BMCR 2003.12.06

Caligula, eine Biographie

, Caligula : eine Biographie. Munich: C.H. Beck, 2003. 205 pages : illustrations ; 21 cm. ISBN 3406502067. EUR 19.90.

As Alois Winterling (hereafter W.) notes in the postscript to his Caligula, eine Biographie, a lay audience is fascinated by mad emperors; it is scholars who have difficulty dealing with them.1 Judging from the amount of work that Gaius’ scant four years as emperor have inspired, the phenomenon of his personality continues to demand explanation.2 W. describes a Gaius of sound mind, one who exposes the hypocrisy abroad in contemporary Rome and anticipates the future course of the principate. He explains how this behavior precipitated the charge of madness and the nasty reputation that became attached to him. Behind the stories told after his death ( recentibus odiis compositae, Tac. Ann. 1.1) lay Gaius’ monumental clash with the aristocracy, the class ultimately responsible for the tradition that was transmitted about him. This biography, divided into five sections with introduction, conclusion and postscript, makes its points clearly and efficiently as it works through the course of Gaius’ life. Endnotes are presented in summary form, evidently to keep the flow of the text from being interrupted for the non-specialist reader. An index and a brief bibliography follow. W.’s contributions to an understanding of the Caligula tradition are emphasized in the description of the book’s contents that follows here.

The first section, “Childhood and Youth” (ἰ, in addition to retelling what we know about the early life of “Little Boots” includes a concise and helpful description of the world into which Gaius was born, the Augustan principate with its charade of power-sharing that was intended to mask the reality of one-man rule. It also includes a description of the world in which he grew up, the increasingly tension-filled reign of Tiberius, who lacked Augustus’ conciliatory skills and as a consequence drew hatred down upon himself while still alive. The praetorian prefect Sejanus’ involvement in the perennial succession problem brought about the destruction of the widow and two sons of Germanicus before he was himself recognized as a threat and destroyed as well. Only then did Gaius become a player in imperial politics. Tiberius summoned him to Capri, where he served as a kind of hostage, kept there not because Tiberius esteemed him particularly but in order that he not be used as a focus for the ambitions of others. W. points out that it was a difficult and dangerous position for this last surviving son of Germanicus.

“The Two-Year Princeps” (II) deals with the positive aspects of Gaius’ reign. W. (along with our sources) assigns his good behavior to the years before his overt clash with the senate that took place in 39. Gaius acted out a reprise of the “Augustan principate”; he chose civilitas, displayed pietas to his family, refused many honors, and maintained outward respect for the senate. W. refers this conservative behavior to the influence of his praetorian prefect Macro and to Gaius’ first father-in-law, M. Junius Silanus. Gaius’ illness at the end of 37 provoked a crisis. While he was offstage, these two mentors promoted Tiberius Gemellus as a possible alternative. When he recovered, both were forced to suicide. Otherwise, Gaius’ allies in the first years of his reign were his three sisters and his brother-in-law, M. Aemilius Lepidus, to whom he had married his middle sister Drusilla. Her death in 38 left Lepidus’ prospects hanging, reopened the question of the succession and sowed the seeds of trouble to come. In these “good years” Gaius was already displaying a trait that W. considers central to his character: his rejection of rhetoric and refusal to tolerate “doublespeak” (“doppelbödige Kommunikation”, 70), the practice of saying one thing and meaning another. W. identifies the first instance of this trait in connection with Gaius’ serious illness. One man took an oath of devotio, promising his life for the emperor’s, and another, a knight, promised to fight in the arena if Gaius lived. Instead of accepting these vows as flattery, he took the men at their word and called in their pledges. In the meantime, he was irritating the senate with his display of wealth. Material display was the last area left to the upper classes of Rome in which they could compete; the emperor’s overwhelming extravagance left all far behind.

