Ancient History & Civilisation



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In Rome, news that the old man had died at last was greeted with predictable gallows humour. ‘To the Tiber!’ went up the cry.1 Caligula, conscious that the dignity of the role bequeathed him by Tiberius would hardly be enhanced by handing over his predecessor’s corpse to be dragged through the streets on a meat hook, refused. Arriving from Campania in the city he had last seen six years before, he was dressed soberly in mourning. The funeral he gave Tiberius was dignified and ornate. The speech over the body was delivered by Caligula himself. The ashes were laid to rest in the great Mausoleum of Augustus.

So far, though, and no further. Escorting the funeral cortège, the new Princeps had been mobbed the length of the Appian Way by joyous crowds, cheering him and hailing him as their chick, their little one, their darling. Caligula, who for so long as his great-uncle was alive had betrayed not a flicker of grief for his murdered mother and brothers, now played with relish to the gallery. The speech he gave over Tiberius’s corpse was largely a paean to Germanicus. Then, a few days later, he set out for the prison islands on which Agrippina and Nero had perished. Ostentatiously braving stormy weather, so as to make his filial piety all the more evident,2 he returned up the Tiber with their ashes, placed them in litters normally used for carrying the statues of gods, and had them interred amid much sombre and flamboyant pomp in the Mausoleum of Augustus. The Roman people, ecstatic that their favourite had at last come into his own, gave themselves over to wild celebration. For three months the smell of roasting meat hung pungent over the city, as hundreds of thousands of cattle were immolated in a grand gesture of gratitude to the gods. After the long winter of Tiberius’s old age, spring, it seemed, had come at last.

Not that Caligula was naïve enough to take this mood of optimism for granted. Although he had long been isolated from the capital, his time on Capri had not been wasted. His presence at Tiberius’s side had given him an instinctive and pitiless understanding of the workings of power. Unlike his grimly austere predecessor, who had scorned to lavish bribes on the people, Caligula was more than happy to buy popularity. The treasury was full – and the new Princeps took full advantage. Donatives were splashed out on the citizens of the capital, on the legions and – most generously of all – on the Praetorians. Nor was the Senate neglected. Caligula showed himself alert to its sensitivities. The serving consuls were permitted to serve out their term of office; and when the Princeps did finally lay claim to the consulship, three months into his reign, his choice of colleague signalled a pointed rejection of his predecessor. Claudius, Caligula’s uncle, had hitherto been denied even the most junior magistracy; but now, at the age of forty-six, he was elevated simultaneously into the Senate and to the consulship. More was to follow. Giving his first address as consul, Caligula explicitly repudiated all the most detested features of Tiberius’s reign: the informers, the treason trials, the executions. To the listening Senate, it sounded almost too good to be true.

Which perhaps it was. When senators, in the wake of Caligula’s speech, rushed through a decree that it be read out every year, the measure reflected less their joy at a new beginning than dread that he might change his mind. There was no one in the Senate, after the traumas and tribulations of the previous reign, who could believe any longer in the silken hypocrisies that had once served to veil what Rome had become. The true balance of power had been too nakedly exposed for that. The Senate itself, like a battered wife frantic to forestall a beating, had made sure, in the first days of Caligula’s reign, to deny him nothing. An attempt by Tiberius in his will to secure a share of his inheritance for Gemellus had been speedily annulled; ‘the absolute right to decide on everything’3 bestowed with a solemn and awful formality upon Caligula. Few senators had been put at ease by their new master’s smooth assurances. The man who as a toddler had posed as a soldier was now acting out a new role, that of Augustus. No matter how convincing his performance, everyone suspected that it was just that: a performance.

There was only one shred of reassurance. The new emperor was not, as Tiberius had been when he succeeded Augustus, a man battle-hardened in the service of Rome – and Caligula seemed to appreciate as much. Ever at his ear was the man who had done more than anyone to facilitate his accession, the Praetorian prefect Macro. This in itself, to senators who had learned to dread overreaching equestrians, was hardly a recommendation – except that Macro was no Sejanus. High-minded and bluntly spoken, he did not hesitate to lecture his young protégé on what was expected of a Princeps: ‘for, like any good craftsman, he was keen that his own handiwork, as he saw it, not be damaged or destroyed’.4 Granted, senators could hardly help but feel a little twitchy at the very public drills that Caligula insisted on having the Praetorians perform for their benefit; but Macro was not the only advisor by the emperor’s side. There was also one of the Senate’s own.

Four years before becoming emperor, Caligula had been married to the daughter of a man particularly prized by Tiberius, a one-time consular colleague of Drusus’s by the name of Junius Silanus; and Silanus, even though his daughter had since died in childbirth, retained signal status as the emperor’s father-in-law. Like Macro, he presumed a right to serve as Caligula’s guide in the various arts of governance; unlike Macro, he did so as a representative of the antique virtues of the nobility. ‘Well bred and eloquent, his rank was a commanding one.’5 It was no shame for anyone, even a Princeps, to be swayed by such a man. Certainly, Caligula showed himself a quick learner. The prosperity and order that Rome’s dominions had enjoyed under Tiberius continued unbroken. The frontiers held firm; the appointments to provincial commands were shrewdly chosen; peace was universal across the Roman world. In the capital itself, workmen who had long cursed Tiberius’s refusal to invest in infrastructure projects were delighted when Caligula commissioned two new aqueducts and a thoroughgoing upgrade of the Palatine. Books that had been banned under his predecessors, including the speeches of Titus Labienus and Cassius Severus, and the histories of Cremutius Cordus, were restored to public circulation. ‘With such moderation did Caligula behave, in short, and such graciousness, that he became ever more popular, both with the Roman people themselves, and with their subjects.’6

Nevertheless, in the Senate, they still held their breath. Popularity and youth, to conservatives, could hardly help but seem a sinister combination. Not since the darkest days of the Triumvirate had Rome been so dependent upon the whims of so young a man. Senators observed with alarm that their new emperor, even as he posed before them as a new Augustus, played a very different part when before the plebs. Caligula, it was evident, positively revelled in the applause of the masses. When he insisted that they greet him, not with pompous or stuffy formality, but as though he were a citizen just like themselves, they delighted in his common touch; when he restored to them the right abolished by Tiberius to vote for magistrates, they hailed him as the people’s friend. What they adored most of all, however, was the sheer blaze of his glamour. He might be prematurely balding, and possessed of large feet and his father’s spindly legs, yet Caligula knew how to thrill a crowd. The Roman people were bored of grim old men. Now at last they had an emperor who seemed to glory in living the dream. That summer, opening a new temple to Augustus, Caligula rode to the inauguration in a gilded triumphal chariot. Six horses pulled him. ‘This,’ so it was noted, ‘was something wholly cutting edge.’7

Cheers and chariots went naturally together. In a triumph, the pace was stately, the rider arrayed in purple and gold; but there were other spectacles more dangerous, more thrilling, more visceral. Between the Palatine, home of Caesar, and the Aventine, that great smog-wreathed warren of slums, stretched a long, straight valley; and here, ever since the days of Romulus, perilously rickety chariots had been racing one another up and down its course. The Circus Maximus it was called – and fittingly so. No other city in the world could boast a vaster stadium. Even Augustus had found himself intimidated by the sheer heaving mass of spectators who would cram themselves into its stands on race days. Although, back in the year of Actium, he had commissioned a box in the Circus, the ‘Pulvinar’, for his own private use, and justified it, with a familiar sleight of hand, by sharing it with symbols of the gods, he had rarely used it. He had found himself altogether too conspicuous, too exposed, when sitting there. Instead, rather than endure hundreds of thousands of eyes fixed upon him, he had preferred to watch the races from the upper storeys of friends’ houses. Augustus, incomparable as he had always been in his ability to distinguish between the reality and show of power, had known what he confronted in the Circus – and had respected it. To feel the blast of its noise hot against the face was to feel the breath of the wolf.

