Caligula by Sam Wilkinson

Book Review by Frankq

Some observations about Sam Wilkinson's recent book, Caligula. Please note that this wasn't originally intended as a book review. Since this is for a project I'm working on, I didn't begin reading it in the spirit of critical review, but as useful research material. This the book very much provided, and helped to enlighten me a great deal about this much misunderstood and much maligned Roman emperor. However, I couldn't help but feel the book let me down, too. Much of this, of course, had to do with both my own expectations and Wilkinsion's platform in his presentation of Caligula's life.

The book works on the premise that if we are to judge the real Caligula, we have to judge his works and administration in the short four years he was in power. We have to rule out all the hearsay, propaganda, and wild tales that have generated the last 2000 years. Those are, more or less, the rules of engagement that Wilkinson makes in presenting Caligula's life.

He makes many, many solid revisionist points. Too much of Caligula's life, and too many of his reputed antics just don't add up under rational review. Indeed, they come off as PR work from his detractors. (Claudius prime among them, no surprise.) Add to this the fact that many of his chroniclers came a good century after his reign and it only helped to increase much of the negative hearsay.

Basically, as Wilkinson sees it, Caligula got too much power too soon, whereas Augustus and Tiberius pieced together power in the principate over several decades, Caligula got it all in one shot. Add to this the fact that, unlike his predecessors, he had no experience and auctoritas, nor did he have any acquaintance with any kind of government other that the principate. Forced to live on Capri with Tiberius, he witnessed all the weaknesses of the Senate, and when he came to power, all that he had going for him was his family name. Enough nonsense then, why not present himself for what he was, a supreme ruler? Naturally this pitted him at odds with the Senate, who invariably engineered not only his downfall, but also a full destruction of his reputation.

That's Wilkinson's summary in a slight nutshell, and I am not doing his presentation full justice by the very nature of this 'non-review'. Year by year, region by region he gives a detailed review of Caligula's administration and the political scene.

However, and here is where I have a problem, he assumes or predisposes the reader into assuming that all these great administrative feats were being done by Caligula alone, and that all the decisions and review of the various situations were 100% under his scrutiny and control. No matter how hostile he might have been with other organs of government, he did inherit a well-oiled and well-maintained government machine. There were others at play here, especially considering the great distances and the short period of Caligula's reign. Moreover, many of his decisions, though defusing tension in the provinces, only led to greater turmoil later on.

While I find his ultimate analysis of the factors behind Caligula's assassination as strong, he fails to follow up on them with facts. He doesn't even provide even the most nominal description of the emperor's actual assassination, nor give mention on the brutal killings of his wife and child. But my real problem with the book is that, although he remains adamant in ruling out all the wild tales about Caligula's madness as any means in estimating the emperor, he doesn't fully address the fact that nothing comes from nothing. Or, more aptly put, something had to come from something.

By way of explanation, let us take Cleopatra as an example. While her much maligned reputation has her being everything from a nymphomaniac to Satan's daughter, which is naturally thoroughly ridiculous and unfair, it did not stem as rumor from thin air. Cleopatra used her sex and sex itself as a weapon in negotiating with Rome's two top dogs; the bedchamber for her was an extension of the negotiating table. Hence, ''something'' when the truth needed to be distorted. Hence all the myth. In Wilkinson's case, by dismissing all rumor and talk about Caligula's madness, he still doesn't get down to the link that was made in order to denigrate this emperor's reputation. Claudius even went so far as to issue an official proclamation that Caligula was basically mad, why not technically rake each rumor and tear it apart? This is done, in fact, regarding the ridiculous seashell collecting episode, why not elsewhere? Even if he is standing strong on his position of not addressing any rumor as a criteria for Caligula's foul reputation, why not delve deeper into the administrative roots of the slander?

Wilkinson has Caligula coming off as squeaky clean, a brash and bold and wild-mouthed youth who, because he insulted the Senate, engineered his own downfall. OK, great, but what really generated the madness scenario? Find the technical and administrative roots to it all. Again, my opinion, and I may have missed something. See what you think. A recommended read.

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