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.

Sejanus became the lover of Livilla, daughter of Tiberius’ brother Drusus, and wife of Tiberius’ son, also called Drusus; he seems to have formed the ambition of ruling as her consort during the minority of her son. Agrippina and her family stood in his way; so did Livilla’s husband, Drusus. Agrippina made things easy for Sejanus by her continued hostility to the emperor. She and her two elder sons, Nero and Drusus, were exiled to islands, where she and Nero perished, either by suicide or murder. Then Drusus, the son of Tiberius, died. But then Tiberius was alerted to the danger from Sejanus by his sister-in-law, Livilla’s mother; at the same time he learned that his son Drusus had died from poisoning by Livilla and Sejanus.

Tiberius quickly gave orders for the ruthless extirpation of Sejanus and all his family. Under Roman law a virgin could not be executed, so Sejanus’ sixteen-year-old daughter was raped by the executioner before being strangled. The fall of Sejanus did not save Agrippina’s second son, Drusus, who perished on his island after these events. Easy as it is to sympathize with Tiberius on account of his treatment by Augustus, it cannot be denied that he possessed a large share of the stony cruelty so often shown by the Romans, so many of whom delighted in watching their bloody gladiatorial spectacles.

There was a third son of Agrippina, Gaius, nicknamed Caligula, “Little Boot,” from the boots he wore as an infant when his father was commanding in Germany. After his mother’s banishment he lived first with his great-grandmother Livia, and then with his grandmother Antonia, socially the most important personage in Rome while Tiberius was on Capri. In her house he enjoyed the society of several oriental princes, including the charming and highly intelligent Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great of Judea, with whom he made great friends. When Antonia died Tiberius summoned Caligula to Capri, where he showed great discretion while living a precarious life among the reclusive emperor’s strange entourage.

Tiberius would doubtless have preferred to be succeeded by his grandson, Tiberius Gemellus; but Gemellus was young, and Caligula had the advantage of being the son of the immensely popular Germanicus. Tiberius adopted both as joint heirs, though taking no measures to give Caligula the kind of training that might have fitted him to rule. When Tiberius died at seventy-seven, Caligula swept the twelve-year-old Gemellus aside with the help of Macro, who had succeeded Sejanus as Praetorian prefect.

The twenty-five-year-old emperor began with a series of measures designed to win him popularity. But after a few months he threw off the mask, and Gemellus, Macro, and the father of his wife, the respected senator Marcus Junius Silanus, were all eliminated. Caligula was aware that the emperor could now exercise absolute power, and disdained the fiction that the republican constitution still existed which Augustus had taken so much trouble to construct and which Tiberius had tried hard to keep up.

Our sources for his reign are sadly inadequate. The works of contemporary historians are lost, and the books of the Annals of the great historian Tacitus that described the reign are lost; we must rely on the second-century biography of Suetonius, at one time secretary to Hadrian, and the third-century history of Cassius Dio, a Greek who became a Roman consul. Suetonius is lively and well-informed, but recounts numerous anecdotes of doubtful authenticity; Dio is dull and unimaginative, and often uncritical.

What was Caligula really like? Like many Romans he delighted in gladiatorial combats, which gratified his strong streak of sadistic cruelty, and in horse and chariot racing; though he did not make his horse Incitatus consul, as a fairly recent edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica says he did, Dio says that he planned to do so, and Suetonius heard the story of the plan. Like Nero Caligula loved stage performances and actors; to traditional-minded Romans, who did not share the modern habit of what George Moore called “mummer-worship,” this addiction seemed contemptible. He is credited with a prodigious amount of sexual activity, so much so that people might wonder, as with the stories about a more recent powerful personage who died young by assassination, how he found time for anything else; there is mention not only of female but of male lovers, though he resented attacks upon his masculinity, as the late Roy Cohn is said to have done, and persecuted lesbians. Barrett is rightly cautious about the allegations of Caligula’s incest with his three sisters.

Like other emperors he was a notable builder; he was by no means without taste, but his building operations had often an element of fantasy, as in the case of the bridge of boats across the Bay of Naples with which he rivaled the Persian monarch Xerxes.

There can be no doubt of his capricious cruelty. We have seen that even Tiberius found relations with the Senate difficult and executed senators, but Caligula treated the Senate with open contempt and some of its individual members with arbitrary cruelty. He had been devoted to his sister Drusilla, who died young, and had thought of her husband, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, as a possible successor; but in 39 CE he executed Lepidus on a charge of conspiracy, together with Gnaeus Lentulus Gaetulicus, who for ten years had governed Upper Germany. His two surviving sisters were exiled, and a bloodbath followed. It is not surprising that less than two years after this a number of people risked their own lives in order to put an end to him; he was assassinated by members of the Praetorian Guard, with the connivance of several senators.

