The reigns of Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius and Nero were described during their lifetimes in fictitious terms, for fear of the consequences; whereas the accounts written after their deaths were influenced by still raging animosities.
Tacitus, Annals 1.12
The Second Emperor of Rome
The historian Tacitus insinuates that Augustus only chose Tiberius to make himself look good against Tiberius’ cruelty and arrogance, and Suetonius writes that, on his deathbed, Augustus moaned, ‘O woe for the Roman people, destined to be chomped by such slowly grinding teeth!’3 But despite the fact that Tiberius had spent so much time out of the political loop that he had acquired the nickname ‘the Exile’, he had still accumulated some first-hand experience of government, and his military achievements, notably the recovery of the eagles that Crassus had lost to the Parthians at Carrhae, were not to be trifled with.
This rather enigmatic man, now called Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, was arguably the most powerful ruler that had ever controlled Rome. He was now in his mid-fifties, of ultra-noble lineage, highly intelligent, equipped with a trenchant sense of irony, and avidly interested in Greek mythology.4 He was tall, powerfully built and in rude health. Suetonius tells us that he had a fair complexion and wore his hair rather long, whereas Tacitus says his head had no trace of hair and that his face was pockmarked with ulcers, which, needless to say, do not feature in his official portraits. These use an image modelled on that of Augustus, showing him with a high, broad forehead, large eyes, an aquiline nose and a small curved mouth with a protruding upper lip, but with the whole image tweaked to make him look younger than he really was. Both writers agree, though, that he was a brusque, misanthropic, suspicious, miserly, bloodthirsty, perverted tyrant.
However, when the SPQR, magistrates and, crucially, the army swore an oath of allegiance to him in 14, he appeared shy of assuming power and complained about the ‘miserable and oppressive servitude being imposed upon him’.5 His powers were conferred by a lex de imperio ratified by the people, but he spurned the praenomen of Imperator and the cognomen of Father of his Country, rejected having a civic crown in the vestibule of his house, and only used the name of Augustus in letters addressed to kings and princes. His default approach to government was hands-off, and he got frustrated with the Senate when they wouldn’t act on their own initiative, but irritated with them when they did. He never won the hearts and minds of the SPQR, and an atmosphere of reciprocal fear and mistrust developed: he often quoted the Greek proverb that he was ‘holding a wolf by the ears’6, but also derided the Senate as ‘men fit to be slaves’.7
Despite providing generous disaster relief when a major earthquake devastated a dozen cities in Asia in 17, and when serious fires gutted wide swathes of Rome in 27 and 36, he found it hard to shake off his reputation for stinginess. The historian Velleius Paterculus, who did military service under Tiberius, was gushing in his praise:
What public buildings did he construct in his own name or that of his family! With what pious munificence, exceeding human belief, does he now rear the temple to his father! For a feeling of kinship leads him to protect every famous monument.8
Yet Suetonius states that he never erected any noble edifice during his entire reign, never entertained the people with public spectacles, and was seldom present when others did so, and the archaeological evidence tends to endorse this perspective, suggesting that the only major project in Tiberius’ reign was the Temple to the Deified Augustus, which he either never finished or didn’t bother to consecrate.
Yet however tight-fisted Tiberius may have been, his subjects often sought to bestow extravagant honours on him. For example, in 15 the Greek city of Gythium decreed that one of its public officials should erect statues of ‘his father the deified Augustus Caesar, the Emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus and Julia Augusta’ (i.e., Livia), and that the councilmen and magistrates should offer sacrifice for the preservation of all three of them, plus the Victory of Germanicus Caesar and the Venus of Drusus Caesar. Tiberius immediately replied indicating his unease about this:
I commend you [. . .] and consider it fitting that [. . .] your city [. . .] should reserve special honours befitting the gods in keeping with the greatness of my father’s services to the whole world; but I myself am content with the more modest honours appropriate to men. My mother, however, will answer you herself when she learns from you your decision about honours to her.9
Tiberius’ relationship with Livia, whom her great-grandson Caligula described as ‘Ulixem stolatum’ (‘Ulysses in a female toga’) – a backhanded compliment if ever there was one – was often fractious. Suetonius tells that she claimed equal shares of the power with him, but although she became the first woman ever to be made ‘Augusta’ (‘Femmeperor’ – a feminized version of Augustus), Tiberius denied her the title ‘Mother of her Country’ and instructed her ‘to keep out of important affairs, and ones that were inappropriate for a woman’.10
Livia was not the only family member that posed a threat to Tiberius’ authority: Agrippa Postumus was permanently ‘eliminated’, and there was always the possibility that Tiberius’ adoptive son Germanicus might try to oust him.
Tiberius and the Army
Tiberius’ supremacy ultimately depended on the loyalty of the army. One of Augustus’ great achievements had been to convert the army’s vested interest in unrest into an interest in stability, mainly by making it a fully professional institution with fixed terms and conditions. Tiberius inherited a standing army of twenty-five legions: eight on the Rhine, three in Spain, two each in Africa and Egypt, four in the territory stretching from Syria to the Euphrates, two in Pannonia, two in Moesia, and two in reserve in Dalmatia (seeMap 4).
Each individual legion was commanded by a legatus Augusti legionis or legatus legionis (‘legionary legate’) directly appointed by the Emperor. It comprised ten cohorts of roughly 500 soldiers, each divided into six centuries of (despite their name) about eighty men. Beneath the legatus were six military tribunes, one tribunus laticlavius (‘broad stripe’) of Senatorial rank but usually in his twenties and lacking any prior military experience, and five tribuni angusticlavii (‘narrow stripes’), normally of Equestrian rank, who did have some previous experience. Between the tribunus laticlavius and the tribuni angusticlavii in the hierarchy, and so third in command, was the fully professional praefectus castrorum (camp prefect/quartermaster). Below the Senatorial and Equestrian officers came the centurions, the senior of which was the primus pilus.
