The most inept coup ever?

Previous posts have featured the scientific aspects of my latest two ebook novels, and these were put there to show people what science is about. However, more important was the story, and since these were set in the first century, I had to get some historical facts right. Or did I? There is always the question, how much latitude should be permitted in a historical novel? There is obviously some imagination needed as the protagonist has to make the story work, and in this case I made my protagonist, Gaius Claudius Scaevola, commander of a legion, and for the purposes of the story, first the 11th Legion in Dalmatia, hence the title of the novel: Legatus Legionis. Two important events took place to provide the reason for what the protagonist did, and the first was the effort by Scribonianus to overthrow Claudius. 

The first obligation when writing a historical novel is not to get anything spectacularly wrong. So the question then is, what do we know? Here, I had a problem, but also an opportunity, since what we know historically is somewhat limited. All I could find out was that Scribonianus announced his intention to overthrow Claudius in the Senate. It is sometimes stated he intended to restore the Republic, with himself as Consul, and other sources state he intended to be Princeps and simply replace Claudius. It may be that both are correct, the second one the intended outcome after some time as Consul, but we shall never be sure. There was, of course, the problem of overthrowing Claudius, and to do this he also announced that two legions from his region were marching on Rome. However, it is also reported that the two legions “found their eagles stuck in the ground” and the attempted coup collapsed. What really happened is probably accounted for in Tacitus’ Annals, however the volumes for the early Claudian period are lost. Suetonius states that a civil war started, but was put down in five days since his legions had changed their allegiance and were turned from their purpose by superstitious fear. This makes no sense at all to me because he then states that when the order to march was given by their new commander, by some providential chance the eagles could not be adorned nor the standards pulled up and moved.

The remark about civil war does not make sense because there is no evidence any fighting took place, and the last remark about the standards indicates the legions never moved. The statement that the new commander gave an order to march makes no sense either because the eagles would be prepared before any marching took place. One fact that does come through, though, is that the instigators possessed connections with many of the most influential of Rome. Another unusual fact is that Claudius rewarded the seventh and eleventh legions by giving them the title Claudia pia fidelis. There must have been something more than just the legions ignoring their Governor and refusing to become involved in a coup, because that was their duty. 

For a historian, I rather suspect this sort of information hole would be extremely annoying, but for a novelist, this is just what I needed. You can make up what you like, with only very limited constraints, so I did just that. Before this happened, I had a preliminary conflict, where Scaevola married Valeria Vipsania, in part to protect her from Caligulae. The protection was partly needed because Vipsania’s father was possibly suspected of plotting, and Scaevola was banking in part on his good relationship with Claudius. The story conflict arose following the assassination of Caligulae when Scaevola discovers Vipsania’s father is involved in a plot to overthrow Claudius and he has the job to persuade Scaevola to march the legions. I hope I have made what follows at least believable.

I also involved several senators and equestrians, and the survivors continued to plot. Historically, there were several more plots, and apparently 35 senators and about 300 equestrians died as a consequence of such plots. The Senator Valerius Asiaticus was one such conspirator, and he was somewhat associated with the assassination of Caligulae, so it did not hurt to have a Valerius as a conspirator. (Roman women at this time tended to have the gens name first. That was the norm in the Republic, but it changed some time in the second century, which leaves the first century again a little unclear. That is another thing I hope I got right.) Of course this is just a story of love, betrayal, and the poison that follows, but it is also important to try to get the background facts right to inform readers of what happened in a time of history that is still of interest.

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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.

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.

What do you think of Caligulae?

Let me start my first post of 2014 by wishing you all a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. In my last post of 2013, I mentioned my latest ebook, Athene’s Prophecy, and that the main protagonist had to dodge the erratic imperium of the other Gaius Julius Caesar (Caligulae – note he had two feet!). That makes this ebook at least partially a historical novel, and the question then is, how do you portray Caligulae? Before I address that, stop and ask yourself, how would you describe the man?

I think the average response would be to describe him as a mad tyrant who delighted in killing at random and ruling through terror, I have seen him listed amongst the most despicable rulers. Now, pause, and try to describe what you think.

Now, let us be fair. If he were a terrible tyrant, then surely there would be great cheering when he died. That more or less happened when Tiberius died, and Gaius was cheered vigorously when he publicly destroyed the information Tiberius had on various other Romans. They may have cheered a little less vigorously had they known he had made copies and kept those. Nevertheless, when Gaius was assassinated, the crowds became very angry and they demanded the guilty be caught and punished. All evidence is that the general public were angered by Caesar’s assassination. To understand this, it is necessary to recognize that those of senatorial class tended to want a return to the ideals of the Republic, whereas the masses could not care less for the Republic. The Republic was of no value to the masses, and when, in the Republic, people of adequate means and property volunteered for the legions, when they came back they tended to find themselves dispossessed of their property, and the senators the new owners.

The various privileges the senators had in the old Republic allowed them to amass huge wealth, at the expense of the ordinary Roman. These privileges had been taken in part by the first Gaius Julius Caesar, then further by Augustus and Tiberius, because they knew that you could not run a professional army unless the soldiers could look forward to something in retirement. The first Caesar appealed to the masses, and tried to make their life better, and, at the same time, give himself the masses as defence to being isolated by the senators. Caligulae tried to follow the principle of the first Caesar, except that he did not have quite the same ability. The problem for us is that most of our information comes from people of senatorial class, and they were clearly against Caligulae. One popular source of material is Seneca. Now, he would hardly enthuse about Gaius after Gaius’ death, given the Gaius had exiled Seneca for being involved with plotters who were trying to assassinate him. As an aside, is that what a brutal tyrant would do? Not execute those plotting to kill him? Accordingly, Seneca’s complaints cannot be relied on at all. A secondary problem is that the relevant sections of Tacitus’ Annals are missing, and while Tacitus was of senatorial class and probably did not have any love for Caligulae, Tacitus appears to at least attempt to provide a true picture of what happened, even if he does add some personal comments.

So, what to do? Next post I shall explain my solution.