Even more on writing about Caligulae

Previous posts have considered the difficulties faced when I was writing about Caligulae for my novel Athene’s Prophecy, and these difficulties were largely about his relations with the senatorial class. His limited military “adventures” produce far more difficulties. One example was his so-called “invasion of Germany”, which lasted about a week, after which he came back to Gaul. What do you do about that?

My answer is quite straightforward. The reason for going north was to arrest the Legates of two legions (who were almost certainly plotting a coup) but he had to take enough force with him that he would clearly succeed, and he had to have a diversion so the Legionnaires would think something else was going on. Once there, he embarked on a large number of military exercises involving the digging of fortifications, forced marches, and this ended with “the invasion of Germany”. Actually, what he was reported as having done was following the fairly conventional procedures for disciplining and bringing legions up to efficiency, and would have been somewhat milder than such procedures later employed by Corbolo. Invariably, these procedures included a river crossing, and the Rhine was the only available river. The “invasion” would comprise nothing more than crossing the river, followed by the setting up of defensive fortifications and a minor march inland, i.e. a drill for what would happen if there were war, followed by returning to base at the end of the drill.  What many do not recognize is that the Roman army was probably the most disciplined army ever, they drilled incessantly, and any slackness was jumped on mercilessly.

More difficult to understand was the so-called invasion of Britain. Caligulae took a legion to the Brittany coast, and when the men refused to board some fairly rotten ships, he gave them the alternative of declaring war on the sea and collecting seashells, which is apparently what they did. The way I interpreted this is not a sign of madness, but the deliberate humiliation of a potentially rebellious legion. One legion would be quite inadequate for the invasion. However, there are problems with this interpretation, and one was particularly troublesome. Towards the end of my novel, Scaevola (my protagonist) was appointed temporary Legatus of Legio III, Cyrenaica, temporarily at Bostra. As I was finishing, I found that anyone doing a deep historical search would be able to jump on me. Apparently, when Caligulae went north, he was accompanied by troops from the Cyrenaica, including the logistics experts. That means he planned the invasion of Britain. So, what actually happened? My guess is that when he saw the effects of his drills, he realized what would happen when he took troops to the coast. 

That does not mean he was a good man. He was definitely cruel and he had a superiority complex, but then consider his upbringing. All his family had been killed, one way or another, by Tiberius. Then he was brought to Capri, and watched Tiberius behave. If Tiberius did not like you, you were thrown off the cliff to your death. There is no doubt Gaius Julius Caesar was erratic, and he liked to put senators in their place. Perhaps the most obvious example was when he made his horse a Consul and tried to deify it. He made the senators worship his horse. Not exactly overly wise, but bearing in mind his objective, not exactly mad. Then there was the way he managed to get the streets of Rome clean. For that, you will have to read the book, or do some research.

What that meant for the novel was that my protagonist, who was of senatorial class, would have something to worry about. A particular problem was that the book concluded with the crisis of the Temple of Jerusalem. Caligulae wanted a statue of himself put there, to make up for the fact that Jews had defaced his statue somewhere else. That would have led to a revolt, and real bloodshed. In the end, Caligulae backed down, and I had to end my story about that back down. However, the way that ended did not signify madness, and this is one of the few incidents for which a real record remains, from the journal of Philo of Alexandria. What Caligulae did was to let everyone present thoroughly embarrass themselves, then he did the rational thing. Not exactly mad.

 If nothing else, while writing this I learned some classical history, or at least a version of what might have happened because I feel exactly what happened under Caligulae will never be known.


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