Caligula Disentangled


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from www.HowStuffWorks.com.

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey. Our subject for today is known as being a paranoid tyrant and a megalomaniac. He's rumored to have committed incest with his sisters, and to have elevated his horse to the consulship. He gets his nickname, which means little boots, because his father used to dress him up in these cute little army sandals and take him on campaign with him.

Katie Lambert: This is actually relevant to some of the events of today as Sarah is taping her sandals back tighter, as they broke.

Sarah Dowdey: Yes. I broke them on my way into recording and was hobbling around. I guess I'm like Caligula in one respect.

Katie Lambert: Caligula was the third emperor of Rome. His real name is Gaius Ceaser, but none of us call him that. he was so unpopular that it's hard to know what's really true and what isn't about him because, guess what, the Roman historians really didn't like him, so their accounts are almost completely unreliable. Encyclopedia Britannic says, "Accounts of his reign by ancient historians are so biased against him that the truth is almost impossible to disentangle."

Sarah Dowdey: Which is where we got our title? That always makes us a little bit nervous, but it also usually means it's going to be a fun podcast.

Katie Lambert: Let's see how it goes. To give a little family history, Gaius Ceaser was born in A.D. 12, the great-grandson of Augustus. He's actually really related to the emperor on both sides.

Sarah Dowdey: He was partly raised in the household of Augustus's wife, Empress Livia. That's where we're going to start this family history. She's known for her intrigues, and those very intrigues make his role possible in an indirect sort of way. Livia is probably best known for plotting on behalf of her son, who wasn't Augustus's son. It was her son by her first marriage, Tiberius. The thing is, even though Augustus didn't have a legitimate son, he wasn't interested in making his stepson, Tiberius, his heir.

Katie Lambert: No. He wanted pretty much anybody else.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, but Livia wasn't going to have that. And hey, the chosen heirs just kind of kept on dying.

Katie Lambert: Thanks to Livia, perhaps.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Thanks to Livia, maybe. Eventually, Augustus is like, "All right. Well, I guess I'll settle on Tiberius."

Katie Lambert: It's rumored that Livia may have even done in Augustus himself when it seemed he was wavering on his commitment to Tiberius as heir. She was a motivated woman, that Livia.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. A devoted mother, apparently! So Tiberius does become emperor, and he's not terrible. He's a pretty competent -

Katie Lambert: Damning with faint praise.

Sarah Dowdey: He's a competent statesman as well, but he's uncomfortable in this position that his mother's mocknations have forced him into. As he gets older, he removes himself more and more from public life, and eventually spends the last ten years of his life in this semi-retirement in Capri, which, you've got to admit, that's a weird thing for an emperor to do.

Katie Lambert: That's not the only weird thing he did. This is where all the bizzaro rumors start. Tiberius, on Capri, is no-holds-barred. He starts planning - are these things planned? - orgies with men and women. There are girls and boys dressed up as nude nymphs and panned to wander the woods. We've got Egyptian pornography, and the part I can't say. Sarah, you're going to have to do it.

Sarah Dowdey : It's really terrible. He maybe hires little kids to act as minnows and swim around and nip at him under the water. So if you ever get asked to play Sharks and Minnows, make sure it's not Tiberius's version.

Katie Lambert: But while Tiberius is off in this freaky retirement, he's letting the guy he left in charge - the Praetorian Prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus - get a little too powerful.

Sarah Dowdey: We have a little note on names, too. I think we're going to go with the reconstructed, classical names instead of the modern pronunciations, but we might go back and forth, just to warn you.

Katie Lambert: Sejanus started thinking at some point that he would do away with the heirs and perhaps become emperor himself.

Sarah Dowdey: But Tiberius has got other problems, and he's dealing with them in another kind of way. He's worried that his nephew and heir, the General Germanicus might be having ideas kind of similar to Sejanus.

Katie Lambert: Treasonous ideas.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, treasonous ideas, thinking that he doesn't want to wait around for the old emperor who's off on retirement to actually die, so mysteriously, Germanicus does on campaign in Syria in A.D. 19, likely on Tiberius's orders. Then in 23 A.D., Germanicus's sun Drusus dies, and then in 31, his son Julius Ceaser Nero dies. In 33, his widow, Agrippina dies. We've got this whole family - almost the whole family - wiped out.

Katie Lambert: There's just one son left who is, of course, Gaius, or little Caligula. Back to our Sajanus plotline, Tiberius may have done away with one of his own heirs, Germanicus, himself, but Sajanus takes care of his other heir, who is Tiberius's own son, Drusus, who died under strange circumstances. Eventually, Sajanus only has three people in his way. We have the Emperor Tiberius, Germanicus's surviving son, Caligula, and Drusus's son, Tiberius Gemullus, so the heirs of the original heirs, and then the emperor himself.