“The Escalation of the Conflict” (III) sets forth W.’s central thesis: Gaius tore the mask of hypocrisy from the princeps-senate relationship. The turning point came early in 39 when Gaius delivered an angry speech to the senate. W. thinks that the confrontation was triggered by a conspiracy that our sources, the product of the upper classes, did not choose to record because it did not succeed. In it he exposed the “Doppelbödigkeit” (W.’s signature word for his thesis) of his relationship with the aristocracy, the smoke and mirrors that attempted to disguise the fact that power lay in the hands of one man. This speech marked an end to Gaius’ “Augustan principate” and initiated open hostility — on his part. The senate reacted with flattery; it had no alternative. Troubles multiplied after his marriage to Caesonia in 39. She quickly presented him with a child, and this further marginalized Lepidus and Gaius’ two remaining sisters. W. names Lepidus as the head of the serious conspiracy that took place later that year, another conspiracy that is reported only sketchily, again because it failed. According to W., Gaius did not know that Lepidus was its ringleader until after he had rid himself of Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, in charge of the legions of Upper Germany. After military maneuvers in Germany and a feint at invading Britain, Gaius returned to Rome with extreme distrust for the senate. He had already announced that he would refuse any honors it bestowed on him since acceptance would have acknowledged its right to do so. As a result, he staged a self-styled triumph on the Bay of Naples, building a bridge of boats across the bay in order to “cross the sea”, a reenactment of the conquest of Britain that he claimed had been achieved. W. dates this display to 40, not to the summer of 39, where Dio records it (59.17). This later date both explains the elaborateness of the display and fits the allegation that the assemblage of boats caused famine, a famine that may have occurred in the winter of 40-41, not earlier (Dio 59.17.2; Sen. Dial. 10.18.5-6). “Five Months’ Monarchy” (IV) describes the short time between Gaius’ return to Rome in August of 40 and his death in January of 41. His relationship with the senate was abysmal. Worse, he allowed himself to be saluted as a god. W. sees Gaius’ acceptance of this unacceptable homage as a further example of his rejection of rhetoric. As with the vow of devotio at the time of his illness, he refused to acknowledge that the offer of divine honors was a form of flattery (as Augustus evidently had) but chose to take the words literally. There is no evidence that Gaius really believed himself to be a god. He merely used the idea to his advantage. W. believes that he truly intended to relocate the seat of government to Alexandria because he could live there with his divine status more comfortably.

W. describes Gaius’ murder in “Death on the Palatine” (V) and notes that — unlike in the case of the failed conspiracies — our upper-class sources were eager to describe a successful outcome. But he does not believe that the group of senators who claimed complicity in the plot after the fact were involved in any way; they had been burned too many times to try again. It was the freedman Callistus who set events in motion. Claudius would punish everyone visibly connected with the plot, but Callistus survived to serve him. W. sees this as evidence that he was the one behind the assassination. The praetorian tribunes Cassius Chaerea and Cornelius Sabinus were Callistus’ agents, moved to commit murder for the personal reasons that our texts report: They hated Gaius because he had insulted them.

In a concluding chapter, “The Fiction of the Mad Emperor”, W. notes that Suetonius was the first to ascribe mental illness ( valetudo mentis) to Gaius (Calig. 51.1). Tacitus’ turbida mens (Agr. 13.2) and Pliny’s and Seneca’s furor and insania (NH 36.113; Dial. 5.21.5) are more descriptive than diagnostic. Suetonius was able to make the judgment that he did because at the time when he wrote, during the reigns of Trajan or Hadrian, accommodation between senate and princeps had become codified, and it could be assumed that an emperor who abandoned the charade of “Doppelbödigkeit” and openly played the monarch was insane. Gaius became accepted as the type for a mad emperor (Commodus) but was also a model for the monarchs of the fourth century, although this resemblance was not acknowledged and probably not recognized. W.’s Gaius has something in common with the Gaius whom Otto Willrich described in 1903: His refusal to participate in doublespeak anticipated the time when Rome would be the seat of an unapologetic monarchy. Willrich attributed Gaius’ foresight to wisdom.

