On the Reputation of Little-Boots
1. In order to place the modern scholarly debate on Caligula into perspective, I have perforce to start with a few general comments. In the first place, I would like to point out a remarkable paradox inherent in the practices of the liberal historiography. On the one hand, the liberal consciousness is pre-eminently concerned with the values of individualism and the protection of individual rights; on the other, it is often engaged in exculpating and whitewashing the proverbial historical tyrants, whom their contemporaries charged with policies of terror and the destruction of numerous individual lives. The procedures of liberal historiography are usually based on several unspoken, though interrelated, and somewhat questionable assumptions. One such premise is that written sources which negatively portray the ruler in question are the product of his political enemies, 'ideologically' or otherwise biased, and,therefore, deliberately misleading or even false. This premise does not take into consideration that the writers of more-or-less contemporary accounts (that is, accounts published shortly after the alleged reign of terror), need to uphold their own credibility vis-à-vis their audiences. This need places limits to their imagination, however hostile and malignant the writer might be to the tyrant, at least in dealing with the events that are a matter of public knowledge. It must be remembered that, until the last century, no group of people possessed the means via technology or the media to totally disorient the public mind by manipulating facts--massively suppressing some while inventing new "facts"--along the lines of the paradigm described in George Orwell's 1984. Second, liberal historians assume (for the most part, with no real evidence) that by launching a campaign of terror against the current socio-political establishments, the rulers in question sought to champion the interests of the underprivileged rather than to fulfill their own thirst for power in pursuit of self-aggrandizement; by extension, such rulers are often labeled or implicitly construed as "progressive," with the inference that their opponents must, therefore, be "reactionary" (and consequently demonized, at least in part). Therefore, it would be both morally and politically a good idea to extirpate them, whatever the cost in human life this might require. Third, liberal historiographers frequently explain away the terrorist policies of such rulers by reason of state or the need for self-protection against real or potential conspiracies organized by their foes. It is true that sometimes historical exigencies necessitate that authorities take harsh measures, but intelligent and responsible statesmen attempt to minimize rather than maximize the application of such measures, contrary to the practices of tyrants. It must also be remembered that, in the absence of persistent persecution, the threat to the life of an autocrat is considerably diminished, while the stability of the regime is likely to be enhanced. Finally, I suspect, the benevolent perspective on human nature embedded in the liberal argument makes it difficult to recognize the extent of evil perpetrated, according to the tradition, by the famous evildoers of the past. I find this last point particularly striking given the experiences during the last century of numerous autocrats, from Hitler and Stalin to Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin. It goes without saying that both the liberal historians under discussion and the violent historical agents (irrespective of their motives, lofty or base) whom the former try to exculpate miss a major political point: violence begets violence, and this cycle can continue ad infinitum.
I have indulged in this brief digression for the purpose of underscoring the fact that the agenda, consciously or unconsciously pursued by many modern scholars, is a priori no less "ideologically" biased than what it ascribes to our historical and literary sources. With this in mind, let us see what those with such an agenda have to say on the subject of the emperor Caius Julius Caesar Germanicus, also known as Little-Boots ("Caligula").
2. Caligula's immediate contemporaries – Seneca, the elder Pliny, and Philo – are unanimous in their utterly negative attitude towards him. Unlike the cases of Tiberius, Nero, and Domitian, we do not hear a single approving voice, or encounter a kind word on his behalf, which, of course, may in part be due to the brevity of his rule. The same is true of Josephus, who belonged to the next generation. Suetonius and Dio (writing, respectively, about a century and two centuries after his reign) recognize some of Caligula's positive acts (thus, the former habitually distinguishes in him between princeps and monstrum – Cal., 22), but even their narratives center on his policies of terror, personal sadism and what they construe as his insanity. This emphasis vastly supersedes anything commendable Suetonius and Dio may mention, which accounts for their wholesome condemnation of the man as both emperor and human being. From the few comments on Caligula scattered in the extant texts of the Annales and Historiae, it seems that Tacitus must have shared the same scathing view. This verdict went unchallenged for almost two millennia and continues to prevail in our culture, both high and low, be it Caligula's portrayal as an insane existentialist in Albert Camus' drama or as a glamorous ogre in commercial films. In contrast, starting early in the last century, modern historians have embarked on a sustained effort to whitewash his reputation.
By now this apologetic trend has come to dominate contemporary scholarly assessments of Caligula's reign. It began with Hugo Willrich's article in Klio (1903) and Matthias Gelzer's entry on Caligula in the Realenzyclopädie der Altertumswissenschaft (1918); it reached culmination in the recent books by Sam Wilkinson and Aloys Winterling. The abundance of anecdotal material that sometimes appears from the modern viewpoint did great disservice to the perception of the credibility of Suetonius' and Dio's accounts. In this respect, recent attempts to clarify the picture and produce a balanced assessment of Caligula the man and his reign certainly make sense. The trouble is, as I will argue, that these attempts fell prey to the current intellectual vogue of driving any sensible proposition to its logical extreme, which all too often leads to absurdity. Thus, the figure of Caligula that emerges today is the exact opposite of the one found in the ancient sources. Instead of a bloodthirsty and mad megalomaniac, we now face an admirable young ruler, concerned with the common good but threatened by murderous plots from those who were not, that is, from the enemies of the people. Caligula is portrayed as an innovative and masterful politician capable of outmaneuvering all his foes (but not of preventing his own violent death) and as a charismatic leader possessing wonderful wit and an almost global vision of the empire and its needs. It must be admitted that sometimes a dissenting voice can be heard (such as, for instance, Arthur Ferrill's Caligula: Emperor of Rome (1991)), but, as a rule, this voice is ignored or contemptuously dismissed.