Sarah Dowdey: So Sejanus plots to kill the whole family. He's going to wipe them all out, but he's found out before he can execute his plan, so he and the rest of the Praetorian Prefect are arrested, and strangled, and actually torn to pieces by a mob, so no light punishment here for plotters. So we've got Caligula now as an heir to the emperor. With his position about as secure as it can be in imperial Rome, the young Caligula goes off to live with his uncle at the freaky Capri villa in A.D. 31.

Katie Lambert: This is the point where his cruelty may have made its first appearance. It's also when he may have started incestuous relationships with his sisters - again, to those not-entirely-trustworthy accounts.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, but by March 37, Tiberius dies. Of course, we've got to throw in the possibly that Caligula himself did Tiberius in.

Katie Lambert: Smothered him with a pillow.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, which is a cruel way to go? But there's one little problem still for our main guy. He's not the sole heir, and he's supposed to share the throne with his cousin Tiberius Gemullus, but that's obviously not going to work out.

Katie Lambert: Of course not. So the Praetorian Prefect Naevius Cordus Sutorius Macro and the senate decide the Caligula will be the sole ruler. It's not long before his cousin, Tiberius Gemullus, winds up dead.

Sarah Dowdey: People are pretty happy with their young emperor, Caligula. They've had Tiberius who's been this sort of sour old man who lives in Capri all the time and never really bothers much with things the average people are going to like, like circuses and games. They have this new 24 or 25-year-old emperor, and he's a blood relative of Augustus, who obviously is a popular guy. He seems like he's going to be a pretty fair, level-headed ruler. The first thing he does is reimburse Romans who'd been financially crushed under Tiberius's oppressive taxes.

Katie Lambert: He gets rid of the sales tax. He offers amnesty for people who are imprisoned or exiled under Tiberius, and he starts staging games and entertainment for the people.

Sarah Dowdey: Which sounds like a lot of fun, doesn't it?

Katie Lambert: Sounds like a Medici tactic.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Well, things take a turn, though. At about seven months into his reign, Caligula gets very, very sick. The people are really upset about this. He recovers, and some historians think that his illness drove him mad. Others say that the evidence for that is really murky, and some of it is just plain made up. Maybe it's another sort of smear campaign by later historians. But whatever happens, whether the illness drives him to insanity or if his cruel megalomaniac side appears several months into his reign, things start to go downhill for Caligula.

Katie Lambert: It gets very, very weird. All of this stuff happens - or not - in a very short span of time. It's almost easier to contemplate it thematically rather than chronologically, so that's what we're going to do. He isn't loyal to his supporters. He drives Macro, who was the prefect we talked about, to commit suicide. This was the man who helped him secure his throne, a man who'd taken risks for him.

Sarah Dowdey: That's a bad start already if you're not keeping the people who are most loyal to you alive and close to you. You'll need allies throughout your reign.

Katie Lambert: That's our first bullet point. Our second one is that he thinks he's divine, which, as we've learned in previous podcasts, is a risky stance to take. He replaces Olympian heads with his own. He almost provokes a Jewish revolt by ordering, in the year 40, that he be worshiped in the temple. Herod Agrippa persuades him to recall the order.

Sarah Dowdey: Which is a pretty good call? We have some archeological evidence to back this up. In 2003, excavations in the Roman forum confirmed that he had incorporated the ancient temple of Castor and Pollux into his own palace, which is totally sacrilegious and was probably refitted after his reign.

Katie Lambert: Now onto perhaps the most persistent of the rumors about him, which was his strange relationship with his sisters, especially Drusilla? It's possible that he was contemplating some sort of Ptolemy-style brother-sister alliance.

Sarah Dowdey: Think Cleopatra.

Katie Lambert: Yes. Three of his sisters get huge public honors. They were included in the Solder's Oath of Allegiance. Some very sensationalized rumors have him impregnating Drusilla and then ripping out her womb in his impatience to see the baby.

Sarah Dowdey: But Drusilla does die in 38, probably not because of that. When she dies, he consecrates her as a goddess, so she's the first Roman woman to be declared a god by the emperor like this. It's a very unusual thing to do.

Katie Lambert: And a very strange honor. He banished his remaining two sisters in 39 after he learned that one of their lovers and the widower of Drusilla were involved in a plot against him.

Sarah Dowdey: Caligula obviously has these strange personal inclinations which get him into trouble down the road, but his politics also aren't anything - they don't endear him to the public in any way. He's a megalomaniac, as we've mentioned several times already, and he basically rules part time because he's so busy staging all these elaborate proofs of his own importance. A very famous example is when he builds a bridge of ships across the Bay of Naples in 39, and then rides across them wearing Alexander's breastplate, all to disprove the prophecy that he had as much of a chance of becoming emperor as riding a horse across the bay. It's just this weird thing. Maybe one of the made-up stories about Caligula, but just a -

Katie Lambert: Good peek into his character.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. Very insecure!

