Home / Robert Farley / Rehabilitating Caligula

Rehabilitating Caligula


Is Caligula misunderstood? Scott Mclemee reviews Aloys Winterling’s efforts in this regard:

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’s 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

But Winterling sees the turning point in Caligula’s 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’s remark that rulers’ “claims to have uncovered a conspiracy are not believed until they have been killed.”

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’s 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. “The households of the senators,” writes Winterling, “represented a central manifestation of their social status…. Achieving the consulship remained the most important goal of an aristocrat’s career.” 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 … like a fox. Winterling reads even Caligula’s 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’m 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.

Interesting, but here’s why I’m not convinced. Every early emperor (and really, every emperor) endured roughly the same political structure as Caligula, in the sense of struggling with plots from the Senate and having to deal with an unspecified power responsibilities.* Yet not every emperor has a reputation for insanity; some emperors were relatively well regarded by contemporaries, others regarded as cruel but effective, etc. Maybe Winterling explains how Caligula’s political maneuvering so enraged the contemporary elite (and let’s be clear, Suetonius is not a contemporary, suggesting that the perception of Caligula’s insanity was enduring) that they decided to depict him as more insane and tyrannical than every other Caesar, or maybe he was actually more insane and tyrannical than every other Caesar.  Given that he was outlasted in that position by such prizes as Nero, Domitian, and Commodus, I’m inclined toward the latter interpretation.  But then I haven’t read the book, so take with many grains of salt etc. etc.

It’s also worth noting that to the extent the Brass/Guccione/Vidal film has a political perspective on Caligula’s career, it mirrors Winterling’s argument; McDowell’s Caligula is crazy, but his craziness is a reaction to/accommodation of the paranoia and corruption of the contemporary Roman elite.  Haven’t seen it in years (I mean… erm, ever), but to the best of my recollection we’re supposed to sympathize with Caligula at the end.

*This may deserve a post of its own, but the occasional comment over the years has made it necessary to point out that a monarchy and a dictatorship are not the same thing; the latter represents a much more direct relationship between head of state and political power than the former, which should really be understood as a mechanism for managing intra-elite relations in a feudal, pre-feudal, and quasi-feudal societies. Monarchies attempt (with often middling success) to minimize the impact of any given head of state, while dictatorships (in their 20th century form) attempt to maximize the individual power of the autocrat. The key virtue of a hereditary monarchy is to ameliorate problems of succession, which it does by creating a presumptive heir and by situating that heir within a traditional system of formal and informal limits on his power.  The latter is necessary to managing the “blithering idiot” problem sometimes produced by the former.  Obviously, monarchies historically often failed to deliver on one or the other of these promises, but the system nevertheless represents an effort to solve serious problems of political authority.  In Rome, it was ideologically (and for a time constitutionally)  impossible to maintain a true monarchy, even thought many emperors did hand off power in a quasi-hereditary fashion. However, I think it’s almost certainly true that a true monarchy, with a regularized system of transferring power and a set of formal and informal limits on the power of the emperor, would have been superior to the imperial system, which obviously failed to solve the “blithering idiot” problem on its own terms.

I think that this becomes clear when comparing “undergraduate textbook” discussions of Eastern monarchies versus European monarchies.  Discussion of European dynastic history are even at this late date very personalistic, featuring discussion of the personal qualities of whatever Peter, Henry, Frederick, John et al happens to be the monarch in question, while backgrounding discussion of contextual dynastic issues.  Undergraduate textbook versions of Chinese and Japanese history, however, are almost remarkable in the absence of actual individual monarchs, with the exception of a few dynastic founders.  Rather, the emphasis in on the Qin, Han, Tang et al dynasties in the Chinese case, and the various imperial periods in the Japanese.  This emphasizes that each dynasty/period was actually a system of governance with formal and informal rules, rather than simply a succession of hereditary monarchs.  I think that historians can get away with this in the Asian context because undergraduates (not to mention reviewers, etc.) are far less familiar with the personalities in Asia than they are in Europe, and so don’t rage when the textbook excludes detailed discussion of the foibles of Richard the Lion Hearted et al.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • wiley

    Out of curiosity, how accurate was “I Claudius”? It’s scandalous. However batshit the royal families were, they were interesting. Livia—what a bitch!

    • norbizness

      According to the wikipedia entry on the 1934 book (which is a great companion to the miniseries and the unfinished movie starring Charles Laughton), Robert Graves based the stories on the accounts of three prominent Roman historians, only one of whom was alive (as a child) during the reign of Caligula. Other sources I read said the stuff about Livia may well have been made up completely.