Some lower-ranking soldiers received extra pay. These ‘principales’ included the signifer (standard-bearer), optio (orderly) and the tesserarius (guardian of the daily watchword). Every legion had an aquilifer, who carried the legionary eagle, and an imaginifer, who carried the emperor’s portrait. Next down the pecking order came the immunes, on basic pay (225 denarii per annum under Augustus) but with specific skills that exempted them from everyday fatigues: arrow makers, blacksmiths, carpenters, grooms, medical orderlies, surveyors, veterinaries, and so on. The rank-and-file soldiers were simply called milites, and would hope to progress as far as possible along this career path. Clerical staff of varying rank handled the extensive logistical demands of the legion, and since the legionaries were often used for peacetime building projects their transferable skills were invaluable.
Rome’s legions were supported by the auxilia (auxiliaries), recruited from different communities who possessed useful fighting qualities: archers from Crete, slingers from the Balearic Islands, first-rate cavalry from Gaul, Germany and Numidia, etc. Auxiliary units were of three types: infantrycohortes with a normal strength of 480 (quingenary) or 800 (milliary);11 cavalry alae (‘wings’) numbering 512 (quingenary) or 768 (milliary); and cohortes equitatae of, probably, 480 (or 800) infantry and 120 (or 240) cavalry combined. They might be commanded by their own chiefs, but regular auxiliary regiments were normally commanded by Roman Equestrian tribunes or prefects.
Rome also had naval bases at Misenum (modern Miseno) and Ravenna in Italy, Forum Julii (modern Fréjus) in Gallia Narbonensis, Alexandria in Egypt and Seleucia Pieria in Syria, as well as flotillas on the Rhine and Danube, all under the command of Equestrian prefects.
By around the end of the first century the majority of ‘Roman’ soldiers were non-Italian, and by the second century they were all being rewarded on discharge with Roman citizenship for themselves and their children. In Tiberius’ day Roman soldiers below centurion level could not legally marry, but many had mistresses whose children, though technically illegitimate, were brought up around the forts, or even in the barracks, and then followed their fathers into the military. So the Roman army became a kind of cultural glue binding the empire together: its language was Latin, its culture was Roman, and retired soldiers frequently settled in the provinces where they had served and acquired families and Roman citizenship.
At Rome itself the garrison consisted of the elite Praetorian Guard, the urban cohorts and the vigiles, making a total force under Tiberius of around 7 500 men. The Praetorian Guard, commanded by two Equestrian prefects (each called Praefectus Praetorio), was the permanent imperial bodyguard and consisted of twelve cohorts (around 6 000 men) with a small cavalry contingent.12 Its soldiers were hand-picked from Italy and the adjacent provinces, and they enjoyed far superior pay and conditions (750 denarii per annum under Augustus) and wore more ornate kit. The Emperor also had a personal German bodyguard, the Germani corporis custodes, and there were three paramilitary cohortes urbanae (urban cohorts), who formed a city police under the control of a SenatorialPraefectus Urbi (City Prefect), plus seven cohorts of 500 (later 1 000) vigiles, a fire-brigade-cum-nightwatch.
In normal circumstances it was the Emperor, a close family member or a legatus Augusti pro praetore13 who led the army in wartime. But Augustus’ death was not a normal circumstance, and Tiberius immediately had to face mutinies by four of the Rhine legions and three on the Danube. Tacitus narrates the tale of a soldier called Percennius from the Danube force, who was an ex-professional applause-leader in the theatre, manipulating the soldiers’ uncertainty and anger over pay and conditions, and of Tiberius having to dispatch a substantial force under L. Aelius Sejanus, the newly promoted Praefectus Praetorio, and his own son Drusus Caesar. Drusus took an uncompromising line, intimidated the soldiers, executed Percennius, and put the rebellion down. In Germany, where the mutiny was much more serious, Germanicus’ soldiers wanted him to seize the throne. He was having none of this, but when he unsheathed his sword and threatened to commit suicide unless the men returned to their loyalty, one wag offered him his sword instead, saying that it was sharper. However, some last-ditch negotiations over pay and conditions defused the situation. Germanicus had effectively cemented his uncle’s position as Emperor.
Tiberius’ Early Years: Germanicus and Drusus
Most sources agree that Tiberius conducted the first phase of his reign pretty successfully and ‘with a reasonable regard for the public good’.14 Much would depend on whether or not Tiberius had any real appetite for the job, and at this stage problems including revolts by Tacfarinas in Africa, the Gallic Treveri and Aedui led by Iulius Florus and Iulius Sacrovir, and the Frisii, along with unrest in Thrace, were dealt with effectively, and Arminius, destroyer of Varus’ legions, was killed by his treacherous relatives. When some of Tiberius’ governors proposed increasing provincial taxation, he told them, ‘It is the part of a good shepherd to shear, not flay, his sheep,’15 and he halved Augustus’ unpopular 1 per cent sales tax in 17.16 Suetonius credits him with saying that freedom of speech and thought was the test of a Free State.
The Emperor’s real and adoptive sons, Drusus and Germanicus Caesar, were prominent early on. Germanicus’ campaigns in Germany in 14, 15 and 16 brought home two of Varus’ lost legionary eagles, but Tiberius, possibly uneasy about his rising popularity, recalled him to Rome, although he still awarded him a triumph in 17 and shared the consulship with him the year after. Germanicus was looking like the next Emperor-in-waiting, while his prolific wife Agrippina the Elder bore nine children, notably Caligula and Nero’s mother Agrippina the Younger (see Genealogy Table 1).
