More on Writing about Caligulae

In my previous post, I mentioned some of the problems as to why we know so little that is clear about Caligulae, and why we have so many reports indicating he was mad. The question then was, how should I write about him? One of the first things that becomes apparent is that while many situations can have multiple interpretations, in general the author must settle on one for each incident, and overall, they must be self-consistent. I have tried to follow the interpretation of Anthony Barrett in his book, “Caligula, The Corruption of Power”, but I have also added some of my own personal interpretations. That actually brought me a further problem but also a solution. Caligulae does not appear personally in the novel other than in the very beginning, while Tiberius was still Princeps, and for most of the novel the information is delivered by letters from Claudius. Now Claudius is also on record of accusing Caligulae of being a very bad Princeps, but this was largely after Caligulae’s death, and Claudius had a very good reason to argue that the assassination was caused by some who had had enough of Caligulae’s bad behaviour. That raises the problem of what would be Claudius’ attitude prior to the assassination. As far as we know, the two got on quite well together, and Caesar did make Claudius a Consul, so I had Claudius making neutral or slightly favourable reports.

To illustrate one of the problems, Seneca reports at one time Caligulae offered his foot to be kissed. That would represent the ultimate of arrogance to Romans, and would be seen as an abominable practice; so much for gravitas and dignitas. However, Seneca also added that there was an alternative interpretation, and some had reported this incident as Caligulae showing off his new slippers. There is a difference! As for the excessive and sadistic killing, there are only twelve people who are unambiguously executed by him, and some of these executions were actually ordered by the senate without reference to Caligulae. There were another twelve examples that involved suicide or some other similar ending. So, approximately 24 deaths in four years, and recall there were at least four attempts at assassinating him. That is hardly the record of a mad tyrant.

Caligulae is often accused of having depleted the Treasury to an unacceptable level. This is almost certainly untrue, because after his assassination, Claudius gave out lavish donations from the Treasury to buy the loyalty of certain sections of the Roman community. He could not have done that without there being adequate cash on hand. So why would this accusation be made? My guess is, taxation. Prior to Caligulae, Rome itself was exempt from taxation. Caligulae argued that all Roman citizens should be equal, and hence all should pay tax. This was extremely unpopular with the Senatorial class. As an aside, the Roman flat tax rate at the time was about 1%. They should be so lucky! Interestingly, another complaint was that he taxed clients at brothels, which also seems to have upset the Senatorial class. Again, a 1% tax to all is hardly a sign of an extreme tyrant.

 I should also add that I am not trying to rehabilitate Gaius as a benign Princeps. He was not; all I am saying is that he was nowhere nearly as bad as certain Senatorial accounts, and certain lurid Hollywood outputs, would have us believe. More next post.

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