Caligula – From Little Boots to Maniacal Monster

Caligula…

The name conjures images, doesn’t it? Oh yes – more so than Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the full name of the Roman emperor we know as Caligula.

Caligula definitely has more power, largely due to the stories behind the name, stories of extreme debauchery, sadism, insanity and horror.

John Hurt as Caligula in I Claudius

You might envisage John Hurt in the television drama of Robert Graves’ I Claudius, his mouth bloody after eating the baby which he had put in his sister’s belly, believing himself to be the god, Jove.

Or, perhaps more disturbingly, the image of Malcolm McDowell cavorts into your thoughts amid flashes of naked bodies and the bloody bits and pieces of Caligula’s victims in the infamous, star-clad film originally scripted by Gore Vidal, Caligula.

These are the images that we have of Caligula today. They’re built on ancient sources and popular culture that described the reign of this most disturbing of Roman emperors.

Malcolm McDowell as Caligula

But is the portrayal of Caligula as an insane, perverted, and brutal emperor accurate? Is it fair?

Caligula had an interesting life as a boy. He was with his father, the Roman hero Germanicus, and the army along the northern frontier camps. Among the men of the Legions, it’s said, he got his nickname. ‘Caligula’ is a diminutive version of the word for military, hobnailed boots called caligae. He became ‘Little Boots’ because of the smaller pair of caligae he wore around the camp.

Was Caligula a cute little boy? Odd to think after all the rumours. The troops seemed to have adopted him.

His life took a turn for the worst though, leaving him one of the sole survivors of his family.

The Death of Germanicus (Nicholas Poussin, 1627)

There were rumours that Tiberius or Livia, Augustus’ empress, may have been responsible, more or less, for killing Caligula’s family, including his hero father, Germanicus. However, most now seem to agree that this was unlikely, that it was due to natural causes in the East. Another rumour was that Germanicus was poisoned by Gnaeus Piso, who was put on trial for it.

Either way, ‘Little Boots’ ended up spending a lot of time with his great uncle, Tiberius, on the island of Capri. This island is where the Emperor retreated in his advanced years, and it’s rumoured that much depravity took place there, and that Caligula learned that behaviour.

Roman Caligae

Oddly enough, the first six months of Caligula’s reign as emperor were said to be good and moderate. He fell seriously ill around that time, however, and afterward the chroniclers speak of a young man who believed himself divine, and who became the most cruel, extravagant and perverse of tyrants. Did the illness alter his mind in some way? We may never know.

I’m not an expert on the reign of Caligula and, in fact, it seems that few people are.

Caligula

Caligula’s reign as Roman emperor is one of the most poorly documented in Roman history.

Since that is the case, it seems understandable that countless generations would cling to the tales told by Suetonius so many years after Caligula’s death: that he had sex with his sister on a regular basis, that he made his horse a consul, and that he forced senators’ wives to have sex.

If you can make it up, it probably fits the historical and pop-culture bill when it comes to Caligula.

The other side of the argument says that all of the salacious tales were invented, pure fabrications created by Caligula’s, and the Julio-Claudian’s, enemies.

Villa Jovis on the Island of Capri, where Caligula spent time with his uncle, Tiberius

Perhaps. But must not there be some basis in fact?

Certainly, the senatorial and Praetorian conspirators behind the assassination of Caligula (he was the first emperor to be assassinated) needed to justify their actions.

Some believe that Caligula had tried very hard to increase the power of the Emperor and further minimize the Senate. This would make him a lot of enemies – enemies who would write the history of his reign long after his death.

There is real power in writing after the fact – which is why we must approach any source, modern or historical, with a degree of caution.

Even our views of the most famous and popular (even well-documented) figures of history can be flawed. History is written by the victors, or at the least by the survivors. Everyone, especially emperors, had enemies, even if they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ rulers.

Reconstruction of Tiberius’ Villa Jovis on Island of Capri (Weichardt, 1900)

Popular media, such as film and fiction, can reveal to us certain aspects of historical people, but we must take everything with a grain of salt. We have to accept that what we are reading or seeing might be based on subjective sources that had a particular goal in mind.

However, learning how a generation of people viewed a particular person (even though the stories may not be true) can also be useful. Their hatred, love or fear etc. must have come from somewhere!

Was Caligula as mad as they say or as we believe? Perhaps.

His depravity has made some good storytelling over the centuries. I suspect that some of it is true. But, like all good stories, things have been elaborated on for sheer entertainment value, especially when the man himself was safely dead.

I highly recommend Robert Graves’ I Claudius if you have not already read it. It’s a modern classic, as is its television dramatization starring John Hurt and Derek Jacobi. It’s a wonderful piece of fiction, if not entirely accurate.

On the other hand, if you have the stomach and libido for it, the film version of Caligula is a terror-filled, pornographic representation of Caligula that brings all of the most salacious tales of him to life. A warning: this film is not for the faint of heart.