Germanicus’ next assignment was to reorder the eastern part of Rome’s Empire. This involved crowning Artaxias III (aka Zeno-Artaxias) as King of Armenia and bringing Cappadocia and Commagene (at the intersection of Cilicia, Syria and Cappadocia) into provincial status. But when he made an unauthorized visit to Alexandria in 19, he had to dampen down some over-enthusiastic acclamations:
They are appropriate only to him who is really the saviour and benefactor of the whole human race, my father [Tiberius], and to his mother [Livia], my grandmother.17
Soon after this, however, Germanicus fell ill and died at Antioch (10 October 19). The finger of suspicion pointed at Syria’s ex-governor and Germanicus’ personal enemy Cn. Calpurnius Piso, and circumstantial evidence suggested that Piso had poisoned Germanicus on Tiberius’ orders. However, when Piso returned to Rome to face trial, he was found to have ‘committed suicide’ just before the verdict was delivered, and immediately after a visit from Sejanus. The court’s finding, that Piso was implicated in Germanicus’ death, is preserved on the Senatus Consultum de Pisone patre, a bronze tablet that is complemented by inscriptions known as the tabula Hebana and the tabula Siarensis, which outline the funerary honours that Germanicus received, including a marble arch in the Circus Flaminius complete with an inscription recording that Germanicus avenged the ‘deceitful destruction of an army of the Roman people’.18
The Piso case was symptomatic of a worrying shift in ethos in Tiberius’ reign: treason trials, often brought by informers (delatores), were becoming frequent. Treason came under an extremely vague law that covered anything that might ‘diminish the majesty of the Roman people’, and under which a successful accuser was rewarded with a share of the convicted person’s property. Some ‘crimes’ were unbelievably frivolous, as when Tiberius allegedly executed a Senator for taking a coin with his likeness on it into a toilet:
With my coin in your bosom you turned aside into foul and noisome places and relieved your bowels.19
With Germanicus’ death, Drusus became the heir apparent, but he too encountered an untimely end. There were no rumours at the time (he died on 14 September 23), but for some years previously his wife Livilla20 (who was Germanicus’ sister) had been having an affair with Sejanus. This was clearly about power as well as sex: doubtless Sejanus fancied Livilla, but he also fancied himself in relation to Tiberius as Agrippa had been to Augustus. His perfect outcome would be for Drusus to die and him to marry his widow, and some eight years later it was duly discovered that Drusus had been poisoned by Livilla . . .
Sejanus: His Rise and Fall
Sejanus’ star was very much in the ascendant. As Praefectus Praetorio he had amalgamated all the urban cohorts into one camp, and his control of this concentrated military force, combined with his adept social-networking skills, enabled him to become Tiberius’ ‘partner of his labours’.
But Sejanus wanted more. The heirs to the throne were now Agrippina the Elder’s teenage sons, Nero Caesar and Drusus Caesar (see Genealogy Table 1), but they and their mother seem to have alienated Tiberius. Sejanus then threw his own hat into the ring in 25 by seeking Tiberius’ permission to marry Livilla. Tiberius refused, telling the Equestrian Sejanus not to have ideas above his station, although he still had statues of Sejanus erected all over Rome.
Sejanus’ powers increased further when Tiberius left Rome for Campania in 26. The Emperor had a near-death experience at a seaside residence called ‘the Cavern’ (modern Sperlonga), where a cave decked out with a collection of important and very impressive sculptures depicting scenes from Homer’s Odyssey functioned as a banqueting hall. There Tiberius survived a rock fall that killed several guests. He then continued on to the isle of Capri. This effectively meant that from the year 27 the running of the state, and access to the Emperor, devolved onto Sejanus with, according to Suetonius, dangerous and dishonourable results: Spain and Syria were left without suitable governors for years; the Parthians overran Armenia; the Dacians and Sarmatians ravaged Moesia; and the Germans invaded Gaul. In addition, the animosity between Tiberius and Livia worsened until she died in 29 at the grand old age of eighty-six. Her son refused to attend the funeral, forbade her deification, and disregarded the provi sions of her will.
That same year Agrippina the Elder and her eldest son Nero Caesar were arrested for plotting against Tiberius and deported. Tiberius
ordered a centurion to give her a good flogging, in the course of which she lost an eye. And when she resolved to starve herself to death, he ordered her mouth to be forced open, and meat to be crammed down her throat.21
But Agrippina stayed resolute and died soon afterwards; Nero Caesar was driven to suicide when an executioner showed him various halters and hooks; and his brother Drusus was already in Hades following his arrest and conviction two years earlier.
The fate of his mother and brothers placed Gaius Caesar (aka Caligula) in pole position for the imperial succession, at least if Livilla and Drusus’ son, Tiberius Julius Caesar Nero ‘Gemellus’, born in 19, didn’t beat him to it. Both were favoured by Tiberius, both were living on Capri, but both had to face the rivalry of Sejanus.
Matters came to a spectacular climax in 31. Sejanus’ power was a potential threat to Tiberius, and Germanicus’ mother Antonia Minor warned the Emperor of a conspiracy. Tiberius’ response was utterly devious: Q. Naevius Cordus Sutorius Macro, prefect of thevigiles, was promised Sejanus’ command, and the Praetorian Guard was transferred to his control; Tiberius delivered a letter to the Senate charging Sejanus with plotting against Caligula; and Sejanus was ‘tried’ and executed. A brutal witch-hunt brought about the murders of Sejanus’ children and supporters, who possibly included the historian Velleius Paterculus. Sejanus’ wife Apicata committed suicide, but not before she had accused Livilla of complicity in Drusus’ death. Sejanus’ corpse was thrown to the Roman mob. They tore it to pieces.
Capri, Perversion, Crucifixion and Death
It was not just the Roman mob who displayed barbarity now. While Tiberius hid away at the Villa Jovis on Capri for nine months, the Senate lived in perpetual terror of the ever more frequent treason trials. The Emperor surrounded himself with astrologers and academics, and continued the liter ary interests that had always given him pleasure, but the rumour mill went into overdrive with tales of alcohol, sex and violence: Tiberius was such a hard drinker that his name, Tiberius Claudius Nero, was mutated into Biberius Caldius Mero, ‘Drunkard Hot-wine Unmixed-wine’; in his aptly named ‘latrines’ groups of specially selected girls and young men, known as spintriae – so perverted that new vocabulary had to be invented to describe their activities – would perform threesomes completed by exoleti, ‘adult’ prostitutes;22 there were pornographic artworks and manuals everywhere; he went swimming with his ‘little fishes’, boys who would get between his thighs to lick and nibble him; suckling babies would be made to fellate him; a fisherman who gave him an enormous mullet had his face rubbed with it, and when he yelled ‘Thank Heaven, I did not bring Caesar that huge crab I also caught!’ Tiberius used the crab in the same way; men were tricked into drinking huge amounts of wine, and then had cords tied round their genitals to prevent them from urinating; and people were thrown from the cliffs of Capri, and battered to death with boat hooks if they survived. All this came from the man who notoriously said: ‘Let them hate me, so long as they accept me!’23
There is absolutely no way of corroborating any of this, but it shows the growing odium and disrespect in which the Emperor, now in his seventies, was held: what mattered was not the truth of the rumours, but their existence.