I suggest that much of this pro-Caligula scholarship arises from the unspoken liberal assumptions I listed at the start of this essay. The procedures these scholars take frequently involve one supposition derived from another, the selective use of evidence, and a disregard for alternative interpretations. I believe that the conclusions of such scholarship can be challenged at virtually any stage of the argument. Such a challenge would require, of course, a much lengthier treatment than what I can undertake here; therefore, in what follows I will comment only on a few facets of the standard pro-Caligula thesis and then briefly assess the recent biography of Caligula by Winterling as being perhaps most representative of the whole enterprise.
3. I believe that the debate on whether Caligula was clinically insane, despite the excitement it may generate, is moot and ultimately irrelevant. Our evidence is shaky, insufficient, and also depends on the notion of insanity as it was understood in the ancient world, which was certainly different from the modern views of insanity (whose definition even contemporary experts cannot agree upon). Accordingly, I intend to limit my discussion to the ancient and modern appraisals of Caligula in terms of his statesmanship and his moral being. It seems methodologically right to minimize our reliance on the largely anecdotal material and consequent judgments in Suetonius and Cassius Dio and to pay special attention to what Caligula's immediate contemporaries (Pliny the Elder, Seneca and Philo) have to say since they lived through the span of his reign. Of these authors, Seneca and Philo knew Caligula personally and in their work addressed audiences with living memories of the recent events of his reign. As I pointed out above, the judgments of Caligula's contemporaries made on his character and performance are uniformly severe, although none of the three can be properly described as an exponent of "senatorial ideology." At the time of Caligula's death, Pliny, an eques by origin, was only eighteen and could not have developed a personal grudge against the emperor. Seneca's attacks on Caligula are largely contained in writings composed in the decade following Caligula's demise when the public memory must have still remained fresh. We know that the philosopher, at the time merely an ex-praetor, was no friend of the senate (he resented its complicity in sentencing him to exile on Corsica). For example, in his De Clementia, with its program of benevolent autocracy, the senate is hardly mentioned. It is true that, as a member of Caligula's social set, he entered into sharp, although obscure, conflict with the emperor, and, on Dio's testimony (59,19), barely escaped death. This is in itself suggestive: Seneca possessed all the makings of an opportunist (which he amply proved in the course of his career), and an intelligent ruler of Augustus' (or even Tiberius') mold would have used the services of such an obviously gifted individual rather than antagonizing him to the extent that Caligula had. Philo, on the other hand, possessed an entirely different background and must have cared least of all about senatorial sentiments; nonetheless, he treats Caligula with remarkable venom. The reasons are, of course, clear: they are a result of Caligula's attempt to subvert Judaism by installing a statue of himself in the Jerusalem Temple - an issue to which I shall return. I find it telling that all three authors, as dissimilar as they were and none of whom shared in the grievances of the senators, formed the same, highly negative opinion of an emperor whose doings they happened to observe personally.
4. The most revealing testimony on the subject of Caligula as a statesman is Philo's extensive account of the Jerusalem Temple crisis and the travails of the Jewish embassy from Alexandria that he led. Whatever Caligula's motives and the concomitant circumstances might have been, the decision to install his statue in the sanctuary passionately revered by all Jews betrays his total failure to recognize the political and cultural realities within the empire. This is particularly striking given the presence in Caligula's entourage of the experienced legate L. Vitellius, known for his sensitive response to Jewish concerns in Palestine (not to mention King Herod Agrippa I, at the time the emperor's close friend). It is apparent that in planning his move, Caligula either did not solicit their advice at all or chose to ignore anything they might have told him. No less characteristic is his conduct at two audiences he eventually granted to the Alexandrian Jews which Philo, an eyewitness, records in great detail: at the first audience, Caligula dismissed the embassy without a hearing and at the second he resorted to mockery and humiliation, treating the embassy as little more than a nuisance (Leg. ad Gaium, 181; 349 ff.). One recalls that these episodes occurred in the aftermath of the turbulent and bloody anti-Semitic riots in Alexandria, as well as at the start of the new crisis in Judaea, where wholesale insurrection threatened to break out. To realize the extent of the ineptitude of Caligula's "statesmanship" on this occasion, it is useful to compare his conduct of affairs with his successor's thoughtful and measured response to a similar exigency as it transpires in Claudius' Letter to the Alexandrians.
The examples could be multiplied. Caligula's apologists insist that he acted in order to implement a comprehensive political program that would replace the hypocritical Augustan arrangement known as the Principate with an overtly proclaimed absolute monarchy in the Eastern mold (regardless of how much human life might have been lost in process). By definition, any such reform implies the elimination of any role the senate might have played in the government, perhaps even that body's very existence. The apologists silently assume that this transition would have proved a progressive step and somehow improved conditions in the Empire. Irrespective of its actual merits, this argument is promoted by scholars who do not seriously question whether such a policy was feasible or made political sense in the given historical context. Even a cursory scrutiny leaves no doubt that it was not. There did not exist at that time a sufficiently powerful social force upon which the emperor could rely to perform the coup he (allegedly) planned. The chief army commands in the provinces remained in the hands of the senatorial class. The provincial elite, through an extensive system of patronage, also looked to the senatorial order for support while equestrian appointees, such as procurators in charge of the imperial property, took a largely technical part in the Empire's administration and (apart from the prefects of Egypt and Judaea) did not control any troops. Expecting the equestrian order to back the emperor en masse in his suppression of the senate would have been entirely unrealistic – and we know that knights also numbered among his victims.