Which was why, when sitting in the Pulvinar, Augustus had always made sure to behave like a fan. It was important that the First Citizen be seen to share in the pleasures of the Roman people. Even so, there were limits. Augustus had not bestowed the gifts of peace and order upon the world only to tolerate a free-for-all at sports events. The long-standing presumption of most spectators that they should be allowed to sit wherever they pleased had struck the Princeps as deeply offensive. Entertainment was all very well – but not at the expense of proprieties. As in the bedroom, so on the bleachers – Augustus had sought to regulate his fellow citizens’ appetites by means of legislation. With great punctiliousness, the banks of seating in public venues had been divided up between various categories of Roman. Senators, naturally, had been awarded the best vantage points; women the worst. Wear a blinding white toga, and a man could expect to sit near the front; wear a dark and grimy tunic, and he would have to take his luck at the back. Soldiers, foreign ambassadors, boys and their tutors: all had been allocated their respective blocs. The larger the venue, of course, the harder these rules were to police; and the Circus Maximus itself, as the largest venue of all, was correspondingly the most challenging to regulate.8 Nevertheless, the principle established by Augustus was one that everyone who benefited from it could recognise as eminently sound. Rich or poor, male or female – all had to know their place. Entertainments were serious matters. They provided mirrors in which the entire Roman people, from First Citizen to the basest ex-slave, could see themselves reflected. Macro, speaking in his young master’s ear, sought to spell out the implications. ‘What matters when you watch the races in the Circus is not the sport itself, but rather to behave appropriately in the context of the sport.’9

There was, though, another perspective. Despite the many years that he had spent away from Rome, Caligula had not been wholly cut off from the capital’s youth culture. The offspring of the nobility summoned by Tiberius to Capri, there to pose and perform as prostitutes, had brought with them to the island a distinct touch of metropolitan chic. One of these, a performer so adept at sex games that he was said to have ensured his father’s promotion first to the consulship, and then to the governorship of Syria, had become a particular intimate of Caligula’s. Aulus Vitellius was racy in every sense of the word. Not merely a fan, he was himself an accomplished charioteer. Naturally enough, he had made sure to share with Caligula his passion for the sport. The contrast with Tiberius, who had despised anything enjoyed by the mob, and scorned to squander money on keeping them entertained, could hardly have been greater. Now that he was out of the old man’s shadow at last, Caligula had every intention of blazing an opposite course. Although, on becoming emperor, he had declared himself shocked by the antics on Capri, and ready to drown anyone who had participated in them, the joke was firmly on those who believed this show of outrage. Vitellius, whose youthful brush with prostitution would never be forgotten by his enemies, remained the Emperor’s bosom companion. Even as Macro was sternly advising Caligula to maintain his distance from the pleasures of the Circus, his friend was busy stoking his obsession.

The Roman people, long starved of public extravaganzas, found their new emperor a most munificent sponsor. Races were held from dawn to dusk; glamorous entertainments, featuring wild beasts and cavalry manoeuvres, laid on in the intervals; the tracks made to sparkle with vivid reds and greens. Caligula himself, far from maintaining an aloof and neutral presence, rooted shamelessly for his favourite team. Its champion charioteer was lavished with gifts, and its champion horse, Incitatus or ‘Hot Spur’, supplied with a stable of ivory and marble built by Praetorians. Simultaneously, in a crowning gesture of fandom, Caligula commissioned his own private racecourse, on the far side of the Tiber from central Rome, complete with an obelisk brought specially on a massive transport ship from Egypt. Restrained in his enthusiasm he was not.

But that, for Caligula himself, was precisely the point. Back in the days of Augustus, the relish of Rome’s trendsetters for offending the stuffy and the uptight had ended up so dangerous as to risk criminal charges. Now, with Caligula installed on the Palatine, one of their own enjoyed the whip-hand. The proprieties that his great-grandfather had been so anxious to uphold were, to the youthful Princeps, things to be mocked, subverted, undermined. His apprenticeship on Capri, where he had watched the sons and daughters of senators hawk themselves like streetwalkers, had opened his eyes to the extremes of novelty and spectacle the power of an emperor might command. Far from veiling his own supremacy, he delighted in flaunting it. There was to be no watching chariot races from neighbouring buildings for Caligula. Instead, resplendently visible in the Pulvinar, the toast of a grateful and cheering people, a patron such as the Circus had never before enjoyed, he delighted in what it meant to rule as the master of Rome.

He presided over magnificence; but he presided as well over peril. Races were potentially lethal events. Even a charioteer as skilled as Vitellius walked with a permanent limp, the result of an accident. He had been lucky. Crashes were often fatal. Many a citizen, in the dark days of the civil wars, had dreaded that Rome herself was doomed to end up a mess of splinters, shattered axles and tangled reins. Now, whenever a chariot careered out of control and left a twisted body crumpled on the side of the track, it served the Roman people as a very different reminder: of Caesar, who had graced them with spectaculars beyond their forefathers’ wildest imaginings, and was the master of death as he was of life. And they loved him for it.

In the Circus, to manoeuvre for victory was invariably to risk life and limb. In the world beyond the race track it could sometimes be the same. That October, eight months after coming to power, Caligula fell dangerously ill. Alarmed by the potential threat to their own positions, Macro and Silanus immediately scouted around for a new protégé. There was only one possible candidate. Even as Caligula lay at death’s door, his two most prominent henchmen began clearing the way for Tiberius’s grandson, the eighteen-year-old Gemellus, to take over the reins. But they had moved too fast. In the Circus, the charioteer who clipped the hub of a rival’s wheel while attempting to overtake would invariably end up broken and mangled in the dust. Macro and Silanus had committed a similarly fatal error. Caligula did not die. Instead, he made a full recovery. Rising from his sickbed, he moved with lethal dispatch and cunning.

First to perish was the hapless Gemellus. Charged with treason, he was paid a visit by two senior officers, who considerately instructed him in the best way to commit suicide, and then stood by as he demonstrated the efficacy of their lesson. Macro, as the man with the Praetorians at his command, presented Caligula with a potentially greater challenge – but one to which he showed himself no less equal. Like a sacrificial bull being adorned with garlands, the Prefect was first graced with the supreme honour of the governorship of Egypt, and then, before he could leave for his province, ordered to kill himself. The charge, a highly plausible one, was that he had referred to Caligula as ‘his work’: self-evidently, a mortal insult to the Princeps’s dignity. Macro’s suicide left only Silanus standing; but he too, once it had been intimated to the Senate that he no longer retained his son-in-law’s favour, took the hint, slitting his own throat with a razor. Caligula could be mightily pleased with the skill that he had brought to clearing the stage.

To Rome’s elite, of course, the ease with which their young emperor had liquidated his two most formidable allies came as an altogether less pleasant revelation. If power-brokers of the stature of Macro and Silanus could be forced to kill themselves, then nobody was safe. ‘Remember,’ Caligula was said to have told his grandmother, ‘I am allowed to do anything to anybody.’10 Unlike Tiberius, he did not feel the slightest embarrassment at the awesome scope of his power – and the discovery of how readily he had been able to dispose of his unwanted mentors only encouraged him to test its limits further still. No paying lip-service to the ideals of the vanished Republic for Caligula. They bored him – and he had no patience with being bored. Nevertheless, in trampling them down, he was not going wholly against the grain of the past. The colour and clamour of the Circus, to which he had become so addicted, were traditions as venerable as any in Rome. The Senate House, to a man of Caligula’s instinctive showmanship, could hardly help but seem dreary in comparison. Resolved as he was not merely to preside supreme over the cockpit of power, but to make a display of it, he looked elsewhere for his inspiration: to the Roman genius for putting on a show.

The pleasure that Caligula took in watching other people suffer was nothing new. For centuries, the Roman people had been assembling en masse to enjoy the spectacle of men contending in desperate struggle, and to exercise over them the powers of life and death. Traditionally, these shows had been mounted in the heart of Rome, in the Forum itself. There, across from the Senate House, the great men of the Republic had regularly commissioned the building of temporary wooden amphitheatres, staging in them, for the benefit of potential voters, contests between trained killers named ‘gladiators’. Fighters bound, if volunteers, by a fearsome oath to endure ‘brandings, fetters, whippings, and death by sword’,11these men ranked as the lowest among the low – and yet, for all that, the attitude of spectators was not merely one of contempt. The Roman people admired courage and martial proficiency. Julius Caesar, when he was still a man on the make, had sought to win the love of his fellow citizens by equipping gladiators, for the first time, with silver armour; but later, after his crossing of the Rubicon, he had trained his legions to fight as though they themselves were in the arena. Senators proscribed by the Triumvirate had been known to do as a defeated gladiator would, and bare their throats to the swords of their assassins. Former consuls had not been ashamed to look to the example of such slaves and find in them a model of their own ancestral virtus. Amid the horrors of civil war, the whole of Rome had become an amphitheatre.

