Was the Roman emperor Caligula as crazy as they say?


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Dear Straight Dope: I have heard some of the crazy stories about the Roman emperor Caligula, his horse, and everything. I haven’t seen the movie, unfortunately, but the stories circulate pretty well just by word of mouth. Anyway, recently I heard that, for the most part, this is all nonsense. I was wondering what is true about Gaius Caligula, and where these nutty stories came from. Kyle, Wilmette, IL

SDStaff bibliophage replies:

For years I’ve been hearing bizarre stories about the 1979 movie Caligula starring Malcolm McDowell, so when this question came in, I finally let curiosity get the best of me. Watching porn so you don’t have to is just part of our commitment to customer service. Sometimes, though, this attitude takes us above and beyond the call of duty. Nothing personal, Kyle, but now I wish you had never asked this question.

In is book I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie (2000), Roger Ebert writes, “Caligula is not good art, it is not good cinema, it is not good porn.” I couldn’t agree more, and can only add that it isn’t such great history either. But its history isn’t quite as bad as you might suspect, considering that your average pellicula cinematographica obscena is not known for adherence to historical fact. I was surprised how many incidents in the film were based on ancient sources. That doesn’t necessarily make it good history, though. Most modern historians believe that all the ancient sources about Caligula need to be taken cum grano salis.

Most of what we know of Caligula’s life and reign comes from six ancient writers. Seneca the Younger (various writings) and Philo of Alexandria (On the Embassy to Gaius) knew the emperor personally. Tacitus (Annals and Histories) and Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews) were born a bit too late to know him, but they knew many people who had known him. The two sources that seem to be the prime basis of the film, Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars) and Dio (Roman History), lived long after Caligula’s death, and their works were not published until about 80 and 190 years after his reign, respectively. Tacitus can often be counted on to give rational balance to the more bizarre rumors repeated by Suetonius and Dio, but unfortunately the part of Tacitus’s Annals dealing with Caligula’s reign is lost and there are only scattered references to him in the extant works. Even so, from what remains in Tacitus, it is clear that he was no fan of Caligula’s.

All six writers were hostile to Caligula for one reason or another, and they agree that he was not a very nice guy, to say the least. But there is a strong tendency for the stories to get progressively wilder the further removed the writer is from the emperor’s times. The trend continues apace, with some of the wildest stories of all being invented for twentieth-century fictional works: the 1934 novel I, Claudius by Robert Graves or the 1976 miniseries based on it and on its sequel Claudius the God; the 1942 religious novel The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas; the play Caligula by Albert Camus (first published in 1944 but written several years earlier); and most of all, the 1979 big-budget glorified porn flick produced by Bob Guccione. In addition to the ancient sources on Caligula, some of the stories told about Caligula in these modern fictional works appear to be invented out of whole cloth, while others seem to be inspired by stories Suetonius related about two other imperial bad boys, Nero and Domitian.

Below, I’ll evaluate some of the more interesting stories told about Caligula in these works. If you want to be surprised when you watch or read them — or if you just have a weak stomach — you may want to stop reading now.

First, there are some scenes in the 1979 film that do not directly reflect on Caligula. The early parts of the film take place before the reign of Caligula and so reflect more on the character of his predecessor, Tiberius. The orgiastic goings-on at Tiberius’s palace on Capri are more or less in accord with Suetonius’s depiction of them, but modern historians are skeptical that Suetonius was doing anything more than repeating baseless rumors. His biography of Tiberius also inspired the notorious scene in the film where a man is forced to drink wine but is prevented from relieving himself by having his penis tied with a cord. In another scene Macro’s wife Ennia is seen bathing in human semen. A bath cum cum, if you will. I have found no evidence that anything like that ever happened, and if it did I don’t really want to know about it.