This biography offers a coherent and self-consistent interpretation of the Caligula phenomenon. Its cohesion comes from W.’s contention that Gaius called the bluff of the senate by exposing the hypocrisy inherent in the principate, and it is around this thesis that he develops his explanation of the young emperor’s behavior. It is certainly true that a fiction lay at the center of the principate. Duplicitous speech is, for instance, acknowledged in Pliny’s Panegyricus to Trajan (3.4), and recent scholarship has been interested in examining the tension that this produced.3 According to W., Gaius refused to tolerate the misuse of words. This is an instructive and helpful way of thinking about the source of the hostility between emperor and the aristocracy that the Caligula tradition describes. We may question, however, whether Gaius, shocked into recognition in early 39 and urged on by his personal integrity, really embarked on an intentional course of unmasking hypocrisy. A less generous assessment of his character might describe the same behavior as a failure of tact stemming from ignorance and bad temper. W. sometimes seems close to blessing Gaius with the virtue of integrity; he does, however, acknowledge that arrogance and self-centeredness played a part. Whatever the reason for his challenge to the senate, Gaius charted a disastrous course for himself since “Doppelbödigkeit ” proved the glue that held the principate together.

In the course of making his case, W. offers a number of interesting explanations based on close examination of the texts. His description of Gaius’ difficult position with Tiberius on Capri is convincing, and his dating of the bridge of boats across the Bay of Naples to AD 40 is worth considering, although a good argument can be made for Dio’s dating of 39 as well.4 He rationalizes Gaius’ bordello on the Palatine by pointing out that Dio writes that Gaius had moved the families of prominent men to quarters nearby and kept them there as pledges for the loyalty of their husbands and fathers. From this came the story of a brothel staffed by noble women. On the other hand, a rumor about procuring could plausibly arise about any emperor who was lascivious or thought to be so. W. does not always take sufficient account of historiographical clichés and sometimes seems too accepting of the literary tradition as factual truth. And not all information needs to be taken so seriously. Gaius’ intention of making his horse consul may have been, as W. suggests, an attempt to insult the senate. It can as easily have been a witticism arising from his obsession with horse racing.

W. vigorously insists that Gaius was not a madman, as do most other recent interpreters of his reign.5 It is thus ironic that the Gaius whom he describes seems, although probably not a candidate for the attentions of a medical professional, a seriously impaired personality who asks to be called mad in lay parlance. His Gaius is an arrogant and stubbornly intransigent young man who recklessly burned his bridges and was sufficiently out of touch with reality to fail to understand the consequences of his self-indulgent behavior.


1. Citing C. Edwards’ review of A. A. Barrett’s Caligula: the Corruption of Power (New Haven 1989) in CR n.s. 41 (1991) 407.

2. Other recent biographies in addition to Barrett’s: R. Auguet, Caligula ou le pouvoir à vingt ans (Paris 1984), D. Nouy, Caligula (Paris, 1986), A. Ferrill, Caligula, Emperor of Rome (London 1991). Earlier attempts: L. Quidde, Caligula, eine Studie über römischen Cäsarenwahnsinn, (1894), H. Willrich, “Caligula” in Klio 3, 85-118, 288-317, 397-430, J. P. V. D. Balsdon, The Emperor Gaius (Caligula) (Oxford 1934).

3. S. Bartsch, Actors in the Audience. Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge 1994); S. E. Hoffer, The Anxieties of Pliny the Younger (Atlanta 1999).

4. Alternatively, the display may then have celebrated the submission of the Parthian ruler Artabanus, the first military success of Gaius’ reign. The agreement that ended this conflict took place on a bridge over the Euphrates, and a son of Artabanus rode in Gaius’ the parade across the Bay of Naples. Gaius’ ersatz triumph could recall these details. It would then have taken place before his journey north.

5. Ferrill is an exception.