Much, of course, had changed since then. Augustus had brought the blessings of peace to Rome. The days when ambitious noblemen could hope to win supremacy for themselves by staging dazzling shows in the Forum were long gone. There was effectively only one patron left: Caesar. A Princeps, it went without saying, could spend as lavishly he pleased. The result, over the course of Augustus’s primacy, had been ever more spectacular games. Ten thousand gladiators had fought in eight alone. Rule by a Princeps, though, was not necessarily good news for the fans. Tiberius, whose contempt for public entertainments had been total, had naturally scorned to squander money on gladiators. Following the death of Drusus, who had loved watching them with a passion extreme even by Roman standards, and had been nicknamed after a particularly famous one as a result, the staging of blood sports had ground to a halt. Star gladiators themselves had mourned the lack of opportunity to demonstrate their skills. ‘What a golden age we have lost!’12 Indeed, so desperate had the Roman people become to feed their addiction that in AD 27, when an entrepreneur staged a gladiator show in the nearby town of Fidenae, ‘huge crowds of men and women, of every age’13 had flocked from the capital to watch it. The result had been the worst disaster in the history of Roman sport: the amphitheatre, unable to cope with the sheer volume of spectators, had collapsed under their weight, crushing thousands to death. The horror of this calamity would long be remembered – for it had struck a particular nerve. The crowds who went to watch other men die did not care to be reminded of their own mortality. ‘Kill him! Lash him! Burn him!’14 The excitement that spectators took in watching trained warriors fight for their lives was all the greater for knowing themselves to be the masters. Caligula, as passionate a fan of gladiatorial combat as Tiberius had been dismissive of it, understood this with icy clarity. More than that – it amused him to make play with the knowledge.

Only menace a man with violent death, and his struggle to evade it could provide rich entertainment – no matter the victim’s rank. Who better to put this proposition to the test than Caligula, whose sense of humour was as malicious as his powers were absolute? His chosen victim, an equestrian by the name of Atanius Secundus, was guilty of little more than excessive flattery. Back when the Princeps was on his sickbed, Atanius had sworn an extravagant oath. Only restore Caligula to health, he had promised the gods, and he would fight as a gladiator. Naturally, he had not expected to be taken up on this vow. His aim had been merely to stand out from the other sycophants. Once back up on his feet, though, the Emperor took Atanius at his word. With a perfectly straight face, Caligula ordered the wretched equestrian into the arena, to fight there for the amusement of the crowds. Predictably enough, paired against a trained killer, Atanius did not last long. The spectacle of his body being dragged away across the sands of the arena on a hook provided Caligula’s joke with more than just a cruelly emphatic punchline. It also delivered a threat. No equestrian could sit in an amphitheatre, in one of the seats reserved for him by law, and watch in equanimity as one of his own was made an object of public diversion. Senators too were bound to feel unsettled. The menace was implicit. No one so high-ranking, it seemed, but Caligula reserved for himself the right to make sport with his death.

It was, for the Roman nobility, all most disconcerting. The notion that a Princeps might regard them with derision was as novel as it was shocking. No matter how painful their subordination to the new order established by Augustus, neither Augustus himself nor Tiberius had ever sought deliberately to rub their noses in the dirt. Just the opposite. Both men had been firm believers in the values upheld by Rome’s traditional elite. Caligula, though, was revealing himself to be a very different order of Princeps. Raised on the private island of an autocrat, seduced by the cheers of the Circus, backed by the swords of Praetorians, he felt not the slightest empathy with the presumptions of his own class. A year and more after his accession to the rule of the world, he still paid a certain mocking obeisance to his partnership with the aristocracy; but it was evident that he was starting to weary of smoothing their ruffled feathers. As a signal of this, he took a title in September 38 that earlier, out of respect for the grey hairs and craggy self-regard of the Senate, he had pointedly refused: ‘Father of his Country’. The chance to humiliate his elders had simply become too good to miss.

Indeed, in so far as Caligula felt loyalty to anything, it was to his family – and to his sisters in particular. Julia Livilla, the baby girl born on Lesbos during Germanicus’s fateful journey to the East, was now a young woman in her early twenties; her two elder sisters, Agrippina and Drusilla, were both already married. All three, while Tiberius was alive, had shared with their brother the perils of being their mother’s children; all three, when Caligula finally came into his inheritance, had been graced with spectacular honours. Privileges were lavished on them that it had taken Livia a lifetime to acquire. Even consuls, when they took a vow of allegiance to Caligula, were obliged to include his three sisters in the oath. The most startling novelty of all, though, was their appearance on a coin minted during their brother’s first year in power, and which portrayed them in the guise of winsome deities. Never before in Roman history had living individuals been represented on a coin as gods. Well might traditionalists have flared their nostrils.

Truth be told, the fondness of Claudians for their siblings had long been a cause of suspicion. Back in the dying days of the Republic, Clodius’s intimacy with his three sisters had provoked dark and delighted accusations of incest. Now, almost a century on, the same rumours inevitably began to swirl around the children of Germanicus.*1 Given the prurient taste of the Roman people for scandal, they could hardly have done otherwise. What, though, was idle gossip to perturb the master of the world and his sisters? Agrippina, in particular, was hardly the kind of woman to care what her inferiors thought. In ambition and self-assurance no less than her name, she was every inch her mother’s daughter. Married off by Tiberius to the thuggish but impeccably aristocratic Domitius Ahenobarbus, she was the only one among her siblings to have had a child – and a son, what was more. Unsurprisingly, her hopes for the boy were of the highest order. Like her mother, though, she had a tendency to push too hard. Eager to alert the world to the fact that Caligula had no children of his own, she asked him to name her son, confident that the choice would signal a glorious future for the boy – only to have her brother smirk, glance across at their twitching, dribbling uncle, and suggest ‘Claudius’.

In the event, Agrippina had to be content with calling her son Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, after his father. She knew better than to force the issue. Fond though Caligula was of his eldest sister, he was unwilling to offer either her or Julia Livilla marks of favour at the expense of his favourite, Drusilla. No one was dearer to him. Even though she had already been married off by Tiberius before he came to power, this had not prevented her brother, once emperor himself, from supplying her with a new and altogether more glamorous husband in the form of his principal favourite, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. The great-grandnephew of the most ineffectual of the Triumvirs, Lepidus was said to have had a youthful and passionate fling with Caligula – and whatever the truth of such scurrilous gossip, it was certainly the case that the two men were very close. The Emperor had not only fast-tracked his friend through assorted magistracies, but had then explicitly named him as ‘successor to the throne’.15 It was the wife, though, not the husband, whom Caligula truly adored. During his illness, he had made this clear in the most startling manner. Rather than explicitly name Lepidus as his successor, he had instead appointed Drusilla herself as ‘heir to his worldly goods and power’.16 Not even Livia at her most ambitious could have dreamed of such an honour.

Unsurprisingly, the devastation that Caligula felt in the summer of 38, when his beloved sister died, was so flamboyant as to prompt unprecedented displays of mourning. Too distraught to attend her funeral, he retreated to an estate outside Rome, where he sought to distract himself from his misery by playing board games and alternately growing and hacking at his hair; and then, when these measures proved inadequate, by drifting around Sicily and Campania. Meanwhile, back in Rome, a resourceful senator declared that he had seen Drusilla ascending to heaven – and Caligula, rather than mock the man for his sycophancy, as he might normally have done, gave him a massive reward. Drusilla was officially declared divine, the third member of the family, after Julius Caesar and Augustus, to become a god. Life-sized golden statues of her were placed in both the Senate House and the temple of Venus Genetrix; anything that smacked of fun was officially cancelled; a man who sold hot water for adding to wine was promptly put to death on a charge of maiestas. The Roman people, ‘unsure whether Caligula wished them to mourn his sister or worship her’,17cowered in the shadow of his terrifying grief.