Even the loyalty of the praetorian guards could not be taken for granted, as Caligula was to find out at the moment of his own murder. Finally, the urban plebs stayed politically passive throughout the whole imperial period and were thus situated, by and large, beyond the political realm. To cut all this short, it is sobering to remember that the form of government Caligula is said to have championed did not come into existence until, at the earliest, the reign of Aurelian (that is, over two hundred years later), while the senate continued to exercise at least some influence as long as the Western Empire persisted and even afterwards, under Theodoric. The recognition of all these facts places in sharp relief the folly (in the political, not clinical, sense) of Little-Boots, who succeeded in antagonizing – or alienating – every societal or social group on which he might have depended: the senatorial and equestrian orders through his practice of terror (which was bound to spawn a growing number of conspiracies and plots); the common people through the increase of taxation and occasional butchery; and, finally, the praetorian guards and members of his own household.
5. Moralism is not fashionable nowadays, although we cannot do altogether without it, so I will make this brief. I do not think that, despite its anecdotal nature, the collection of Caligula's cruel witticisms found largely in later sources (e.g., Suetonius and Dio) could have resulted, in its entirety, from the malignant imaginings of his enemies. Each such joke bears a characteristic and personal imprint, and they most clearly exhibit a strong penchant for psychological sadism. The emperor obviously enjoyed mocking and humiliating his helpless victims. The experience shows, however, that it often takes just one step for a mental sadist to turn into a real one and to start inflicting bodily pain on others for the sake of pleasure. This is testified for Little-Boots by a couple of examples whose historicity (as distinct from most examples in the narratives of Suetonius and Dio) cannot be denied. That Caligula used to play on the borderline of two sadisms is made clear, for instance, in an episode cited by Seneca (and conveniently omitted by Winterling): a knight named Pastor, after the emperor had his son executed, was invited to a banquet at the Palatine and entertained by the imperial host, "all the while shedding not a single tear nor by any sign suffering his grief to be revealed." The reason for such ignoble behavior, we are told, was that the unhappy Pastor had a second son (De Ira, 2, 3 ff.). This story cannot be a fabrication: Seneca wrote it within only a decade after Caligula's death, when at least some who personally knew of the whole affair must have still been alive. The same logic applies to the philosopher's report elsewhere that on another occasion the emperor "slashed with the scourge and tortured Sextus Papinius, whose father has been consul, and Betilienus Bassus, his own quaestor and the son of his procurator, and others, both Roman senators and knights, all in one day – and not to extract information but for amusement" (De Ira, 3, 18); again, such details as slashing with scourge would have been known to at least some in his audience. Dio amplifies this same episode: "When he [Caligula] had ordered Betilienus Bassus to be slain, he compelled Capito, the man's father, to be present at his son's execution, though Capito was not guilty of any crime and had received no court summons. When the father inquired if he would permit him to close his eyes, Gaius ordered him to be slain, too" (59, 25). Even if one argues, following the fashion, that such behavior was, in every case, a response to plots or threats against Caligula's life (and this must be proved not merely assumed, as it usually is), it still can hardly be approved even under postmodernist standards unless one shares the predilections of the "divine marquis."
6. Aloys Winterling's Caligula: A Biography (2003), already translated into English, Italian, Spanish, and Dutch, is one of the latest installments of revisionist scholarship. The recurrent motif of this book is what its author calls "the ambiguous communication between the emperor and the senate," which he seems to consider his main theoretical contribution. Almost twenty years ago, I examined at length the senatorial end of it, in terms of dissident dissimulatio as engendered by the gap between verba and acta. Winterling undoubtedly deserves credit for having emphasized and elaborated on its imperial end. His argument becomes, however, problematic when it celebrates Caligula's break with this ambiguity without questioning whether this was a sensible or practical policy to pursue. The regime of the Principate, wrapped in rituals and fraught with contradictions, could boast of stability (pax) as its main socio-political achievement. This regime was a balanced multipartite construct and the serious disruption of the nominal "diarchy," that is, in the relationship between the emperor and the senate, would inevitably have resulted in a major crisis. Thus, even though Caligula's (presumed) and Winterling's own hatred of hypocrisy and desire to unmask it might merit praise, its political repercussions meant nothing but disaster, which the former learned at the cost of his life. The failure of Little-Boots, ruled so often by passion rather than reason, to realize the consequences of unmasking the ghost in the Principate's machine is one thing, but the failure of the professional historian Winterling to realize and assess the inevitable consequences seems more than strange.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Winterling's narrative is an utter absence of censure as regards anything said or done by its protagonist: his text literally lacks a single word of disapproval, even when it cites instances of Caligula's sadism at its most obvious. It may be objected that the study of history does not perforce imply a moral discourse. To quote Winterling: "The denunciatory devaluation that followed the emperors' death formed a perfect counterpart to the servile adulation they enjoyed during their lifetimes. But this alone does not mean that the moral aristocracy was made up of morally inferior people. Or to put it more precisely: Moral categories are unsuitable here – just in the case of the emperors also – to explain what occurred." This purported attitude, however, is patently a sham; throughout the book, Winterling employs a rich rhetorical vocabulary of moralist abuse and consistently applies it to the conduct of the senators and victims of terror but never to the perpetrator of that terror. Each of the reported individual or group executions (insofar as Winterling mentions them at all) are explained away either as fictions, misunderstandings, or as responses to conspiracies, even if, in the absence of evidence of a conspiracy, one needed to be construed by the scholar.