Incest. The 1979 film sure doesn’t waste any time getting to this one, putting it even before the opening credits. All the other twentieth-century fictional works mentioned above, except The Robe, also indicated that Caligula committed incest with at least one sister. Three of the six ancient sources (Josephus, Suetonius, and Dio) agree that the charge is true. In the film, he only sleeps with one sister, which is in agreement with Josephus. Suetonius and Dio go further, claiming he committed incest with all three of his sisters. In a section about the misdeeds of Caligula’s oldest sister Agrippina, Tacitus seems to imply that she, at least, did not sleep with him, but in his extant works he is silent about whether the other two sisters did. The two earliest writers, Seneca and Philo, would have loved to include a juicy bit like this, but they say nothing about it. This makes many suspect that the incest accusation was just a rumor that didn’t surface until well after the fact. Unfounded accusations of incest were sometimes used for political reasons in this period. For example, Caligula’s successor Claudius would use the tactic to get rid of his daughter’s inconvenient fiancé. (This is the same Claudius who married his own niece). Modern scholars are divided on whether the charge against Caligula is true.

Regicide. Caligula’s predecessor (and great uncle and adoptive grandfather) Tiberius died in his seventies, and Caligula has often been implicated. Dio treats it as a fact that Caligula smothered him with the help of Macro (the leader of the Praetorian Guard). Suetonius mentions a similar scenario as one of many rumors surrounding the death. Tacitus says it was Macro who did it without Caligula’s help. Variations of this theme are found in the 1979 film and in the book and miniseries versions of I, Claudius. Seneca, Philo, and Josephus all treat it as a natural death. All agree that Tiberius was on his deathbed anyway, so it’s not clear what Caligula and Macro had to gain by accelerating the process by a few days. Modern historians treat the death as being most likely a natural one.

Pedophilia. There is a scene from the 1979 film, occurring shortly after the death of Tiberius, that I am guessing is the basis of the charge that the movie implies pedophilia. It’s a stretch. All we see is Caligula leading away Gemellus (Tiberius’s grandson and Caligula’s cousin), and saying, “We must love each other.” The real Gemellus was 17 at this time, though the actor playing him looks a few years younger. There is no basis in any of the ancient sources for the belief that Caligula and Gemellus had a sexual relationship, either forced or consensual. Philo is the only one of the ancient sources who hints that Caligula lusted after boys, but modern historians don’t put much stock in this claim. The other modern fictional works do not make the same charge. Caligula’s primary sexual prey seems to have consisted of rich married women and (according to Suetonius and Dio) grown men.

Decapitation of Macro. I thought this scene from the 1979 film was rather amusing, but no, it didn’t happen that way. The sources say Macro committed suicide with a sword in private rather than be convicted. He was officially accused of pandering, but this charge seems to have been a cover for his “real” crime, conspiracy (see below). Decapitation by a ten-story-tall lawnmower, as in the film, was not the usual execution method in any case.

Rape. The wedding scene from the 1979 film seems to have at least a grain of truth to it. They can’t agree on what her name was, but Suetonius and Dio say that Caligula kidnapped his second wife either just before she was to be married to another man, or just after. He did not make the bridegroom watch the act as depicted in the film, but took her home first. He divorced her within weeks and allowed her to marry her original fiancé. Some modern historians claim the bride may have broken off the engagement to marry Caligula willingly. That’s possible, but not really supported by the sources. Even if the bride was willing, Suetonius and Dio give other examples of rape (mostly of married women), so if they can be trusted, Caligula was indeed a rapist.

Anal fisting. There is no basis in any of the ancient sources that Caligula was responsible for anything like what is depicted in this disgusting scene from the 1979 film. There is a story about Nero dressing up as a wild animal and attacking the groins of people who are tied down for the purpose, but I can’t say if that story inspired this scene.