By the early autumn, when Drusilla’s elevation to the heavens was officially confirmed, the Emperor had recovered sufficiently to look to the future. Reminded by his sister’s death of his own mortality, he briskly procured himself a new wife. That Lollia Paulina had already been married to Memmius Regulus, the consul who had presided over Sejanus’s downfall, naturally bothered Caligula not a jot. Lollia was both beautiful and fabulously rich, with a taste for wearing pearls and emeralds wherever and whenever she could sport them. Although she was the granddaughter of the Lollius who had lost an eagle to the Germans and then committed suicide on the eastern front, no stain had been left on her eligibility by this disgrace. Any son she bore would be worthy to rank as a Caesar.

Naturally, Caligula’s patent determination to father an heir did nothing for the prospects of either Agrippina or Lepidus, but the Princeps was in no mood to care about that. The more he adjusted to the seeming limitlessness of his own supremacy, the less inclined he was to tolerate anything that might obstruct it. Graced as he had been with an excellent education, and with years of literary chat at Tiberius’s table, he had no problem in quoting from the classics to justify himself: ‘ “Let there be one lord, one king.” ’18 In token of this, in the New Year, the Emperor entered his second consulship. Although he only held it for a month, his brief term of office served its purpose: to remind the Senate that he could take up and discard Rome’s supreme magistracy as and when he pleased. Simultaneously, in the background, an ominous and familiar drumbeat was striking up again. Men who under Tiberius had languished in prison, and been released by Caligula in the joyous first flush of his coming to power, began to find themselves under arrest once more. The charge of maiestas, abolished with great fanfare in the first weeks of his supremacy, was quietly resurrected. Terror was blended with flashes of Caligula’s customary malevolent humour. When a junior magistrate by the name of Junius Priscus was discovered, after he had been put to death, to be much poorer than he had always maintained, the Emperor laughed, and declared that he had died beyond his means. ‘He fooled me. He might just as well have lived.’19

The joke, as so often with Caligula, derived from the scorching quality of his gaze: from his willingness to strip away the veil of dissimulation, to expose the sordid baseness of human instincts, to question whether anyone ever did anything save for motives of self-interest. The Roman people had long made much of their supposed virtues; but Caligula, so unsparing in the analysis of his own motivation, was no longer interested in pandering to their self-conceit. For two years, he had indulged senators in the pretence that they were partners with him in the rule of the world. Now he was bored of it. The record of their cant stank to the heavens. Almost seventy years before, on that fateful day when Augustus had been voted his new name, he and the Senate between them had woven a fabric of illusion so subtle that few since had been prepared so much as to acknowledge its existence. Now Caligula was ready to rip it down and trample it under foot.

His trap had long been set. In the first weeks of his supremacy, he had informed the Senate in a tone of gracious magnanimity that all the paperwork relating to the maiestas trials under Tiberius, all the transcripts of those who had brought accusations against their fellows, all the details of the various senators who had stabbed one another in the back, were burned. But he had lied. He had kept the records – and now he ordered them read out to the Senate. His listeners’ mortification was almost beyond enduring. But there was worse to come. Painstakingly, with relish, Caligula detailed every opportunistic shimmy of which the Senate had been guilty. Its members had licked the feet of Sejanus and then spat on him when he was down; they had cringed and grovelled before Tiberius and then traduced him the moment he was dead. Tiberius, though, had seen through them to their malign and contemptible core – and had advised on how to handle them. ‘Make your priorities your own pleasure and security. For they all detest you – they all long to see you dead. And if they can, they will murder you.’20

The naked brutality of the regime that had planted itself, over the course of the previous century, within the heart of Rome, and what had once been a free republic, now lay visible to all. Whatever else might be said about Caligula, he was at least being honest. It was an honesty, though, as pitiless as the African sun. Where were senators to hide now? Nothing of the hypocrisies with which they had been cloaking and adorning themselves was left to them. Their mingled servility and malignity had been brutally exposed to the world. It was not only the Senate, though, that Caligula was attacking. The lies told by his predecessors, the deified Augustus and Tiberius, also stood revealed. The pretence to which both men had clung, that Rome remained a republic, had become unsustainable. The power of the emperor was total – and Caligula no longer saw any point in disguising it. As token of this, he declared the charge of maiestas officially restored, and commanded that his words be inscribed upon a tablet of brass. Then, without waiting to hear what the Senate had to say, he turned on his heels and walked briskly out.

As it was, the Senate had nothing to say. So stunned and appalled were its members that they sat frozen in silence. It took them a whole day before they were finally able to present their response. By an official vote of the Senate, it was decreed that Caligula be thanked for his sincerity, praised for his piety and granted annual sacrifices in recognition of his clemency. It was agreed as well that he should be granted an ‘ovation’, a lesser form of triumph that entitled a general to ride in procession through Rome on horseback. He should celebrate it, the Senate declared, ‘as though he had been victorious over his enemies’.21

Which in a sense he had been. Telling senators to their faces that they hated him and wished him dead, Caligula had taunted them that they would continue to honour him ‘whether they wished to or not’.22 Behind their pinched and frozen faces, though, there was anger as well as fear. Nor were these emotions confined to the Senate House. Even in Caligula’s own innermost circle, even among those few people he genuinely loved, there was a growing anxiety about the future. Senators were not the only people whose self-esteem the Emperor was happy to trample down. Certainly, he had no intention of letting his sister’s ambitions stand in the way of his own. Less than a year after his marriage to Lollia Paulina, Caligula divorced her, on the grounds that she was unable to give him a child. Determined not to make the same mistake twice, he then promptly married his mistress, who had not only had three children already, but was heavily pregnant by him. Milonia Caesonia was neither young nor beautiful – but whatever it was that Caligula wanted in a woman, she had it. Like her husband, she enjoyed dressing up, and would often ride by his side in military procession, decked out in a cloak and helmet; while should Caligula, ever one for a titillating tableau, demand that she pose nude for his friends, she would readily oblige. Such was evidently the way to his heart – for he was to prove as constant in his devotion to her as he had been in his affection for Drusilla. Unsurprisingly, then, the birth to Caligula of a daughter, named Julia Drusilla by the delighted father, was greeted by both Lepidus and Agrippina with sullen and brooding resentment. Both, in their different ways, had felt themselves tantalisingly close to securing the succession; both, confronted by Caesonia’s evident fertility, knew that their prospects had suffered a potentially fatal blow.

Late that summer of 39, on the last day of August, Caligula celebrated his birthday. He was twenty-seven. He had been emperor for two and a half years. He could be well pleased with all that he had achieved for himself in that time. A cowed Senate, a grateful people, a city endowed with plentiful shows and extravaganzas: Rome was well on its way to being moulded to his wishes. For now, though, it was time to look further afield. Brought up as he had been among the legions of the Rhine, Caligula knew perfectly well that Rome was not the world. The job that his father had begun remained to be completed: the barbarians of Germany, who had defied both Augustus and Tiberius so effectively, were Caligula’s to conquer. All very well to stage fights in the city’s arenas; but there were real battles, fought by real soldiers against real adversaries, to be staged as well.

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was going to war.

A Joke Too Far

Even in a city as habituated to gossip as Rome, there was a special quality to rumours from a distant front. The news of a campaign would spread first as a murmuring; then, as the hum increased to a roar, people would start shouting and perhaps, if there were victories to celebrate, breaking into applause. Caligula’s departure for the Rhine promised everyone in the capital rare excitement. Not since the days of Germanicus had there been such a marshalling of military capabilities – and Caligula, unlike his father, would be riding to war as emperor. Hopes were high. The Germans, their great victory over Varus by now a distant memory, had returned to their customary state of feuding. The Cherusci, Arminius’s tribe, were particularly diminished. Arminius himself, whose fame had come to serve as a standing provocation to rival chieftains, was long since gone from the scene – murdered in the year that Germanicus, his great opponent, had also died. The Roman people, long starved of the thrills that tales of conquest had traditionally provided them, could look forward with relish to learning the details of Caesar’s doings.