While on Capri, Tiberius would probably have been informed of a world-changing event. A long-serving Prefect of Judaea called Pontius Pilatus (‘Pilate’), whose period of office had not always been a comfortable one, was relieved of his post in 36, shortly after authorizing the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. As with Jesus’ birth, the precise dating of this event is controversial: the Gospels, endorsed by Josephus and Tacitus, say that the Crucifixion took place during Pilate’s tenure, although they mistakenly call himprocurator, not praefectus. Governors of Judaea were only known as procurator from 44, starting with Cuspius Fadus, and an inscription found at Caesarea Maritima, known as the ‘Pilate Stone’, which dates from Tiberius’ reign, calls him praefectus Iudaeae:
To the Divine Augusti [i.e., Augustus and Livia] [this] Tiberieum [probably a complex of buildings in honour of Tiberius] . . . Pontius Pilatus . . . Prefect of Judaea . . . has dedicated [this].24
Jesus was pretty certainly crucified on a Friday,25 probably on or near Passover (this falls on Nisan 15 in the Hebrew calendar and is calculated from the appearance of the new moon), but the year, and hence the month, is heavily disputed. Differing theories have been constructed from the accounts in the Canonical Gospels, from the chronology of St Paul’s conversion (around 33–36,26 just after the Crucifixion), and from astronomical calculations going back to Sir Isaac Newton that take into account solar or lunar eclipses (some accounts say that a period of darkness occurred at the Crucifixion). A Friday in April 33 or 34 comes out as the favourite (but by no means the only) option, although there are those who regard the darkness as bogus or supernatural.
Around the same time there were other crucifixions at Rome when Tiberius pulled down the temple of Isis, had her image thrown into the Tiber and crucified her priests for dishonouring a noble Roman lady;earlier, in 19, when another Roman matron had been swindled by a gang of Jewish con men, Tiberius forced 4 000 Jewish youths into military service in the bandit-infested, fever-ridden island of Sardinia, and expelled all the other Jews from Rome on pain of slavery. Astrologers received similar threats, although he revoked the decree when they promised to renounce their profession.
Somewhat inconsistently, though, Tiberius allowed astrology to influence his thinking when it came to the succession. Gaius ‘Caligula’ was now in his twenties, and Gemellus was around ten years younger, but Tiberius had an inkling that the latter was the product of Livilla’s adultery with Sejanus, rather than his own grandson, and although he had serious reservations about Gaius’ suitability, stating that he was ‘bringing up a water-snake for the Roman people, and a Phaethon for the world’,27 the stars suggested that Gaius’ accession was inevitable.
In March 37 Tiberius fell ill following an abortive attempt to return to Rome. Put off by the frightening portent of the death of a pet snake, and warned by a soothsayer to ‘Beware the power of the mob’,28 he headed back to Campania. He tried to disguise his ill health by attending the Games at Circeii in Latium, but he strained his side while throwing javelins at a wild boar, aggravated things by sitting in a draught, and then moved on to Misenum, where he continued to party as hard as ever. Sickness and inclement weather prevented him getting to Capri, and on 16 March he died in a villa at Misenum. Inevitably there were conspiracy theories: one that he had been poisoned by Caligula, another that believing Tiberius to be dead, Caligula took the signet ring off his finger and was acclaimed as Emperor, only to find Tiberius recovered and asking for food. The Praefectus Praetorio Macro calmed Caligula’s panicked response by smothering the ageing Emperor with a cushion.
There was general rejoicing at Tiberius’ death. At Rome people shouted, ‘Tiberium in Tiberim’ (= ‘to the Tiber with Tiberius!’ – the fate of a common criminal’s corpse), and prayers were said to Mother Earth and the Infernal Gods to give his spirit no residence except among the damned. However, Caligula arranged for the cadaver to be taken to Rome under armed escort and properly cremated. Tiberius’ ashes were put in Augustus’ Mausoleum, but he was not deified.
Caligula’s Honeymoon Period
Tiberius’ death might have generated unbridled celebrations among the SPQR, but he had still left behind an Empire with relatively secure borders and a massive treasury surplus of some 2.7 billion sestertii. The young man who succeeded him has grabbed the popular imagination in a way that is out of all proportion both to the shortness of his Principate and to the quality of the source material. The section of Tacitus’ Annals that covered his reign has been lost, and much of the other material that survives tends to be anecdotal, sensationalist and clichéd: similar or even identical prurient tales of his sexual deviances and crazy antics are told about many of Rome’s unpopular Emperors. He is portrayed as the ultimate in ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ (especially if you were related to him), but the ancient accounts actually make it hard to get to know him.
Born on 31 August 12 at Antium (modern Anzio),29 and very touchy about his maternal grandfather M. Agrippa’s plebeian roots, Gaius had accompanied his parents on Germanicus’ campaigns on the Rhine when he was a child, and had been displayed to the troops dressed up in a miniature military uniform, from which he acquired the affectionate nickname ‘Caligula’, meaning ‘A Small Military Boot’.30 He was highly intelligent and had a rapier-sharp (and rapier-cruel) wit. He had delivered Livia’s funeral oration at the age of seventeen, and spent his late teens and early twenties with Tiberius on Capri. His relationships with his three sisters were so close that stories arose about him regularly committing incest with all of them, and Suetonius adds the rumour that he also violated Drusilla’s virginity. But this might just be scurrilous falsehood: the equally unpopular Commodus, who shared his birthday with Gaius, was accused of practically the same things.31 Caligula’s first wife Iunia Claudilla died in childbirth soon after their wedding in 33, after which he seduced Macro’s wife Ennia Naevia, whom he falsely promised to marry once he became Emperor.
