Caligula vs. Caligula

Forward

     Join me on a road never before traveled. I am going to explore the differences between Caligula and Caligula. The first Caligula is the real life man - the one of legends. I will dissect his life down to a few pages of facts and cut through the enigma that is his life. Myths and stories will be pushed aside to explain what he was really like and how it really was back almost 2000 years ago. Afterwards I will re-examine one of the most infamous movies in history, Caligula (1979) which contains Malcolmís second greatest cult performance. This will be a study, a summary and a review all rolled up into one neat package. Then I will compare the movie myth and real life story and see how close Penthouse came to the truth they said they portrayed. So take my hand and we will begin our historical journey and learning experience about the differences between truth and what is believed to be true. Donít ever be afraid to learn new things.

Caligula - God of the People

     He was born Gaius Caligula in the year 12 AD, son of Germanicus, a military leader who was one of the most loved Romans of all early times. It would be hard to compare Germanicus (literally conqueror of Germany) to anyone today. Think of how people in the US felt about Schwarzkopf ten years back, or MacArthur 50 years ago. The United States has always held military leaders in high regard and early Rome was no different.
     Very little was know about Caligulaís early days because even though he was a direct descendant of Augustus he wasnít related to the present Emperor, Tiberius. Only immediate members of the emperorís family would have been widely known by the public. His father died when he was young and a massive funeral combined with great public mourning occurred. He was said to have died naturally, but may in fact have been poised by his wife, but that can only be debated. His death was a devastating blow to the Roman people who loved him so. There would always be a deep sympathy and hope for the young Caligula to turn into Germanicusí successor, which is why he was so embraced. The current Emperor Tiberius had been in power for as long as many people could remember. At this point in time he was getting very old and increasingly cut off from the people. Many couldnít wait to see him go and would have loved to see Germanicus replace him, however unlikely. This would not happen until 37 AD.
     Caligula become known as a great orator, even giving a moving eulogy at his fatherís funeral at the tender age of seven. He never lost this gift and the only times we know about his early days were the times he made speeches, because they made such an impact. Because of this, he remained influential to the people until his death. We know that he was a sickly child suffering from many stomach problems and even epilepsy. In his adult life he was an insomniac, but it is unknown that this or any other traits had manifested in his youth.
     An ambitious senator and advisor named Macro saw an opportunity to increase his power by grooming Caligula to be Tiberiusí successor. The main problem was that Tiberius had a son who was an idiot, but because of his royal heritage was destined to take the throne at his fatherís death. Macro was correct in that the people would embrace Caligula, but paid the ultimate price for this. In 37, Tiberius finally died. The senate was able to have his will annulled and therefore was able to get Macroís protťgť, Caligula, in as the emperor instead of Tiberiusís son, Gemellus. It was out with the old and in with the new, literally. It was the classic mistake, take someone young and popular with the people, but with no experience and give him the world and expect to be able to control and mold him.
     For the first six months of Caligulaís reign, it looked like they had made a wise decision. He did everything right and was the perfect ruler. The Emperor won the admiration of the people and the senate. He released all the political prisoners and abolished the sales tax. Caligula threw out many of the hated laws implemented by Tiberius. He sought approval of the senate and vowed to work together with them to get everything done. He didnít act on his own or become a dictator. He started and completed building projects as well as establishing more holidays and races to entertain the people. In fact he worked so hard to do everything right that it made him sick.
     Six months of constant hard work took its toll on a man who never worked in his life. He was bed ridden with exhaustion. For a time it looked grim and people were devastated. Here was the return to the glory days of Rome cut short after only six months. It was very common for people to never recover from illnesses back then so the people began to camp out in front of the palace waiting for any news of his health, businesses closed down and it was a very somber time which would last over a month.
     His illness would not prove fatal, at least not to him. Others would be disposed of including Macro. He had outgrown his usefulness and Caligula was also bothered that things were able to run smoothly without him. The illness sparked a change in Caligula that he would never return from. He became more dictatorial, he had people executed (Romans preferred forced suicide) that got in his way. He would no longer be a lackey for the senate. The people who felt this was the right way met his actions with approval.
     Caligula wanted to produce an heir. He married in 33 and after a few years when he had not received an heir he chose a new wife. It didnít matter if she was married to someone else or pregnant at the time. He was Emperor and above all, this was common practice. In 37 he remarried and was soon divorced. He remarried again in 38 and once again produced no child, so he got rid of her as well and was remarried for the last time in 39 to Caesonia, who would produce his only child, a daughter Drusilla.
