Before we proceed to the literature,
let’s get in the mood by watching a TV show.
That should give you a tiny idea of how shaky and fragmentary our knowledge is.
That’s Mary Beard, by the way, a Classicist.
Most people I meet talk only about rock stars, and prefer to talk while drunk, when they talk even more loudly about rock stars.
I enjoy meeting people who are like Mary Beard.
I am saddened that so few people I meet are anything at all like Mary Beard.
Sigh. Oh well, enough of that. Let’s get on with it.
Full disclosure: I have not read most of these. I shall. Someday.
Now that you’ve seen Malcolm McDowell do his giddy impersonation of the emperor,
you’re interested in learning the true story, right?
Scurrilous legends have come to be accepted as knowledge,
but it’s not impossible to read between the lines and make sense of some of the scurrility.
For the briefest overview, there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at
You may also derive some enjoyment from
(though I’m quite sure that the floating bridge was real,
and I’m quite sure that the Nemi barges were built long after his death).
There were numerous contemporary accounts of Gaius, but they have almost all vanished.
The few that have come down to us all have significant problems.
Gaius himself was quite a prolific orator, equally eloquent in Greek and Latin,
but the texts are gone without a trace; I presume they were disappeared at the same time he was.
The only surviving contemporary accounts are in no way objective,
as both authors were politically antipodal to the régime.
Their tales are undoubtedly true, and they reflect poorly upon the emperor, to say the least, but what are we missing?
Absent a miracle, we’ll never know.
I would imagine that we are missing the details of universal corruption and governmental dysfunction,
and that we are further missing even worse horror stories, as well as of mitigating factors.
I imagine also that, amidst all the commotion, were occasional acts of genuine charity,
along with occasional episodes of thoughtfulness and careful diplomacy.
I would imagine that the emperor bore more than a small resemblance to many of my previous employers.
That is all, alas, merely my imagination.
Philo of Alexandria
πρεσβείας πρὸς Γαίον
(On the Embassy to Gaius),
composed and published no earlier than 41CE and no later than 50CE.
Lucius Annæus Seneca (the Younger, circa 4BCE65CE),
De ira or
On Anger (I:20, II:23, II:33, III:18, III:20, III:21)
(dates of composition and publication uncertain, maybe 41CE).
And that’s it for the surviving contemporary sources.
Subsequent court historians were required to provide ample justifications for the assassination of Gaius.
That they did, and they took to their assigned task with great relish and glee.
Historians and annalists who were not of the court
had no particular love for those atop Palatine Hill,
and their works reflected that disenchantment — in spades.
Publius Cornelius Tacitus
(born circa 56CE, died probably sometime between 117 and 130CE),
Annales ab excessu divi Augusti or
(seemingly published after 117CE).
The Histories and the Annals together comprised 30 books,
and because of the fragmentary nature of the surviving manuscripts,
modern scholars are not always able to determine which fragment originally belonged to which work.
Books 16 concerned the 23-year reign of Tiberius, but there are gaps.
Books 710 concerned the 4-year reign of Gaius and the first 6 years of the reign of Claudius,
but these books are missing. (Book 7 was devoted to Gaius, and possibly also Book 8.)
Books 1112 concerned the remaining 8 years of Claudius’s reign, but the beginning of Book 11 is missing.
Books 1316 concerned the first 12 years of the 14-year reign of Nero.
Two and a half of these books are lost.
The only surviving references to Gaius are a few scant asides sprinkled here and there,
and they are as vicious as anything penned by Suetonius.
Is Tacitus’s work valuable? Yes, beyond measure. Is it trustworthy? Only within limits.
He had many axes to grind, and objectivity, in our sense of the word, was not a recognized concept in those days.
Two thousand years ago no writer, anywhere, wrote simply to record facts for posterity.
Writers wrote to score political points;
they retooled reality to make it conform with their ideas.