With Macro’s aid, the minor inconvenience of Tiberius’ will, which named Gaius and Gemellus as joint heirs, was sidestepped by declaring it invalid on the grounds of Tiberius’ insanity, and on 18 March 37 the SPQR conferred sole power on a man who was only twenty-four, barely had any hands-on experience of government, and who, by all accounts, was not a good-looking person:
He was very tall and extremely pale, with an unshapely body, but very thin neck and legs. His eyes and temples were hollow, his forehead broad and grim, his hair thin and entirely gone on the top of his head, though his body was hairy.32
Not that this is wholly reflected in the surviving official portraits, which are of the standard Julio-Claudian type with a protruding upper lip, high, broad forehead and a thick mop of hair, possibly to disguise the baldness – we are told that it became a capital offence to look down on him, or to mention goats.
Nevertheless, to those who did not know him, this young man with the cute nickname, the son of the popular Germanicus, seemed the perfect antidote to Tiberius – he was the exoptatissimus Princeps, the most earnestly desired ruler.33 On 28 March he was welcomed into Rome by a delighted crowd calling him their ‘star’, ‘chicken’, ‘baby’ and ‘nurseling’;34 he received the right to command the armies and the imperial provinces; and soldiers and civilians alike swore an oath of loyalty that is exemplified by an inscription from Aritium on the high road from Olisipo (modern Lisbon) to Emerita (modern Merida) in Lusitania:
I solemnly swear that I will be an enemy to those who I learn are enemies to Gaius Caesar Germanicus [i.e., Caligula]. If anyone [. . .] shall bring danger to him and his welfare, I will not cease to pursue him with arms and deadly war on land and on sea till he has paid the penalty; I will hold neither myself nor my children dearer than his welfare.35
A decree from Assos in the province of Asia indicates the empire-wide enthusiasm at his accession:
The rule of Gaius Caesar Germanicus Augustus, hoped and prayed for by all men, has been proclaimed and the world has found unbounded joy and every city and every people has been eager for the sight of the god since the happiest age for mankind has now begun.36
For a while it seemed that way. During his honeymoon period Caligula was immensely popular. He afforded the ashes of his mother and brother a proper burial in the Mausoleum of Augustus; he made his uncle Ti. Claudius Nero Germanicus37 Consul; he adopted Gemellus; he granted his grandmother Antonia Minor the same honours that Livia had enjoyed, even though they didn’t get on (when she died on 1 May 37 rumour had it that she had been forced into taking her own life); he banished Tiberius’ spintriae; abol ished treason trials; recalled exiles; repressed informers; publicly destroyed Tiberius’ personal papers (which no doubt would have implicated many elite Romans in the destruction of Gaius’ immediate family); abolished the sales tax; distributed largesse to the people of Rome; promoted chariot races, beast fights and gladiatorial contests; added an extra day to the Saturnalia festival; paid the Praetorian Guard double the bounty that Tiberius had promised (the first recorded donativum to troops that we know of); explored the possibility of cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth; began the construction of the Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus aqueducts; started to improve the harbour at Rhegium to help the grain supply; finished reconstructing the theatre of Pompey; created a circus in the Vatican; and became Pater Patriae on 21 September 37.
Caligula the Monster
Unfortunately, first impressions didn’t last. Gaius peaked too early. The moment of change seems to have been a serious illness that struck him in the October after his accession. Whether this was mental and/or physical is open to question, but there was ‘no more Mr Nice Guy’ from now on: Suetonius says the Princeps became a monstrum (monster) and speaks of valitudo mentis (‘sickness of the mind’);38 Seneca believed that he just went mad; Josephus says the madness was caused by an aphrodisiac given to him by his wife Milonia Caesonia; Philo attributes it to an illness; Dio blames character defects; Tacitus just sees him as troubled and unpredictable, but not necessarily crazy.
Some modern scholars have attributed his eccentric behaviour to alcoholism, anxiety, epilepsy, hyperthyroidism / thyrotoxicosis, psychopathy, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. Others have argued that Gaius was just misunderstood, or noted that his reported behaviour dovetails very neatly with that of the stereotypical Greek tyrant.39 The only eyewitness account that we possess, Philo’s Legatio ad Gaium, introduces us to a fidgety egotistical neurotic with an acerbic wit, but not a raving lunatic, despite the fact that Gaius treated Philo with incredible disrespect. Essentially, diagnosis from literature at a distance of almost two millennia is deeply problematical.
It may simply be a case of absolute power corrupting absolutely, or of absolute power revealing absolutely, but speculation about whether Gaius was barking mad matters less than the fact that these stories were told about him and that people wanted to believe them. Gaius was doing something terribly wrong. The Romans needed to know where they stood with their Princeps; if he wasn’t consistent, they could never know how to deal with him satisfactorily. When, for instance, Gaius changed his attitude towards Tiberius and made it a treasonable offence to slander his memory, it was all too wrong-footing. And wrong-footed the Romans now were.
Gaius’ recovery towards the end of 37 turned the honeymoon period into an acrimonious divorce. Mad or not, Gaius became suspicious of the Senate and looked to base his power more directly on the support of the people. He started to explore the boundaries of his power:
‘Remember,’ he said, ‘that I have the right to do anything to anyone.’40
He demanded exceptional respect and responded viciously if he didn’t get it: the masses quite liked him, but his courtiers couldn’t work out how to respond, the Senators were petrified, and the officers of the Praetorian Guard were humiliated. Yet it also became clear to Caligula that he was not indispensable. He could not afford to let questions about the succession arise, and by the end of May 38 he had permanently eliminated both Macro, who was tricked into giving up his command of the Praetorians and then forced to commit suicide, and Gemellus, whom Gaius suspected of plotting against him.