      • John

        A lot of I, Claudius is based on the ancient sources, and a lot of it is Graves’s invention. My memory is that the miniseries actually gets rid of some of Graves’s most radical inventions (the whole subplot where Posthumus is still alive after Augustus’s death, for instance) and actually gets somewhat closer to what the sources say.

        • delurking

          It’s been awhile since I looked into this, but isn’t it the case that the sources Graves used — especially Suetonius — were a bit biased? It would be (and I realize I am vastly overstating the case) like basing your history on the writings of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

          They had axes, and they ground them, I’m saying.

          • Hogan

            What would be the unbiased sources you could use for that period?

            • Anderson

              What would be the unbiased sources one could use for ANY period?

              An “unbiased source” is a source we don’t understand well enough to perceive its bias.

        • Ed

          Robert Graves based the stories on the accounts of three prominent Roman historians

          Graves responded to that with some asperity in a preface to the second Claudius book.

          He actually stays fairly close to his sources for the two Claudius books and he used many (although for figures like Caligula there just aren’t that many sources). About Livia opinion is divided, but Graves chose the more entertaining possibility and in the end it gave Sian Phillips her great role, so I’m not complaining.

          As Graves observes in the first Claudius book, the empire was humming along quite well during the reign of Tiberius. He presents us with a man with some very decent tendencies who loses his bearings in a position where assassination and betrayal are ever-threatening, and what I’ve read elsewhere supports this interpretation. (Probably this pattern was true of many other emperors, as well. It was that kind of job.)

          Caligula (and Nero), I suspect, were candidates for the bin, genuinely unhinged.

          • wiley

            OOOH, get to learn a new word, today. I like it.


            noun, plural -ties.

            1. harshness or sharpness of tone, temper, or manner; severity; acrimony: The cause of her anger did not warrant such asperity.

            2. hardship; difficulty; rigor: the asperities of polar weather.

            3. roughness of surface; unevenness.

            4. something rough or harsh.

  • ploeg

    So Caligula wasn’t crazy, he was a performance artist. OK.

    It seems pretty clear that Caligula had some rather powerful enemies. It just doesn’t strike me that giving a palace to your horse is a particularly rational response to such threats. On the contrary, it seems rather conterproductive.

    • John

      Indeed. I think the big issue is that other emperors of the same time period had to deal with the same problems, and generally weren’t kind to the nobility. The stand-out example to me is Tiberius, who hated the nobility and is treated brutally in most of the sources, but where there’s no intimation of bug-eyed insanity. What reason would the sources have to make out Caligula as much, much more insane than Tiberius if it’s all posthumous defamation?

      • firefall

        Yes, exactly who I thought of. I think the book is actually an outgrowth of the pernicious PhD-isation that crawls over everything – the need to write -something- new for a PhD leads to ever more extreme and preposterous propositions and contrarianism, purely for economic reasons (consider the number of new PhD theses being presented each year, just in America)

  • Sakurazaki Setsuna

    This may deserve a post of its own

    Please, I found your footnote fascinating and would like to read more on that subject.

    • Murc

      I’ve seen some arguments suggesting that there were genuine structural differences at work between European and eastern monarchical systems. In particular, the nature of China’s imperial system, whose norms were established by Qin Shihuangdi and persisted in their general forms through quite a few turbulent dynastic changes, was such that so much power was concentrated in the Emperor and his Court that getting your hand up his ass (as it were) became rather a national sport. Coupled with their bureaucratic system, that made it so that most individual Emperors ended up being inconsequential to the system as a whole.

      In most European systems the throne was less powerful and government less centralized and, in general, less ORGANIZED. That meant that the individual foibles of specific monarchs could have a much greater potential impact; they’re not trapped in the web of an existing systems as much as they could be, and the nature of their politics meant that their ability to manage a gaggle of fractious nobles with individualized power bases (which is MUCH MUCH different than managing fractious courtiers) could really swing things around.

      Of course, I’m hardly an expert.

      • John

        Yeah. My sense is that after the first few monarchs of a dynasty, most Chinese emperors fell under the domination of the court, and child-emperors were particularly common. The same was often true in Japan.

        • Njorl

          If I recall correctly, this was often intentional. Founders of new dynasties had useful skills which were necessary for taking power. They would then insist that their heirs be given the traditional imperial education, which eschewed any kind of useful abilities. An emperor was above having even the slightest knowledge of how things really worked.

      • Well, “royal personality” was much more of an issue in the primitive western parts of europe.

        But the Eastern (Byzantine) remnant of the roman empire had mostly indistinguishable emperors, and a powerful eunuch-based bureaucracy, similar to China.