Nor were they to be disappointed. Even though, in the event, the stories reported of Caligula that autumn would touch only rarely on martial exploits, they were to prove no less sensational for that. Peril there certainly was – but the chief threat to the Emperor’s life was not to be found beyond the Rhine. Instead, if the astonishing rumours that began to sweep Rome were true, it lay altogether closer to home. Even before Caligula’s departure from the capital, hints of a crisis that reached right to the top were setting tongues to wag. In early September, both consuls had been summarily dismissed from office, their fasces snapped into pieces, and one of them forced into suicide.23 Then, accompanied by Lepidus, his two sisters and a retinue of Praetorians, the Emperor had set off for the German front at breakneck pace. So fast had he travelled, it seemed, that his arrival on the banks of the Rhine had taken the legate there by complete surprise. Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus was a seasoned operator, a former intimate of Sejanus who had survived his patron’s downfall by dropping discreetly menacing reminders of just how many legions he had under his command. Tiberius, too jaundiced greatly to care, had been content to let him be; but at damaging long-term cost. Much as Piso had done in Syria, Gaetulicus had cemented his authority over his men by cutting them plenty of slack – with the result that the frontier, rotted by a decade of his lax discipline, was no longer fit for purpose. Flabby and decrepit centurions lazed around in their tents, even as barbarians, slipping across the border in growing numbers, capitalised with glee on the renewed opportunities for raiding.

Caligula, whose earliest memories were of his father’s frenetic efforts to repair the Rhine defences, was not impressed. Caught short by the Emperor’s sudden arrival, Gaetulicus was arrested, interrogated and put to death. His replacement, a noted martinet by the name of Galba, bore witness yet again to Caligula’s eye for talent. It was not long before the new general on the Rhine had toughened up his men sufficiently to start scouring Gaul clean of all intruders. Caligula himself, meanwhile, was busy proving himself his father’s son. First he systematically weeded out all incompetent and unfit officers; then he embarked on a number of sallies against the Germans. Though it was late in the campaigning season, he was hailed by the troops under his command no fewer than seven times as ‘imperator’.*2 Meanwhile, in preparation for the following year’s campaigning season, two new legions were in the process of being recruited: the first to be raised since the annihilation of Varus’s army thirty years before.24 Retiring for the winter to Lugdunum, Caligula could feel that he had made his mark.

Except that barbarians, all along, had been the least of his worries. Back in Rome, where reports of the Emperor’s seven victories over the Germans were, of course, assiduously promoted, the tides of gossip surged with very different news. The execution of Gaetulicus, coming as it did so soon after the removal of two consuls, had not gone unnoticed. All three men, it was whispered, had been embroiled in the same conspiracy. It was this that explained why Caligula, determined to foil it, had left for the German front at such a furious pace. By late autumn, the news was official. Gaetulicus had indeed been executed for his ‘nefarious schemes’:25 a plot to raise the armies of the Rhine against Caligula and install a new emperor in his place.26 But who? The answer, when it came, constituted the most unexpected, most shocking revelation of all. The first token of it arrived with a delegation sent by the Emperor to the great temple of Mars the Avenger, with orders to present to the god three daggers; the second in the person of his sister, Agrippina. Just as her mother had done when bringing back the ashes of Germanicus from Syria, she arrived in Rome clasping a funerary urn. And in the urn were the remains of Lepidus.

Far from veiling the scandal, Caligula had chosen to make a full spectacle of the sordid details. Lepidus, the friend he had blessed with every conceivable favour, was reported to have grievously betrayed him. He had bedded both Agrippina and Julia Livilla; had conspired with the two sisters to seize supreme power; had spun a web of conspiracy that reached from the Senate House to the Rhine. Whether it was Gaetulicus, in a doomed attempt to secure a pardon, who had betrayed Lepidus’s role in the plot, or some other informer, no one could quite be sure; but there was no doubting the molten quality of Caligula’s hurt. Lepidus himself, ordered to bare his throat to an officer’s sword, had been swiftly dispatched; Agrippina, once she had obeyed her brother’s orders and borne her dead lover’s remains all the way back to Rome, was sent with her sister into exile. Like their mother and grandmother before them, the pair were transported to barren islands off the Italian coast, while their household possessions – jewels, furniture, slaves and all – were flogged off in Lugdunum to status-hungry Gauls.

Worse for Agrippina was to come. Shortly after the revelation of her treachery, her husband, the brutish Domitius Ahenobarbus, succumbed to dropsy, and her son, for whom she had played so dirty and hard, came into the care of his aunt, Domitia. ‘No less beautiful or wealthy than Agrippina, and of a similar age’,27 the two women were natural rivals; and Domitia, keen to win her nephew’s heart, made sure to spoil him rotten. Agrippina, who had always been as strict with the boy as she was ambitious for him, was appalled. Rotting on her prison island, though, there was little that she could do. She had already lost her freedom; now it seemed as though she might lose her son. Even so, as Caligula made sure to remind both Agrippina and Julia Livilla, they had even more to lose. ‘I have swords in addition to islands.’28

Consuls, army commanders, even members of the Emperor’s own family – all had joined in the conspiracy against him, and still their plotting had failed. Nevertheless, the shock to Caligula’s self-assurance had been seismic, and his bitterness towards his sisters unsurprising. Though he had moved swiftly and ruthlessly to crush rebellion along the Rhine and to stabilise Rome’s most militarily significant frontier, he had been left with little choice but to spend the winter reining in his plans for the conquest of Germany. The risk of further treachery was simply too great. The scale of Caligula’s suspicions was laid bare when the Senate, frantic to cover its own back, sent a delegation of grandees led by Claudius to congratulate him on his foiling of Lepidus’s conspiracy. The Emperor treated the embassy with open contempt. Most of the senators were refused entry to Gaul as potential spies; Claudius, when he arrived in Lugdunum at the head of the few granted access to the city, was pushed fully clothed into the river. Or so the story went. True or not, the rumour rammed home the point that Caligula wished to make. Those who had betrayed him could no longer expect to receive any marks of courtesy or respect. Both the Senate and his own family had been marked down as a nest of vipers. The state of war between emperor and aristocracy was now official.

All of which made it essential for Caligula to return to Italy as soon as possible. Nevertheless, this presented him with a challenge. It was clearly out of the question to depart the North without some feat to his name that he could promote in Rome as a ringing victory. So it was, with the first approach of spring, that he returned to the German front, where he inspected troops, noted with approval the improvements made by Galba to standards of discipline, and ventured another sally across the Rhine.29 In the event, though, it was not Germany which was to provide Caligula with the coup he so desperately needed, but Britain.

There, despite the fact that no legions had crossed the Channel in almost a century, Roman influence had been steadily growing. With the island carved up between an assortment of fractious and ambitious chieftains, it was only to be expected that Rome should provide them with the readiest model of power. The most effective way for a British warlord to throw his weight around was to ape the look of Caesar. The king who entertained his guests with delicacies imported from the Mediterranean, or portrayed himself on silver coins sporting a laurel wreath, was branding himself a man on the make. Such displays of self-promotion did not come cheap or easy – and it was no coincidence that the most powerful of the island’s chieftains had always made a point of staying on the right side of Rome. Cunobelin was the king of a people named the Catuvellauni, whose sway extended over much of eastern and central Britain; but that had not prevented him from setting up offerings on the Capitol, and from being assiduous in returning any Roman seafarers shipwrecked off his kingdom. Unsurprisingly, then, when one of Cunobelin’s sons was exiled after launching an abortive land-grab on Kent, the presence of Caesar on the opposite side of the Channel ensured that there was only one place for him to head.

Caligula, naturally, was delighted by this unexpected windfall. The arrival of a genuine British prince could hardly have been more timely. It was a simple matter, receiving the surrender of such a man, to represent it as the surrender of the whole of Britain. Couriers were promptly dispatched to Rome. They were ordered, on their arrival in the city, to ride as ostentatiously through the streets as possible, to proceed to the temple of Mars, and there to hand over the Emperor’s laurel-wreathed letter to the consuls. The Roman people had their tidings of victory.

