from the lakebed. Battista’s response was to construct an enormous raft, complete with ropes, pulleys, and grappling hooks which divers would attach to the ships’ hulls, and sail it out into the middle of the lake.

His efforts, however, were in vain. Though the hooks managed to get purchase of the ancient ships, they were unable to dislodge them from the lakebed’s muddy grip. They succeeded only in tearing off the ships’ lead water pipes and various fragments of wood from the beaten and bruised vessels. It wasn’t all for nothing though: classical enthusiasts were at least impressed by the quality of the woodwork. Subsequent attempts were more or less to follow this example (and share in its success) until 1895, when Signor Borghi obtained permission from Nemi’s landowner, Prince Orsini, to head up another expedition.

With his team of divers, Borghi brought to the surface numerous bronzeworks that decorated the ships’ hulls. In addition to more lead piping and gilded bronze roof tiles, Borghi managed to salvage a bronze lion’s head (pictured above) one of many remarkable decorative artworks used to hold the ships mighty oars in place. While Borghi’s efforts may have born fruit, it also marked a temporary halt to salvage attempts at Nemi, not least because authorities were becoming increasingly concerned that the Nemi Ships were several expeditions away from completely disintegrating.

Italian locals lining up to view Caligula’s ships in 1932. Rare Historical Photos

They were right in their decision. Over the centuries local fishermen had been picking away at the Nemi Ships, motivated less by archaeological curiosity than by the considerable potential to profit from salvaging (and subsequently selling) ancient artefacts: initially to local landowners, later to wealthy travellers on their grand tours. But despite the momentary abandonment of salvaging projects, those wanting to uncover the hidden wonders of the Nemi Ships wouldn’t have to wait long.

The breakthrough came under Mussolini’s fascist government in the 1920s. “Il Duce” was an ardent supporter of salvaging the Nemi Ships—eager as always to get his hands on anything Roman that would lend prestige to his party. He outlined his plan to drain the lake in a speech in 1927, and in October the following year his project was put into action. The first ship emerged from the depths in March 1929 the second in June 1931. The wood of their vast carcasses was treated, artefacts were taken, and they were housed in the purpose-built Museo delle Navi Romane (Museum of the Roman Ships) on the shore of the lake.

Benito Mussolini at the inauguration of the Nemi Museum. Rare Historical Photos


Caligula, ruler of Rome, had been out of combat for weeks and nothing had happened.

The provinces had been governed as usual, the Senate met and passed decrees, and the praetorian prefects administered justice.

The empire had gone about its business peacefully. The way the imperial system worked meant that Rome didn’t really need a practical ruler.

Caligula wasn’t really necessary and, to someone with his upbringing, “unnecessary” meant “disposable.”

Like a headstrong young man with a survival instinct ingrained in every fiber of his being, Caligula set out to rectify what he saw as an unacceptable situation.

It would become necessary and would make the Senate and the people of Rome dependent on his government.

It turned out to be a failed and fatal strategy, but it was a logical continuation of what Caligula’s life experience had been up to then.

Rethinking Nero: was the Roman emperor really so bad?

For centuries Emperor Nero has occupied a place in history’s hall of infamy, courtesy of tales of Christian burning, wife beating and mother murdering. Yet does he truly deserve his diabolical reputation? Shushma Malik considers the evidence

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Published: December 16, 2020 at 9:00 am

In the late 19th century, the French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote a seven-volume history of Christianity. It was a vast, wide-ranging publication, spanning centuries and continents. Yet one of these volumes was dedicated entirely to the reign of one man: the Roman emperor Nero.

Nero ascended to power in AD 54 following the death of his step-father, Claudius. Fourteen chaotic, blood-spattered years later it was all over, Nero dying – perhaps by his own hand – at the climax of a rebellion against his rule. But this, Renan said, wasn’t the last the world would see of him. Nero would return to Earth again, and his second coming would signal the time of the apocalypse. “The name for Nero has been found,” the philosopher declared. “Nero shall be the Antichrist.

Listen: Roman historian Shushma Malik discusses the infamous crimes of the emperor Nero and considers whether he is deserving of his monstrous reputation

Renan’s assertion was a bold one, but it was hardly original. Historians had been casting Nero as the epitome of evil – stitching a straight line between Rome’s fifth emperor and the end of the world – since the third century. And their lambasting of his reputation has stuck: today, everyone with an interest in ancient history ‘knows’ that Nero was one of the worst of all Rome’s emperors.

But is what everyone ‘knows’ true? Surely, before accepting history’s verdict, we should re-examine the sources, and ask ourselves what motivated the emperor’s many detractors, and how material evidence can help to flesh out the picture. Only then can we answer the question of why Nero’s reputation is so utterly dismal – and indeed if his diabolical image is entirely deserved.

Mutilated by dogs

There are a number of reasons why, for almost 2,000 years, historians have lined up to denigrate Nero. But the most important is surely that his reign saw the first persecution of the Christians.