        Actually “eunuch-based bureacracy” by itself probably explains quite a lot.

        • Jay C

          Was the Greek (Byzantine) Empire really all that stable at the top? Though the combination of a pervasive State Church and an Imperial bureaucracy did keep the place going for centuries, even a cursory read of the history of the Eastern Emperors shows a pretty high turnover. For all their attempts to ensure dynastic continuity, a fair number of Byzantine rulers ended their reigns violently: one finds the phrases “assassinated” and/or “deposed, blinded/castrated, and locked up in a monastery” with grim regularity.

          • Lee

            The Byzantine Empire seemed to combine the worst features of European and Eastern monarchies with the advantages of neither.

            I also think that when talking about monarchies in East Asia, it is necessary to distinguish between China, Japan, and Korea. The phenomenon that Robert is talking about is more true to Japan than China and Korea because the Emperors were pretty much reduced to pope like figureheads by the 800s with a few exceptions here and there. There also weren’t that many dynastic changes.

            In contrast, China had many dynasties that ruled it. This allowed individual Emperors to have a greater impact on the systemm, especially towards the beggining and end of a dynasty.

            Korea stands on its own to. The government of Korea was modelled on the government of China. However, Korea was a lot smallert than China. This allowed individual Kings of Korea to play a greater role in governing, a role closer to that of a European monarch, than the Emperors of China or Japan. This leads to more personalization in the history of Korea as a kingdom.

  • CaseyL

    Caligula revisionism? Possibly. As with anyone else, it was his enemies who got to write his history; SFAIK, no contemporary account of his formative years and reputation survives.
    I’ve wondered for a long time if Claudius’ wife Messalina was a victim of similar posthumous defamation. She is supposed to have had at least Republican sympathies; one of her lovers is supposed to have been plotting a revival of a republic, with Messalina as co-conspirator. Portraying her as a sexually voracious and perverse monster who deserved what she got is something historians have done to uppity women since forever; in this case, doing so would have suited both Claudius’s pride and political convenience.

  • 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

    Yeah, who’d this guy think he was, the Pope?

    • Walt

      You’re thinking of the Mormon Prophet.

      • Malaclypse

        That’s Prophet, Seer, and Revelator to you, Gentile.

  • Scott Lemieux

    But I assume the stuff about how lesbians liked to spy on Caligula was accurate, right?

  • wengler

    The whole Roman Imperial system was incredibly dysfunctional. Caligula was raised by the sociopath Tiberius and taught any number of crazed practices that he would implement himself as emperor.

    Caligula’s true crimes were inflicting his crazed behavior on the protected elite.

    • Anderson

      You are using the word “sociopath” rather freely if you think it applies to Tiberius, the victim of Tacitus’s literary brilliance.

      • Scott de B.

        Yes, I would put Tiberius on the list of the top 10 most competent Emperors.

        • wengler

          Competence and sociopathy are not mutually exclusive.

    • Indeed, compared to the Dominate, I would argue that the Principate Augustus established was a weak system, even compared to the pre-Civil Wars era. I would compare the Principate with the sort of constitutional order might have arisen if the Confederates had won the American Civil War. To the extent that this discussion centers around personalities, it ignores the bureaucracy Augustus created, but kept hidden under aristocratic symbols, like the intermarriages of the Claudian and Julian families, as well as Agrippa’s. Augustus ruled by divide and conquer and by playing rivals off one another. What’s remarkable about Tiberius’ rule is, that he tried so hard to be absent and yet the bureaucracy continued. I think Sejanus is a far more odious character than both Caligula and Nero, and Claudius is accused of being a micro-manager too. This rehabilitation might be an efficient way of arguing that Caligula just dispensed with Augustus’ illusion of family lineage with a strong bureaucracy, and just tried to out-Sejanus Sejanus, to put a lid on the disorder Sejanus had wrought.

  • Scott P.

    Rehabilitating Caligula? A difficult project. Quoting Domitian to justify Caligula’s actions doesn’t exactly help. No doubt that certain events in his reign received the least charitable explanation possible. For example, the incident where Caligula built a bridge of boats across the bay of Baiae is usually adduced as an example of megalomania, but I’ve seen it hypothesized as a dry run for a bridge across the Channel for an invasion of England. Still nutty, but perhaps less so.

    Nero is the first-century Emperor who gets the worst rap, in my view. Hated by the elites, he was rather popular with the masses, and the Greeks loved him. Kind of like the Roman version of Bill Clinton.

    • A. Hilter

      All zat I ask is zat you do not misjudche me based on zese tales in ze upcoming Minehead by-election!