A modern analogy would be a politician’s platform speeches and public addresses;
if we were to rely solely on those works for knowledge about public affairs, we would know nothing at all.
Making matters worse, when details of any particular episode were missing,
writers would simply recycle an older tale of what may or may not have been a similar episode, and just change the names.
Two thousand years ago that was called “history.”
Nowadays it’s called fraud.
We need to bear in mind that in many languages, certainly in the Romance languages,
“history” (fact) and “story” (fiction) are represented by exactly the same word.
In Greek both are “ἱστορία.”
In Italian both are “storia.”
In French both are “histoire.”
In Spanish both are “história.”
In German both are “Geschichte.”
Not only are they the same word, they are the same concept.
English, surprisingly, generally demarcates the two concepts and ascribes to each a different word
(though not invariably, of course, as “story” can also be used to describe a true tale!).
Would an ancient Roman have been able to understand the difference? I tend to think not.
Getting back to Tacitus, he is also the most cold-blooded writer I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading.
I only got about half-way through the Annals before I found myself far too upset to finish.
I’ll force myself to get through his volumes someday. Someday.
To make things even more difficult,
Tacitus assumed that all his readers would be familiar with all the names, places, and incidents
that he mentioned so knowingly.
This was all shop-talk, and nobody outside a small select circle would understand any of it,
and that is why much of his text is simply impenetrable.
The only edition I know of that even attempts to add some glosses (though not nearly enough) is J.C. Yardley’s
English translation available from
Oxford World’s Classics, which has over 100 pages of endnotes followed by glossaries.
Now, Tacitus was effectively forgotten not long after his death,
and his works ignored.
In the late 1000s the Benedictine scribes at the monastery at Monte Cassino copied fragments of Books 1116,
and it seems that it was Giovanni Boccaccio who carried this copy to Florence in the 1300s.
Other fragments, this time from Books 16, were discovered in the Corvey Abbey in Germany in 1508.
Apart from scattered quotations in other works, those are the only two manuscripts known to survive.
Now we need to find the rest. I’m certain there’s more hidden away somewhere.
Has anyone scoured through Athos, Sinai, and other places of such ilk?
Who wants to initiate the search?
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (circa 69CE after 122CE),
De vita Cæsarum / On the Life of the Cæsars (published 121CE):
Books 58 (followed by The Lives of Illustrious Men)
I have long enjoyed classicist Oswyn Murray’s capsule assessment of Suetonius and the literary movement of which he was a part:
Perhaps the most neglected aspect of the classical tradition is the pornographic....
The classical tradition has usually functioned as a counter-culture and not least where sex is concerned.
Venus was the favourite pagan goddess of the Middle Ages,
and her cleric worshippers created the elaborate parody of Christianity
which was the art of courtly love.
It is not easy to penetrate the thoughts of the humble scribes who preserved classical literature for us,
unless they happen to be Boccaccio, the careful copyist of one of the two best manuscripts of the collection of Priapic poems
attributed to Virgil; but shadowy figures made and preserved the pornographic excerpts from Petronius,
and ensured that Juvenal and Martial were excessively widely known....
More reasonably, that obvious sexual counter-culture, homosexuality,
was virtually synonymous with Hellenism in certain late Victorian circles.
Luxury editions of the dubious classics have been a mainstay of the European book trade for centuries;
no gentleman’s library was complete without them.
I myself have worked in such a library, admiring the serried ranks of curiosa in their tasteful blue buckram,
collected by a German baron, and inhaling that true scent of fin de siècle decadence
which poor Huysmans was only able to imagine.
In our own schools until recently the earliest form of sex education was classical, not scientific:
many an innocent mind has taken its first faltering steps on the primrose path of classical scholarship,
deserting the crib (or rather deserted by it) when forced to translate unseen what the unkindly editor has left
“veiled in the obscurity of a learned language”;
in Don Juan Byron commends the useful practice of expurgating the text,
and placing the dirty bits in an appendix, “which saves, in fact, the trouble of an index”.