Can it be said that Caligula’s government of the empire showed gross incompetence or alarming eccentricity? Indeed, vast enterprises that were planned in Britain and in Germany came to nothing. But as Barrett says, in the accounts of these it is hard to separate facts from fantasy; he thinks that the notorious order to the troops near Boulogne to collect seashells to send to Rome as “spoils of Ocean” had a symbolic significance, accompanying as it did the defection of a British prince, a son of Cunobelinus (“Cymbeline”). His annexation of the African kingdom of Mauretania led to insurrections which were finally put down only in the next reign; but Barrett thinks that the Mauretainian king Ptolemy, whom he executed may have been involved in the conspiracy of Lentulus. In the East he handled the client kings with skill, and made at least two excellent appointments of provincial governors.

It is clear that Caligula was far from stupid. Even Tacitus allows that he was by no means a bad public speaker, and though the fragments of his talk that are recorded show much vanity and perversity, their sick humor is not that of a stupid person. “Sand without lime” is not a bad description of the style of the leading Roman writer of the time, Seneca, and it would be wrong to imagine that his frivolous remarks about Homer, Virgil, and Livy were meant to be taken seriously. We get a fascinating glimpse of him in a dull and pompous book, the account of an embassy of the Alexandrian Jews to plead their cause in one of the eternal quarrels with their Greek fellow citizens, written by the Jewish philosopher Philo.5 Caligula received the embassy while he was directing building operations in his gardens on the Esquiline, throwing out casual remarks while reserving his main attention for the work. Suddenly he called out, “Why don’t you eat pork?” The ambassadors tactfully replied that different peoples had different customs, and that their opponents also had their taboos. Then someone observed that some people refused to eat lamb, though it was so easily available. “Quite right, too,” said the emperor, “it doesn’t taste good.”

He then greatly alarmed the Jews by declaring that he would have statues of himself set up in the Holy of Holies in their temple. Philo takes Caligula’s insistence on his own divinity with utter seriousness; but when one has waded through even a few pages of this voluminous writer, one sees that the temptation to tease the ambassadors must have been overwhelming. In the end Caligula dropped the plan; Herod Agrippa is credited with having persuaded him to do so, but was Caligula ever serious?

In the East the Roman emperor had been a god for many years, though the Jews were recognized as being special case, and had always been handled with great care. Caligula planned a center of his own cult near Miletus; though the story that he planned to take over the vast temple of Apollo at Didyma, in that region, is hardly likely to be true. In Rome and Italy, and in the West in general, emperors had always been more cautious. Every Roman had a guardian spirit, his genius, and offerings had been made to the genius of Augustus even while he was alive, but he was not officially deified until after his death. Caligula’s religious policy in the West was in most respects conservative; and though Suetonius and Dio both allege that temples were erected and sacrifices made to him as a god, no epigraphic evidence supports them, and Barrett suggests that Caligula over-stepped the mark simply by introducing the cult of the emperor’s genius, hitherto unknown in Rome and very rare in Italy.

It seems most unlikely that Caligula believed that he had divine powers, though in his eagerness to exert his omnipotence he was capable of enforcing his claim to be treated as a god. His undoubted intelligence went together with a foolish arrogance that was his undoing.

After the assassination of Caligula and his wife and daughter, the Praetorians discovered his uncle, Claudius, who had been hiding in the palace, and saluted him as emperor. This younger brother of Germanicus had been denied the honors which would normally have been accorded to a member of his family. He suffered from a complaint that made him appear, except when sitting down, undignified and ridiculous; Dr. Levick after carefully examining the evidence concludes that it was kind of cerebral palsy, involving an element of spasticity. As part of his program of honoring his own family at the beginning of his reign, Caligula had made him his colleague in the consulship; but later he had made fun of him, and Claudius had remained free to concentrate on the historical writing which was his chief interest.

Dr. Levick suspects that Claudius may have been privy to the conspiracy against his nephew, but again the popularity of Germanicus may have been a factor in the elevation of one of his relations. The assumption of power by Claudius was by no means welcome to the Senate, but it was forced to accept the decision of the troops, which was acceptable to the general public. Claudius’ relations with the Senate were thus complicated from the start; but even had this not been so, it is unlikely that he would have managed them more successfully than previous emperors. Just as Tiberius’ relations with senators had been affected by the affair of Sejanus, so were those of Claudius affected by excessive influence of some of his Greek freedmen, and even more by that of his two successive wives. After only a year a nobly born Roman, the governor of Dalmatia, Lucius Arruntius Camillus Scribonianus, revolted against the emperor and was suppressed. Several alleged accomplices were executed; so, later, was a wealthy senator of Gallic origin, Valerius Asiaticus, because Claudius’ wife Messallina had coveted his gardens.

