Caligula is probably the most infamous Roman Emperor there was. He’s so infamous, he’s probably the only emperor to be the subject of his own Gore Vidal-scripted porn film. But Caligula is also one of the hardest-to-understand emperors, which makes giving him a reasonable treatment on-screen nearly impossible.
Much of the traditional narrative for Gaius Caligula’s reign derives from Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, which includes a biography of him. Tacitus’ Annals included perhaps two book (or as we would say, chapters) on the reign of Caligula, but unfortunately those books have no survived. Cassius Dio includes a chapter on Gaius in his Roman History, but parts of the chapter have been lost (although enough remains to offer a coherent and detailed narrative of events). The normal story of Gaius Caligula is based on Suetonius for two reasons. First, since Suetonius was much closer in time to Gaius Caligula than Cassius Dio was and since Suetonius had access to the imperial archives, his version of events is more likely to be accurate. Second, Suetonius shapes his material into a much more dramatic and satisfying narrative than Dio’s. However, it’s vitally important to remember that both Suetonius and Dio were deeply hostile to the Julio-Claudians and are therefore not objective historians.
The traditional story of Caligula is that he was a very popular and well-liked child, his father being Germanicus, the grandson of Augustus and a man of enormous popularity in Roman society. Germanicus died, perhaps of poison, in 19 AD, when Caligula was only 7 years old. After that he was variously raised by his mother Agrippina, his great-grandmother Livia, his grandmother Antonia and finally by Emperor Tiberius, who had executed Agrippina and exiled or imprisoned his two brothers Drusus and Nero. He appointed Caligula one of his heirs, along with his grandson Tiberius Gemellus, and so when Tiberius died in 37 AD, Caligula became emperor at the age of 25, easily pushing aside his co-emperor Gemellus and eventually executing the unfortunate lad.
Initially Gaius Caligula was well-liked and ruled well. He abolished a variety of bad practices, revoking various banishments that Tiberius had imposed, and published the financial records of the government. He wooed the public with gladiatorial games and theatrical shows.
But then a few months into his reign he fell ill, and when he recovered he was a changed man. He became tyrannical, casually ordering unjust executions, humiliating the Senate in various ways, and doing a variety of outrageous things. He committed incest with his sister Drusilla until she died of an illness. He demanded to be worshipped as a living god, set up temples to himself, and sometimes dressed as a god. He dressed in women’s clothing and had a male lover. He threatened to make his racehorse Incitatus a consul. Eventually his abuse of Cassius Chaerea led the man to orchestrate his assassination.
That, as I said, is the story that Suetonius tells, and modern treatments of Caligula have often assumed that he was insane. The assumption is that he perhaps suffered from megalomania or paranoid schizophrenia, which drove him to killing people, committing incest, and declaring himself a god. But Suetonius never accuses him of insanity (apart from saying that his partiality toward his favorites was a form of madness) and Dio says only that Caligula “continued to play the madman”, in reference to his behavior that provoked Charaea’s plot. So while both Suetonius and Cassius Dio depict a ruler who started well and then descended into tyranny, they do not really suggest that he was insane. That’s a modern reading of Caligula’s personality, and it has seized on details like his fondness for his racehorse, developing what seems to have been a joke into a sign of mental illness.
Two details of the narrative deserve special attention. The first is the claim that he was incestuous with his sisters, particularly Drusilla. Only Suetonius makes this charge, and here it is:
“He lived in habitual incest with all his sisters, and at a large banquet he placed each of them in turn below him, while his wife reclined above. Of these he is believed to have violated Drusilla when he was still a minor, and even to have been caught lying with her by his grandmother Antonia, at whose house they were brought up in company. Afterwards, when she was the wife of Lucius Cassius Longinus, an ex-consul, he took her from him and openly treated her as his lawful wife; and when ill, he made her heir to his property and the throne.” (Suetonius, Life of Caligula 24)
There are three claims here. Taking them chronologically, first he “is believed” to have had sex with Drusilla when they were children. Second, he “treated her as his wife” and took her away from her husband. Third, he used all his sisters as the hostess of his banquets instead of giving that honor to his wife; At a banquet, the hostess, traditionally the wife, reclined on the couch next to (or ‘below’) the host. The implication is that if he treated his sisters like wives socially, he must also be treating them like wives sexually. Notice that the first charge is based entirely on rumor. Apart from that single rumor, Suetonius’ evidence seems to be merely the fact that Caligula violated normal protocol by allowing his sisters to act as his hostess at banquets and the fact that Drusilla lived in the imperial palace rather than with her husband. This is very typical of Suetonius’ work. He treats rumors as fact and places the most negative possible interpretation on whatever facts he has in front of him.
Caligula clearly cared deeply about Drusilla; when she died from an illness, he had her deified as part of the imperial cult. But for a man who had grown up in such difficult circumstances and saw his father be poisoned and both his brothers and his mother executed or starved to death while he was growing up, it’s hardly surprising that he would care deeply about his surviving family. He doesn’t have to be sleeping with his sisters to want to elevate them to positions of high honor. So there’s not really much evidence to support Suetonius’ lurid claims.
Why would Suetonius fabricate or exaggerate charges that Gaius Caligula committed incest? Because in Roman political thought, those who are politically wrong tend to also be sexual deviants, rapists, or otherwise sexually improper, so accusations of sexual immorality reinforce the accusations of political tyranny and vice-versa. This is also probably the reason for his comment that Caligula dressed outlandishly and his comment that Drusilla’s husband was Caligula’s lover.