      Vote National Bocialist!

  • coming up next: adolf hitler – murderous tyrant or just misunderstood?

    • JozefAL

      Yeah, because there’s not really ANY type of CONTEMPORARY accounts of Hitler’s behavior, and absolutely NONE written by his friends and allies.

      So I can see how the two compare. [eyes rolling]

      • Hitler won’t ever be rehabilitated anywhere. The German defeat was too thourough for that. But, Stalin has been just about completely rehabilitated in Russia and Central Asia. Currently Mikhail Suprun a historian dealing with Stalinist repression of Russian-Germans is being tried for his research in Arkhangelsk. American revisionists like J. Arch Getty and others did a lot to set the stage for the Russian revival of the cult of Stalin.

        • ajay

          American revisionists like J. Arch Getty and others did a lot to set the stage for the Russian revival of the cult of Stalin.

          Solipsism strikes again…

          • Walt

            I don’t understand your comment, ajay.

            • Hogan

              I would think that military failure in Afghanistan and complete economic collapse after 1991 do more to explain the Stalin revival than all the writing of US historians in the last century.

              • wiley

                Everything they said about Communism was wrong, but everything they said about Capitalism was right.

            • ajay

              The assumption (by an American) that the revival of the cult of Stalin must of course have something to do with what a few not-very-famous American dons wrote about Stalin in the 1990s is pretty solipsistic. As it would be if a Russian were to say “Of course, one can’t look at the election of Barack Obama and not see the influence of I. Randomovitch Academicianov’s “History of Race Relations in the Modern West” (Novosibirsk, 1999).”

        • wengler

          I think a lot of the rehabilitation of Stalin comes from the fact that crash industrialization is never going to be pretty. It’s going to kill a lot of people. The process of industrialization in capitalist countries killed a lot of people.

          So the narrative goes that Stalin was horrible yet necessary. How this applies to having millions of soldiers captured in the summer of 1941 I don’t know. But I guess the gigantic task of moving industry(and untrustworthy peoples) to the East was a feat in itself.

  • John

    In terms of the postscript, I assume the lack of familiarity in the west with eastern monarchs does make it easier to ignore events of individual reigns.

    But there are some other reasons one might want to focus more on individual monarchs in European history. One issue, I think, is foreign policy. Until the nineteenth century, China, in periods of strength, could routinely ignore the outside world. Even in the middle ages, European states were constantly interacting with each other, and this interaction became even more regular and extended in the early modern period. The integral role of those relations – especially in the period from about 1450 to 1789 – makes it hard to talk about those periods sensibly without understanding the personalities of individual monarchs. Furthermore, the European state system in this period was essentially dynastic, rather than national. “States” were often nothing of the kind, and geopolitics were determined as much by the vicissitudes of inheritance as by war and conquest. “States” in early modern Europe were often not states at all, so much as collections of territories that happened to be inherited by a single person. You can of course learn a lot about internal history without getting into individual monarchs (although I think even this would be rather hard if you’re studying anything relating to political history), but international history becomes utterly opaque when you remove the individuals from it.

    • dave

      It’s worth noting that diplomatic/high-political histories often pay very little attention to the personalities of European monarchs, assuming them to be the tools/figureheads of the political elite, who are themselves players in a game with very clear rules. Schroeder’s Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848 would be a good edge-case of this: he piles odium on Napoleon precisely because the latter has [what Schroeder sees as] a sociopathic tendency to break the rules and act ‘individually’.

      • ajay

        1763-1848 is a bit late, though – I read John’s comment as referring to a rather earlier part of history.

        And surely it would be a bit difficult to write about pre-WW1 German politics without paying quite a lot of attention to the personality of the Kaiser?

        • dave

          “The integral role of those relations – especially in the period from about 1450 to 1789 – makes it hard to talk about those periods sensibly without understanding the personalities of individual monarchs.”

          My point was that, for the latter end of this specified period, the reverse is sometimes true.

        • Lurker

          To be exact, many European historians write pre-WWI history with only passing mentions of Wilhelm III’s character. After all, he was but a single player in the much larger game of German domestic politics. Usually, the interests of the German industry, Navy, Army and the interests of the different political parties are described with much more detail.

          Of course, Wilhelm III was an unlikeable fellow who was extremely jealous of his royal aunt’s Navy. Yet, he was hardly alone. The German industry wanted to build ships. The German Navy officer corps wanted to build a fleet. However, they were “moderated” by a more powerful Army high command willing to have a mighty army. Then, the civilian politicians and the local governments of the kingdoms also had a say in the financial and social politics. The German Emperor was playing all of them against each other, simultaneously having a career diplomatic corps juggling with the European balance of power.

