How to be the Evil

Gaius Caligula, son of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, was the third Roman Emperor (37-41 A.D.) after Augustus. He is one of the best known Roman emperors of all time because of the cruelty and madness that is commonly attributed to him; most people think of him as a psychopath.

Negative stories about Caligula started to circulate very soon after he had been violently assassinated, in 41 A.D., by the Praetorian guard, whose job would have been to protect him. The Jewish philosopher Philo and the Roman philosopher Seneca – both hostile to Caligula for personal reasons – spread the idea that Caligula was insane because of his cruelty and his wish to be worshipped as a God. It took until the 2nd Century A.D., however, until any effort at a comprehensive account of Caligula’s life and deeds was even attempt: by the historian Tacitus, in his Annals, and the biographer Suetonius, who was also the secretary of the emperor Hadrian, as part of his Lives of Twelve Emperors. Only Suetonius’ account, unfortunately, has survived.

The information in Suetonius is often and wrongly simply taken as fact, and our image of Caligula has suffered from this more than any of the other Roman emperors. In addition to numerous academic and non-academic studies of Caligula’s life (e.g. BARRETT A., Caligula. The Abuse of Power, published in 2015 as the new revised version of the 1988 masterpiece Caligula. The Corruption of Power, or WINTERLING A., Caligula. A Biography, published in English in 2011 as a translation of the German book Caligula. Eine Biographie, 2003), an impressive number of TV shows attempt to disseminate an image of the ‘real’ Caligula that is often based on a misreading of Suetonius’ biographical narrative.

To modern (and ancient) readers, the obscene and scandalous episodes of Caligula’s life have proven to be especially fascinating. One of the most famous of such episodes is set at the court of Tiberius in Capri where, or so it is claimed, Caligula partly grew up. In his Life of Tiberius (ch. 44), Suetonius tells us about the paedophile perversions of the old Emperor Tiberius, and it is often assumed that Caligula witnessed, or even took part in, these devious practices of his predecessor on the throne. Some TV documentaries, purporting to explain who Caligula was, have taken these reports of scandalous sexual perversion at the Roman imperial court as face value and used them as the basis of a specific theory of Caligula’s personality. In Ancients behaving badly[1], for example, we are informed that it was by watching Tiberius’ behaviour that Caligula learnt how to be evil and a pervert. Moreover, we hear that Caligula’s express aim was to become a second Tiberius (because, who doesn’t want to emulate the man who killed your brothers and your own mother, as many sources tell us?).  The same episode recurs in many other documentaries, such as Mary BEARD’s “Caligula with Mary Beard: the man behind the infamy” aired on BBC Two in August 2013[2], or Piero Angela’s Superquark[3], as well an article published in The Guardian in June 2016, in which Tom Holland draws a comparison between Caligula’s reign and the current president of the USA, Donald Trump[4] (comparing Trump to negative emperors appears to be fashionable: in an article by Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times, dated 30th January 2017, President Trump’s government and its attitude to Brexit is compared to the reign of Emperor Nero[5]).

A close look at Suetonius’ text, however, suggest that such theories and comparisons are far from justified. To begin with, not even Suetonius reports Tiberius’ pedophilia and Caligula’s participation in it as reliable fact but introduces the episode as rumour of the infamy that hits Tiberius. As such, it is part of a whole catalogue of rumours and slander (Suetonius uses the verb fero ‘they say’) that was circulating about Tiberius. And, most importantly, there is not even a hint in Suetonius’ text that Caligula was actually present at Tiberius’ court during these alleged episodes, let alone that he participated in them. The origins of Caligula’s perversion and evilness as they are so often represented in modern studies and TV shows are unfounded modern psychologizing and not based on anything even close to reliable information in the ancient sources.

This example (one of many) illustrates one of the most serious problems with modern portraits of Caligula: the blind faith placed on ancient narratives, historical, biographical or philosophical, which is often compounded by a less than attentive reading of these narratives. This often results in an anachronistic reading of Caligula’s actions: in Angela’s documentary (mentioned above), the psychiatrist argues that a man like Caligula, who kept a list of people whom he wanted to kill (Suetonius, Life of Caligula, ch. 49), is insane. By that reasoning, the same would be true of most members of the Julio-Claudian family, including the often idolized founder of the clan, the emperor Augustus himself: in 43 BC, he, along with Marc Antony and Lepidus, complied a long list of prominent Romans targeted for execution, primarily to get money and eliminate political rivals. Was Augustus mad? A psychopath? And how does this fit with him being remembered also and primarily for his pietas (‘piety’) and his clementia (‘clemence’)?

Questionable pieces of information and stereotypical ideas of ‘bad emperors’ in ancient literature are unlikely to be of much help to modern efforts to find out who Caligula ‘really was’, much less do they provide a realiable basis for medical diagnoses of Caligula’s personality. It seems more promising to explore the nature of the information that we are dealing with in order to understand the cultural, political and literary influences on which the ancient image of Caligula was based. We need to understand poetics, as it were, of ancient biographical writing or, put differently, ancient biography as cultural discourse. The honest, but, to some, disappointing result of such an enquiry will be that we will never know whether Caligula was as cruel as the ancient narratives depict them: the historical Caligula was supplanted by a literary and cultural construct a long time ago. What we can do is attempt to understand better how ancient biographical writing worked so we can avoid the perils of confusing literature with historical facts. This will enable us to understand better what the ancients thought about Caligula. The Caligula we can access and understand is Caligula as part of ancient collective cultural memory: the ‘real’, historical Caligula, by contrast, has long been obliterated by ancient biography.


[1] Aired 6th November 2009 in the USA.

[2] Despite directed to a wide public, Beard’s documentary is the only one that tries to be careful with modern categorisation of Caligula and gives evidence of the ancient sources (archaeological, numismatic as well as literary) in a proper way.

[3] The TV- show is included in a DVD series called “Antica Roma. Storia di una super Potenza”. The episode, n. 8 of the series, is entitled “Caligola. La follia e il Caos”.