All this brings us back to a paradox within the Western liberal tradition on which I commented at the outset. In this case, as in a number of others, I find the spectacle of a modern historian who enthusiastically sides with the persecutor against the persecuted fascinating and disturbing. One keeps wondering as to how Western academics would have felt, fared, and behaved en masse had they lived not protected by the tenets of democracy but under a regime such as the one Little-Boots attempted to implement. One example of more recent memory illustrates the point: In June 1950, Stalin published an article entitled "Marxism and the Problems of Linguistics" directed against the theories of the eminent scholar and academician Nikolai Marr (by that time, to his good fortune, in his grave). Thereafter, the following appeared in an editorial in the academic journal Vestnik Drevnei Istorii (Review of the Ancient History), the USSR's only scholarly periodical devoted to the classics: "A seminal event has happened in the history of the Soviet science and culture. The greatest scientist [Russian has the same word 'uchenyi' for 'scientist' and 'scholar' – V.R.] of our Motherland, I.V. Stalin, the leader and teacher of Soviet people and of all progressive humankind, chose to take part in the free discussion of linguistics organized by the newspaper Pravda." This was followed by a purge of all those who had ever written or said a kind word about Marr. At best, they were compelled publicly (that is, with all faculty and students in attendance) to repent: one of my own professors at the Leningrad University once recalled in tears the humiliation she had suffered on such occasion; at worst, they found themselves in the labor camps. I would not be surprised, however, if some future historian will interpret that development in terms of a raison d'état, as Stalin's response to a conspiracy of linguists against his life.
Antonelli, Giuseppe. Caligola : imperatore folle o principe inadeguato al ruolo assegnatogli dalla sorte? Roma, 2001.
Auguet, Roland. Caligula : ou, Le pouvoir à vingt ans. Paris, 1975.
Balsdon, J. P. V. D. The Emperor Gaius (Caligula). Oxford, 1934.
Barrett, Anthony. Caligula : The corruption of power. London, 1989.
Ferrill, Arthur. Caligula : Emperor of Rome. London: Thames & Hudson, 1991.
Filipponi, Angelo. Caligola il sublime. Ancona , 2008.
Gelzer. Matthias. "Iulius 133 [Caligula]" in: RE, 10.1 (1918), 381-423.
Hurley, Donna W. An historical and historiographical commentary on Suetonius' Life of C. Caligula. Atlanta, 1993.
Rudich, Vasily. Political dissidence under Nero: The price of dissimulation. London and New York, 1993.
Sachs, Hanns. Bubi Caligula. Vienna, 1932.
Talbert, Richard. The senate of the imperial Rome. Princeton, 1984.
Vestnik Drevnei Istorii, 2 (1950) (editorial, in Russian).
Wardle, D. Suetonius' life of caligula : a commentary. Bruxelles, 1994.
Wilkinson, Sam. Caligula. London and New York, 2005.
H. Willrich, "Caligula", Klio, 3 (1903) 85-118, 288-317, 397-470.
Winterling, Aloys. Caligula : eine Biographie. München, 2003 (English edition: Caligula. A Biography. University of California Press, 2011.
Yavetz, Zvi. "Caligula, imperial madness and modern historiography", Klio, 78 (1996).
This line of reasoning does not differ, in principle, from Stalin's famous pronouncement on the terror under Ivan the Terrible: according to the Soviet dictator, the latter should have exterminated the remaining seven aristocratic families he had failed to kill in order to prevent the "the time of troubles" which followed Ivan's death.
Tiberius is praised by his contemporary Velleius Paterculus; Nero by Seneca in De Clementia, and - in more sycophantic terms - by Calpurnius Siculus (one may add the Proemium to Lucan's Pharsalia, unless it is taken as ironic); Domitian by Statius and Martial.
The pro-Caligula trend, initiated by Willrich and Gelzer, continued throughout the last century and into the current one with varying degrees of apologetics. It includes, e.g., the book-length treatments of Baldson (1934), Auguet (1975) Nony (1986), Wardle (1994), Winterling (2003), Wilkinson (2005) and Philipponi (2008). For the more balanced judgments on Caligula and his rule, cf. Barret (1989) and, especially, Hurly (1993); also Antonelli (2001); cf. further below, notes 9 and 14. So far as I am concerned, however, Zvi Yavetz's erudite, profound and brilliantly written 1996 essay stands head and shoulders above all works by both Caligula's detractors and defenders. Yavetz offers a sober as well as witty exposition of the recurrent views of him, which makes my present effort almost superfluous. Winterling, op. cit., acknowledges Yavetz in a note but completely ignores his critiques of the pro-Caligula scholarship and all insights or inferences that run against his own argument.
Perhaps the most striking, verging on the farcical, is the celebratory language of Angelo Filipponi (2008), with its characteristically postmodern admiration for what is considered per se novel and original at the expense of anything else, as for instance: "Gaio, con sua neoteropoiia, fallisce per pura fatalità, per irrazionale rabbia represa di un pretoriano, troppo spesso umiliato a parole, e per la sorde reazione di una società ancora conservatrice, ma resta imperituro come esempio di autore ideale di un accentramento monarchico, in senso antisenatorio e popolare /…/, come creatore del disegno sublime [italics Filipponi's] di costituzione di un imperium assoluto, ecumenico (oltre regno federativo dei parti), su base religiosa /…/, come innovatore nella volontà di decentrare il potere verso Oriente" (188) or: "Caligola con sua opera resta imperituro nella sua essenza ideale ed è crocevia basilare per ogni speculazione non solo storica, politica, socio-economica, ma anche per una programmazione religiosa" (ibid.).