The charge that Caligula wanted to be worshipped as a living god is on much more solid foundations. Philo of Alexandria, his contemporary and an historian, makes the same claim, and Caligula’s desire to erect a statue of himself in the Second Temple in Jerusalem might have caused a rebellion if Caligula’s death hadn’t aborted the project. But here too there is more going on than meets the modern eye. As Cassius Dio points out in his section of Caligula, Caligula’s predecessors as emperor were worshiped as living gods in the eastern half of the empire and after their death at Rome. So the unusual thing that Caligula was doing was not asking to be worshipped as a god; the Romans already accorded those honors to Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius. What was novel was that he was asking Romans to worship him while he was still alive.
As historian Anthony Barrett has argued, the worship of a ruler as a living god was a characteristic of monarchy in the Hellenistic world of the eastern Mediterranean. Augustus had wanted to avoid the appearance of monarchy, so he had refused that honor. Barrett suggests that what Caligula was doing was simply abandoning the pretense that he was not a king by adopting the outward trappings of monarchy, perhaps because he lacked the patience for Augustus’ elaborate charade of not being in power. To me, that’s a far more plausible scenario than that Caligula was insane.
Caligula in I, Claudius
I, Claudius follows Suetonius’ narrative on many points, but adds considerably to it in ways that alter Suetonius’ depiction of him. He appears in two episodes as a child, one episode as an adult during Tiberius’ reign, and then two episodes during his own reign. So the series follow Caligula (he’s not called Gaius at all) all through his life.
The approach the series takes to Caligula is that he was a monster from his youth. As a child, he helps murder his own father Germanicus by poisoning him and stealing a protective talisman that Germanicus believed would keep him safe. He was recruited by the woman who poisoned Germanicus, who flattered Caligula and planted the idea in his head that he was actually a god. That seems to be entirely Graves’ invention, having so far as I know no basis in the Roman sources. In the next episode Antonia (Margaret Tyzack) says she caught him molesting Drusilla. So the show establishes that he’s a natural monster in the model of the Bad Seed.
As a young man Caligula (John Hurt) is portrayed as callous, wasteful, and utterly unconcerned about other people. He’s good at faking virtue for Tiberius (George Baker), who decides to make Caligula his heir precisely because he wants the horrid Caligula to make him look good by comparison. That’s actually the opposite of what Suetonius says, which is that Tiberius recognized Caligula’s cruelty and tried to train him out of it by allowing him to indulge his taste for dance and theater.
When Caligula takes the imperial office, instead of months of good reign, he gets half a day. He makes a few nice proclamations before having some sort of psychotic breakdown in which he hears a loud drumming in his head, the first sign in the show that Caligula is actually insane. His insanity is depicted with the traditional elements of Suetonius’ narrative: he wants to be worshipped as a god and quarrels with Jupiter, he makes his racehorse a consul, he’s casually vicious to everyone around him and capricious in his moods, and so on.
He declares Drusilla a goddess and sleeps with her to the point of getting her pregnant. Then, following the Greek myth of Zeus overthrowing his father, he becomes afraid of the child Drusilla is carrying, ties her up, and cuts the baby out of her, obviously killing her in the process. None of that has any foundation in the sources other than the claim he committed incest with her. He did not have Drusilla deified until after her death. There’s no evidence he ever got her pregnant. She died from a short illness partway through his reign, not by his hand, and her death was a profound shock to him, not a matter of near indifference as the show presents it.
In the last episode involving Caligula, he opens a brothel in the imperial palace and orders all the senators to bring their wives to staff it, ordering the senators to pay for the purpose of sleeping with each other’s wives. This is a somewhat exaggerated version of Suetonius’ claim that he opened a brothel in the palace as a money-making effort because he was too lavish with his money. Suetonius claims that he staffed the brothel with young men and ‘matrons’, meaning married women, but he never says he forced senators to bring their wives. Like the other claims of his sexual irregularities, it’s likely that Suetonius is making this up or just reporting hostile gossip.
In the show, Cassius Chaerea (Sam Dastor) orchestrates a substantial plot to murder Caligula and restore the Republic. Suetonius claims there were only two conspirators, Chaerea and the tribune Cornelius Sabinus. Chaerea was the tribune of the Praetorian Guard, and was therefore in a position to manipulate the Guards to get Caligula alone, but in the show, the Praetorians are an obstacle that the conspirators need to get around by tricking Caligula into a tunnel and then shutting the gate behind him so that the Guards cannot protect him. In contrast, Cassius Dio says that practically everyone in Caligula’s court was involved in the conspiracy, which is highly improbable.
Overall, I, Claudius’ Caligula bears only a moderate relationship to the actual historical Caligula, although Graves could reasonably claim that he was drawing his portrait to a considerable extent out of Suetonius and Cassius Dio. In the late 70s, Hurt’s portrayal of Caligula as a coldly deranged and wildly unpredictable lunatic must have been quite chilling, but of all the elements in the series, it has probably aged the worst, since today it seems a rather clichéd performance like every other deranged killer in movies and television (although, to be fair, I passionately hate the deranged killer trope as hackneyed and in desperate need of total retirement, so maybe you’ll like the performance more than I do these days). There’s also more than a whiff of homophobia in Hurt’s characterization.
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Want to Know More?
If you want to know more about Caligula, I recommend Anthony Barrett’s Caligula: The Corruption of Power. It’s the best thing I’ve read on Gaius Caligula, and does a very good job sifting through the rather problematic sources on him.
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