Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.02.23


Flavius Josephus, Death of an Emperor. Translated, with introduction and commentary by T.P. Wiseman. Exeter Studies in History No. 30. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1991. Pp xviii + 122. ISBN 0-85989-356-1.


Reviewed by Arthur Ferrill, University of Washington.

The title of this good little book is unfortunately uninformative. Ancient historians and classicists will generally know that the translation is of those passages in Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews (XIX 1-273) dealing with the death of the Emperor Caligula; the lay reader, seeing only the title, may be justly mystified. Considering the extent of popular interest in the colorful story of Rome's third emperor, I cannot imagine why this book was not entitled The Death of Caligula. Professional ancient historians and classicists should stop pretending that the rest of the world is intimately familiar with their field.

The book, nevertheless, is useful, because it provides in convenient format the major ancient source for Caligula's death. Tacitus' books on Caligula are lost, Suetonius' Life of Caligula, though containing much valuable material, is not chronologically organized, and the account of Dio Cassius survives only in summaries and extracts. Wiseman argues convincingly that Josephus' version of the assassination was based on the accounts of two Roman authors whose works have not survived -- probably Cluvius Rufus, a senator of consular rank and an eye-witness to the murder, and Fabius Rusticus, Seneca's equestrian friend from Spain. Although source criticism of authors whose works are no longer extant can often be a torturous process, Wiseman deals cogently and persuasively with Cluvius Rufus in an appendix at the end of the book, and his treatment is preferable to that of A. Barrett, Caligula (London, 1989), pp. 168-169.

Generally Wiseman's translation is quite good, but the lengthy commentary will be especially useful to scholars of the Julio-Claudian period. Wiseman was not able to use my own book, Caligula (London, 1991), but he refers frequently to the works of Balsdon and Barrett and for the most part dismisses the sceptical and rationalizing approach they take to the ancient sources on Caligula. Inexplicably, the translator's commentary on Josephus' opening statement that Caligula "filled Rome's dominions with more evil than history had ever known," was simply to quote Balsdon to the effect that "The administration of Gaius ... in the Empire at large does not appear, when scrutinized, to be lacking either in efficiency or sanity." Why Wiseman let Balsdon's statement stand alone as commentary on Josephus' condemnation of Caligula's reign is a mystery, since in most of his other comments Wiseman reveals strong criticism of the Emperor. On a later passage about Caligula's "cruel and vicious nature (Jos. AJ 19.192)" Wiseman quotes a rationalizing comment by Balsdon which the translator describes as "perhaps too indulgent."

On points of detail Wiseman is usually very good, but there are a few debatable matters. Josephus wrote that Caligula died after reigning for "four years less four months (AJ 19.201)," and Wiseman observes that "the true figure is four years less 53 days." But Wiseman dates from the day of Tiberius' death, and the dies imperii of Caligula may have been later. (On that point see Barrett's appendix, pp. 71-72.) Josephus also said that Caligula completed "not one" important construction project (19.205), and Wiseman wrote, "Unfair: Gaius did a great deal of building in his short reign, and not all of it was self-indulgent" (citing Barrett and Balsdon). The gap between Josephus' "not one" and Wiseman's "a great deal" is simply too big. In fact, Josephus is closer to the truth in this case. (See my Caligula, pp. 164-165.) Also, on one small detail, Wiseman gave Caligula's age while he was on Capri with Tiberius as 19 to 25 (p. 85), but Gaius was only 24 when he became Emperor.

On a rather more important point Wiseman challenges the view that on the day of the assassination Herod Agrippa was responsible for the hasty burial of Caligula's half-cremated body in the Lamian Gardens (p. 94). His words are that the removal of the body was "clearly not by Agrippa." But Josephus does not in fact make that clear: "King Agrippa had been held in honour by Gaius, and did what was proper for him in return. He attended to the corpse, laid it on a bier, and did what he could to cover it. Then he withdrew to find the Praetorians (p.35)." It is possible but not certain that Herod did these things at the palace; he may also have done them at the Lamian Gardens.

But the above points are quibbling ones. Wiseman has performed a useful service by translating and commenting on this extraordinarily significant portion of Josephus' work.