Murder of various family members. Several of the ancient sources say that Gemellus, whom Caligula had by then adopted as his son (after depriving him of his right to rule as co-heir), took a cough medicine and that Caligula smelled it on his breath. The emperor claimed Gemellus had taken an antidote because he feared Caligula was trying to poison him. Caligula either had him killed or forced him to commit suicide, ostensibly for not trusting him enough. Gotta love that logic. This charge, and the pandering charge against Macro, were probably covers for the men’s real crimes: planning for the future in case Caligula died of the serious illness he suffered through early in his reign. (No word on whether either of them declared, “As of now, I am in control here, in the Palatium.”) The miniseries I, Claudius has Macro killing the boy because his cough annoyed Caligula. The novel presents yet another scenario, in which Gemellus was killed because he refused to go to sea with Caligula. (In the ancient sources, that happened to Silanus, not Gemellus). Gemellus, as the natural grandson of Tiberius, would have been the logical choice to succeed Caligula if he died. After he recovered from his illness, Caligula had them and others killed, and he made his sister Drusilla heir. The film confuses matters by putting their deaths before Caligula’s illness.

Not to pardon Caligula’s murder of Gemellus, but killing the natural descendants of the previous emperors was par for the course. This proud Roman tradition began when Augustus’s grandson Agrippa Postumus was killed shortly after Tiberius came to power. Later, Caligula’s own young daughter would have her brains dashed out within hours of his assassination. Later yet, the son of Claudius died mysteriously after Nero came to power, and the son of Vitellius died not-so-mysteriously along with his father. But Gemellus was Caligula’s adopted son, which casts his murder in an especially sinister light.

Caligula had other family members killed as well: his father-in-law Silanus ostensibly for refusing to go to sea with him but really on suspicion of conspiracy, and his brother-in-law (and cousin and, some say, lover) Lepidus for conspiracy. Some of the sources claim he drove his grandmother Antonia to suicide by insulting her. The notion that at the age of eight he killed his own father, as in I, Claudius (novel and miniseries both), is purely an invention by Graves. Germanicus did die mysteriously, but the young Caligula was never a suspect. Camus’s play has Caligula killing his last and favorite wife Caesonia with his own hands. In fact Caesonia survived her husband briefly, but was killed the same day by the same forces that killed Caligula and their daughter. Nero is supposed to have kicked one of his wives to death, but I doubt that story inspired this scene. With the dubious exception of the death of Tiberius, there is no support in the ancient sources for the notion that Caligula ever killed anyone with his own hands. He had plenty of other people to do his dirty work. For the death of Drusilla, see below.

About the horse. You were wondering when I was going to get to this one, weren’t you? Several of the ancient sources make mention of Caligula’s favorite horse, Incitatus, and how the emperor pampered it with a marble stable, an ivory manger, a jeweled collar, and invitations to banquets. Though not mentioned in the 1979 film, there is a persistent belief that Caligula made the horse a consul. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica once repeated this claim as fact, but has since retracted it. There is no basis in the sources to support the idea that the horse was ever actually elevated to the position. Dio and Suetonius do claim he promised to make the horse consul but died before he could fulfill his plan. Among the modern fictional works surveyed, only The Robe has Caligula actually elevating the horse to a consulship. I, Claudius has him make the horse a senator and nominate him for the consulship. If there is anything more than baseless rumor behind the idea that he promised to make the horse a consul, modern historians are inclined to treat it as a joke on Caligula’s part rather than a serious vow.

It is clear at any rate that he had a great fondness for the horse. But not one of the ancient sources ever hints that the fondness was of a sexual nature. If the 1979 film implies bestiality, that would seem to be an invention of the filmmakers. I say “if” because I’m not sure what the filmmakers intended to convey, and I’m quite sure I don’t want to delve too deeply into their minds. There are two scenes of interest. In the first, Caligula (fully clothed) is seen stroking the horse’s flank. In the next scene, the horse is lying in Caligula’s bed. It’s obvious what is implied, right? Maybe not, because by this time Caligula was far too ill to do anything naughty with the horse in his bed. Everyone agrees he was close to death and not expected to survive. No one really knows what disease he suffered from but there has been a lot of speculation. What were the symptoms? Well, it all started when his throat felt a little hoarse …