In AD 64, a fire ripped through Rome, devastating 10 of its 14 districts. After the conflagration, Nero embarked on an ambitious rebuilding programme – one that, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, he tackled with such gusto that many Romans soon suspected that he’d ordered the fire to be started in the first place.

Nero sought to quell these rumours and, to do that, he needed a scapegoat. That, Tacitus tells us, is where the Christians came in. For the crime of starting the fire, Nero punished this already unpopular religious sect by setting up a display in his own gardens at which the condemned were mutilated and killed by dogs. Another punishment saw the victims fixed to crucifixes and set alight to burn as lamps at night.

This truly horrific account understandably grabbed the attention of early Christians. When a noblewoman named Algasia asked Jerome (who translated the Bible into Latin in the early fifth century) to interpret the “man of lawlessness” (the Antichrist figure) in Paul’s 2 Thessalonians, his reply was emphatic: “Nero, the impurest of the Caesars oppresses the world.”

However, the burning of Christians was far from the only event in Nero’s reign to earn him the title Antichrist. The fifth-century historian Sulpicius Severus wrote that the emperor “showed himself in every way most abominable and cruel, and at length even went so far as to be the murderer of his own mother”. Here, Sulpicius borrows from earlier, non-Christian historians to demonstrate the depth of Nero’s iniquity. And those historians gave Christian writers like Sulpicius a lot of material to work with.

Our three main historical accounts for Nero’s life come from Tacitus (writing a generation after Nero’s death), Suetonius (a contemporary of Tacitus), and Cassius Dio (writing a couple of generations later than the other two). All three writers invariably describe Nero as a violent fratricide, matricide and uxoricide (wife-killer). They accuse the emperor of murdering his step-brother Britannicus for fear that he might usurp his position, and of having his mother, Agrippina, put to death because she was too overbearing. He was also responsible for the demise of two of his three wives: the first, Octavia, because he had fallen for a woman called Poppaea the second was Poppaea herself, kicked to death in a fit of rage.

Another of Nero’s ‘crimes’ was to be a lover of all things Greek. While Greek tradition played an important role in Rome (young elite males were often sent to Greece to be educated by the best orators), to be too enamoured with the culture was seen as a weakness. Romans, it was believed, should prefer Roman activities such as politics and war. Unfortunately, the Nero we read about far preferred the theatre and sexual promiscuity.

Not only did Nero enjoy watching theatrical performances, he also loved appearing in them – which he did for the first time in Naples in AD 64. In Rome, actors were predominately at the bottom of the social ladder. This made the emperor’s wish to take to the stage all the more scandalous.

Just as damning was Nero’s obsession with opulence. This was exemplified by his Golden House, which was so named for the profusion of precious metals, gems and artworks that adorned it. While emperors were allowed to flaunt their wealth and status, Nero, it was widely believed, had taken it way too far.

If Nero’s ostentation offended Romans’ sense of propriety, the allegations that he had entered into ‘mock’ marriages with two men were considered by many to be beyond the pale. The first of these spouses, Sporus, became Nero’s wife, but the second, known as either Doryphorus (‘spear-bearer’) or Pythagoras, he took as a husband. Nero and Pythagoras “devised a kind of game”, Suetonius tells us, “in which, covered with the skin of some wild animal, he [Nero] was let loose from a cage and attacked the private parts of men and women, who were bound to stakes”.

Such rumours simply confirmed what many Romans already suspected: that Nero was a cruel, feckless libertine who undermined Roman values in his enthusiasm for a life of depravity and dissolution.

Not the full picture

The evidence against Nero appears overwhelming. But before accepting history’s devastating verdict, we should acknowledge that Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio’s evidence is full of holes. At best, the picture they paint is only partially complete.

What we must remember when reading these stories is that our surviving sources were written by authors who had never met Nero – men who were either very young, or yet to be born, when the emperor ruled. None of these men were writing contemporary history – and all had their own reasons for sticking in the knife.

Tacitus and Suetonius both began their careers during the dynasty that followed the Julio-Claudians, the Flavians, and were likely writing at some point in the reigns of Trajan (98–117) and Hadrian (117–138) respectively. This lapse in time is crucial: it made the Julio-Claudian period a safe(r) space for writers to explore the strengths and weaknesses of Rome’s imperial system. And while Tacitus’s verdict on Nero was undeniably negative, it has to be noted that none of the Julio-Claudians come out of his Annals particularly well.

Tacitus trained his focus on the fields of politics and war. He was scathing of the sycophantic senators who acquiesced in Nero’s whims, and he used the Roman general Corbulo, whom Nero sent to Armenia to battle the Parthians, to highlight the inadequacies in military matters of the emperor and those close to him.