On 10 June 38 Gaius suffered a heartbreaking tragedy. His favourite sister, Drusilla, died. He ordered her deification, which was relatively uncontroversial, but then he started to assume the trap pings of divinity himself. The cult of a living ruler was entirely normal in Rome’s Eastern provinces, and Gaius was happy to acknowledge it:
You have offered sacrifice each individually and have held a common festival for my safety, and you have voted me the greatest honours you could. For all these I commend you, and I accept them.41
But doing this at Rome was completely beyond the pale, and Caligula caused outrage by constructing a temple to himself on the Palatine:
At night he used constantly to invite the full and radiant moon to his embraces and his bed, while in the daytime he would talk confidentially with Jupiter Capitolinus, now whispering and then in turn putting his ear to the mouth of the god, now in louder and even angry language; for he was heard to make the threat: ‘Lift me up, or I’ll lift you.’42
Less frivolous was the command that P. Petronius, the legatus Augusti pro praetore of Syria, should erect a cult statue of Caligula in the Holy of Holies of the Temple at Jerusalem. Well-judged delaying tactics by Petronius, and the intervention of Herod Agrippa I, ensured that Caligula was dead before this scheme could be implemented, however.
But if being a god was transgressive, transvestism and behaving like a woman was far worse:
In his clothing, his shoes, and the rest of his attire he did not follow the usage of his country and his fellow citizens; not always even that of his sex; or in fact that of an ordinary mortal. He often appeared in public in embroidered cloaks covered with precious stones, with a long-sleeved tunic and bracelets; sometimes in silk and in a woman’s robe [. . .] and at times in the low shoes which are used by females. But oftentimes he exhibited himself with a golden beard, holding in his hand a thunderbolt, a trident, or a caduceus, emblems of the gods, and even in the garb of Venus.43
Such eccentric behaviour smacked of oriental despotism and effeminacy, despite the fact that his dealings with various women show unreconstructed red-blooded masculinity. Late in 37, at the wedding celebrations of Livia Orestilla and Gaius Calpurnius Piso, the single Caligula reclined opposite the groom, told him, ‘Don’t have sex with my wife!’ and carried the bride off for himself, only to divorce her within a few days in favour of Lollia Paulina, who was likewise swiftly discarded and told never to sleep with another man. Wife number four, Milonia Caesonia, was perfect for him:
Caesonia [. . .] was of neither outstanding beauty nor youth [. . .] but had abandoned herself to financial and sexual excess [. . .] He would often exhibit her to the troops, dressed up in a military cloak, shield and helmet, and riding beside him, and in fact he even showed her to his friends in the nude.44
They married in the late summer of 39, and she bore him a child named Julia Drusilla very close to their wedding day.45
All the while Caligula was frittering away the reserves that Tiberius had amassed. One of his most lavish spectacles consisted of constructing a 3.2-kilometre-long bridge of boats from Bauli to Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) on the Bay of Naples, along which he rode, clad in the breastplate of Alexander the Great, which he had allegedly taken from his sarcophagus. Quite why he did this is baffling: pure eccentricity, blatant megalomania, an attempt to outdo the famous Persian King Xerxes, or the desire to impress a Parthian hostage called Dareios have all been mooted. The staggering opulence of Caligula’s ships has been revealed by excavations at Lake Nemi, which uncovered the remains of two 70-metre-long vessels that might have been pleasure barges or ships used in the cult of Isis, which Gaius favoured. A lead pipe stamped Property of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, plus tiles bearing their dates of manufacture, tells when the ships were built and for whom. The boats were sheathed in lead, studded with the bronze heads of wolves and lions, and adorned with marble, mosaics, porphyry and precious metals. Piston pumps supplied them with hot and cold running water piped to heated baths and chilled fountains. Sadly, the ships were destroyed in the Second World War.
It was not just the human population of Rome that benefited from Gaius’ largesse. He was a huge fan of the Green chariot racing faction, and our sources famously speak of his favourite racehorse Incitatus (‘Swift’ or ‘Flyer’) living in absurd luxury. But the development of the story says much about the way Caligula’s image is handled by the historians. Suetonius (c.70–122) wrote:
Besides a marble stable, an ivory manger, purple rugs and a collar made of gemstones, he even gave Incitatus a house, a set of slaves and some furniture [. . .] It is also said that he marked him out for the consulship.46
But by the time of Dio Cassius (c.165–235), this rumour was being presented as fact:
He even promised to appoint [Incitatus] Consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.47
It is hard to decide whether this is genuine insanity, an example of Caligula’s quirky humour, a daft prank against the Senate, or perhaps a form of satire along the lines of, ‘Even my horse could do better than you lot. I ought to make him Consul!’
Gaius’ lavish expenditure was unsustainable, and when the money ran out, so did his popularity. To balance the books, he resorted to confiscation, extortion and tax rises. Novel measures included opening a brothel in his palace in which married women and free-born youths were available, as were loans to the customers at appropriate rates of interest, and the auction of survivors of gladiatorial combats at enormous prices. Suetonius tells ‘a well-known story’ of Aponius Saturninus, who nodded off at the sale, only for Gaius to tell the auctioneer to take the snoozing Senator’s nods for bids, and sell him thirteen gladiators for nine million sestertii.
Unsurprisingly, Caligula’s relations with the Senate deteriorated. In September 39 he removed both Consuls from office for failing to proclaim a thanksgiving for his birthday. Yet for the Senate to disrespect him was highly risky: he forced fathers to watch their sons’ executions; he deliberately prolonged the sufferings of his victims, instructing the executioners to ‘Make him feel that he is dying’;48 and frequently quoted the line from L. Attius’ tragedy Atreus: ‘Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.’49
People did both, but in 37 he was confronted by a truly dangerous conspiracy when Cn. Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, commander of the Upper Rhine army, apparently plotted to set up M. Aemilius Lepidus, a member of the old republican nobility and the ex-husband of Gaius’ sister Drusilla, in his place. The execu tions of Gaetulicus and Lepidus followed, and Caligula’s two surviving sisters, Julia Agrippina and Julia Livilla, who were suspected of complicity, were exiled.
