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Caligula by Sam Wilkinson

 

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....

 

 

...read the full review of Caligula by Sam Wilkinson

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I am all for revisionism of Caligula (and Nero) since the view of them we have is almost certainly wrong or at least incomplete.

 

By the way, do you know Anthony A Barrett's biography of the man "Caligula: The Corruption of Power"? I have not read the one you mention.

 

I believe that to understand Gaius (part of the problem, for me, is the constant reference to the nickname "Caligula") we need to do at least three things:

 

i) look at him in context;

 

ii) look at what other interpretations there might be for his recorded actions;

 

iii) look at how the deeds of others sround the same time are interpreted.

 

To give a few examples only at this stage:

 

On i):

 

Gaius was a direct descendent of Marcus Antonius, and knew his grandmother Antonia (Antonius's daughter) well. Could some of Gaius' attempts to introduce a Hellenistic-style of monarchy into the principiate, be a direct reference to some of Antonius' policies?

 

Tiberius had, for part of his reign at least sought to play up the republican credentials of the principiate (he failed). he then retreated into seclusion and was an invisible figure. Gaius may have sought a reaction to both approaches - reduce the fiction of continuing republicanism in favour of realism; be much more visible and glorious.

 

Gaius was the first princeps not to know any other form of government. Like Commdus later, Gaius may have been seduced by his birth and blood (Commodus was the first "porphyrogenital" emperor in several generations) - and this went to his head?

 

On ii) a (deliberately??) misunderstood sense of humour might be responsible for some stories - Cincinnatus as consul; as with the legions collecting "seashells" (their huts??) on the seashore..

 

The maoeuvres in the Rhine could be training or discipline.

 

On iii) Claudius faced a serious mutiny before his invasion of Britannia. Did Gaius face something similar which is interpreted one way for him, another for his uncle?

 

Anything that allows us to see this politician and ruler as a real actor in affairs rather than as a madman or monster, helps out understanding of the early empire.

 

Phil

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Phil,

 

Two points you brought up:

 

<<<<<<<ii) look at what other interpretations there might be for his recorded actions;

 

On ii) a (deliberately??) misunderstood sense of humour might be responsible for some stories - Cincinnatus as consul; as with the legions collecting "seashells" (their huts??) on the seashore..<<<<<<

 

 

On the first, Wilkinson makes several references to his sharp wit but doesnt take it any more from there. He is so duty bound to look at Caligula in poltical context that he restrains himself too much. Which leads to your other comment, about his humor. The more I study things the more I realize where the opposition got their ammunition to ruin his name. Case in point, he wanted the Statue of Zeus removed from Olympia, brought to Rome. It was an outlandish idea but just to really cap it off and get the Senate's goat, he suggested that a likeness of his head be put on top instead. The guy was a total prankster, a psychotic one probably, but one with an almost insane wit and sense of mischief.

 

These are things I think Wilkinson could have explored more. I think he set out on an agenda and doggesdly resused to stray from it.

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I think you mean the horse, Incitatus, not Cinnicinatus, who was a distinguished consul some centuries before and who was one of Rome's greatest senators and consuls in the Republic.

 

Caligula's jest about his horse was to show the senate how much he regarded the office of consul. I think this is one of the interpretations I read about this story, which is apocryphal at best and is based on hearsay. I'm speculating here but here is my version of what might have happened :

 

 

Caligula (addressing the senate) : So, conscript fathers, if there is no other business for this senate, we will adjourn until our next meeting on the morrow.

 

Senator in the front : (shouting) What do you mean by no more business, Caligula? How about nominating someone for consul, seeing that the office has been vacant these past two months?

 

Senator (to other senators): Maybe Caesar spends a lot of time riding?

 

Laughter all around as Caesar turns and glares at the senator.

 

Senator (hastily): I meant riding your favorite horse, Caesar, the one you call Incitatus, a gift from our friends in Britain.