And sure enough, borne on the surging of rumour, the news of it was duly repeated through the city: the dangers braved by Caesar, the captives he had taken, the conquest he had made of the Ocean. These were the kinds of detail that his fellow citizens had always loved to hear. Yet even as they were being repeated across Rome, from the Forum to taverns and washing-hung courtyards, other accounts of Caesar’s doings in the North were also circulating: cross-tides of gossip altogether less flattering to Caligula. It was claimed that he had scarpered back across the Rhine at the merest mention of barbarians; that the spoils of his supposed conquest of the Ocean were nothing but chests filled with shells; that the captives he was bringing back with him to Rome were not Germans at all, but Gauls with dyed hair. Caesonia, ever her husband’s partner in bombast and theatricality, was even claimed to be sourcing ‘auburn wigs’30 for them to wear. How was anyone in Rome, far removed from the front, to judge between two such different slipstreams of propaganda? Caligula himself, returning at high speed from the Channel for Italy, had no doubt what was at stake – nor whom to blame for the blackening of his war record. ‘Yes, I am heading back – but only because the equestrians and the people want me back,’ he informed a delegation of senators who had travelled north to meet him. ‘Do not think me a fellow citizen of yours, though. As Princeps, I no longer acknowledge the Senate.’31

Chilling words – and rendered the more so by Caligula’s habit of slamming his palm down hard onto his sword hilt as he spoke them. The envoys’ cringing was understandable; yet, if they imagined that the Emperor intended to limit himself merely to executing his opponents, they had underestimated the full shocking scope of his ambitions. The experience of the previous autumn, when it had seemed that the entire Roman nobility was ranged against him, had decided Caligula for good. His aim now was to hack away at everything that sustained the prestige and self-regard of the Senate, and to demolish the very foundations of its hoary auctoritas. This was why, rather than accept its tremulous offer of a triumph, he had contemptuously swatted it aside; and it was why, dismissing the envoys from his presence, he forbade any senator from so much as coming out to greet him on his approach to Rome. ‘For he did not wish it to be hinted even for a moment that senators had the authority to bestow upon him anything capable of redounding to his honour – since that, after all, would imply that they were of a higher rank than himself, and could grant him favours as though he were their inferior.’32 A penetrating insight. For decades, secure within its chrysalis, protected by the cunningly crafted hypocrisies of Augustus and the superseded traditions so valued by Tiberius, a monarchy had been pupating; now, with the return of Caligula from war, it was ready to emerge at last, to unfurl its wings, to dazzle the world with its glory. No longer was there to be any place for the pretensions of the Senate – only for the bond between Princeps and people.

Which was why, when Caligula arrived outside Rome from his northern adventure in May 40, he did not enter the city, but headed on south, to the Bay of Naples.*3 Here, where for generations the super-rich had devoted themselves to upstaging one another with extravagant displays of spending, he had prepared the ultimate in showstoppers. No coastal villa, no ornamental folly, no luxury yacht, could possibly compete. Cargo ships conscripted from across the Mediterranean had been lashed together to form an immense pontoon. Stretching three and a half miles, it linked Puteoli, Italy’s largest and busiest harbour, with Baiae, its most notorious pleasure resort.33 Piles of earth had been compacted along the bridge, and service stations complete with running water built along its course, so that it looked like nothing so much as the Appian Way. Arriving in Baiae, Caligula offered sacrifice first to Neptune, the lord of the seas, and then – for what he was about to do had been consciously designed to awe and stupefy the world – to Envy. Ahead of him, the pontoon bridge with its great road of earth stretched all the way to Puteoli; behind him, fully armed, there waited a glittering line of horsemen and soldiers. Caligula himself, crowned with oak leaves and arrayed in the breastplate of Alexander the Great, climbed up into his saddle. Back from conquering the Ocean, he now intended to demonstrate his mastery of the seas in the most jaw-droppingly literal manner. The signal to advance was given. Caligula, his golden cloak gleaming in the summer sun, clattered forwards onto the bridge. ‘He has no more chance of becoming emperor than he does of making a tour of the Bay of Baiae on horseback.’34 So the soothsayer Thrasyllus had once told Tiberius. But Emperor Caligula had become – and now, sure enough, he was riding across the sea.

Never before had the Roman people seen anything quite like it. Massed in rapt stupefaction on the shore, the watching crowds were witnessing both a parody and an upstaging of Rome’s haughtiest traditions. The unmistakable echoes of a triumph in Caligula’s extravaganza existed only to put in their place all those hidebound and plodding generals who had been content, in celebrating their victories, to retrace the same unvarying route through the streets of Rome. To submit to convention was to submit to the guardians of convention – and Caligula was having none of it. Primordial custom decreed that a general embarking on his triumph be received by the chief magistrates of the Republic, and by the Senate; but none of these was to be seen on the Bay of Naples. Instead, Caligula had made sure to surround himself, pointedly, with those whom he felt he could trust: the Praetorians, his soldiers, his closest friends. The bridge of boats was no place for old men. To be an intimate of the Emperor’s was, almost by definition, to share his taste for putting on a show. Just as Caligula himself, the day after crossing the sea to Puteoli, posed for the return journey in a chariot drawn by the most famous racehorses in Rome, so his friends, as they followed him back across the bridge, rattled along in chariots from Britain.*4 A touch of the exotic was only to be expected in a triumph; but Caligula, fresh though he was from the Channel, was hardly the man to confine himself to parading his mastery of the barbarous North. From the setting of the sun to its rising, the whole world was his to command – for which reason, in token of his universal supremacy, he made sure to ride with a Parthian hostage, a princeling, by his side. Not a detail of the pageant, not a flourish, but it had been painstakingly planned. Even darkness failed to dim the show. As twilight fell, so bonfires in a great arc blazed from the heights above the bay, illuminating the men who had participated in the crossing where they lay feasting on boats anchored the length of the bridge. As for Caligula himself, he remained on the pontoon; and when he had eaten and drunk enough, he amused himself by treating some of his companions much as he had done his uncle, and pushing them into the sea. Finally, determined that the celebrations not end in anticlimax, he ordered that some of the vessels where his men lay feasting be rammed. And as he watched the action, ‘so his mood was all elation’.35

Spectacle, mockery, violence: Caligula had long displayed a genius for combining them in the cause of his pleasure. From the bridge of boats, he could make out on the horizon the silhouette of Capri, where he had studied at his great-uncle’s feet the various arts of fusing display with humiliation. Tiberius, disgusted by his own proclivities, had preferred to keep them veiled from the eyes of the Roman people – but not Caligula. The tastes that he had honed on his predecessor’s private island, whether for role-play or for obliging the offspring of senators to hawk themselves like prostitutes, had at last come into their own. No longer did Caligula feel the slightest qualms about parading them. What were standards of behaviour inherited from a failed and toppled order to inhibit the ‘Best and Greatest of the Caesars’?36 He had ridden on water, after all. Resolved as Caligula was to rub the noses of the nobility in their own irrelevance and desuetude, there was nothing any longer to keep him from the greatest stage of all. He had been away on his travels a whole year. Now, at last, it was time to return to Rome.

Caligula entered the city on 31 August, his birthday. The Senate had marked the occasion by voting him renewed honours; but the Emperor, although content on this occasion to accept them, made sure as he did so to flaunt the true basis of his authority. Soldiers surrounded him as he paraded through the streets: Praetorians, legionaries, a private bodyguard of Germans. So too did the Roman people; and Caligula, pausing in the Forum, clambered up onto the roof of a basilica and began showering them with gold and silver coins. In the resulting stampede, huge numbers were crushed to death – including over two hundred women and a eunuch. Delighted, Caligula repeated the stunt several days running. ‘And so the people loved him – because he had bought their goodwill with money.’37

Not the goodwill of the aristocracy, though. Among them, there was only renewed despair. They knew perfectly well what the Emperor was up to. The powers of patronage that had always been the surest basis of their auctoritas were being simultaneously parodied and undercut. Worse – when Caligula sent plebs scrabbling in the dirt after his munificence, he was reminding ambitious senators that they were no less dependent on his caprices. Even the noblest of magistracies, those hallowed by the many great men elected to them over the course of the centuries, were in his gift. Caligula, unlike his predecessors, did not hesitate to rub in the fact. Skilled as he was ‘in discerning a man’s secret wishes’,38 he brought a lethal and merciless precision to the art of mocking them. Aspirations that for centuries had steeled the nobility in the service of the Republic were made the object of corrosive jokes. When Caligula declared his intention of appointing Incitatus, his favourite horse, to the consulship, so cruel was the satire that it seemed to the aristocracy almost a form of madness.