Katie Lambert: He also wasted time concocting extraordinary methods of torture, like covering someone in honey and releasing the bees, or feeding them to animals or shutting them up in tiny cages. The other problem is that no one was safe from his wrath, and he couldn't be trusted, and also couldn't trust anyone else. He got more and more paranoid the farther into his reign that he got.

Sarah Dowdey: The Macro relationship proves this. Somebody who clearly should've been a trusted ally of his is done in.

Katie Lambert: He supposedly made it an offense for anyone to look at him, another thing he was very insecure about. He was balding but very hirsute on the rest of his body.

Sarah Dowdey: But you can't be a part-time emperor spending all your money on parties and torturing and not go broke eventually.

Katie Lambert: A lesson.

Sarah Dowdey: It's a lesson for any future emperors out there. Soon enough, Caligula has nearly bankrupted the public treasury, so he starts doing some pretty unpopular things, like reinstating treason trials for his own financial benefit, confiscating the property of the elite citizens, and bumping up the taxes. According the BBC, he may have also figured that he needed some sort to military glory to validate his reign, but he couldn't be bothered with it either because of a lack of funds - he had already spent most of his money on other stuff - or because he wasn't interested.

Katie Lambert: In the year 40, he plundered Gaul and headed north, but he must not have done too impressive of a job because his triumph consisted solely of fake German slaves dressed up like Guals. He was planning on heading across the channel to invade Britain, but stopped for some reason. Instead, he had his men go after Neptune.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, he figured he had defeated Neptune somehow, and his men were going to collect seashells, which they considered spoils of the conquered sea god. Declaring war on gods, that's another major step for Caligula, I think.

Katie Lambert: Despite his personal strangeness, his biggest mistakes were angering the senate and the Praetorian Guard. He didn't pay the guard, and even if you don't have money, you still find some way to pay your guard.

Sarah Dowdey: That's a major, major mistake on Caligula's part. He goes out of his way to humiliate the senate. The best rumor about him ever, in my mind, is that he promotes his horse, Incitatus, to the consulship. We, of course, talked about this in our battle horse episode. Incitatus was not going to make the list just on his battle horse status alone, so we made him a bonus horse because what other horses are senators?

Katie Lambert: Some of these senators and guard members start plotting. In January 41, Caligula was killed at the Palatine games by a tribune of the Praetorian Guard and others. He's stabbed in the genitals, if that gives you an idea of what people thought of him. His wife and baby daughter will killed too, along with most of his family.

Sarah Dowdey: The guard spares his uncle Claudius, who becomes the next emperor. Only the common people really mourned Caligula, because he had spent so much on games and entertainments for them, and couldn't really bankrupt them.

Katie Lambert: Going back to the whole disentanglement idea with few reliable sources, it's been difficult for historians to decide what to make of him, this insane-sounding, spoiled, paranoid man. One thing to consider is that he may have had a really twisted sense of humor.

Sarah Dowdey: Historian Michael Grant wrote, "Caligula had an irrepressible, bizarre sense of the ridiculous, deliberately designed to shock, but frequently taken by his alarmed subjects too seriously. Notoriously absurd traditions, such as the story that he intended to give a consulship to his favorite horse, Incitatus, no doubt originated from his continual stream of jokes. Probably he remarked that Incitatus would do the job as well as most of the recent incumbents. Meanwhile, he ordered silence in the entire neighborhood to prevent the horse from being disturbed." This shows how maybe somebody who said these really weird, off-the-cuff things could build up this reputation as a complete lunatic pretty quickly.

Katie Lambert: Another account of his strange sense of humor had him auctioning off public properties to make money and taking a sleeping senators nods for bids for 13 expensive gladiators.

Sarah Dowdey: We also have probably the more famous argument. We can go with Roman historian Suetonius for this, who said that Caligula could not control his natural cruelty and viciousness, but he was a most eager witness of the tortures and executions of those who suffered punishment, reveling at night in gluttony and adultery, disguised in a wig and a long robe. That's definitely the Caligula we're most familiar with, just the cruel, vicious tyrant of an emperor.

Katie Lambert: Either way, Caligula likely foreshadowed certain cracks in a still-relatively-new imperial system, and they pop up again and again as the system keeps producing these young, unskilled rulers who are coddled from birth and show no aptitude for leadership. Caligula craved absolute power, but he had none of the talent, responsibility, or respect that he needed to back it up.

Sarah Dowdey: We're going to close with a likely apocryphal quote of Caligula's, but a very disturbing one, and one that sort of epitomizes the danger of the imperial system. He's supposed to have said to his wife, "Off comes this beautiful head whenever I give the word. If only Rome had one neck." Putting all the power in one man's hand, essentially, even if it's not officially like that, the emperor clearly has the power in this time.

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