Caprice. In the 1979 film as in I, Claudius, a man offers his own life if the Fates would spare the Emperor’s. Caligula takes him up on the offer and has him killed or threatens to do so. That seems like the sort of thing a modern writer or filmmaker would make up, but a story like this is found in Dio and Suetonius. Modern historians are divided on whether the man was actually killed (as Dio states) or merely made to think he was about to be killed (as Suetonius implies, according to some interpretations). In general, there is reliable evidence of capricious, bizarre, and murderous behavior, so it would not be totally out of character if true.

Although not depicted in the film or miniseries, the building of the temporary floating bridge of Baiae ranks as the most famous capricious act of Caligula’s reign. Spanning several miles across an inlet of the Bay of Naples and made from ships covered with earth, it was built at great expense and dismantled within days. No really convincing reason has been given for its construction, but impressing Rome’s enemies is most often cited. Dio and Seneca claim the construction caused a famine in Rome by tying up the vessels needed for grain shipments. If there was a famine, it could not have been a very bad one, as records do not indicate an increase in the death rate during this period. The same can be said of another famine supposedly caused by Caligula’s requisitioning of wagons. Whatever one believes about these alleged accidental famines, there is no basis for the notion, found in Camus’s play, that Caligula purposely caused a famine by locking the doors of the granaries. Suetonius does report that Caligula hoped for a famine or some other calamity so he could do something about it and be seen as a great savior. Even if that’s true, there is no evidence he intentionally created a calamity for that purpose.

Torture and castration (and the manufacture of substandard dog food). This scene from the 1979 film is such a perversion (in both senses of the word) that I wouldn’t have recognized it but for the name of the victim, Proculus. In the film, the victim is the bridegroom who had earlier been subjected to anal fisting. In history, the groom (who wasn’t really fisted) was a different man. Scribonius Proculus, according to Dio, was a senator (a man of parts presumably) who was hacked to pieces not by Caligula, nor on his direct orders, but by his fellow senators. His crime? He was accused of hating Caligula. (Robert Byrd, watch your back!) I suppose castration would be a logical part of being hacked to pieces, but no mention is made in the ancient sources of his genitals being fed to dogs, as depicted in the film. Dio and Seneca give us several examples of people being tortured to death under Caligula, but they say nothing about castration.

Claim to divinity. This is only hinted at in the 1979 film (probably because you can’t turn it into a porn scene). It is a much bigger element of I, Claudius. Philo, Josephus, Suetonius, and Dio all report that Caligula was convinced of his own divinity and encouraged (or required) others to worship him as a god. The sources do not agree on whether he thought he was an incarnation of Jupiter, a brother of Jupiter, or some other sort of god. The idea that he was convinced he was the Jewish Messiah — in addition to being a pagan god — is an invention by Graves. The Robe has him claim divinity not only for himself, but also for the horse Incitatus, but there is no basis for the latter charge. At any rate, Caligula was not the first emperor to be worshipped during his lifetime. Other early emperors permitted — but did not generally encourage — worship of themselves in parts of the empire outside Italy, especially in Greek-speaking communities. Caligula went further than most of the others, permitting worship of himself even inside Italy and encouraging it (or even requiring it) elsewhere.

When some Jews in Judea had the audacity to destroy an altar dedicated to him, Caligula responded by ordering that a huge statue of himself be erected inside the Temple in Jerusalem. Previous emperors had permitted statues of themselves to be installed in pagan temples, but only when requested by the priests. Petronius, the governor of Syria, wisely delayed implementing the order in the face of massive nonviolent protests. In the meantime, Caligula’s friend Herod Agrippa (then the tetrarch of Batanea and Galilee and later king of Judea) convinced the emperor that this would be a Really Bad Idea, so he canceled the order. Philo and Josephus differ on what happened next. Philo says Caligula soon impetuously re-ordered the installation of the statue, while Josephus says he resigned himself to not having the statue erected but did order Petronius to kill himself for not following the first order fast enough. If he actually gave either of these two later orders, he died before they could be enforced.