 

Caesar ( staring for a while and then breaking out into laughter, joined by others imitating him) : Perhaps I should nominate Incitatus for consul. Would that satisfy you?

 

This time, it's the others in the senate who laugh, except for the few 'boni' who are insulted and are determined to spread a malicious rumor that Caligula wanted Incitatus to be nominated for consul and had, in fact, proposed it in the senate.

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I think you mean the horse, Incitatus, not Cinnicinatus, who was a distinguished consul some centuries before and who was one of Rome's greatest senators and consuls in the Republic.

 

Caligula's jest about his horse was to show the senate how much he regarded the office of consul. I think this is one of the interpretations I read about this story, which is apocryphal at best and is based on hearsay. I'm speculating here but here is my version of what might have happened :

 

 

Caligula (addressing the senate) : So, conscript fathers, if there is no other business for this senate, we will adjourn until our next meeting on the morrow.

 

Senator in the front : (shouting) What do you mean by no more business, Caligula? How about nominating someone for consul, seeing that the office has been vacant these past two months?

 

Senator (to other senators): Maybe Caesar spends a lot of time riding?

 

Laughter all around as Caesar turns and glares at the senator.

 

Senator (hastily): I meant riding your favorite horse, Caesar, the one you call Incitatus, a gift from our friends in Britain.

 

Caesar ( staring for a while and then breaking out into laughter, joined by others imitating him) : Perhaps I should nominate Incitatus for consul. Would that satisfy you?

 

This time, it's the others in the senate who laugh, except for the few 'boni' who are insulted and are determined to spread a malicious rumor that Caligula wanted Incitatus to be nominated for consul and had, in fact, proposed it in the senate.

 

Your scenario is exactly the kind of thing I'm talking about. The roots of arrogant jest were written in later as the roots of madness. Probably the biggest deal was Caligula's insistence of putting a statue of himself into the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews went into a frenzy and panic. But there is no record of any statue ever being commissioned. And his comment about the statue was in retaliation for the Jews desecrating an idol of the emperor in Apamea. Caligula may well have fumed: ''Well, if they wanna get testy, I'll see to it I put a statue of myself in...etc'' In this instance, and dealing with the Jews of Palestine, it didnt matter. The comment was fuel enough. Later detractors and Claudius' spin doctors went to work with wild fervor exaggerating the material.

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Thanks for the correction on Incitatus - you are of course correct. I was writing in haste - thank heaven for the true scholars amongst us.

 

While I enjoyed the "reconstruction" of the Senatorial discussion (it may even be right!!) - I can see a more "serious" possible explanation. Perhaps annoyed by Senatorial opposition, Gaius remarks that he might impose his favorite horse as Consul - suggesting both his contempt and power at the same time.

 

My own reading of Gaius is that he had a very serious and focused agenda, at least in the first years of the reign - and that was to make Rome very visibly a monarchy. It maybe why he got such an incredibly bad press from an early date, especially from Senatorial writers.

 

I think the possible explanations of the Jerusalem incident and the Phideas statue are also good ones. Many Roman statues did have heads that were separate, so changing them was not a problem. The method of construction of Phideas's Zeus (I have seen the original moulds for some of the drapery in Greek museums) would make replacing the head very easy. We also know that after Nero's death, the head of his colossus was altered to that of Apollo or the Sun.

 

Did not one of the authors also say that Gaius used to receive vistors while standing between the statues of Castor and Pollux? Their temple in the Forum Romanum is EXACTLY in front of the vestibule Domitian built to give access via a ramp to the Palatine palace. I believe that under the Flavian building of the vestibule, there are remains from Gaius' period. It may be that here we are misunderstanding an author's witty reference to the location or access to a new reception hall built by Gaius. We may never know.

 

But I'd love, one day, to try to write a piece that would reveal a very different Gaius, and reinstate him as a "serious" princeps, at least to some extent.

 

Phil

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...thanks to Fulvia we have another look at Sam Wilkinsons Caligula...

 

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"?

 

...read the full review of Caligula by Sam Wilkinson

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