Caligula’s Palace and Bridge, by Turner

But let’s get back to an original source…

We should end with a quote from Suetonius who seems to be one of the main sources of all the tall tales that have been passed down the ages:

…he (Caligula) could not control his natural cruelty and viciousness, but he was a most eager witness of the tortures and executions of those who suffered punishment, revelling at night in gluttony and adultery, disguised in a wig and a long robe, passionately devoted besides to the theatrical arts of dancing and singing, in which Tiberius very willingly indulged him, in the hope that through these his savage nature might be softened. This last was so clearly evident to the shrewd old man, that he used to say now and then that to allow Gaius to live would prove the ruin of himself and of all men, and that he was rearing a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the world.” (Caius Suetonius Tranquillus; Lives of the Twelve Caesars)

As I said, history is written by the survivors, and as it is, history remembers Caligula as a sadistic, incestuous maniac who thought he was a god, who made his horse a senator, cared nothing for the power of the senate, and went to war against the god Neptune. The damning list goes on and on…

On the other hand, he undertook several public building projects and expanded the Empire’s borders in North Africa.

But, in the end, Caligula was murdered by the Praetorians who immediately made Claudius the next emperor.

Will we ever know the true nature of Caligula?

Probably not, but this certainly is an instance in which the history, true or not, is highly entertaining and shocking.

Thank you for reading.

Emperor Claudius – (Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1871) – with the murdered Emperor Caligula on the floor at Claudius’ feet

What are your thoughts on Emperor Caligula? Was he as vile as portrayed? Or was he the victim of malicious gossip?

For those of you who want to read a bit more, check out this interesting article on the BBC website by CLICKING HERE.

 

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The World of Warriors of Epona – Part V – Legions in the North: The Romans in Scotland

Warriors of Epona is set against the backdrop of the Severan invasion of Caledonia (modern Scotland). It was a massive campaign, and Rome’s last major attempt at subduing the tribes north of the Antonine Wall.

However, this was not the first time Rome had attempted to invade Caledonia. In fact, Septimius Severus’ legions were using the infrastructure of previous campaigns into this wild, northern frontier.

In this fifth and final part of The World of Warriors of Epona, we’re going to look briefly at the Roman actions in Caledonia prior to and including the campaigns of Emperor Septimius Severus.

The full scale conquest of Britannia was undertaken in A.D. 43 under Emperor Claudius, with General Aulus Plautius leading the legions. Campaigns against the British tribes continued under Claudius’ successor, Nero in A.D. 68.

The conquest of the South of Britain involved overcoming the tribes, including Boudicca and the Iceni, the Catuvellauni, the Durotriges, the Brigantes, and others, and the attempted extermination of the Druids on the Isle of Anglesey.

Boudicca

Eventually, after much blood and slaughter, the South was subdued, and the Pax Romana began to take root in that part of Britannia. (It pains me to gloss over so large a part of the history of Roman Britain, but we’re talking about Caledonia here…)

It was not until A.D. 71 that Rome decided it was time to invade Caledonia, and the man assigned this task was Quintus Petillius Cerialis, a veteran of the Boudiccan Revolt, and governor of Britannia at that time.

Once Cerialis’ legions were able to break through the Brigantes, it was time to press north into Caledonia.

The person who is most associated with these initial campaigns in Caledonia is none other than Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who had served in the campaigns against Boudicca in the South and who was also governor of Britannia from A.D. 77-85.

Agricola – Statue at Roman Baths, Bath, England

In around A.D. 80, Emperor Titus (A.D.79-81) ordered Governor Agricola to begin the campaigns into Caledonia by consolidating all of the lands south of the Forth-Clyde (roughly between Edinburgh and Glasgow). This involved taking on the tribes of the Borders, including the Selgovae, Maeatae, Novantae, and Damnonii.

It is in during this campaign that the fort at Trimontium, and many others were established in the Borders.

Commemorative stone at Newstead, in the Scottish Borders

By A.D. 81, Emperor Domitian had decided to order Agricola and his legions into Caledonia, and within two years, Agricola is said to have brought the Caledonians to their knees at the Battle of Mons Graupius.

He [Agricola] sent his fleet ahead to plunder at various points and thus spread uncertainty and terror, and, with an army marching light, which he had reinforced with the bravest of the Britons and those whose loyalty had been proved during a long peace, reached the Graupian Mountain, which he found occupied by the enemy. The Britons were, in fact, undaunted by the loss of the previous battle, and welcomed the choice between revenge and enslavement. They had realized at last that common action was needed to meet the common danger, and had sent round embassies and drawn up treaties to rally the full force of all their states. (Tacitus, Agricola; XXIX)

The Roman historian, Tacitus, was actually Agricola’s son-in-law, and his account, De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, provides us with the best first-hand account of Agricola and his invasion of Caledonia.

Possible locations for Battle of Mons Graupius

This is a time of legions exploring the unknown reaches of the Empire.

Sadly, the battlefield for Mons Graupius has not been identified, though there are certain candidates.

What is fortunate, however, is that Agricola’s legions left a long train of breadcrumbs in the form of marching camps, legionary bases, watch towers and of course, roads, all the way to northern Scotland.