Yet escape from it seemed impossible. Helpless as senators were to suborn either Praetorians or German bodyguards, what practical hope did they have of liberating themselves? When Caligula, reclining at a banquet with the two consuls, suddenly chuckled to himself, murmuring that with a nod he could have both their throats cut on the spot, he was playing mind games with the entire aristocracy. ‘Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.’39 This line, a quotation from an ancient poet, summed up what had become, in the wake of the great conspiracy against him, the Emperor’s settled policy towards the Senate. Surveillance bred terror – and terror bred surveillance. When a second plot was exposed shortly after Caligula’s return to Rome, it was a senator who betrayed it.40 The guilty men, all of them of the highest rank, were hauled before the Emperor where he was staying in his mother’s villa outside the city. First he had them lashed; then tortured; and then, when they had confessed everything, gagged. By now it was night, and torches lit the gardens where Caligula and his dinner guests were strolling beside the river. The prisoners, pushed to their knees on the terrace, were forced to bend their necks. The shredded clothes stuffed into their mouths ensured that no defiant final words could be uttered before their heads were hacked off.

‘Whoever heard of capital punishment by night?’ To many senators, the real scandal of the business was less the executions themselves than that they had been laid on as an after-dinner entertainment. ‘The more that punishments are made a public spectacle, so the more they are able to serve as an example and a warning.’41 Here was the authentic voice of the Roman moralist, convinced that anything staged in private was bound to foster depravity and deviance. The presumption was a venerable one: prominent citizens should never, under any circumstances, be permitted private lives. Stories of what Tiberius had got up to on Capri served as a particularly salutary warning of what was bound to happen otherwise. Nevertheless, there were other lessons as well to be drawn from the episode. It was on Capri, after all, that Caligula, granted licence by his great-uncle, had honed his various tastes for dressing up, for participating in mythological floor-shows, for witnessing the upper classes debase themselves. In truth, those who imagined that the only purpose of inflicting punishment was to educate the Roman people in the responsibilities of citizenship were grievously behind the times. Caligula made sport with senators so as to intimidate the entire elite – but also because it amused him. If sometimes the vengeance he meted out to his victims was necessarily as swift as it was discreet, then his preference in general was for toying with them in public. ‘Only strike such blows as permit a man to know he’s dying.’42 The maxim was one that Caligula treasured.

What Capri had been to Tiberius, the whole of Rome was now to his heir: a theatre of cruelty and excess. Few senators were skilled enough to negotiate its disorienting terrors. One such was Lucius Vitellius, the father of Caligula’s great friend, and a former consul with an impeccable record of achievement. Summoned back from Syria, where his feats as governor had included compelling the king of Parthia to bow before his legions’ eagles, he feared – correctly – that his very accomplishments had made him an object of suspicion. Accordingly, for his interview, he dressed in the coarse clothing of a plebeian, then veiled his head as though approaching the altar of a god. Prostrating himself with a flamboyant flourish, Vitellius hailed the Emperor as divine, raising prayers to him and vowing him sacrifice. Caligula, not merely mollified, was highly amused. Yes, it was a game – of the kind that the younger Vitellius, familiar with the workings of Caligula’s mind from their time spent together on Capri, had doubtless tipped off his father about. It was not, though, entirely so. Many decades before, at the wedding feast of Caligula’s great-grandfather, the guests had come dressed as gods, provoking indignant crowds to riot; but now Augustus himself had ascended to the heavens. How, then, when Caligula appeared in public dressed as Jupiter, complete with golden beard and thunderbolt, were people to react? A cobbler from Gaul, laughing at the spectacle and telling the Emperor to his face that he was ‘utterly absurd’,43 was sent on his way with a smile; but when a famous actor, an intimate of Caligula’s named Apelles, was asked who seemed the greater, Jupiter or Caligula himself, and could only swallow and stammer, the reprisal was swift. The Emperor appreciated quick thinking as well as respect, and Apelles had failed him on both counts. The whipping given the wretched actor was apt as well as cruel. Not only did Apelles in Latin mean ‘skinless’, but Caligula was able to inform the wretched man, as the hide was flogged off his back, that his screams were so exquisite as to do him perfect justice as a tragedian. Between reality and illusion, between the sordid and the fantastical, between the hilarious and the terrifying, lay the dimension where it most delighted Caligula to give his imagination free rein. It took a man of Vitellius’s rare perspicacity to appreciate this, and follow the implications through. ‘I am talking to the moon,’ Caligula once casually informed him. ‘Can you see her?’ Vitellius, dropping his eyes to the ground, smoothly played along. ‘Only you gods, O Master, are visible to one another.’44

Because Vitellius understood the rules of the game, and was skilled at it, he was admitted to the highly exclusive circle of senators whom the Emperor was still prepared to acknowledge as friends. Most, bewildered by the sheer ferocity of the assault upon their dignity, found themselves helpless to serve as anything save the butts of his malevolent humour. Nothing entertained Caligula more than to fashion situations in which the elite would be obliged to humiliate themselves. Like the connoisseur of suffering that he was, he relished the opportunity to subject his victims to careful study. When he abolished the reserved seating that Augustus had instituted in arenas, it amused him in the extreme to observe senators and equestrians scrabble after places along with everyone else, ‘women next to men, slaves next to free’.45 Equally, there were times when he might enjoy a more intimate perusal of the extremes of misery to which a man could be reduced. On the same day that he had executed on a trifling charge the son of an equestrian named Pastor, Caligula invited the father to a banquet. Guards were stationed with orders to watch the wretched man’s every last facial tic. Caligula, toasting his health, gave him a goblet of wine to drink – and Pastor drained it, ‘although he might as well have been drinking the blood of his son’. Whatever was sent Pastor’s way – whether perfume, garlands or lavish dishes – he accepted with a show of gratitude. Onlookers, not knowing his son’s fate, would never have guessed the depths of misery masked by his frozen expression. The Emperor knew, though – and he knew the reason why Pastor wore such a fixed smile on his face. ‘He had another son.’46

Caligula, who had himself lived under the suspicious gaze of Tiberius for years, never once in all that time betraying so much as a hint of grief for his mother and brothers, had fathomed a menacing truth. The sacred bonds of duty and obligation which, back in the days of the Republic, had enabled prominent families to perpetuate their greatness down the generations could now, under a Caesar such as himself, be made to entangle them, to catch them in a net. Six months after Caligula’s return to the capital, his residence on the Palatine was crowded with hostages: ‘the wives of Rome’s leading men, and those children possessed of the bluest blood’.47 Tiberius had retreated to Capri before surrounding himself with the offspring of the nobility; but Caligula, ‘when he installed them and subjected them to sexual outrage’,48 had no intention of veiling the scandal. Quite the contrary. Over half a century before, Augustus had declared adultery a crime, sentencing women who cheated on their husbands to dress as whores. Caligula, installed in the very house of Caesar, preferred to turn such legislation on its head. Building work had extended the warren of houses and alleyways that constituted the imperial residence all the way to the Forum; and now, with the wives and children put up there in lavishly furnished rooms, ‘young and old alike’ were invited to ascend the Palatine and peruse the wares.49 The affront to the aristocracy, even after everything else that they had suffered, could hardly have been more devastating. To the values enshrined by Augustus too. A brothel in the house of the August Family was a development fit to have made even Ovid suck in his breath. It was Caligula’s most shocking, most transgressive, most subversive joke of all.