Ferrill's (1991) judgment on the man and his rule is just the opposite: "Caligula's legacy to Rome was trivial. He left little to his subjects that was lasting and important. There were a few construction projects and administrative decisions, but on the negative side, his scores were much higher. He had squandered the splendid opportunity that his father's popularity had given him at the outset of his reign. His capricious tyranny would surely have provoked civil war if he had remained on the throne, and Judaea was nearly in rebellion when he died. His main contribution, if it can be called that, was to the growing autocracy of emperorship. Some of the rumors about him that have survived may not be true, but the fact that they circulated widely indicates what his fellow Romans thought of him and constitutes a damning verdict in the court of history. Rarely has so little good been done by so powerful a figure, and there are only a few rulers in all history of the world who were as crazy, cruel, conceited and arbitrary as the Roman Emperor, Caligula" (164-65). Ferrill's only real flaw, in my view, is his excessive and often uncritical reliance on the later sources, cf. on this Yavetz 1996, 113f. Winterling (2003, 8), dismisses Ferrill (without even referring to him in the main text by name) with the following: "Noch der Verfasser der neuesten Biographie aus dem Jahre 1991 hält den Kaiser für 'crazy,'" apparently in belief that no more was required.
One of the ironies involved in Caligula's apologetics is the agreement on his supposed virtues between the deeply reactionary and anti-Semitic Hugo Willrich and the Oxford liberal John P.V.D. Baldson: coincidentia oppositorum (cf. above, note 1); see, on the former, Yavetz 1996, 108ff, who also provides (114ff) an excellent dissection of the ideological motives governing the scholarly performances on Caligula in 1930s and 1990s. He is entirely right that a biography of Caligula cannot be written without prejudice: "The view that tries to 'understand' from a distance even the most horrible crimes, by condemning them – all right, but by urging us to see the other side of the coin is based on a preconceived idea no less than the one which considers Caligula flatly as a criminal madman" (117).
Much of this job has been already done, however unobtrusively, by Yavetz 1996, which remains a must for any student of Caligula. This did not prevent Winterling, Wilkinson (who apparently does not refer to Yavetz at all, although the copy I have perused inexplicably lacks Wilkinson's notes for his first two chapters), et al.
 I will not list here numerous publications dealing with the notion of "mad emperors," such as (on Caligula) Sachs 1932: the evidence is meager and malleable and definitions of madness change; cf. Barrett 1989, 215ff. It is worth pointing out, however, that a schizophrenic or paranoid personality does not exclude fully intelligent and rational behavior, see the quote from the Oxford Guidebook of Psychiatry as cited in Yavetz 1996, 125 n. 118. It is equally true that people do not need a precise medical diagnosis: "Is it too strange to assume that to jump from one topic to another, to be unpredictable, to plunge from melancholy into euphoria, to be eccentric and capricious is regarded by common people to be ill-balanced enough?" (Yavetz 1996,, 125). Note, further, two recent statements on the subject: "If Caligula was mad, he was not the potty eccentric typified by a Ludwig of Bavaria, but a much more frightening Stalinesque figure, capable of rational decisions, capable of statesmanlike acts (when it suited him), but morally neutral, determined to sweep all before him in the pursuit of his own personal ends, and ultimately indifferent to the consequences of his actions on others" (Barrett 1989, 241); also, "Gaius was not a generic monstrum but above all erratic and moody, occasionally generous, more often cruel, self-aggrandizing, untrusting and untrustworthy, impatient of advice, quick to take offence, insistent on his own way, arrogant and possessed of a hot temper and a nasty tongue. His sadism is typical of all tyrants, but the rest is quite particular and no doubt accurate in a general way. He must have been extraordinarily difficult if not impossible to deal with, at the very least the wrong person for a job that required a component of public relations skills. The ancient judgement that he possessed furiosa inconstantia or a turbida mens must be taken seriously for what it is, an impressionistic reaction to his chaotic behavior" (Hurly 1993, XIV). According to Yavetz (1996, 125), the popular view of Caligula is owed largely to "his endeavor to resemble a god." Winterling (2003, 175ff), insists that the insanity charge, as taken literally, is of later origin, while the early sources use such language for rhetorical purposes, an argument I I do not find truly compelling.
Pliny the Elder was no friend of the senatorial order either, which he considered corrupt. For the early dating of Seneca's De Ira, containing his most scathing attacks on Caligula, see below, note 20. The references to Caligula in the Epistulae Morales, written late in Seneca's life, are sparse and insubstantial.
Dio (59, 19) claims that Caligula intended to put Seneca to death out of envy for his oratory and success in court, but changed his mind after one of his female associates persuaded him that the philosopher was going to die soon from consumption. Both stories, although they may lack plausibility to the mind of a modern reader, are not fully impossible, given the emperor's well-recorded penchant for whims and rapid changes of mood (cf. Yavetz 1996, 124f). One must remember, however, that at the time Seneca was presumably having an affair with Caligula's sister, Livilla, and Seneca's life might have been threatened by little more than the emperor's jealousy and saved due to his timely assassination.
