The Wickedness That Was Rome

by Bernard Knox
CALIGULA: The Corruption of Power by Anthony A. Barrett. Yale University Press, $27.50.
CLAUDIUS by Barbara Levick. Yale University Press, $25.00.
PRESIDENT MITTERRAND’S recent description of Margaret Thatcher’s face—“the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe” — must have left most of his audience wondering what Caligula’s eyes looked like. (Suetonius says that they were “sunken” and Pliny that they were
“staring.”) As for the Prime Minister, whatever may have been her reaction to the second item, she was almost certainly taken aback by the comparison to Caligula, even though his favorite quotation from an early Latin poet—“Oderint dum metuant,” (“Let them hate, provided that they fear”)—might well serve as Thatcher’s political motto. But Caligula is the classic boogeyman of the Western historical tradition: a lustful, incestuous, murderous, sadistic, insane tyrant, who, not content to wait for the posthumous deification that had been decreed by the Senate for his predecessors Augustus and Tiberius, announced to his terrified subjects that he was a living god. Suetonius, our principal ancient source, starts his Life of Caligula with an account of the man’s political career and then proceeds, “So much for the Emperor; now I have to tell the story of the monster.” In 1945 Albert Camus put him on stage as a sort of existentialist hero, convinced by the death of his beloved sister Drusilla that life is a cruel, meaningless farce and determined to demonstrate the fact to his unfortunate fellow citizens. Robert Graves’s portrait of him in I, Claudius (1934) was later re-created in a television serial that had huge audiences on both sides of the Atlantic eagerly awaiting the next installment.
Caligula has had a bad press. Tacitus and Suetonius, the two historical writers nearest to him in time (but both born after his death, in A.D. 41), are representatives of an aristocratic, senatorial tradition bitterly hostile to the Julio-Claudians, the first five Emperors. The part of Tacitus’ Annals that dealt with Caligula’s four years in power has not survived, but it is clear from remarks in the extant portion that the historian’s judgment must have been severe; he quotes a contemporary’s comment on Caligula’s slavish subservience to his predecessor Tiberius— “there was never a better slave or a worse master.” As it is, the only full account of Caligula’s life and principate is that of Suetonius, a writer uncritical of his sources and, as Anthony Barrett puts it in Caligula: The Corruption of Power, one whose “main failing is not, apparently, that he fabricates material, but rather that he has a tendency to believe, or at least to record, the worst, and is unable to resist colourful anecdotes, especially if they reflect badly on his subject.” Barrett’s book was “undertaken without parti pris and without preconceptions”; it “does not attempt to rehabilitate Caligula.” Barrett offers “a reconstruction of events” but warns that the opportunities “to look beyond the events themselves and to identify significant trends” are limited; the reconstruction of events is itself, given the contradictions and omissions of the sources, often “hypothetical.”
The traditional image of Caligula as an insane monster has its weak points. As Barrett demonstrates in impressive detail, the provinces of the vast empire seem to have been the beneficiaries of orderly, stable government under Caligula, and he left the imperial finances in such good shape that his successor Claudius could abolish some taxes and launch expensive building programs. On the empire’s disputed frontiers, where the legions faced Germans across the Rhine and Parthians in the East, the status quo was maintained. Certainly Caligula savagely punished people he thought were conspiring against him (and most of them probably were), but the total of named victims was not a large one, and the popular reaction in Rome to his assassination was anger. Barrett suggests that the systematic blackening of Caligula’s name was a political necessity for his successor. For Claudius, who owed his position to the murder of his predecessor, it was “important . . . to promote the notion that Caligula had died, not because the imperial system was inherently evil, but because Caligula was an inherently evil emperor.”
The “imperial system,” developed by Augustus, had a built-in defect— the problem of succession. Augustus had engineered a situation in which, through control of the legions and his prestige as the restorer of peace after generations of civil war, he had a firm enough grip on power to share some of it with the senatorial aristocracy and maintain a fiction that he was merely princeps, first citizen, in a republic. Though he could designate a successor, it had to be a man experienced in office and adept in politics if the power base he had created was to be preserved. When he died, in A.D. 14, he had been in control of the Roman world for some forty years, but the members of his family who had been appointed to high office so that they could take his place had died before him one by one. For the last ten years of his life his stepson Tiberius had been associated with him in office, and just before Augustus died he made him co-regent, with instructions to designate as his successor his nephew Germanicus, the popular commander of the Rhine legions, who was also the father of Caligula. But Germanicus died five years after Augustus, and Tiberius, though a capable military officer and administrator, lacked the political skills that had enabled Augustus to keep the Roman aristocracy acquiescent in his supremacy. He left Rome for the island of Capri, where he spent the last ten years of his life, communicating with the Senate by letter—and suspecting, probably with good reason, conspiracies against him right and left. He abandoned the direction of affairs at Rome to his confidant Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, who proceeded to build a power base of his own.
The Praetorian Guard, an elite company established by Augustus for the protection of his person in Italy, were better paid than the men of the legions at the frontiers and were fiercely loyal to their master; they were to play the role of kingmaker in the years to come. Sejanus concentrated the guard’s units in barracks just outside Rome; he also filled military commands at the frontiers with his own nominees. He was clearly planning to establish himself as Tiberius’ successor, perhaps to supplant him. But Tiberius struck first. He instructed one of the officers of the guard, Sutorius Macro, to assume command and win the loyalty of the troops by offering a bounty; he then sent the Senate a long letter (“verbosa et grandis epistula,” Juvenal called it) that kept everyone, especially Sejanus, in suspense until in the final paragraphs it denounced him as a traitor. Sejanus was executed, and Tiberius named as his successors Caligula, son of Germanicus, and Gemellus, his own grandson.
When Tiberius died, on Capri, in A.D. 37, Macro, now Caligula’s man, submitted his master’s name to the Senate, which granted him full powers amid general rejoicing. Caligula began his career in office as an almost universal favorite in Rome, as he had been as a boy among his father’s soldiers on the Rhine. (“Caligula” is an affectionate nickname—“Bootsie”; the Roman equivalent of the G.I. boot was called caliga, and the general’s young son wore a diminutive pair of them specially made for him.) But the initial enthusiasm did not last long. Six months after he assumed power, he fell ill; after his recovery he seemed to be a different man, suspicious of conspiracy on all sides. The executions of the young Gemellus, his associate in power, and of Macro, who had paved the way for his accession, were the first of many. It now became clear that the Augustan accommodation was a thing of the past; the Emperor was an autocrat, not priticeps. A series of conspiracies, real or suspected, were punished with everincreasing severity until, in A.D. 41, Cassius Chaerea, an officer of the Praetorian Guard, killed Caligula as he made his way from a performance in the theater to lunch in the palace.
The consuls called a meeting of the Senate, which proceeded to act as if it were about to restore the republic. But the Praetorian Guard had decided otherwise. They took Caligula’s uncle Claudius to their barracks and saluted him as Emperor. The Senate soon came to its senses and accepted what it had not the power to oppose.
ON THE DETAILS of Caligula’s assassination our sources present a very confusing picture; both Barrett and Barbara Levick, in her book on Claudius, attempt to make sense of it. Both dismiss the account given by Suetonius and the much later Greek historian Dio Cassius that in the chaos following Caligula’s death—his German bodyguard ran amok and began killing indiscriminately—Claudius hid in a closet in the palace, where he was discovered by a Praetorian Guardsman who had the bright idea of taking him off to the barracks and proclaiming him Emperor. Claudius came to power, Suetonius says, “mirabili casu,” “by an astonishing accident.” Barrett comments on Claudius’ assumption of power within twenty-four hours of Caligula’s death: it was “an operation . . . so remarkably smooth that it provokes questions about the possible role of Claudius himself, or at least of those around him.” He comes to the cautious conclusion that Caligula’s death was the outcome of a conspiracy that involved many individuals acting from different motives and that “Claudius may or may not have been a party to such a plot from the outset.” Levick has a more positive and sophisticated interpretation. Claudius’ “precise role cannot be determined,” she writes. “Very likely it was kept indeterminate, his agents having to interpret or anticipate his wishes.” This was, as she says, a “technique, disreputable, essentially infantile, but useful . . . that of allowing others to act or engineering them into it, while the principal continues ‘ignorant’ of what is going on.” The technique has been “adopted,” as she says, “by others, among them Henry II of England” (the murder of Thomas à Becket) “and Elizabeth the First” (the execution of Mary Queen of Scots) “and by Reagan in the U.S.A. against Iran and Nicaragua.”
Claudius was an unlikely candidate for supreme power; he was “the ugly duckling of Augustus’ family.” He had some kind of physical defect—the symptoms have been described as the result of poliomyelitis or, more recently, as “cerebral palsy involving some degree of spasticity.” However, Claudius showed no sign of the epilepsy and mental retardation that in some cases may accompany cerebral palsy, Under Tiberius and Caligula he may have slyly exaggerated his apparent unfitness for high office; as a possible successor he would have been an object of suspicion and a focus for intrigue. Indeed, later, when he was Emperor, he claimed that he had saved his life under Caligula by pretending to be stupid. His formula for survival was to be “an attendant lord . . . Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;/At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—/Almost, at times, the Fool.”
He was none of these things. He was the most learned and intellectual of the Julio-Claudians. His early exclusion from active political life (Augustus feared that his mannerisms and physical awkwardness might bring discredit on the imperial family) left him leisure for literary pursuits. He wrote in Greek an Etruscan history in twenty volumes and a Carthaginian history in eight. In Latin he wrote a history of Rome that, according to Suetonius, began with the assassination of Julius Caesar and then skipped to the end of the civil wars and the establishment of the principate of Augustus, thus discreetly omitting such matters as the alliance of Octavian (not yet Augustus) with Mark Antony and their proscription of 43 B.C., in which more than 2,000 prominent Romans were murdered, the orator Cicero among them.
These were the pursuits of his years of isolation and neglect (though he continued to work on the Roman history when he became Emperor); his interest in these studies was genuine, but they were also part of his strategy for survival in the dangerous atmosphere of the imperial court, where superior capability or wide popularity might arouse the suspicions of Tiberius or, worse still, of Caligula. Claudius might have replied, if asked, like Sieves, what he had done during the Terror, “J’ ai vécu.” It was no mean achievement.
LEVICK QUOTES A statement by one of her teachers, C. E. Stevens, that “Claudius was the first Roman Emperor.”Perhaps Caligula has a better claim to that title, for it was to him that the Senate, overjoyed to welcome the son of Germanicus as successor to his grim and suspicious uncle, voted en bloc the powers that Augustus had so carefully disguised as legitimate—“a bundle of powers collected at different times, cemented by the authority of success, and reinforced by the ultimate sanction of force,” to quote Levick’s apt formulation. Barrett, in fact, blames the Senate for what happened:
To make an inexperienced and almost unknown young man, brought up under a series of aged and repressive guardians, master of the world, almost literally overnight, on the sole recommendation that his father had been a thoroughly decent fellow, was to court disaster in a quite irresponsible fashion. The Romans may have resented the subsequent burden of autocracy, but it was an autocracy largely of their own making.
The Senate granted Caligula absolute power in a burst of enthusiasm, but conceded it to Claudius with reluctant acceptance of superior force. Unlike his predecessor, however, Claudius held power long enough (A.D. 41 — 54) to consolidate and make use of it; his reign is distinguished by a number of impressive achievements. Not least among them is the conquest of Britain, in 43. Ever since Julius Caesar’s two incursions almost a hundred years earlier, Roman policy had been to maintain fictional dominion over and trade relations with the tribes on the British coasts opposite Gaul which had surrendered to Caesar. The powerful tribe of the Catuvellauni, farther inland, had of recent years, under its King Cunobelin (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline), cultivated friendly relations with Rome. But when Cunobelin died, sometime after 39, his sons Caratacus and Togodumnus moved against the coastal tribes, a direct challenge to the Roman requirement that the coasts of Gaul should be free of contact with independent peoples hostile to Rome. In 43 southern Britain was subdued in a short campaign for which Claudius arrived in person, with reinforcements and war elephants, to take part in the final advance and the occupation of Camulodunum (Colchester), the capital of the Catuvellauni. The conquest of the Midlands, the North, and Wales was to take many more years, but Britain was now part of the empire, and, as the archaeology of recent years has amply demonstrated, under several centuries of Roman rule it became a remarkably prosperous and civilized province.