‘Manifold though his vices were, his truest bent was for abuse.’50 By AD 41, four years after his accession to the rule of the world, Caligula’s genius for insult had the entire Roman elite cowering in its shadow. It was enough for one of his agents to enter the Senate House, fix a senator with his glare and charge him with hating the Emperor for the colleagues of the accused man immediately to leap up and tear him to pieces. No one, and certainly not Caligula’s intimates, could ever afford entirely to relax. The Emperor liked to keep them all on their toes. One close friend, a former consul named Valerius Asiaticus, was publicly reproached for his wife’s inadequate performance in bed – a rebuke that Caligula found all the more droll for the fact that Valerius was ‘a proud-spirited man, and notably thin-skinned’.51 Even a Praetorian might not be spared mockery. A senior officer named Cassius Chaerea, a grizzled veteran who had seen distinguished service on the Rhine and fought under Germanicus, provoked the Emperor to particular hilarity. Bluff and tough though Chaerea was, in the sternest tradition of the Roman military, his voice was discordantly soft; and so Caligula would give him as a watchword, whenever he was on duty, some phrase appropriate to a woman. It was not only the Emperor himself who was reduced to hysterics by this; so too were the other Praetorians. Caligula, as ever, knew precisely how to wound.

And knew as well how to turn it to his own advantage. When he called Chaerea ‘girl’,52 or made obscene gestures with his finger whenever the Praetorian had cause to kiss his hand, the pleasure that he took in probing his victim’s sensitivities was not his only reason for doing so. Caligula had need of a heavy to do his dirty work for him – and he judged correctly that Chaerea would make all the more effective a torturer or enforcer for his desperation to avoid the slur of effeminacy.

Nevertheless, it was a finely balanced call. Terror bred terror, after all. Caligula’s capacity to trust those in his entourage, grievously wounded as it had been by Lepidus and his two sisters, had, with the exposure of the second plot against him, received a near fatal blow. The man who delivered it, a senator named Betilienus Capito, had been the father of one of the conspirators. Obliged to watch his son’s decapitation, he had declared himself complicit in the plot as well – and had then, in great detail, provided what he claimed to be a list of everyone else involved. Almost no one close to Caligula was absent from it: his most trusted friends; the Praetorian high command; even Caesonia. ‘And so the list was treated with suspicion; and the man was put to death.’53 Nevertheless, Capito had achieved his aim. The terror that Caligula inspired in those around him was more than reciprocated by the paranoia that they induced in him. Indeed, the New Year saw him so twitchy that he made plans to leave Rome once again. As before, he aimed to follow in his father’s footsteps. With a tour of the Rhine already under his belt, Caligula now turned his gaze towards the East. In particular, he yearned to see Alexandria; he spoke openly of his love for the city, ‘and of how he planned to head there with all imaginable haste – and then, on arrival, to stay a considerable time’.54 The end of January was duly set as the date for his departure.

First, though, there were games to celebrate. Staged in honour of Augustus, they were held in a temporary theatre erected on the Palatine – and so much did Caligula enjoy them that he added three extra days to the scheduled programme. On 24 January, the final day of the festival, and with his departure for Alexandria imminent, the Emperor was in an unusually relaxed and affable mood. The spectacle of senators scrabbling after unreserved seats afforded him as much amusement as it had ever done; at the sacrifices to Augustus, the splashing of blood onto one of his companions, a senator named Asprenas, made him laugh.*5 Then, to liven things up still more, he ordered huge quantities of sweets to be tipped out over the stands, and rare birds. As the spectators scrabbled after these treats, elbowing and shoving each other frantically, so Caligula’s mood was even more improved. Finally, to set the seal on a thoroughly enjoyable morning, he watched a performance by Rome’s most famous star, an actor named Mnester, as beautiful as he was talented, and with whose charms Caligula was notoriously besotted. The tragedy featured both incest and murder; and accompanied as it was by a farce in which there was much vomiting up of guts, not to mention a crucifixion, it left the arena awash with artificial blood.

Lunchtime arrived, and Caligula decided to dine and refresh himself in his private quarters. He and his entourage accordingly rose and left the forecourt in which the temporary stands for the games had been raised. They entered the August House, and Claudius and Valerius Asiaticus, leading the way, continued towards the baths along a corridor lined with slaves; but Caligula, informed that some Greek boys of noble family were rehearsing a musical performance in his honour, turned aside to inspect them. As he walked down a side-alley, his litter-bearers behind him, he saw approaching him Cassius Chaerea, together with a second officer, Cornelius Sabinus, and a troupe of Praetorians. Approaching the Emperor, Chaerea asked for the day’s password. The reply, inevitably, was a mocking one – whereupon Chaerea drew his sword and struck a blow at Caligula’s neck.55

His aim was not all it could have been. The blade, slicing through the Emperor’s shoulder, was obstructed by his collarbone. Groaning in agony, Caligula stumbled forwards in a desperate effort to escape. Sabinus, though, was already onto him. Seizing the Emperor by the arm, he bent him over his knee. Down rained the swords of the Praetorians. It was Chaerea, aiming a second blow better than his first, who succeeded in decapitating his tormentor.56 Even then, the Praetorians’ blades continued to flash and hack. Several thrust their swords through the dead man’s genitals. Some, rumour would later have it, even ate the Emperor’s flesh.57 One thing was certain: Chaerea found the taste of vengeance sweet. Only when Caligula’s body had been mangled almost beyond recognition did he and his accomplices finally slip away, running through a set of alleyways and concealing themselves in what had once been Germanicus’s house.

By now Caligula’s litter-bearers, who initially, and with great courage, had sought to stave off the assassins with their poles, had also fled. Even when the Emperor’s German bodyguard, alerted to their master’s murder, came hurrying to the scene and drove off the remaining Praetorians, they left his trunk and severed head alone. As they spilled out through the streets of the Palatine, hunting the assassins, the corpse of Caligula lay where his murderers had left it. There it was found by Caesonia and her young daughter: a child that Caligula, witnessing her viciousness, and the relish she brought to scratching the faces of her playmates, had laughingly acknowledged his own. And there in turn they were found, mother and daughter together, prostrated by misery and covered in Caligula’s blood, by a Praetorian sent to hunt them down. Caesonia, looking up at the soldier, urged him through her tears to ‘finish the last act of the drama’58 – which he duly did. First he slit her throat; then he dashed out her daughter’s brains against a wall.59

So perished the line of Caligula: dead of a joke taken too far.

*1 The earliest datable allusion to Caligula committing incest with his sisters is in The Antiquities of the Jews, written by Josephus more than half a century after his death (19.204). Josephus, though, was well informed about Caligula’s reign, and drew on sources written much closer in time to it. As ever in a city as addicted to scurrilous gossip as Rome, the existence of a rumour did not mean that it was actually true. No contemporaries of Caligula mention it; and it was only with Suetonius that the rumours really took wing. ‘Have you committed incest with your sister?’ he described Caligula as asking his friend, the noted wit Passienus Crispus. ‘Not yet,’ Passienus is said to have replied, quick as a flash (quoted by the Scholiast on Juvenal: 4.81).

*2 It is Dio, even as he claims that Caligula ‘had won no battle and slain no enemy’, who lets slip this detail (59.22.2). Two contradictory traditions are to be found intertwined in the reports of historians such as Suetonius and Dio: in one, Caligula’s military record is a laughable thing of whim and folly; but in the other, he is portrayed as a stern and effective disciplinarian in the best tradition of his father and Tiberius. Even though the fog that envelops this period of his reign is unusually dense, there are enough scattered details to make it probable that Caligula did make a tour of the Rhine in the autumn of 39, did stamp his authority upon the legions stationed there, and did win a few scattered engagements. Equally, it has to be acknowledged that Caligula may not have advanced to the Rhine until shortly after the New Year.

*3 Dio, writing in the early third century AD, implies that Caligula travelled to the Bay of Naples in the spring of 39, in the wake of his devastating speech to the Senate; but Seneca, in his essay On the Shortness of Life (18.5), makes it clear that the journey took place the following year. If absolute certainty is impossible, the context weights the balance of probability massively towards 40 rather than 39.

*4 Suetonius does not specify the chariots’ place of origin, but the word he uses to describe them, esseda, refers to war-chariots of the kind used in earlier centuries by the Gauls, and in Caligula’s time exclusively by the Britons. Maecenas, ever at the forefront of innovation, was supposed to have owned ‘a Britishessedum’. (Propertius: 2.1.76)

*5 So, at any rate, reports Josephus, whose account is the most detailed and contemporary that we have. According to Suetonius (Caligula: 57.4), the blood was that of a flamingo – and it was Caligula himself who was splashed by it.

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