The Supreme Leader
Trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider, Glenn W. Most and Paul Psoinos
Caligula: a biography
University of California Press, 2011
The Jubilee weekend earlier this year was a reminder that a naval display is an apt means for monarchs to showcase their sovereign power and the extent of their domains. But Elizabeth II’s drizzly water pageant on the Thames was only a distant relative of the three-mile-long bridge of ships that in AD 39 or 40 spanned the Gulf of Baiae, near Naples. The Roman emperor Caligula, eager to drive his chariot across the sea, is said to have assembled so many vessels that the regular grain shipments on which Italy depended failed and famine resulted. Donning what he claimed was Alexander the Great’s breastplate, Caligula galloped across on horseback at the head of a small army. Once he had recovered from his “conquest” he was conveyed back in a chariot and concluded the festivities by drunkenly pitching some of his companions into the water.
This story is part of the mythology of Caligula, not as outrageous as the allegations that he slept with his three sisters and tried to make his horse consul, but nevertheless an apparent indication of his megalomania. In this study, however, originally published in German in 2003 and here reissued in a clear and seamless translation, Winterling notes how the spectacle combined elements of the traditional Roman triumph (depending on the dating adopted, Caligula had either just received the Parthian king’s symbolic submission or returned from a military expedition in Gaul) with echoes of the behaviour of eastern autocrats: the emperor reportedly boasted that he had outdone the Persians Darius and Xerxes. He also considers it symbolic of Caligula’s attempts to redefine the Roman principate, so that it was no longer a position held by an aristocrat who acted like an ordinary senator but happened to control the armed forces an possess powers that set him above his peers, and instead was acknowledged as an overtly monarchic institution.
A key theme of this biography is what Winterling sees as Caligula’s deconstruction of the constitutional façade erected by his great-grandfather Augustus, the first emperor, after defeating his rival Mark Antony at Actium in 31 BC. In the years that followed, Augustus consolidated his position as sole ruler while reinstating republican political practices that had lapsed in the preceding decades of civil war. The degree to which Augustus actually claimed to “restore the republic” has been questioned; Winterling also slightly over-emphasises the senate’s governing role in pre-imperial times and does not acknowledge how this system came under strain as the empire expanded. However, his description of the “contradictory, historically unique combination of republic and monarchy” that resulted from Augustus’s actions is lucid and compelling, as is his discussion of how the next emperor, Tiberius, upset this delicate balance by insisting on his position as princeps while simultaneously expecting the senate to act as if they possessed untrammelled power.
It was under Tiberius that Caligula grew up. After the death of his father Germanicus, the emperor’s well liked, charismatic nephew and adopted son, he narrowly avoided the court intrigues that targeted the rest of his family, whose direct descent from Augustus made it easy for them to be linked to conspiracies against the emperor. At length he was summoned to Capri, where Tiberius had taken up residence. His popularity as Germanicus’s son would accrue to the princeps, but it would be impossible for anyone in Rome to use him in a treasonous plot. Still, thanks to the machinations of Macro, the influential prefect of the Praetorian Guard, when Tiberius died in AD 37 Caligula was proclaimed emperor.
Winterling reads the first phase of the new emperor’s reign as an attempt to re-establish the principate along Augustan lines. As well as announcing an end to the numerous trials and condemnations that had characterised Tiberius’s last years, he made it clear that he shared his power with the senate, refusing to accept honours for himself and demanding that he be addressed as an ordinary citizen. However, he soon decided—or, as Winterling suggests, felt compelled by the cut-throat ethos at court—to eliminate his main rival, Tiberius’s grandson, along with Macro and others who had enabled his own accession. His insistence that two sycophants, who had pledged their lives in return for his recovery from illness, should fulfil their vows also displayed a distaste for hypocrisy, or perhaps a disturbing literal-mindedness, that foreshadowed the turn that his actions would soon take.