          The character of Wilhelm III had about as much or even less independent personal effect as Obama has now. Enough to make a difference, but nothing over-arching.

          • dave

            II, dude. II.

            And grandmother.

            Apart from that, sweet.

  • Pingback: Inside Caligula’s Head | Rearranging Prejudices()

  • Bruce Webb

    There is an excellent case that Tiberius was posthumously slandered, most of his alleged crimes having occured away from Rome on Capri with little to no way of collaboration and rather unlikely in the context of his documented companions. That is a man whose documented public life was Spartan to the extreme was portrayed by Suetonius as going full out freakish pedophile during his retirement.

    But Caligula went full out nutso in public view. I mean you can only spin the naming of a horse as co-Consul being a little over the top to say nothing of him establishing open sexual relations with his sister.

    I studied this stuff back in the day and it is clear enough that some of our biggest sources for the Early Caesars, namely Suetonius and Tacitus, had axes to grind and in the former case was more devoted to telling a soap opera story than relating history, still after distilling things down it is clear that the Julian-Claudian Emperors were on balance not balanced at all. And their wives and mothers even worse.

    Tiberius maybe got a raw deal from contemporary historians, Cligula and Nero? Hmm, not so much, there is just too much third party information to support the idea that this was all Suetonius with a boner on. Even as you might need to discount a detail here and there.

    • Njorl

      Third party information can be inaccurate even when it is contemporary. We had Rush Limbaugh accusing Bill Clinton of nine murders and rape.

      Augustus had the advantage of murdering almost the entire remnant of the ruling class before he took over. There wasn’t much of a market for anti-Augustan propaganda. The later Claudians had to deal with the existing ruling class which he created. If they had drawn up long lists of their enemies and executed them all before taking power, their reigns might have gone smoothly as well.

  • Anderson

    But Caligula went full out nutso in public view. I mean you can only spin the naming of a horse as co-Consul being a little over the top

    I dunno. Have you ever tried to deal with American senators, much less Roman ones? I think Obama could relate. (And would a horse be that much worse than Biden, really?)

    Our sources tend to follow the senatorial line, but there were excellent reasons for the Caesars to mistrust the senators’ competence and good faith. Senatorial government gave Rome at least three civil wars. The challenge for the Caesars was to find a place for the Senate in a new, monarchical government, but the Senate didn’t want to play that game — they wanted to sulk about their loss of power.

    • rea

      Caligula’s naming his horse to the Senate famously differs from modern politics in that we no longer put the whole horse in the Senate.

    • Hogan

      “I wish all you Villagers had only one neck!”

  • Hogan

    Haven’t seen it in years (I mean… erm, ever)

    I’m a Helen Mirren completist. Thta

  • Hogan

    Haven’t seen it in years (I mean… erm, ever)

    I’m a Helen Mirren completist. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    • Now that’s a pleasant image! Far more enticing than John Hurt in drag!

  • dave

    It seems to me that the reliable evidence for Caligula’s madness is rather on a par with that for the miracles of Christ. Any takers?

    • At least Caligula was a real historical person, unlike the purely literary creation of the Messiah.

      • Lee

        Speaking of Messiahs and Caligula’s madness, Caligula’s actions towards Judea where the proverbial straw that broke the Camal’s back and led to the Great Jewish Revolt. This led to the destruction of the Temple which led to further incidents that still effect current affairs in the Middle East in a rather direct fashion.

      • Anderson

        Oh pooh. Jesus of Nazareth’s existence is as well attested as that of Socrates.

        … And below, Lee has his chronology mixed up. The local governor was too wily to obey Caligula; he wrote back to Rome for confirmation on the order, and Caligula died before either confirming it or punishing the governor.

        The Jewish revolt came under Nero, i.e., there was an entire reign (Claudius) b/t Caligula and the revolt.

        (It’s interesting if futile to speculate whether the “desolating sacrilege” mentioned in the gospel of Mark refers to a renewed effort to put an emperor’s statue in the Temple.)

        • rea

          Oh pooh. Jesus of Nazareth’s existence is as well attested as that of Socrates.

          Of course that’s not true. We have 3 contemporary sources for Socrates (Plato, Xenophon, Aristophanes) and none for Jesus

          • Malaclypse

            Not quite contemporary, but I believe Josephus mentions him twice.

            • The Josephus stuff is generally acknowledged to be a later addition.

              • Malaclypse

                Did not know that, thanks.

It is main inner container footer text