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Life Styles of the Rich and Famous

Caligula: The Corruption of Power

by Anthony A. Barrett
Yale University Press, 334 pp., $27.50


by Barbara Levick
Yale University Press, 256 pp., $25.00

Since ancient times, much of the historical writing about communities governed by monarchies has taken the form of royal or imperial biography. Many scholars have deplored this, objecting that too much concentration on rulers removes attention from the realm as a whole and concentrates it on the capital, encouraging the biographical historian to follow the historians of ancient times, usually members of the governing elite, to assign excessive importance to the fortunes of that body while neglecting the social and economic history of the kingdom or the empire and the administration of its provinces. In the case of the Roman Empire “bad” emperors like Caligula and Nero, it is argued, made life uncomfortable for the upper class but did not seriously interfere with provincial administration. Thus in his first notable article the most eminent Roman historian of our time, Sir Ronald Syme (1903–1989), refuted a widespread assumption that the “bad”, emperor Domitian must have left the Empire’s finances in a parlous state.1

Still, one can understand the popularity of imperial biography. First, the history of kings and emperors and royal families makes entertaining reading. This is particularly true of the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Roman emperors, with which I, like many other people now living, first became acquainted through the classical dictionary of the Reverend John Lemprière, first published in 1788 but often reprinted since, the last time appearing in New York in 1984.2 Valeria Messallina, the wife of the emperor Claudius, according to Lemprière “prostituted herself in the public streets, and few men there were at Rome who had not enjoyed the favours of the impure Messallina.” Since the population of the city at that time has been estimated at about a million, Messallina would have to have had a busy time. The reign of Claudius’ predecessor, Caligula, offers even better material for this kind of thing; even if not clinically insane, he was on any view notably capricious and eccentric.

The history of this dynasty is the subject of two of the most successful historical novels of modern times, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, by Robert Graves. The struggles for the succession which from the time of Augustus, the founder of the dynasty, were going on inside the imperial family provided Graves with the material for an enthralling narrative. He had made a careful study of the ancient sources and in using them did not go beyond what is permissible in a writer of fiction. The Hungarian producer Alexander Korda, whose company London Films was successful during the Thirties, began making a film based on these novels, Claudius being played by Charles Laughton, an ideal actor for the part. Unfortunately this film was never completed, but during the Seventies parts of it were discovered and shown on British and, later, American television with considerable success. This led to a new television film, and this in turn to the making of a more recent movie about Caligula which presented an even more highly colored picture of its subject than the evidence warrants.

But if we leave fiction and entertainment aside, there is still much to be said for imperial biography. The personality of the ruler is bound to color the history of his reign, and since he takes or at least assents to the most important decisions that are made, the story of his life is likely to throw light on the most significant happenings of the time. Syme’s most famous book, published in 1939, was in effect a study of Augustus, the first and greatest emperor, whose remarkable personality deeply affected not only his own reign, but those of his successors.3 We can learn much from other lives of the Julio-Claudian emperors also. Barbara Levick’s Tiberius the Politician appeared in 1976 and Miriam Griffin’s Nero: the End of a Dynasty4 in 1984; and now the space between them is filled in by excellent studies of the brief reign of Caligula (AD 37–41) by Anthony A. Barrett and of the longer and more important reign of Claudius (AD 41–54) by Dr. Levick. Neither of these writers is, as Syme was, a considerable literary artist; but both are highly competent historians and clear writers, and the intrinsic interest of their subject is so great that the tougher kind of general reader, as well as the scholar, will study them with pleasure as well as with instruction.

There are two questions which many readers will want to ask about these emperors: Was Caligula a lunatic, and was Claudius really the amiable human being, ill-treated by his family and badly let down by his wives, whom Robert Graves depicts? These books give the correct answer to both these questions, which is no.

During the nineteenth century, Caligula was generally considered to have been a maniac; in 1894 L. Quidde in a detailed study argued for this view, at the same time aiming to show that the Emperor Wilhelm II was a similar case. More recently modern writers have tried to psychoanalyze Caligula, concluding that he was schizophrenic or at least schizoid. Barrett sensibly concludes that he was none of these things, but holds that he was “so obsessed with a sense of his own importance as to be practically devoid of any sense of responsibility.” For the word “importance,” I would substitute “power.” Barrett’s title seems to allude to Lord Acton’s famous remark that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Caligula would seem to supply a perfect example of such a case. Dr. Levick gives Claudius credit for considerable achievements as a ruler, but he does not emerge from her pages as a sympathetic person.