As to that lady’s nymphomania, Lemprière is no safe guide; in her indiscreet relationship with Gaius Silius, which led to her execution, Messallina may have been looking for a consort who would rule with her during the minority of her son, Britannicus. Her successor as Claudius’ wife was his niece, Germanicus’ daughter Agrippina, like her mother, the elder Agrippina, an ambitious and vengeful woman. She ruthlessly eliminated opposition, forcing her husband to adopt her son Nero to the detriment of his own son by Messallina, Britannicus. In his great tragedy named after the latter, Racine, who knew what it was like to live under an absolute monarchy, faithfully renders the atmosphere described by Tacitus, whose account of the last part of Claudius’ reign has been preserved.

In spite of this, Claudius was a good deal more successful as emperor than anyone at the time might have expected. In modern times, indeed, his achievements have often been exaggerated. In a remarkable chapter Dr. Levick takes issue with an early book of the eminent historian Arnaldo Momigliano (1908–1987), who gave Claudius credit for having introduced something like a new civil service, with departments headed by the Greek freedmen who during his reign attained wealth and influence to a degree that outraged senatorial critics.6 Dr. Levick points out that there is no real evidence that the freedmen acted as heads of departments; they were simply advisers of the emperor, influential though they surely were. At the same time, Claudius’ policy differed in some respects from those of other emperors. Emperors, Syme wrote,7 seldom did much to modify social convention regarding distribution of privileges, but Claudius was an exception; emperors increasingly promoted municipal aristocrats but Claudius actually admitted Gallic tribal chieftains to the Roman Senate.

Tacitus gives generous space to a speech Claudius delivered in the Senate recommending the admission of Gallic notables; we happen to have the original speech, preserved in an inscription, and we see how Tacitus has improvised the pompous and pedestrian original, at the same time amusing himself at the emperor’s expense. As one reads this speech, one can easily believe the accounts of the emperor’s capricious and ridiculous behavior during the court cases in which he had such an extraordinary passion for adjudicating.

In his policy toward the Gauls, Claudius could quote the precedent of the dictator Julius Caesar, and Dr. Levick ingeniously suggests that this eminent predecessor furnished Claudius with his principal model. Like him Claudius had a penchant for great public works; the draining of the Fucine Lake and the construction of a great harbor at Ostia, the port of Rome, had both been considered by Julius, but were accomplished by Claudius. Dr. Levick also observes that Julius had twice raided Britain, which Claudius actually conquered. Here one may feel a doubt; Julius had only made a demonstration in that country, and operations there had evidently been considered by Caligula. Still, in relying not on the Senate but on the troops and the people of Rome and Italy, who benefited from his public works, Claudius might have pointed to the precedent of the great dictator.

Are we to accept Robert Graves’s picture of Claudius as a kindly, innocent scholar, unappreciated by his relations, all guilt for things that went amiss being attributed to his freedmen and his wives? Certainly not. One may sympathize with Graves’s hostility to the smug hypocrisy of Seneca, who preached Stoic abstinence while living in luxury, and mocked the dead emperor whom he had fawned on while he was alive. But in his skit on the deification of Claudius, called “the Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius,” Seneca scored some shrewd hits.8 Other authorities confirm his opinion that Claudius was not only undignified, pompous, pedantic, vulgar, cowardly, and loquacious; he had a strong streak of the sadistic cruelty that makes so many noble Romans so repellent. The score of his victims is reckoned as thirty-five senators and 321 Roman knights. Still, people must have looked back with longing to the reign of Claudius while they were living under his successor, Nero.

  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).

  5. 5

    Philo, Legatio ad Gaium; a text with translation will be found in the tenth volume of Philo in the Loeb Classical Library.

  6. 6

    Arnaldo Momigliano, L’opera dell’ imperatore Claudio (1932), translated into English by G. W. D. Hogarth as Claudius: the Emperor and his Achievement (Oxford University Press, 1934; reprinted with additions, Cambridge University Press, 1961).

  7. 7

    Ronald Syme, Tacitus, Vol. II, pp. 606–607 (Oxford University Press, 1958).

  8. 8

    Divi Claudii Apocolocyntosis. There is a good edition with introduction, text, translation and commentary by P.T. Eden (Cambridge University Press, 1984).