Not much later, probably after the discovery of a conspiracy of which almost nothing is known, Caligula reportedly made a speech that the third-century historian Cassius Dio records. It is a bitter, merciless attack on the senate’s behaviour under successive emperors: he rounds on its members for turning against each other to win imperial favour, and for their double standards in honouring Tiberius while he lived and then posthumously reviling him. Then, he grimly predicts that although they hate him just as much, they will continue to venerate him. Winterling views this as evidence for how Caligula sought to unmask the hypocritical relationship between emperor and senators that had existed since Augustus’s time, in which all concerned pretended that something resembling the republic still existed even as they tacitly acknowledged their supreme leader.
From then on Caligula continued to humiliate senators, not least by exploiting the convention of aristocratic “friendship” with the princeps to bring financial ruin on some of them and by demonstrating that his authority extended to appointing to the consulship—Rome’s most senior republican magistracy and a coveted post even under the empire—his horse. He emphasised how his status was far above that of everyone else, summoning leading aristocrats’ families to live near him as quasi-hostages and encouraging the development of the pre-existing practice of emperor-worship. He also made sure to retain the favour of both ordinary Romans and the Praetorian Guard. Even if he did not try to make a Hellenistic-style kingdom of the principate, as some scholars have speculated, it seems that he endeavoured to simplify the relationship between the ruler and those he ruled.
This interpretation of Caligula’s actions should be considered alongside the rest of Winterling’s scholarship (collected in Politics and Society in Imperial Rome, Wiley-Blackwell 2009), which analyses the lingering incongruity between the republican social order that endured after the republic’s fall and the new form of political power in Rome, represented by the emperor. This integration of a character study into a wider historical interpretation is welcome: not all the numerous modern biographies of Roman emperors manage to be more than a retelling of the ancient sources supplemented by selected non-literary evidence, often with frustratingly vague endnotes—Winterling’s are careful and exact. Nevertheless, the notion that the emperor suddenly saw through the contortions that senators performed in order to thrive under the principate, and as a result was struck by a kind of existential disgust, is not entirely convincing. Caligula had grown up at court and would have known that dissimulation and pretence were not so much signs of moral turpitude as attributes that were essential for survival in that environment, from which he is also unlikely to have achieved the intellectual distance required for such conclusions. The speech which Dio reports—if Caligula actually made it—and the emperor’s behaviour in general look more like the tactless exultation of a young man in possession of an enormous power over a governing class who could no longer share in that power.
Winterling also argues that the emperor’s pitiless attitude to the senate is the reason why later accounts of his life, many of which are based on senatorial writings, portray him as a capricious despot and focus on the stereotypically tyrannical behaviour in which he supposedly indulged: hence the emphasis on projects like the bridge of boats and his alleged sexual excesses. In fact, the stories of sibling incest seem to have been a posthumous invention. Moreover, while Winterling plausibly suggests that the tradition about Caligula’s madness, which was only properly challenged in the twentieth century, derives from condemnations of his immoderate behaviour, he does not sufficiently examine what led ancient authors to describe him as they did. Their accounts echo some of the well-established Graeco-Roman literary tropes for writing about tyrants, which later historians used in writing about oppressive emperors, notably Domitian and Commodus. Winterling mentions the latter as an analogue to Caligula, but fails to make the point that Dio, who was a senator during his reign, produced a harrowing account of his persecution of the senate. It is all but certain that such experiences would have influenced Dio’s portrayal of Caligula and that the key speech, which Winterling presents as historical fact, was born of a historian’s hindsight.
Still, as Winterling points out, after Caligula was assassinated by conspirators in AD 41 his successor Claudius did not fare much better, either at the time or in later tradition. Despite attempts to conciliate the senate, he was plagued by plots and general dissent and was eventually murdered by his wife Agrippina to make way for her son Nero; subsequent accounts played up his supposed imbecility and the extent to which he was ruled by his wives and freedmen. It may have been difficult to be a senator under the principate, but it was even harder to be the emperor.
Katie Low studies Classics at Magdalen College.