James Joyce records his debt to just such a good classical and Catholic education....
Now Suetonius was a dirty minded man, as is shown by the many editions of his works:
he lost his job as Hadrian’s private secretary for monkey business with the emperor’s wife.
His lives of the grammarians suggest that ancient schoolmasters gave a lot of their lessons in bed,
and one does not go to his lives of the poets for information about poetry:
Virgil, of course, was homosexual, and Horace distinctly given to orgies.
The Lives of the Caesars are not mainly about politics, which is probably as well,
since in style and mental capacity Suetonius has been unfavourably compared with
Of the twelve biographies, the Caligula is the most rancid...
(“Curiosa and curiosa,” TLS Times Literary Supplement,
Friday, 28 November 1980, p 1359).
Yet there is more to the argument, which gets remarkably subtle.
Unlike most ancient historians, Suetonius comprehends the value of primary evidence and eyewitness testimony,
which he invariably prefers to secondary sources, which he scorns.
To make his points, he quotes first-hand authorities verbatim.
Yet that hardly makes him objective.
Consider, for example, that last lawsuit filed against you.
Your opponent carefully gathered up your direct quotes, as well as the direct quotes of those closest to you,
put them together, seamlessly, with documents you penned in your own hand,
recordings of your private phone calls, and videos made with concealed cameras of your private life,
combined it all with incontrovertible evidence that established the context,
and thus painted you as a nefarious criminal of the first order, even though you were entirely innocent.
The case was so good that you yourself were almost convinced.
Carefully gathered facts, footnoted, exhibited, confirmed,
do not in and of themselves establish the overall truth of any matter.
Lawyers tell lies by assembling verified facts.
Politicians tell lies by having their staff researchers gather mountains of irreproachable evidence.
Raw data can be selected and arranged to tell any story you like.
To get to the bottom of a matter, though, to tell a story objectively, is a calling of a much-higher order.
This is where lawyers all fail, this is where politicians all fail, and this is where Suetonius failed utterly.
Fortunately we now have powerful tools that we can apply to his writings.
We can tease out some truth from reading between the lines with reference to other sources undreamed of two millennia ago.
Scriptores historiæ Augustæ (4th century CE):
Hadrian, Ælius, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Lucius Verus, Avidius Cassius, Commodus,
Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Septimius Severus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus
The Two Valerians, The Two Gallieni, The Thirty Pretenders, The Deified Claudius, The Deified Aurelian,
Tacitus, Probus, Firmus, Saturninus, Proculus, Bonosus, Carus, Carinus, Numerian.
Modern Histories and Biographies
History as a rigorous discipline is only a little over two hundred years old.
Though it is still in its infancy, we have learned a great deal about how to merge ethnography, linguistics, archæology,
astronomy, carbon dating, geology, anthropology, numismatics, spectroscopy,
and textual criticism to reveal layers of the past that had previously been invisible.
The irony is that now, two thousand years later, we know more about Gaius than those who were born the day after he died could ever have learned.
We still don’t know much, because, as mentioned above, most of the contemporary records were destroyed along with Tacitus’s account.
As sparse as the original sources are, modern scholars have been able to work some wonders with them.
Theodor Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, 3rd ed. (Leipzig: 1887):
Oh how I would love to read this, but it’s in a language I don’t speak and it’s never been translated.
Apparently Mommsen got the ball rolling by stating in this work that many of the legends were just that, legends.
He also implied, I think, that this was obviously so even on a first casual reading.
As far as I know, nobody had ever before asserted such a thing.
Ludwig Quidde, Caligula:
Eine Studie über römischen Cäsarenwahnsinn, (Leipzig: Verlag von Wilhelm Friedrich, 1894).
This was a remarkably popular 20-page pamphlet that added nothing to the scholarship,
as it was little more than a rehash of Suetonius.