According to Josephus, during his governorship of Syria, L. Vitellius visited Jerusalem at least twice, and received an enthusiastic welcome each time. On the first occasion, Vitellius abolished all city taxes on the sale of the agricultural produce and, most importantly, in the dispute over the custody of the priestly vestments ruled in favor of the Jews (AJ, 18.90ff; cf. 15.404f); on the second occasion, Vitellius even personally sacrificed at the Jewish Temple during the Passover (18.122f). Furthermore, in the interval between these two visits, Vitellius took – given the arrogance habitually associated with the Romans - the unprecedented step of yielding to the appeals from the Jewish establishment and changing his plans for the military campaign against the Nabataean Arabs ordered by Tiberius. Instead of traversing Judaea with the army that carried the iconic standards offensive in the eyes of the Jews, he proceeded along the circuitous route across the largely non-Jewish territory (121 f.). It is telling that Caligula began to experience doubts about his plan only after it had been set in motion, and owing to the strong intervention by King Agrippa I, either personally (according to Josephus) or by the means of a memorandum (according t Philo) and his epistolary exchange with Syria's new governor Petronius, who informed him of the imminent Jewish revolt.
Philo's delegation from Alexandria had to wait for months before Caligula granted them an audience (one recalls that the delegation was sent in the aftermath of the bloody riots and anti-Jewish pogroms in Alexandria). In the course of their exchanges, the emperor kept claiming to be preoccupied with other matters, such as inspecting his mansion and gardens, ordering furniture, and surprising the envoys by questions and pronouncements like: "So you are the God-haters, the people who do not believe that I am God" or: "Why do you not eat pork?" - and he never made any judgment on the subject of their claimed Alexandrian citizenship; cf. Yavetz 1996, 125. As regards Caligula's plans for installing a statue of himself in the Jerusalem Temple and consequent major crisis in Judaea, I felt truly astounded in reading in Wilkinson 2005, 57: "Although we can never prove what order Gaius gave [! – V.R.], there is a chance that the order was never given at all. Seneca, Suetonius and Dio are all silent on the subject, and the missing palinode casts doubt on the credibility of the whole Philo's Legatio as we do not know its conclusion. The word 'palinode' that Philo uses could suggest that it is a retraction of what he had just written!" Sapientibus satis.
Among the attempts at rescuing Caligula's reputation as statesman by his apologists, are various favorable, though willful, interpretations of the extant evidence regarding his German and (prospectively) British military expeditions, which ended in nothing. Ferril (1991., 128), is right to observe: "But the main argument against modern attempts to rationalize the ancient version of Caligula's activities in the North is that almost every aspect of the story has to be explained or dismissed." Furthermore, we are left with a fact that a huge assembled army (some 250 000 troops, according to Dio [59.22]) remained for an extended period of time essentially idle, and the conquest of Britain never materialized; this is hardly a sign of political or military acumen. Another debated issue is the claim in our sources that by his personal prodigality Caligula within a year emptied the imperial treasury carefully accumulated by Tiberius (Suet. Cal. 37; Dio 59.2). The moderns tried to impeach this charge – see, e.g., Balsdon 1934, 180ff and Barrett 1989, , 224ff. Both authors point out, among other things, that upon his Caligula's assassination, Claudius was able to distribute to the praetorians a more than handsome handout of 15 000 sesterces for each, concluding that, therefore, the fiscus continued to prosper, while disregarding the possibility that this might have resulted from Caligula's numerous confiscations of property; in any event, even Barrett (1989, 226) comes to acknowledge: "Certainly, Caligula found that before his reign was over he was in the position of trying desperately to raise revenues" and proceeded with some unorthodox schemes. Without entering this convoluted discussion, I may cite a passage from Seneca (De Brev. Vitae, 18.4): "Very recently within those few days after Gaius Caesar died – still grieving most deeply (if the dead have any feeling) because he knew that the Roman people were alive and had enough food left for at any rate seven or eight days /…/ we were threatened with the worst evil that can befall men even during a siege – the lack of provisions; his imitation of a mad and foreign and misproud king was very nearly at the cost of the city's destruction and famine." Stripped of the Senecan rhetoric, this must have been a matter of public knowledge; whatever interpretation may be given to this account (including the one that would place the blame on the magistrates in charge of the grain supply), it does no credit to Caligula's management of the affairs as hailed by the revisionists. According to Seneca, the disaster had barely been avoided.
For Caligula's "fünf Monate Monarchie", see esp. Winterling 2003 , 125ff. It must be observed, however, that there is no compelling evidence that Caligula considered a project of achieving "absolute monarchy" as his deliberate political goal rather than having made decisions on an ad hoc basis (in contrast to Seneca's program for Nero to establish a benevolent autocracy as formulated in De Clementia). Be that as it may, consciously or not, Caligula had embarked upon a destructive rather than creative enterprise, contrary to what some modern authors want us to believe. The most cogent argumentation to the effect that Caligula proved totally unfit for the "ruolo assegnatogli dalla sorte" is found in Antonelli (2001)., who concludes: "I pugnali di Cherea e dei suoi accoliti hanno avuto il merito di risparmiare ai Romani quello che poteva diventare il regno lunghissimo di un tiranno pretenzioso, velleitario, crudele e imprevedibile nonché di un governante dilettantesco e poco dotato" (183). For the critique of the theory that "Oriental Monarchy" constituted the 'system" behind Caligula's regime, see Yavetz 1996, 110f and 128 (regarding Caligula's ultimate failure as ruler): "After three and a half years of reign, he was completely isolated. Senate and people alike hated him, and when he lost the confidence of his own praetorians (whom he treated with no less contempt) the outcome was inevitable."
See below, note 20.
