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Caligula by Sam Wilkinson

Book Review by Fulvia

Crazy. Insane. Out of control. Egotistical. Blood-thirsty. Psychotic. This is just a sample of adjectives stereotypically ascribed to many of the Roman emperors, but were the emperors really as mad as common, popular belief teaches us they were? Were they honestly as looney, messed up and deranged as befitting a perfectly wild addition to a morbid rendition of “Alice in Wonderland”? Sam Wilkinson, professor of Classics at the University of London, in his 128 pages pamphlet “Caligula”, does his best to weed out fact from such superficial assumptions on everyone’s favourite nefarious megalomaniac, Gaius Caligula. This study is a fascinating counterbalance to the general biographies on Caligula that tend to simply present the ancient sources and not spend sufficient energies on testing the sources for accuracy over bias.

Wilkinson sets about his myth-busting, for that is really what this book is about, by assuming that all the sources are wrong and that they must be debunked, or proven, by looking at the results of the events that were said to transpire during Caligula’s reign. He does this mostly by judging the reactions of the populace to Caligula’s measures and by checking for the continuation of the ordinances on into Claudius’ reign. In a conclusion that would have been better set as a forward to this study that challenges everything typically taught about Caligula, Wilkinson lays out his thesis that Caligula was “competent” and “intelligent” and his only real crime was not having the wisdom to properly deal with the Senate. Caligula was, in essence, an emperor before his time. As such, the insulted and rebuffed senatorial historians did their best to vilify Caligula as the mentally unstable and tyrannical despot that today we know and mostly love. This is not a revolutionary conclusion on its own, but it is the lengths to which the conclusion is mapped out which defines this pamphlet.

As a foundation to his study, Wilkinson gives a brief history of Caligula’s upbringing. The years spent with Tiberius on Caprae do not factor into his argument as much as previous studies have incorporated it as a likely birthing place for Caligula’s depravity. Wilkinson then divides Caligula’s reign into four chapter-categories which are then individually studied for either madness or rationality. These areas are Caligula’s domestic policy, foreign policy, the maiestas trials and his own assignation, and finally, his dealings with the Senate. Each section is further divided into study areas such as “Public Administration” and “Entertainment” under his domestic policy and various geographical regions such as Africa, Judaea and Britain for his foreign policy. For each section Wilkinson first looks at what the various ancient sources say about the event and then looks at the results of it from a less biased angle, such as looking backwards from Claudius’ reign.

For example, one of the theme complaints against Caligula was his spendthrift habits driving the Empire into debt and forever causing Caligula to go to new lows to try and replenish the coffers. Yet excessive spending was a stock accusation often employed by historians against authorities ill-liked. The line between private wealth and income earned as an emperor is problematic to discern, and should Caligula’s condemned personal extravagances have been taken from his private wealth, then vilification for stealing from the State is unfair. When Claudius came to power he had the funds available to heavily pay out to the praetorians- 15,000 sesterces to each praetorian, in addition to giving rich gifts to the city, a sure sign that the State was not run dry. So with points such as these Wilkinson concludes that by Caligula’s heavy spending, bankruptcy may have been a grave contemporary concern, but it did not necessarily occur.

Then there is Caligula’s bizarre trip to the Gallic beaches and his very strange attempt at an invasion of Britain. In a story that makes Caligula out to be madder than Xerxes whipping the Hellespont waters for its defiance, Wilkinson breaks Caligula’s British “war” down as thoroughly as he can giving the impression that this is the crowning moment of his study, that to bring logical rationality to Caligula’s action here would surely prove that it is possible to unwind Caligula’s entire reign into revealing a shrewd, yet very sane, man. Wilkinson does a good job trying to make sense of something that is very difficult to work around, in contrast to, say, naming his horse to the Senate being easily dismissed as ill tasted humour. Though, for me, it is here that I became a bit drowned in all the rationalizing attempts and so the concluding statement that, “Instead of a farce, we find a sensible and simple foreign policy in Gaius’ actions with….the Britons” came as something of a sideswipe and I was too overwhelmed to bother trying a second time to follow Wilkinson’s argument.

And thus, the strength of this book in forcing the ancient sources to prove themselves is also this book’s greatest weakness. Wilkinson is so intent on bringing out Caligula’s sanity that he sometimes seems to ignore the time proven test that the simple is usually more truthful than having to jump through five hoops first before it fits the theory. There are moments when you simply are not able to allow yourself to lose yourself in Wilkinson’s version of Caligula and then there are times you really let yourself believe that Caligula was not so much the problem as it was the ruling elite. Maybe it is possible that Caligula was just a despot before his time, a time when the ruling class had not given up enough of the Republic ideal to let him rest in peace for posterity; maybe? Overall this book is something of a fascinating read and truly does provide the other side of the coin. I would not suggest it as an introductory text to the emperor but would recommend it to anyone interested in investigating a more realistic Caligula.

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Book Review of Caligula by Sam Wilkinson - Related Topic: The History of Caligula


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