Well, I speak too quickly.
Despite the author’s protestations to the contrary,
this pamphlet was a highly critical allegory about
Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The authorities attempted to imprison Quidde for treason,
but Quidde had veiled his satire so well by strictly following Philo, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius
that the charge couldn’t stick.
Shortly after the outbreak of World War I the Brits decided to have a fun time by publishing
an English adaptation by Claud Herbert Allwyne Field, but this time with a title that was rather less cryptic,
The Kaiser’s Double:
Being a Translation by Claud Field of the Celebrated Pamphlet Entitled “Caligula: a Study in Imperial Insanity”
(London: W. Riley, 1915).
This was once posted on
but it’s been taken down.
So here it is.
I have discovered that another copy is available at
the web site of the Public Library of the State of Victoria.
So I just now added the missing pages (cover and advertisements) to make a complete booklet.
Vita di Caligola, (Pavia: Premiata Tipografia Fratelli Fusi, 1901).
(right-click and save-as),
Klio: Beiträge zur alten Geschichte
(Leipzig: Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Theodor Weicher, 1903).
This was perhaps the first serious attempt to reassess Gaius’s reputation by critically examining the sources.
Unfortunately I’m incapable of reading it, and there’s never been a translation.
More unfortunately, as we learn below, Willrich’s work is problematic to the nth degree.
Whatever else we may think, though, there’s no denying that Willrich broke a new path.
Erster Teil, pp 85118
Zweiter Teil, pp 288317
Dritter Teil, pp 397470
If you can interpret this aloud for me, please contact me!!!
I don’t need an exact, refined, polished translation, just a rough-quick-and-dirty idea.
Hey, I’ll pay.
Caligola, (Milano: Casa Editrice L F Pallestrini & C, 2º ed., 1906).
Matthias Gelzer, “Iulius 133 [Caligula],”
Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft vol. 10.1 (1918), pp. 381423.
Bubi Caligula 2nd ed. (Vienna, 1932).
According to Balsdon, this is simply a repeat of Suetonius, but this time couched in psychoanalytical terms.
John Percy Vyvian Dacre Balsdon, The Emperor Gaius (Caligula) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934).
This is by far my favorite one so far. Yes, it’s got some major problems, but it’s so much fun!
Having heard about Willrich, Balsdon decided to replicate the experiment.
He refused to read Willrich’s work until he himself had performed his own critical examination of the classical texts.
It was only after he wrote his first draft that he decided to read Willrich’s massive essay,
and in many ways the two dovetailed.
In significant ways they also diverged.
Balsdon’s conclusions are quite breathtaking.
Though various interested parties have dismissed this book as a whitewash, it is anything but.
It is a careful reading of not only Suetonius, Tacitus, and Cassius Dio, but also of inscriptions, coins, papyri, and archæological studies.
The resulting Gaius bears nearly no resemblance to the popular caricatures.
Oh, and speaking of caricatures: Balsdon casts doubt on the various marble busts and sculptures that are assumed to be of Gaius.
He suspects that they belong to a different Gaius.
He also points out that the Nemi ships, widely supposed to have been built on Gaius’s orders, were found lying atop ruins of later regimes.
So much for received wisdom.
I strongly recommend this book.
Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford: 1939).
Dieter Timpe, “Römische Geschichte bei Flavius Josephus,” Historia 9 (1960), pp 474502.
Hellmut Flashar, Melancholie und Melancholiker in den medizinischen Theorien der Antike (Berlin: 1966).
E. Mary Smallwood, Documents Illustrating the Principates of Gaius, Claudius and Nero (Cambridge: 1967).
Eckhard Meise, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der julisch-claudischen Dynastie (Munich: 1969).
Rudolph E. Siegel, Galen on Psychology, Psychopathology, and Function and Diseases of the Nervous System:
An Analysis of His Doctrines, Observations and Experiments (Basel: 1973).