There is no reason to believe that Caligula might have entertained any positive feelings toward the urban plebs. Apart from his continuing the policy of panes et circenses of his predecessors, all his measures that appear populist were intended only to undermine or ridicule the senate. This accounts for his transference of elections to the popular assembly (which did not work and which he revoked shortly thereafter [Dio 59.20]) and for his temporary popularity among the commons, who enjoyed the ongoing humiliation of the upper classes. Josephus (AJ, 19.24) reports a butchery Caligula perpetrated at the circus, allegedly on the trivial pretext (cf. Dio 59.13.28, who also mentions a drastic increase in taxes). Caligula's (in)famous joke "utinam p. R. unam cervicem haberet!" (Suet. Cal., 30; cf. Dio, 59, 13; Sen. De Ira, 3, 19) could have hardly been invented by his aristocratic foes. For a strong argument (contra Barrett) stressing a major rift between Calligula and Rome's ordinary populace towards the end of his reign, see Yavetz 1996, 116f.
It is worth observing that for two hundred years after Caligula, the senate still kept attempting, when it appeared opportune, to install their own candidates as emperors: thus, Nerva (96), Pertinax (193), Gorrdian III, Balbinus and Pupienus (238), and Tacitus (276). For the evolution of the imperial senate, see Talbert (1984).
It is true that, perhaps in view of the precedents established Sejanus and Macro, Caligula replaced Macro with two insignificant officers as praetorian prefects; nonetheless, both these officers became involved in the conspiracy that cost him his life (Dio 59.8; Suet. Cal. 56) as did Callistus, a powerful imperial freedman (Suet. Cal. 56; cf. Jos. AJ 19.59), who was to reach further heights of influence under Claudius and died in his bed. This last fact is telling: men like Callistus depended exclusively on the emperor and had no common political interests with senators, equestrians or any other group. We do not hear of an imperial freedman taking part in a plot against an emperor until the murder of Domitian fifty-five years later.
It must be realized that withholding moral judgment in itself constitutes a moral judgment. On the claims for "moral neutrality" in historical inquiry, observe Yavetz 1996, 118: "May I suggest that this view, too, is to a certain extent due to the Zeitgeist that has prevailed for some time in various academic circles in the Western World. It is fashionable to write history wertfrei, refraining from moral judgment altogether. One is almost ashamed to put in writing that a crime is a crime, irrespective whether it was committed yesterday or two thousand years ago, and that a criminal is a criminal – irrespective of his being at one and the same time 'a cultured person', a capable administrator and, to cap it all, a vegetarian. These problems, so it is thought, should be relegated to common room chats and cocktail parties. I know that many still believe that a good history book should avoid platitudes of this kind, not necessarily because stating the obvious appears naïve and ridiculous, but mainly because it could become easy prey for the clever, the cynical, and the sophisticated reviewer, who parades his wit, or to speak with Quintilian, prefers to lose a friend rather than a jest. I will, however, claim the right to be ridiculed and state that moral neutrality exists only in common rooms. Someone who has the power to kill and torture and actually does it, is a killer and a torturer, not morally neutral." I wholeheartedly agree.
Seneca's De Ira is dedicated to his brother L. Annaeus Novatus, that is, before the latter Novatus was adopted by the rhetorician L. Junius Gallio, who must have been born ca 33 B.C. (RE, I-1, 1035 [Gerth]). This means that by the time of Caligula's death, Gallio was in his mid-70s, which makes the terminus ante quem for the publication of De Ira, at the latest, around A.D. 50. On the Pastor episode, Wilkinson 2005, 83, characteristically remarks: "Seneca tells us that a son of Pastor was killed, but the reason given – that he was 'foppish' – must surely be distrusted", passing over Caligula's sadistic treatment of the father. From Dio it follows that the Papinius/Bassus affair has occurred in the aftermath of another conspiracy against Caligula (see below, note 24), and Winterling (2003, 130) chides Seneca for having left this out. But (1) Seneca actually alludes to that fact (non questionis sed animi causa), even though we may question this psychological interpretation; (2) mentioning the conspiracy was irrelevant to Seneca's rhetorical theme in this context, namely, the need for suppressing anger; and (3) Seneca's omission of the plot does not detract in any way from Caligula's sadistic performance, which Winterling passes over without comment. It is also worth pointing out that both Pastor and the father of Betilienus Bassus belonged to the equestrian, not senatorial order. As Hurly (1993, XIV), points out: "Josephus, Dio and Philo provide character sketches that are consistent with one another and present an internally cohesive constellation of traits, and corroborating anecdotes, including those that are not true, show what was thought of him." The apologists argue that some of the defamatory material on Caligula is due to the literal perception of his cruel and bizarre jokes by those concerned or by our later sources, see, e.g., Auguet 1975, 189ff. Even if true for certain occasions, this is by no means surprising: under the rule of terror one is inclined to believe in whatever evil, real or imaginary.
To quote from the English edition of Winterling's biography: "The very positive reactions to the book from both critics and the public, and its translation into Italian, Spanish and Dutch have confirmed my belief that serious historical scholarship with a theoretical foundation certainly goes well with a dramatic narration of the events" (2011, 196). Under "theoretical foundation" he seems to mean his concept of "ambiguous communication" (doppelbödige Kommunikation) between the emperor and the senate. This is what the Romans called dissimulatio, a socio-politico-psychological condition, the dissident aspect of which formed the subject for my 1993 book that apparently was unknown to Winterling; I have also briefly touched on the imperial practice of dissimulation, (1993, XXXI, 255; cf. Yavetz 1996, 128). As for Caligula, he must have proved a competent enough dissimulator during his stay with Tiberius on Capri.