Necrophilia. The 1979 film does not depict actual humping of the corpse, but there is rather more kissing, embracing, and caressing than is standard mortuary practice. The other fictional works surveyed depict nothing like this. All the ancient sources agree that Caligula was very fond of his sister Drusilla and that he was crushed by her early death. As stated above, three of the ancient sources agree that he committed incest with her while she was alive. None of the ancient sources has anything to say about Caligula committing necrophilia with her body, though. This scene may be based on a story reported by Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio about Nero admiring the naked body of his dead mother Agrippina.

It’s not clear exactly how Drusilla died, but there is no evidence from the ancient sources that Caligula was responsible for her death. In the novel I, Claudius there is a vague suspicion that Caligula might have killed her. In the miniseries version, Caligula kills the pregnant Drusilla, cutting her open to get the baby out, which he then eats. (I did warn you not to read this if you had a weak stomach). This scene may well have been inspired by a story about Domitian: that got his niece pregnant and forced her into a botched abortion that was the cause of her death. However Drusilla died, the senate deified her at Caligula’s urging, as they had earlier deified Julius Caesar and Augustus. She was the first, but not last, woman so honored. Her cult did not survive Caligula’s reign.

Pimping. Dio and Suetonius claim Caligula turned the Palace into a brothel, but the other sources are silent on the topic. In Dio, as in I, Claudius and the 1979 film, it is the wives of senators he prostitutes. It was not one big happy orgy as depicted in the film and miniseries, even if Dio and Suetonius are to be believed about the brothel. They agree that the encounters happened in private rooms set aside for the purpose. It is suspicious that the four earlier sources don’t mention it, so modern historians are skeptical of the charge. The supposed motive for this and many other acts was that he was always on the verge of bankruptcy and needed money. It’s true that he was an extravagant spender, but many modern historians doubt the fiscal situation was ever really desperate. There certainly seems to have been no lack of money in the treasury for his successor Claudius to spend early in his reign.

Insanity. This is most tellingly shown in the 1979 film by Caligula’s attack on the English channel. He didn’t attack across the English Channel, nor did he attack an enemy force on the English Channel. He attacked the English Channel itself. And being the brilliant military leader he was, he won. The ancient sources agree that this bizarre incident or something like it really happened. He went to northern Gaul with a large military force and made as though he were going to invade Britain (or possibly Germany). Instead he declared victory, told the soldiers to gather shells as spoils of war, and went home. Modern historians disagree on the meaning of the episode. The simplest explanation is that Caligula was just plain nuts. One not-very-compelling interpretation is that the “shells” referred to a type of siege engine and not to seashells. Another interpretation is that the troops refused to embark on the boats for an invasion of Britain, so Caligula ordered them to pick up seashells as “spoils of war” to insult them for their cowardice. Although that interpretation is not really supported by the sources, there may be something to it. When Claudius invaded Britain successfully a few years later, the operation was delayed several weeks by a similar refusal of the troops.

In I, Claudius, Caligula’s motive in attacking the sea is to be revenged upon Neptune for the destruction of the bridge of Baiae and of his father’s fleet. (This motivation is clearer in the novel than in the miniseries). The sources do not support this interpretation either. The bridge was dismantled on purpose and not destroyed. It’s true that his father Germanicus’s fleet had been disrupted by a sudden storm along the North Sea coast many years before, but the loss of life wasn’t very great and the sources do not connect this incident with Caligula’s later bizarre behavior.

Another sequence in the 1979 film that is supposed to indicate his madness has Caligula wandering aimlessly around the city after Drusilla’s death, and his disappearance causing great distress. This is paralleled in the opening scene of Camus’s play, but is not supported by the ancient sources. In fact Caligula left the city for several months during the mourning period, but he was in Sicily and there was no great mystery about where he was.