Caligula; ou, le pouvoir à vingt ans (Paris: 1975).
This was Franco Rossellini’s personal favorite interpretation of Gaius,
but, again, I am incapable of reading it. Perhaps this was mere coincidence,
but almost simultaneous with Franco’s 80-print Italian
reissue of Io Caligola in September 1984 was the October 1984
release of Sereni’s Italian translation of Auguet’s book,
Caligola o il potere a vent’anni, published by Editori Riuniti.
Barbara Levick, Tiberius the Politician (London: 1976).
Paul Veyne, Le pain et le cirque: sociologie historique d’un pluralisme politique (Paris: 1976).
Richard P. Saller, Personal Patronage under the Early Empire (Cambridge: 1982).
Keith Hopkins and Graham P. Burton, “Ambition and Withdrawal: The Senatorial Aristocracy under the Emperors,”
in Keith Hopkins, Death and Renewal: Sociological Studies in Roman History vol. 2 (Cambridge: 1983), pp. 120200.
Richard J. A. Talbert, The Senate of Imperial Rome (Princeton: 1984).
Daniel Nony, Caligula (Paris: 1986).
Peter Garnsey and Richard P. Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (London: 1987).
Anthony A. Barrett, Caligula: The Corruption of Power (London: 1989).
This book has been sitting on my shelf for a decade now,
and my initial thumbings reveal a notable work, filled to the brim with details.
In 2014 I finally began to attempt to read it.
Though the details are all delicious, the writing style is confused and torturously dull.
Fortunately, Barrett recognized the faults and in 2015 published a second, corrected edition,
appropriately retitled Caligula: The Abuse of Power (Routledge: 27 March 2015).
This new edition looks most promising,
and you can see a preview here on Google Books.
Unfortunately, the price is nearly prohibitive: $170. Sheesh! What were they thinking? Surely
Amazon and other sellers will offer small discounts,
but with a price like that, only a handful of university libraries will ever make the purchase.
Well, only a handful of universities — and me.
I bought one. Haven’t had time to read it yet. Shall do so in the foreseeable future.
Dierich Boschung, Die Bildnisse des Caligula (Berlin: 1989).
Anthony A. Barrett, Agrippina: Mother of Nero (London: 1990).
Barbara Levick, Claudius (London: 1990).
Christian Meier, “C. Caesar Divi filius and the Formation of the Alternative in Rome,”
in Kurt A. Raaflaub and Mark Toher eds, Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and His Principate
(Berkeley and Los Ángeles: 1990), pp. 5470.
Arther Ferrill, Caligula: Emperor of Rome (Thames & Hudson: 1991).
By now you all know the tired saying so beloved of Evangelicals:
“God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
Ferrill is, I guess, a Classical fundamentalist. “Suetonius said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
If Ferrill had simply provided solid reasons for accepting Suetonius’s narrative,
my complaints would diminish almost to nothing.
Alas, he has no reason. He simply chooses to believe that Suetonius was entirely reliable and objective, end of story.
One of the most worthless books I’ve ever had the displeasure to read, filled with offensive and inaccurate mockings of previous scholars.
you can read an excerpt from the Library Journal:
“On the whole, Ferrill’s work contributes nothing new to understanding Caligula or his brief reign
and is not much more than a superficial biography based on hostile ancient sources such as Suetonius.
If the book has any value, it is the simplicity with which Ferrill presents Caligula’s family history.
Perhaps this will appeal to informed laypersons. Academic libraries can skip.”
Also on that same Amazon page is an excerpt from Kirkus Reviews:
“Feels padded even at 184 pages, and Ferrill’s dismissiveness of others grates and does not make for happy reading.”
Fergus Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World (31BCAD337) 2nd ed. (London: 1992).
H. C. Erik Midelfort, Mad Princes of Renaissance Germany (Charlottesville and London: 1994).
Dietmar Kienast, Römische Kaisertabelle: Grundzüge einer römischen Kaiserchronologie, 2nd ed. (Darmstadt: 1996).