And it is network of war that was to be used in later invasions of Caledonia.

Early Roman campaigns in Caledonia

War broke out again on the Danube frontier at this time, and so Roman man-power was sucked out of Britannia and Caledonia to meet threats elsewhere in the Empire.

And so, the legions in Caledonia went into a period of retrenchment and pulled back to the Forth-Clyde by A.D. 87.

By the time of Emperor Trajan’s reign, c. A.D. 99, Rome had retreated farther to the South to the Tyne-Solway, the future line of Hadrian’s Wall, construction of which began in A.D. 122.

The Caledonian lands for which Agricola and his legions had fought, had been given up for the time being.

Hadrian’s Wall

As was the case for centuries to come, the lands between the Forth-Clyde line, and the Tyne-Solway line, the area known today as the Scottish Borders, went into a period of push and pull, of occupation, retreat, and re-occupation.

It was during the reign of Antoninus Pius (A.D. 138-161) that it was deemed necessary to re-occupy the lands lost during the Flavian period, and so the army advanced again across the borders, using those same roads and forts that had been constructed by Agricola, and constructing new ones.

Twenty years after construction began on Hadrian’s Wall, Antoninus Pius ordered the construction of a new wall in Caledonia itelf in A.D. 142. This was the Antonine Wall, and it’s earth and timber ramparts ran the width of Caledonia from the Forth to the Clyde in an attempt to hem the raucous tribes in on their highlands.

The Antonine Wall

But, after more campaigning and entrenchment by Rome, the Antonine Wall was abandoned during the reign of Marcus Aurelius in around A.D. 163.

A few outposts remained in use to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, but for the most part, the bones of the Empire were left to rot and be overwhelmed by the Caledonians and their allies.

For the next forty years, the northern tribes became a menace, breaking through the frontier defences twice, once during the reign of Commodus (c. A.D. 184) and then again during the early part of Septimius Severus’ reign in A.D. 197.

Septimius Severus

When Septimius Severus took the imperial throne, he was immediately engaged in consolidating the Empire after the civil war, and then taking on the Parthian Empire. He was a military emperor, and he knew how to keep his troops busy, and how to reward them.

The Caledonians had been a thorn in Rome’s side for a long while at that time, but it was not until A.D. 208 that Severus was finally able to deal with them. And so, the imperial army moved to northern Britannia, poised to take on the Caledonians once again.

We’ve already touched on Severus’ campaign in previous parts of this blog series. However, it’s important to note that this is believed to be the last real attempt by Rome to take a full army into the heart of barbarian territory.

Severus moved on the Caledonians with the greatest land force in the history of Roman Britain, making use of his predecessors’ fortifications (such as the Gask Ridge frontier) and roads, and penetrating almost as far as Agricola’s legions over a hundred years before.

According to Cassius Dio, when the inhabitants of the island revolted a second time, Severus:

…summoned the soldiers and ordered them to invade the rebels’ country, killing everybody they met; and he quoted these words: ‘Let no one escape sheer destruction, No one our hands, not even the babe in the womb of the mother, If it be male; let it nevertheless not escape sheer destruction.

Rome was poised for a final push, and ultimate victory over the Caledonians.

Goddess Fortuna

But Fortuna was not on Severus’ side, for it was at that time that his chronic health problems finally got the better of him.

In A.D. 211, the man who had won a brutal civil war, and who had finally brought the Parthians to heel, died at Eburacum (modern York) in Britannia.

Roman Tower at Eburacum (York)

His son, Caracalla, who was ill-equipped to handle the situation, struck a deal with the Caledonians, abandoning all the headway his father had made in that northern land, and all of the blood shed by fifty-thousand Romans in the Severan campaign.

What happened after the death of Severus is for another story (i.e. for the next book!). However the Severan conquests in Caledonia did usher in a fleeting period of tranquility.

Later expeditions into the North were mounted in c. A.D. 296 by Constantius Chlorus, and by his son, the future Emperor Constantine, in A.D. 306. However, neither of these campaigns were on a scale comparable to the Severan campaign.

Like other remote corners of the Empire, Caledonia must have seemed like a lost cause.

Roman Cavalry

But the Eagles and Dragons series is not yet finished with this exciting period of history in Roman Britain. Like Severus, we are poised for a final punitive push into the Highlands.

It’s a fascinating period in Roman history, and I hope you have enjoyed this journey through The World of Warriors of Epona with me. If you missed any of the previous blog posts in this series, you can read them all on one page by CLICKING HERE.

If you would like to learn a bit more about the Romans in Scotland, I highly recommend checking out the documentary Scotland: Rome’s Final Frontier with Dr. Fraser Hunter.

Warriors of Epona is out now on Amazon, Apple iBooks/iTunes, and Kobo, so be sure to get your copy today.

Remember, if you haven’t yet read any of the Eagles and Dragons novels, and if you want to get stuck in, you can start with the #1 Best Selling prequel novel, A Dragon among the Eagles. It’s a FREE DOWNLOAD on Amazon, Apple iTunes/iBooks, and Kobo.

Thank you for reading!

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