• Aloys Winterling
  • University of California Press
  • 240 pp.
  • September 27, 2011

A fresh look at the notorious Roman emperor takes a more nuanced view of his bizarre behavior.

Reviewed by Robert Swan

Thanks primarily to Suetonius and an appalling 1979 B movie, the name Caligula (Roman emperor, 37–41 CE) conjures lurid images of insanity, a taste for incest and homicidal vindictiveness combined with youth, absolute power and a mordant sense of humor. A more toxic cocktail of political deviance can hardly be imagined. But Caligula: A Biography takes a different view of the emperor. Aloys Winterling quotes the historian of ancient history Catherine Edwards: “Mad emperors are an embarrassment to serious historians.” In general, Winterling does not deny that Caligula committed most of the crimes attributed to him. But Caligula’s behavior is presented as a conscious and rational response to the exigencies of his impossible political position.

The system Caligula inherited was created by his great grandfather Octavian ― granted the title “Augustus” by a grateful Senate worn down by years of internecine warfare. After winning the civil war against Antony (31 BCE), Augustus created a military tyranny behind a façade of legality. He maintained the forms of the old Republic while exercising power behind the scenes. He was not an emperor; he was merely “First Citizen,” Princeps. Augustus treated the Senate with respect, avoiding open confrontation. He communicated his wishes through the traditional mechanisms of the client-patron relationship, the morning salutatio and the clear expression of his views in open debate in the Senate. Aristocrats could climb the old Republican ladder of offices to the consulship. Nauseating sycophancy tinged with the fear of potential execution on one side and the threat of ferocious military violence on the other was masked behind a façade of normal friendly relations.

For Augustus’s successors, the settlement was a disaster, creating ambiguities and tensions that rendered the system untenable in the long run. Since there was no official monarchy, there was no way to legally transfer power. During the reign of Tiberius (died 37 CE), an atmosphere of distrust and instability spawned conspiracies among the Prefects of the Praetorian Guard ― well on their way to becoming kingmakers ― as well as in the emperor’s own family. When Tiberius retaliated with a spate of executions, a Stalinesque frenzy of denunciation ensued; desperate to save their own necks, Senators sacrificed the more vulnerable members of their order.

When he became Princeps in 37 CE, Caligula therefore found himself a military dictator with immense de facto power but no clearly defined constitutional position. He was expected by everyone to maintain the pretense of a republic. His policy in the first two years of his reign, down to the end of 38, was to follow the Augustan line and treat the Senate with respect. While quickly and ruthlessly eliminating potential rivals for the throne, he mitigated many of the harsh measures Tiberius instituted. He worked hard to gain the trust of the Senate and courted wide public support, among the equestrian order, from powerful provincial leaders and from plebeians in Rome.

At the same time, however, Caligula stopped living frugally, as Augustus had done. He spent about 2 billion sesterces on a massive building program that demonstrated clearly that he was not just another member of the aristocracy. He absorbed most of the Palatine Hill for his use and massively expanded the size and magnificence of the imperial estate. Additionally, he began flouting time-honored social conventions, inviting members of the lower orders, such as chariot drivers and actors, to his banquets and enjoying himself in an unseemly way judged by the standards of the old Republic. This behavior made clear, according to Winterling, Caligula’s “quasi-royal” status, and suggested a discontent with the cultural and political straightjacket time-honored Republican tradition represented. According to Winterling, Caligula was the first to introduce these innovations into the Principate.

Conspiracy blossomed soon enough; tensions inherent in the system, coupled with human ambition and resentment at Caligula’s innovatory behavior meant the stability of the first two years of his reign was unlikely to last. In 39 Caligula faced a revolt of former consuls. The ancient sources suggest that a large-scale slaughter of aristocrats followed. Winterling denies this, asserting that Caligula forensically targeted the senators most threatening to his position and then gave a speech in the Senate with revolutionary implications. To put it bluntly, Caligula told the Senators the truth: the old Republic was dead, the Augustan system a sham, the Senate moribund and the Senators themselves feckless toadies feigning friendship with him out of fear and self-interest, superfluous appendages left over from the Old Republic.

Needless to say, this was not appreciated. A precipitous downward spiral began. Caligula continued to use the traditional forms of Republican friendship, which had been the unofficial basis of much of Roman political life prior to and during the Principate, to extort large sums of money from the aristocracy. Since aristocrats were obliged to claim friendship with the emperor they were also obliged to leave him large bequests in their wills. Additionally they were expected to lay on lavish and ruinously expensive entertainments, including public games. By these expedients Caligula reduced some of the Senators to poverty, and sowed bitter resentment in all but a few to which he tendered favor and protection.

According to Winterling, Caligula engaged in an intentional, intelligible and rational plan of humiliation to put aristocrats in their place. Some of Caligula’s most egregious acts must be viewed from this perspective to be correctly understood. For example, the appointment of his beloved horse Incitatus as consul cannot be taken as a sign of psychosis. Caligula was sending a message: he could appoint whomever he wished to high public office, and further, the Consulship ― most coveted of ancient Republican offices ― was worthless. Why not appoint a horse? Why not a dog or a vole? The result would make no difference to the running of the Empire.

What about Caligula’s loony behavior in the wake of his deification? This is depicted by Suetonius as a clear indication of insanity. According to Winterling, behaving as though he was really a god was another way for him to communicate that Senators were common boot-licks with no real power. He knew he was not a god, and the Senators knew it too, but he made them act as though he was really divine. So when Caligula communes with the moon goddess, and asks an attendee, Vitellius, if he sees the goddess too, both Caligula and Vitellius know well enough that there is no moon goddess in the room. But because Caligula is an autocrat with the power of life and death in his hands, Vitellius is obliged to play along, the very outrageousness of the situation accentuating Caligula’s authority. Vitellius is forced to scramble for a clever response to stay alive (he does, but I’ll let you read the book to discover how). Caligula’s actions constitute a form of truth telling and a consciously designed political gambit.

Not surprisingly, this situation quickly soured. A small but lethal cabal of Praetorian officers and disaffected aristocracy, with the tacit consent of some of Caligula’s powerful advisors, conspired to murder the emperor, who was stabbed to death in 41, paving the way for his uncle Claudius to assume the throne.

What are we to make of Winterling’s claims? The truth, of course, is that we will never know what Caligula’s motives were, or even for certain what he actually did. M.I. Finley, the great historian of Homeric Greece, pointed out that all historians of ancient history are bedeviled by the paucity of sources and their questionable validity. The historiographical implications are serious. Many historians Winterling cites as evidence wrote hundreds of years after the events they describe and we do not even know the provenance of their sources. Occasionally Winterling projects sentiments and thoughts in Caligula’s mind that no one could possibly know about any historical figure at any time, let alone one who lived almost 2000 years ago. When reading, one could not help thinking on occasion: “Fascinating interpretation. On the other hand, maybe Caligula really was just nuts.”

But Winterling has done as much as any ancient historian can with the sources at his disposal. He makes creative use of the widest possible range of sources ― not just Suetonius, but among others Tacitus, Cassius Dio, Philo, Josephus, Pliny and Plutarch, as well as archaeological evidence. Readers wishing for a new way of interpreting the life of Caligula will not be disappointed in this new biography by a fine historian.

Robert Swan teaches history and philosophy in the International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville,Md.

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