So Caligula was not a nice guy, but just how bad was he? He did have many people killed, but so did the other emperors. The sources give the names of some thirty people who were executed or forced to commit suicide on his personal orders during his four-year reign, in addition to many others whose deaths are mentioned but who are not specifically named. That may seem like a lot, but on a per-year basis it is roughly in line with the last several years under Tiberius and the first several years under Claudius. The notion that Caligula singled out Christians for persecution, as depicted in The Robe, is not supported by the facts. The nascent Christian movement was most likely beneath his notice. Nor was it unusual to have members of his own family killed. Tiberius, for example, was responsible for the deaths of two of his own great nephews, Caligula’s older brothers. Many of the people Caligula had killed were involved in political conspiracies against him, and the conspiracies certainly weren’t all in his head — the ancient sources agree that many were real. (If even a fraction of the stories told about Caligula are true, you can hardly blame people for conspiring.)

The last conspiracy was real enough to kill him. Elements of the Praetorian Guard and a group of senators killed him as he returned home from a spectacle. The senators resented him because he did not show them the proper deference. The senate had little actual power under Augustus and Tiberius, but those emperors at least pretended the senate was still important. The senatorial conspirators hoped to restore the republic (which was more of an oligarchy than a democracy). Their hopes were dashed when loyal elements of the Praetorian Guard proclaimed Caligula’s uncle Claudius emperor.

Some scholars believe that Josephus, Suetonius, and Dio, and perhaps Tacitus, were inspired in some of the juicier details of Caligula’s life by the now lost writings of Cluvius Rufus. He was a senator who was part of the conspiracy that assassinated Caligula and so would have incentive to make him appear as bad as possible. Even discounting for the likelihood that much of what has come down to us is based on lies, rumors, and exaggerations, it is still clear that Caligula was not a very nice guy, and not particularly stable either. There’s no telling whether he would have gotten even worse had he not been assassinated after only four years of rule. Very likely the empire was better off under Claudius, who was himself far from perfect.

On the whole, Caligula seems to have been a somewhat worse ruler than the average amongst the rogues’ gallery of first-century emperors, but not dramatically so. Allowance having been made for exaggeration and invention, Tiberius and several of the brief-reigning emperors come across as only slightly better than Caligula. Nero and Domitian were at least as bad as Caligula and possibly worse. When the porn flicks about them are released, I think I’ll sit them out.

Further reading:

The Emperor Gaius (Caligula) (1934) by J. P. V. D. Balsdon is relatively kind to Caligula, and disputes many of the ancient stories.

Caligula: Emperor of Rome (1991) by Arther Ferrill is relatively critical of Caligula and accepts many of the stories Balsdon discards.

Caligula: The Corruption of Power (1990) by Anthony A. Barrett takes a middle course but is closer to Balsdon. I think he comes closest to the truth, but may still be kinder to the emperor’s memory than he deserves.

Some of the ancient sources are available online in English translation:

On the Embassy to Gaius by Philo of Alexandria. Philo led a delegation of Alexandrian Jews seeking relief from persecution by Alexandrian Greeks. This is the most personal portrait of the emperor extant and reveals his bizarre sense of humor. It can be read at www.geocities.com/Paris/LeftBank/5210/gaiustoc.htm.

Antiquities of the Jews by Flavius Josephus can be read at wesley.nnu.edu/josephus/.  The reign of Caligula is discussed in Books XVIII and XIX

Lives of the Caesars by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus can be read here: www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/suetonius-index.html. The fourth book is about Caligula, the sixth about Nero and the last about Domitian.

Roman History by Cassius Dio Cocceianus. Caligula’s reign is the topic of Book 59, which can be read at www.ukans.edu/history/index/europe/ancient_rome/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/59*.html.

SDStaff bibliophage, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.