One cannot seriously believe that Caligula had been motivated in his policies and conduct by the abstract high-minded principles, like the hatred of hypocrisy as such. Hatred was certainly there, especially of the senate, partly owing to its complicity in the ruin of his family, and partly to what he must have construed as its encroachment on his power. His early honeymoon with the Senate can be plausibly explained by his lack of practice and the short-lived willingness to be guided by experienced advisors such as Macro and M. Junius Silanus, both of whom he eventually destroyed; cf. Barrett (1989, 241): "As long as the adoring Rome paid homage to him there was no reason why the dark and perverse side of his personality should show itself . . . The austerity of Tiberius' reign, the magic of Germanicus' name, and the healthy surplus in the treasury would assure him of an initial period of euphoria in which he could participate – optimus est post malum principem dies primus, as Tacitus observed." Apart of the senate, however, even a minimalist reading of the extant evidence leaves little doubt that the young man harbored considerable hatred towards humanity at large. There exists, indeed, a temptation to take account of his personality in terms of psychobiography - that is, explaining away his "idiosyncrasies," such as sadism and so forth, by the horrible circumstances of his childhood. This is one such (mildly phrased) pronouncement taken at random: "C'est dans ce contexte, et sur cet échiquier, qu'apparait Caligula, silhouette indécise sortie de l'ombre par le jeu implacable d'une lutte qui ne laissait que des cadavres: son pére mort, alors qu'il était en bas âge, sa mére humiliée, persécutée, livrée aux caprices des bourreaux. Une atmosphére d'espionage, de haine, l'omniprésence des intrigues. Ses frères assassinés l'un après autre, voilà son enfance et son adolescence: cela, on s'en doute laisse des traces" (Auguet 1975, 30). One recalls, however, another Roman emperor, whose tragic childhood remarkably resembles that of Caligula: Julian the Apostate. Julian's family, including his father and elder brother, was massacred by his uncle Constantius II, when he reached the age of 6; not unlike Caligula on Capri, he was compelled to dissimulate, hiding his loss of Christian faith and conversion to paganism, which might have cost him his life. All these hardships notwithstanding, Julian grew into an upright individual and able ruler, who tried to avoid violence against his opponents despite overwhelming historical odds, and is still admired by many as a model of tolerance and enlightenment. Another strategy, adopted by the pro-Caligulans, is the misuse of the argument ex silentio. Thus, for instance, Winterling (2003, 8) dismisses the story of imperial incest on the grounds that it is not mentioned by Caligula's contemporaries Seneca and Philo, without realizing that no author writing under Claudius could have published any such thing about the imperial family for fear of being prosecuted for maiestas. On the other hand, if one accepts the "Oriental Monarchy" theory, Caligula's reputed incestuous relationship with his sisters makes sense in terms of his imitation of the practices of Egyptian pharaohs.
Winterling 2003, 187; to appreciate the scale of Winterling's contempt for and verbal abuse of the senatorial aristocracy, it is sufficient to consult his own Sachregister sub verbis: Opportunismus; Schmeichelei; Unterwürfigkeit.
This has to do with what Winterling dubs "die Verschwörung der Konsulare" of 39, on the dubious premise that the word protoi employed by Dio to signify many of Caligula's victims necessarily means the ex-consuls (Winterling 2003, 87ff.). Dio (59.13) reports that at some point during 39 the emperor undertook a massive assault on the senate: "During these and the following days many of the foremost men [protoi] perished in fulfillment of sentences of condemnation (for not a few of those who had been released from prison were punished for the very reasons that had led to their imprisonment by Tiberius) and many others of less prominence in gladiatorial combats." To Winterling, this provides sufficient grounds for interpreting the executions as a response to a major conspiracy, although Dio's language can be better accounted for by regarding the victims in question as former supporters of Sejanus, imprisoned during Tiberius' last years (Tac. Ann., 6.3ff), whom Caligula had pretended pardoning at the outset of his reign; now, with Macro and Silanus out of picture, he took the opportunity finally to exterminate these men (cf. also in Dio [59.15], where Caligula is made to attack the senators in a speech with a strong emphasis on their doings under Tiberius and Sejanus). The ancient authors usually call conspiracies by that very name. Under Caligula, Josephus (AJ 19.17) speaks of three, apparently, that of Gaetulicus and Lepidus (cf. Dio 59.22; Suet. Cal. 8); that of Papinius and Bassus (cf. Dio,59.25; Tac. Ann., 16, 17 – see above, note 20); and, last but not the least, that of Cassius Chaerea. Winterling postulates a fourth. Is not this just a little too many for a reign of three-and-a-half years (for comparison, in the course of his fourteen years as emperor, Nero had to deal with only two: coniuratio Pisoniana and coniuratio Viniciana, see Suet., Nero, 36)? Would they have cropped up at the same pace, one murderous plot annually, if Little-Boots had continued to live? Does not this suggest that there was something very rotten in the state of Denmark, a much deeper trouble than is allowed by the modern pro-Caligula reconstructions? One must be a genius of sorts to achieve such results in so short time.
Vestnik Drevnei Istorii, 2 (1950), (translated from the Russian).
Yavetz 1996, 119, lists Helmut Berve, Ernst Kornemann, Wilhelm Weber and Josef Vogt among the classicists who had supported Hitler. I am sure there were many more. Even under the 'vegetarian' regime of the post-Stalin Soviet Union, publications on ancient history, apart from mandatory references to Marx or Lenin, were often required to contain a quote from Leonid Brezhnev.
Back to Papers
The Digital Sculpture Project is an activity of the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory.