No, You Have Not Found Caligula's Tomb

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Did Italian police uncover Caligula's tomb last week? That's the story that's been widely reported. But Mary Beard at The Times of London isn't having any of it. Here's what we know so far:

Last week, police arrested a thief near Lake Nemi, a body of water about 19 miles south of Rome. The thief was loading a big statue into his truck--a statue, reportedly, of the Roman emperor Caligula, who died in 41 AD.

The Guardian reports that "the statue is estimated to be worth €1m. Its rare Greek marble, throne and god's robes convinced the police it came from the emperor's tomb." The article goes on to say that the thief brought the police back to the site where he'd found the statue. This site is believed to be Caligula's tomb, and excavations are now underway.

So far, so good. But Mary Beard, classics professor at Cambridge and classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement, has a few questions she'd like cleared up. Like that statue, for example: "How do we know it was Caligula?" Beard wonders. "Because, they say, it was wearing the 'caligae' or sandals that gave the emperor his nickname (his 'real' name was Gaius)." But, as Beard puts it: "Errr? Aren't there loads of Roman statues that wear these?"

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Okay, well, what about this burial site? We know that Caligula had a villa near the present-day Lake Nemi. Isn't it possible that this is the emperor's final resting place?

Not really, says Beard:

Caligula was assassinated in his palace on the Palatine Hill in Rome in 41 AD. According to Suetonius' Life (chap 59), his body was taken to the horti Lamiani, the site of an imperial pleasure gardens on the Esquiline Hill. There he was quickly cremated and buried a light covering of turf. Later on his sisters returned, to cremate and bury it properly.

There is no suggestion whatsoever, so far as I know, that this burial was at Nemi, or that it was a grand tomb (the Latin just says "buried", sepultum). True, Caligula had a big villa there, but it is almost inconceivable that this assassinated symbol of imperial monstrosity would have been given a grand monument, plus a big statue there.

Besides there is no evidence for that whatsoever.

So, for now at least, the case for Caligula's tomb turns out not to be that strong. Then why is that headline popping up everywhere? Beard pointedly suggests that it's "because it makes a good story that gets a load of press coverage." The claim may be shaky, but journalists are piling on the bandwagon anyway. In other words, when in Rome, report as the Romans do.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.