    Caligula was very fond of his three sisters, most especially Drusilla. He gave them the highest honor by naming them Vestal Virgins and even having their likeness imprinted on a coin. No emperor had ever done anything like this before. After the death of Drusilla in 38 he was totally devastated. He was closest to her and loved her more than anything. Llosing her as well as his parents he must have felt truly alone. If there was any chance of him coming back to the way he was in the beginning it was gone forever. He paid Drusilla the highest honors, making her the first Roman consecrated as a Goddess. He dedicated a festival to her, made her birthday a holiday and had statues made for her. All of this was unheard of in those times.
     The senate was happy to sit around and get nothing done during his reign, but resented Caligula for denouncing them and stripping away their powers while adding to his own. They only had themselves to blame. After all, they pushed him through and should have realized what they were getting into. The title of emperor translated into being the only one on Earth who has a direct link from the gods to the people. Being emperor was to enjoy a godlike status. He was also made a high priest and was constantly being bestowed with powers by the senate. What did they expect by giving him godlike powers? How surprising is it that he would act like a god given the power to? After all you canít tell a god what to do, so why should he listen to them?
     Caligula considered himself one of the people. He certainly related to them more then the royalty and the senate. He preferred the company of actors and gladiators than of the elite. This ensured the respect of the people. In 39 he became the first Emperor in over 50 years to leave Italy and visit the Roman provinces. Also he set in motion plans for the conquering of Germany and England. Though he did not completely succeed he paved the way for the next emperor to conquer England.
     While he was away, a large conspiracy to overthrow and murder Caligula was put down by him. Many were executed or forced to commit suicide including Lepidus, Caligulaís homosexual lover. Also General Gaetulicus who was in charge of 10 legions in Germany, possibly the most powerful man in the empire behind Caligula was killed. This would prevent any mutiny on his part. Also many rich people were killed for their possessions. His aim probably wasn't to really conquer, but to attempt to live up to his father's name.
     In 40 he returned to a heroes welcome. He was seen as very strong for being able to put down the conspiracy against him. It was at this time that his personality traits got him in trouble with the rich and powerful. He was high strung and nervous which led him to be very suspicious of those around him. Maybe they were still plotting against him he thought, so he couldnít afford to trust anyone. He was an insomniac and would drive senators crazy by awakening them at all hours to talk to because he couldnít sleep. 
    He was arrogant and foolish. Caligula would give huge sums of money away without much thought. Anyone who served him faithfully could look forward to receiving huge amounts of money. His relatives all prospered under him. He would spend it on lavish objects or building projects. To make money he would auction off his own items or booty and loved to play the auctioneer. He became the first person to tax whores, even if they tried to escape by marrying their pimps. He was very cruel and sarcastic. He was probably the first leader with a really wicked sense of humor who loved to piss people off. He would make fun of anyone and anything including himself, much to the annoyance of the senators because of the humiliation they took from him. He loved jokes in bad taste, like saying his horse could do as good a job as the senators. Caligula constantly denounced the senate since he considered himself one of the people. If a senator even disagreed with him he might be killed, but if a common person insulted him it didnít bother him.
     In early 41 it all came to a crashing halt. His assassination was planned in January during the Ludi Palatini festival. He was planning on putting on a performance of some kind and was talking to some actors in a passageway on the way up to the stage when it happened. It was a small, secluded area. He was asked for the password which he always gave a sarcastic answer to, like they didnít know who he was. Then the guard who asked him stabbed Caligula in the chest, but he did not die. He was then stabbed from behind and jumped by many that would stab him over thirty times before fleeing. Soon after the assassins murdered his wife and daughter. His German bodyguards, enraged, then jumped in and slaughtered as many of the assassins as possible. The people were extremely upset about his murder and demanded revenge. They crowded around the palace demanding the assassin. The rich and powerful were really the only ones who hated him and they were in danger of bearing the wrath of the people until they named Caligulaís uncle as the next emperor. Only after his death were the many negative and crazy statements about him spoken in attempts to discredit him. The picture they painted of him was of an evil man gone insane with power and corruption who had to be stopped. The senate needed to make themselves look good and make Caligula take the fall. This is why many of the things most people associate with him Ė madness, syphilis, incest, etc. are just not true.
     He might not have been the best ruler, but he was far from the worst and was genuinely loved by his people because he felt closer to them than the rich. This was a decidedly different change from the tired old regime of Tiberious, whom the people were truly glad to see go. He set out to be the best emperor and wound up falling into the corruption just like any politician would. The truth is that his reign of less than four years doesnít really deserve half the attention it gets when emperors who ruled far better or far longer have been mostly lost through history. I think he receives the attention he does because of all the wild stories and mystery that surrounded him, because of this Caligula will forever be an enigma.

Now continue your journey to the Caligula Movie page.

This page © 1998-10 Alex D. Thrawn for www.MalcolmMcDowell.net