Events in the foreign policy arena do not figure very prominently in our sources, although we do have some interesting information concerning Caligula’s relationship with the Jews. He appointed his friend Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great (he is called Herod in the Acts of the Apostles but Agrippa on his coins), as king of the substantially Jewish area of Galilee and Peraea. Yet Agrippa’s zealous Judaism did little to mollify the discord between the Emperor and his Jewish subjects. The Prefect of Egypt, A. Avillius Flaccus, became worried about his personal safety under Gaius’ regime, and, egged on by a Greek anti-Semitic faction in Alexandria, presided over a pogrom there in 38. The flashpoint occurred when Agrippa tried to transit through Alexandria in secret on his way from Rome to Judaea, but was discovered. Flaccus suspected that Agrippa was there to undermine him, and far from trying to prevent the anti-Jewish mob violence that ensued, he actively encouraged it. Many Jews were rounded up in the theatre where members of the Jewish Council were flogged and some Jewish women were forced to eat pork. Possibly prompted by complaints from Agrippa, Gaius had Flaccus arrested, replaced and executed, but he spurned the delegations sent to Rome by both the Jewish and the Greek factions, and the conflict was still unresolved when he died.
With the Alexandrian controversy still raging, Gaius moved to Gaul in the winter of 39/40. Having installed the future emperor Galba as commander in Germania Superior, probably raised two new legions (XV Primigenia and XXII Primigenia), and made forays into Germany, Gaius received ‘the surrender of Adminius, son of Cunobelinus King of the Britons, who had been expelled by his father and had deserted to the Romans with a tiny force’.50 This turned his thoughts towards Britain, but what our sources say happened next is unbelievably bizarre:
He drew up a battle line on the shore of the Ocean, and having deployed ballistas and other artillery, [. . .] suddenly gave the order to his soldiers to gather up sea-shells and fill their helmets and the folds of their clothes, calling them ‘spoils from the Ocean, debts to the Capitol and Palatine’.51
Dio trots out a similar version:
He gave the soldiers the signal as for battle [. . .] Then suddenly he ordered them to pick up sea-shells [. . .] He took back the shells to Rome, in order to exhibit his booty there as well.52
Yet Tacitus implies that Gaius was serious about invading Britain, and the apparently weird commands on the shore might not be quite as crazy as the sources would have us believe.53 It is, for example, possible that Suetonius’ sea-shells (conchae) originate from a military technical term for ‘mobile shelters used in siege-assaults’ (musculi), which is also the word for ‘mussels’. Hence, perhaps, the order to ‘Pick up the musculi!’ gets distorted to ‘Pick up the conchae!’ Whatever the reason for aborting the mission, Gaius’ spin doctors presented Britain as having been conquered: when Adminius came to render homage, Gaius simply acted ‘as if the whole island had surrendered to him’.54 Back in Rome he was ridiculed for taking the titles Germanicus and Britannicus: because of his well-known adulteries he was jokingly said to have ‘subdued/taken in hand’ (a sexual double entendre) every/the whole of Keltike (= Celtic woman/the Celtic lands) and Bretannike (= British woman / Britain).55
Bawdy ridicule was easy enough to handle, but Caligula also managed to alienate the Praetorian Guard so badly that three tribunes (Cassius Chaerea, Cornelius Sabinus and Papinius), the Prefect M. Arrecinus Clemens, the Senators M. Annius Vinicianus, M. Valerius Asiaticus, Cluvius Rufus and L. Nonius Asprenas, and Gaius’ power ful freedman Callistus, hatched a plot to murder him. They struck on 24 January 41 at around the seventh or ninth hour. Despite suffer ing from an upset stomach caused by overindulgence, Caligula had been attending the Palatine Games. Josephus’ account, which may include eye witness testimony from Cluvius Rufus, tells how Caligula was exiting through a narrow passageway when his neck was slashed from behind by Chaerea. Sabinus stabbed him in the chest, and he was finished off by the other conspirators, with Aquila delivering the final blow. Suetonius knew of two accounts, one of which started with him having his jawbone shattered and ended with sword thrusts to his genitals, and Dio talks of the conspirators eating his flesh. But the end result was the same – Caligula was not a god; he had become the sacrificial victim.
The conspirators completed the job with the brutal killings of Gaius’ wife Caesonia and daughter Drusilla. But if all this was designed to terminate the dynasty and restore the Republic it failed dismally, since the Praetorian Guard had too great a vested interest in maintaining the continuity of the Principate. Two clear messages had emerged for Emperors and their would-be opponents: (1) any future plot against an Emperor would have to involve the Praetorian Guard, and (2) the only way an Emperor could give up his powers was by giving up his life.
1 All dates from here on are CE, unless indicated otherwise.
2 Tr. Grant, M., op. cit.
3 Suetonius, Tiberius 21.2.
4 Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 142; Tacitus, Annals 6.6. See also Kershaw, S., A Brief Guide to the Greek Myths, London: Robinson, 2007, p. 241.
5 Suetonius, Tiberius 24.2. Cf. Tacitus, Annals 1.10–13.
6 Terence, Phormio 506; Suetonius, Tiberius 25.1.
7 Tacitus, Annals 3.65. He said this in Greek, apparently.
8 Velleius Paterculus 2.130.1, tr. Shipley, F. W., in Velleius Paterculus and Res Gestae Divi Augusti, Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1924.
9 AE, 1929, no 99–100, ll. 17 ff., tr. Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (eds.), Roman Civilization: Selected Readings Edited by Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, Volume II, The Empire, New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, 3rd edn, p. 522.
10 Suetonius, Tiberius 50.3, tr. Kershaw, S.
11 The names imply 500 or 1000, but in practice there were fewer.
12 Tiberius had increased it from nine cohorts under Augustus. It went up to sixteen under Vitellius, then back to nine under Vespasian.