One cannot understand the character of either emperor without taking account of the early history of his life, so that a somewhat complicated story must be briefly sketched. As soon as Augustus had consolidated his power, his family began to develop the characteristics of a royal family. The women, arbitrarily transferred from husband to husband, as they were liable to be by an emperor thinking of the succession, behaved like princesses. Both they and the men developed the cunning that was necessary if one was to survive. Power was sought and exercised with the same ruthlessness with which, under the Republic, rival dynasts (Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Caesar) had battled one another. From the reign of Augustus on, the politics of Rome had turned on the constant tension generated by the question of the imperial succession. Augustus had no son. By his first wife, Scribonia, he had a daughter, Julia, but by his second wife, Livia, to whom he was married for more than fifty years, he had no children. But Livia had two sons by her first husband, Tiberius Claudius Nero, who like herself came from a great Roman family; these sons, Tiberius and Drusus, were both men of great military and administrative ability. A good way to get a general notion of the complicated struggle is to consider it as a contest between the descendants of Scribonia and those of Livia.

First Augustus meant his heir to be his nephew Marcellus, son of his sister Octavia, whom he married to his daughter Julia; but Marcellus died young. Julia was then transferred to her father’s contemporary, the great military commander Agrippa, by whom she had three sons and two daughters. Meanwhile, Tiberius and Drusus commanded armies with considerable success. Then Agrippa died, and Tiberius was forced to divorce his dearly loved wife, Agrippa’s daughter Vipsania, and marry Julia. They were incompatible; Julia was a gay, pleasure-loving person with an excellent sense of humor, Tiberius a grim, austere Roman noble of the oldfashioned kind. Augustus adopted Julia’s two elder sons, Gaius and Lucius Caesar, showing them every kind of favor.

Tiberius now left Rome and retired as a private person to Rhodes. His wife did not accompany him, but during his absence she fell foul of Augustus; she was exiled for adultery, and five Roman noblemen were executed or exiled for having been her lovers. When a Roman princess was exiled for adultery, politics counted more than sex; it usually meant that she was looking for a consort who would rule with her on the demise of the existing emperor. One of the alleged lovers, who was executed, was Iullus Antonius, a son of Mark Antony by his first wife, Fulvia. But not even Julia’s disgrace induced Augustus to summon back Tiberius. When he finally returned, it was at his own request, and he continued to live as a private citizen in Rome. But first Lucius Caesar and then Gaius Caesar died young, and finally Augustus was forced to associate Tiberius with himself in power, placing him in a position where he was bound to succeed him in supreme authority.

Tiberius had a son, Drusus, by his first wife. But Tiberius’ brother, also called Drusus, who had died after a fall from his horse, also left a son, Germanicus, who had inherited much of his father’s ability and even more of his affability. A good general and administrator, not at all a bad poet, and an engaging person, Germanicus enjoyed a popularity that was later a powerful factor in the elevation of two persons who conspicuously lacked most of his qualities, his son Caligula and his brother Claudius. Though he was a grandson of Livia, Germanicus had married a granddaughter of Scribonia, Julia’s daughter by Agrippa, Agrippina; she was a proud and ambitious woman. Tiberius was obliged to adopt Germanicus, who was not only older but incomparably more popular than Tiberius’ own son, Drusus.

Tiberius sent Germanicus on a mission to the East where he fell foul of the governor of Syria, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, an old-fashioned Roman nobleman and a friend of Tiberius. Germanicus died of a mysterious illness, and Piso, arraigned for poisoning him, committed suicide. Germanicus’ widow, Agrippina, believed that Piso had done so on the orders of Tiberius.

But the emperor became weary of life at Rome. Although he had begun by trying hard to maintain good relations with the Senate, he had run into difficulties with senators, and Agrippina kept up a ceaseless feud against him. Just as he had retired to Rhodes, so he now retired to Capri. Stories of his orgies there were inevitably circulated; such stories were told to Norman Douglas by aged inhabitants who claimed to have been eyewitnesses. Tiberius enjoyed the company of his favorite astrologer, Thrasyllus, for astrology was consonant with the determinism of the Stoic philosophy to which he adhered, and he took pleasure in Hellenistic Greek poets whose recondite mythological allusions supplied him with tricky questions to put to his retainers. But in Rhodes he had been a private person; in Capri, however, he kept his fingers on the thread of power. Much of the management of affairs in Rome he left to the able, ambitious, and well-connected Lucius Aclius Sejanus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard.

  1. 1

    Ronald Syme, “The Imperial Finances under Domitian, Nerva, and Trajan,” Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 20 (1930), pp. 55–70, reprinted in Roman Papers, Vol. I (1979), pp. 1–17.

  2. 2

    John Lemprière, Bibliotheca Classica: or, a Classical Dictionary, reprinted in Myth and Romanticism: a Collection of the Major Mythographic Sources used by the English Romantic Poets (Garland, 1984).

  3. 3

    Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford University Press, 1939).

  4. 4

    Barbara Levick, Tiberius the Politician (London: Croom Helm, 1976); Miriam Griffin, Nero: The End of a Dynasty (London: Batsford, 1984).

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