Suetonius, by contrast, was largely uninterested in the war in Armenia. He preferred to address Nero’s lust for violence, love of luxury and sexual proclivities – as his description of the emperor’s bedroom antics with Pythagoras proves. This approach provides colourful anecdotes but it poses a problem for historians attempting to get somewhere near the truth. Suetonius must rely on hearsay and rumours for his evidence, some of which, he claims, were still circulating in his own time. While senate affairs were officially recorded, what Nero got up to in the confines of his palace was not.

Cassius Dio wrote his accounts of Nero even later than Suetonius and Tacitus – he began his career in Rome as a young senator during the reign of Commodus (177–192) – yet it is to him that we must turn for our only detailed account of Nero’s trip to Greece. Dio, in contrast to our other writers, does not see Nero as a lover of Greece, but rather as someone who tormented the province with his presence. The sight of an emperor on stage was tortuous enough, but Dio’s Nero truly plumbed the depths, executing a large number of leading men and women and instructing their families to gift half of their inherited property to Rome. In short, he ‘waged war’ on Greece.

For and against

Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio all bring something different to our understanding of Nero. And, when viewed together, they are utterly damning. But we should also acknowledge that, in antiquity, they would have made up a mere fraction of the accounts of Nero’s life available. In the late first century, after Nero’s death, the Jewish historian Josephus told his readers that there were many different assessments of Nero’s reign circulating at that time. Some were extremely complimentary about the emperor. Sadly, these have been lost, and the only histories still available to us are overwhelmingly hostile.

So if we are to accept the limitations of Roman histories of Nero, how else are we to paint an accurate picture of this most notorious of emperors? One tactic adopted by historians – especially in recent years – is to examine his actions in the context of his times. Were his ‘crimes’ typical of those committed by first-century emperors? Or was he an abominable outlier?

Take the much-derided Golden House. While its massive dimensions and eye-watering opulence have drawn criticism, Tiberius’s villa at the coastal town of Sperlonga, Caligula’s residence at the Horti Lamiani (atop Rome’s Esquiline Hill), and Claudius’s nymphaeum at Baiae (on the Gulf of Naples) were precursors to Nero’s indulgence. It’s true that Nero out-did his predecessors when building his palace in Rome – but outdoing his predecessors was exactly what a Roman emperor was meant to do.

If the Golden House was an extravagant folly, the allegation that Nero killed his wife Poppaea by kicking her while she was pregnant is far more shocking. Yet, once again, it is not anomalous. This episode conforms to an ancient literary convention used to describe tyrannical murders. The Achaemenid king Cambyses, Corinthian tyrant Periander and Greco-Roman senator Herodes Atticus were all accused of bringing about their wives’ deaths with a kick to the belly. In short, we should not interpret the story of Poppaea’s death in isolation – as a uniquely evil act committed by a uniquely evil emperor – but recognise it as one of the ways in which literature described the unexpected deaths of pregnant women.

Another factor to bear in mind when considering Nero’s dire reputation, is that the Roman empire was enormous, and not all of its residents would have been influenced by the written sources. While Rome and parts of Italy were privy to the salacious gossip circulating around the cities, those further away encountered Nero primarily through coins, inscriptions and statues – and these often deliver a far more positive verdict.

One such can be found on the eastern side of the Parthenon in Athens. Carved into the stone of what is arguably antiquity’s most celebrated monument is an inscription hailing Nero as the greatest imperator (general) and the son of a God (ie the deified Claudius). This is high praise indeed and was probably inspired by Rome’s military gains in Armenia against the Parthians.

Later, in Boeotia (also Greece) a memorial was erected to commemorate Nero’s tour of Achaea in AD 66–68, during which he declared that the province no longer had to pay taxes. The accompanying inscription declared that Nero was doing something for Greece that no other emperor had ever done he is Zeus the Liberator and the New Apollo. While the people of Rome were obsessing over whom Nero was sleeping with and the grim details of his wife’s death, those in Greece were more likely celebrating his military prowess and their tax breaks.

And if Nero was the ogre of the popular imagination, that fact had not reached the owner of a Neronian coin minted in Lugdunum (Lyon), which decorated a buried mirror box. Even though the box was interred after Nero’s downfall, the coin was still considered beautiful and precious enough to accompany someone to their grave.

As late as the fifth century AD, the emperor’s image was staring out from medallions given to people as souvenirs at the Circus Maximus in Rome. In fact, for a period, his image appeared more frequently than that of any other emperor.

What does all this tell us? The answer is that our traditional image of Nero doesn’t necessarily represent the full picture. That, though the emperor undoubtedly committed terrible crimes, he was both loved and loathed. And that, while Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio viewed him as evil personified, many people appear to have thought quite the opposite.

Dr Shushma Malik is a lecturer in classics at the University of Roehampton. Her book The Nero-Antichrist: Founding and Fashioning a Paradigm was published by CUP in March

Watch the video: Ταξίδι στην αρχαία Ρώμη (January 2022).