This does not seem like the work of the clumsy stutterer portrayed in the biographical sources. The success of the campaign is of course due to the general in the field, but it was Claudius who appointed him and mobilized the resources of the empire in support. Though the Greek historian Appian, writing in the next century, claimed (in Levick’s words) that “Britain continued to be a drain on manpower beyond anything it could contribute in taxation or materials,” the conquest, to quote Levick (who tends to agree with those who think it was a mistake), was for Claudius “the greatest event of the reign, and one of his prime claims to rule.”
Claudius was also one of the great builders of Rome. He developed on a grand scale the port of Ostia, the destination of the ships that brought the grain of Egypt to feed the population of Rome. He repaired old aqueducts, including the one that brings water to the Fontana di Trevi, where tourists throw their coins, and built new ones, like the “Claudian aqueduct" that still, in its ruined state, towers over the Campagna beside the Via Appia Antica. Claudius also began the draining of the Fucine Lake, to provide rich arable land close to home, a project not completed until the nineteenth century.
His misfortunes stemmed from his private rather than his public life. He was, to use a Roman term of strong disapproval, uxorius—too fond of his wife, or, rather, since he had two in succession while he was Emperor, of his wives.
The first wife, Messalina, has become proverbial. But, though we can doubt the truth of Juvenal’s brilliant picture of her hurrying off, as soon as Claudius was asleep, to a downtown brothel where she took on all comers until closing time, there is no doubt that she did, while still married to Claudius, go through a form of marriage with a prominent member of the senatorial aristocracy, one Gaius Silius. This was probably part of a conspiracy that threatened Claudius’ power and perhaps his life, but Claudius could bring himself to deal with it, by executing both partners, only at the very last moment and at the stern insistence of his advisers.
Claudius’ second wife, Agrippina, was later to secure the succession for Nero, her son by a previous marriage, by enlisting the support of the commander of the Praetorian Guard. Claudius’ son by Messalina, Britannicus, who had an equal if not a better claim, did not long outlive his father, who died in 54. Agrippina may well, as our sources assert, have hastened the day of Nero’s accession by poisoning Claudius with a dish of his favorite mushrooms.
IN THESE TWO authoritative but highly readable books the defects and achievements of the two Emperors are assessed critically and with full exploitation of the nonliterary sources—epigraphical, archaeological, and, especially important, numismatic— that often throw light on or raise doubts about the evidence provided by the ancient writers. The result is a sober, balanced estimate.
And yet the lurid, half-legendary figures of the Julio-Claudian Emperors as we see them through the eyes of Suetonius and Tacitus haunt our imagination still; they are powerful images of what can happen when absolute power over vast regions is concentrated in the hands of one person. Faced with the most extravagant of the biographer’s tales—for example, that Caligula believed he was a god on earth, or that he built a bridge of boats, more than four kilometers long, over part of the Bay of Naples and then charged across it in a chariot, for no other reason than that Tiberius’ astrologer had said Caligula had no more chance of becoming Emperor than he had of riding over the Bay of Naples—we suspend belief.
Perhaps we do so too readily. For similar examples of megalomania and self-delusion in the minds of absolute rulers we have only to look at recent events in a country that was once a Roman province and still bears the Roman name. We have only to look at Nicolae Ceauşescu, who destroyed the historic center of Bucharest to build himself a huge palace, complete with tunnels for the rapid deployment of his Praetorian Guard, the Securitate; and at his wife, a high school dropout, who rebuked the tribunal that condemned her and her husband to death because it failed to treat her with the respect due to the president of the Academy of Sciences.