13 See above, p. 59.
14 Suetonius, Tiberius 33.
15 Suetonius, Tiberius 32.2, tr. Rolfe, J. C., op. cit.
16 He put it back to 1 per cent in 31, though.
17 Mitteis, L. and Wilcken, U., Grundzüge und Chrestomathie der Papyruskunde, Leipzig and Berlin: Teubner, B. G., 1912, no. 413, ll. 31–45, tr. in Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (eds.), op. cit. p. 523.
18 AE, 1984, no. 508, tr. Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M., (eds,) op. cit., p. 524.
19 Dio 58 fr. 2, tr. Cary, E., op. cit. However, see Seneca On Benefits 3.26.1–2, where the man is saved by a quick-witted slave.
20 Tacitus calls her Livia; Suetonius often gives diminutive names like this to women.
21 Suetonius, Tiberius 532, tr. Graves, R., op. cit.
22 See Williams, C. A., Roman Homosexuality, 2nd edn., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 90–93, 258.
23 Suetonius, Tiberius 592, tr. Kershaw, S. A very similar phrase (where ‘fear’ replaces ‘accept’) is attributed to Caligula (Suetonius, Caligula 20.1). See p. 91.
24 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, AE 1963 no. 104, tr. Kershaw, S. See Vardaman, H., ‘A New Inscription Which Mentions Pilate as “Prefect,”’ Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962) 70–71.
25 Mark 15:42; John 19:14; 19:31; 19:42.
26 He was tried by Junius Annaeus Gallio, the Proconsul of Achaia, in around 51–52 (Acts 18:12–17), met Priscilla and Aquila who were expelled from Rome about 49, and spent some fourteen years on his missions (Acts 11:25–26; 2 Corinthians 11:23–33) before he returned to Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1).
27 Suetonius, Gaius 11, tr. Kershaw, S. In Greek mythology, Phaethon lost control of the chariot of the sun and almost destroyed the world. See Kershaw, S., op. cit., 2007, p. 263 f.
28 Suetonius, Tiberius 72.2.
29 There were other traditions about his birthplace, but Suetonius quotes the Gazette to certify the point: Suetonius, Gaius 8.2.
30 Tacitus, Annals 1.41.3; Suetonius, Gaius 9.1. The word is a diminutive of caliga = a leather hobnailed sandal of the type worn by Roman soldiers. Originally it was used quite sentimentally, and conjured up none of the horrors that it now does. Caligula is singular = ‘Little Boot’, not ‘Little Boots’.
31 See below, p. 216 ff.
32 Suetonius, Gaius 50.1, tr. Rolfe, J. C., Suetonius, vol. I with an English Translation by J. C. Rolfe. Introduction by K. R. Bradley, Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, rev. edn., 1998.
33 Suetonius, Gaius 13.
35 CIL, 2.172 (= ILS 190), 11 May 37. Tr. in Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (eds.), op. cit., p. 8.
36 Dittenberger, no. 797. From the year 37. Tr. Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (eds.), op. cit., p. 9.
37 ‘Ti.’ is the abbreviation for Tiberius. Caligula’s uncle later became the Emperor Claudius.
38 Suetonius, Gaius 51.1.
39 See, e.g., Jerome, T. S., Aspects of the Study of Roman History, New York: Putnam, 1923, pp. 381–421; Andrewes, A., The Greek Tyrants, London: Hutchinson, 1956; Morgan, M. G., ‘Caligula’s Illness Again’ Classical World 66 (1972–73): pp. 327–9; Massaro, V. and Montgomery, I., ‘Gaius: Mad Bad, Ill or All Three?’ Latomus 37 (1978): pp. 894–909; ‘Gaius (Caligula) Doth Murder Sleep’ Latomus 38 (1979) pp. 699–700; Benediktson, D. T., ‘Caligula’s Madness: Madness or Interictal Temporal Lobe Epilepsy?’ Classical World 82 (1988–89) pp. 370–5; Katz, R. S., ‘The Illness of Caligula.’ Classical World 65 (1971–72) pp. 223–5; Barrett, A. A., Caligula: The Corruption of Power, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990, pp. 213–41.
40 Suetonius, Gaius 29.1, tr. Kershaw, S.
41 IG, 7.2711, ll. 21–43 (= Dessau, no. 8792) from Acraephiae, Greece, 19 August 37, tr. in Lewis, N. and Reinhold, M. (eds.), op. cit., p. 526 f.
42 Suetonius, Gaius 22.4, tr. Rolfe, J. C., op. cit. The threat is a quotation in Greek from Homer’s Iliad 23.724, where words are used by Aias against Odysseus after a long and indecisive wrestling match.
43 Suetonius, Gaius 52, tr. Rolfe, J. C., op. cit.
44 Ibid. 25.3, tr. Kershaw, S.
45 Just before, says Suetonius (Gaius 25); one month later, says Dio (59.23.7).
46 Suetonius, Gaius 55.3, tr. Kershaw, S. (my emphasis).
47 Dio 59.14.7, tr. Cary. E., op. cit. (again, my emphasis).
48 Suetonius, Gaius 30.1.
49 ‘Oderint dum metuant’: Suetonius, Gaius 30.1. Cicero, de Officiis 1.28; Tragicorum Romanorum Fragmenta, no. 203.
50 Suetonius, Gaius 44.2, tr. Kershaw, S.
51 Ibid 46.
52 Dio 59.25.1–3, tr. Cary. E., op. cit.
53 See, e.g., Bicknell, P., ‘The Emperor Gaius’ Military Activities in AD 40’, Historia 17 (1968), 496–505; Davies, R. W., ‘The Abortive Invasion of Britain by Gaius’, Historia 15 (1966), pp. 124–28; Philips, E. J., ‘The Emperor Gaius’ Abortive Invasion of Britain’, Historia 19 (1970), pp. 369–74; Barrett, A. A., op. cit. pp. 125–39; Woods, D., ‘Caligula’s Seashells’, Greece and Rome 47 (2000), 80–87.
54 Suetonius, Gaius 44.
55 Dio 59.25.5a. For the sexual overtones of kheiro (= ‘I take in hand/subdue’) see Henderson, J., The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Attic Comedy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 27.