Zvi Yavetz, “Caligula,
Imperial Madness and Modern Historiography,” Klio 78 (1996), pp. 105129.
Oh I really like this one too.
Yavetz takes strong exception to Balsdon, Barrett, Winterling, and all the revisionists.
Since, stupid American that I am, I cannot speak German,
I am most grateful that he does us the kindness of briefly summarizing Hugo Willrich’s 1903 publication.
Until running into Yavetz’s essay,
I had been entirely unaware that Willrich was a strong proponent of autocracy,
regarded democracy with revulsion, and was vehemently antisemitic.
While such ad hominem criticisms may not be relevant in evaluating the merits a scholarly work,
in this particular case Yavetz proves that they are supremely relevant indeed,
for those attitudes tainted Willrich’s reconstructions and conclusions from start to finish.
Yavetz’s brief article is every bit as important as Balsdon and Winterling.
I have but two objections to Yavetz’s thesis:
I don’t find that Balsdon, Barrett, or Winterling were in any way whitewashing Gaius’s reputation,
and I doubt their motivations were what Yavetz supposes they were.
They were just reading critically ancient sources that have a great many credibilty problems,
trying as best they could to tease out any hints of another side to the story.
John E. Lendon, Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (Oxford: 1997).
Aloys Winterling, Aula Caesaris: Studien zur Institutionalisierung des römischen Kaiserhofes
in der Zeit von Augustus bis Commodus (31 v. Chr.192 n. Chr.) (Munich: 1999).
Reinhard Wolters, “Die Organisation der Münzprägung in julisch-claudischer Zeit,”
Numismatische Zeitschrift 106/107 (1999), pp. 7590.
Frank Kolb, Herrscherideologie in der Spätantike (Berlin: 2001).
Matthew B. Roller, Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome (Princeton and Oxford: 2001).
Edward Champlin, Nero (Cambridge MA and London: 2003).
Sam Wilkinson, Caligula (London and New York: 2005).
Rolf Rilinger, “Domus und res publica: Die politisch-soziale Bedeutung des aristokratischen Hauses’
in der späten römischen Republik,” in Ordo und dignitas: Beiträge zur rümischen Verfassungs- und Sozialgeschichte
(Stuttgart: 2007), pp. 105122.
Geoff W. Adams, The Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula’ and His Hellenistic Aspirations
(Boca Raton: Brown Walker Press, 2007).
Haven’t yet had time to read this, but I have thumbed through it.
Looks brilliant, except that he dismisses Winterling’s book without having read it. Oops.
He’s also rather cavalier about Balsdon, criticising his work for being biased in favor of the emperor.
That, in my opinion, is terribly unfair.
Aloys Winterling, “Cäsarenwahnsinn in Alten Rom,”
in Jahrbuch des Historischen Kollegs 2007 (Munich: 2008), pp. 115139.
Vasily Rudich, “On
the Reputation of Little-Boots,” Digital Sculpture Project: Caligula (2009).
This is a marvelous essay that a friend in Antwerp brought to my attention.
Rudich admittedly owes a great deal to Zvi Yavetz, and even apologizes for writing a piece that would prove redundant,
but he does us the favor of going one step further.
Unlike Ferrill, who simply took the trustworthiness of Suetonius’s tales as a given,
Rudich gives solid reasons for taking much of Suetonius’s text more or less at face value.
Now that’s something I hadn’t run across before, and he makes a powerful argument.
Aloys Winterling, Politics and Society in Imperial Rome (Oxford: 2009).
Aloys Winterling, Caligula: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).
Brilliant recapitulation of Balsdon and Barrett, but beautifully distilled and rethought.
Though I’m growing doubtful of some of the claims, this is still a first-rate study.
Put this together with Balsdon’s book, temper it with Yavetz, and you’ll be way ahead of the game.