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.