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4.0 out of 5 stars Caligula: A Biography, April 15, 2012
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This review is from: Caligula: A Biography (Kindle Edition)
In his newest book, Aloys Winterling argues against the claim of "imperial madness" leveled against Caligula by Suetonius, Seneca, Philo of Alexandria, Pliny the Elder, Flavius Josephus, Tacitus, and Cassios Dio by revealing their inaccuracies and inconsistencies and concluding these ancient historians pursued the "clearly recognizable goal of depicting the emperor as an irrational monster" by providing "demonstrably false information to support this picture of him and omit information that could contradict it."

As its history had shown, the idea of a monarch in Rome was anathema and, in order to be one, Augustus had to pretend at something he was not. Because the "Principate died with the princeps," each new ruler had to be proclaimed emperor by the army and confirmed by the senate. Inherent within Roman society and the system established by Augustus were familial rivalries that often involved groups of aristocrats and devolved into conspiracies. Tiberius "failed to manage the paradoxical situation" that Augustus had established - a monarchy overseeing a senatorial body without any real power - and Caligula was born into a world that "could not have been less suited to fostering humanity," full of intrigues and political machinations that left both his mother and brother dead.

Winterling uses only ancient sources and, while digging deep to reveal the inaccuracies in Caligula's story, he accepts at face value all of the horrors perpetrated by Tiberius. While I can allow the conclusions he reaches with Caligula, I find his treatment of Tiberius lacking, especially given that he establishes Caligula's cruelty as an outgrowth of the inhospitable nature of Tiberius's regime. Many ancient historians were writing far removed from, and with little understanding of the intricacies of, events that had transpired. In other instances they were more concerned with drawing parallels between the life of a contemporary and a historical figure. Winterling realizes this and, while adequately sussing out Caligula's life, he denigrates Tiberius's to do so.

Shortly after coming to power Caligula fell ill, and in this milieu plans were made for a successor in the event of his death. When he regained his health he had the plotters brutally killed, a "logical" choice since the chosen successor would now be a magnet for conspirators to the throne. Philo said of Caligula, "he being the stronger promptly did to the weaker what the weaker would have done to him. This is defense, not murder." His reign was plagued with conspiracies and, following another, Caligula responded by ending the "political paradox of the age, the contradictory combination of republic and monarchy," halting the Augustan Principate and declaring himself a monarch. Winterling argues that it was this - laying bare the disenfranchisement of a large, moneyed, and historically powerful group - that ultimately led to his assassination.

In his ancient books on medicine, Celsus identifies the two types of insanity recognized in Rome: in the first sufferers have delusions but unimpaired reasoning and in the second reasoning itself is disturbed, those who are declared insane and not legally responsible for their actions. If Caligula were insane then the whole of Rome would have been too, Winterling reasons, since his decisions were carried out and his instructions followed down to the lowest echelons. Appointing his horse to the Senate was not crazy, Caligula was simply showing that sole power rested with him and all others served by his grace alone. He did not believe himself to be one, but by wearing fancy dress and declaring himself a god he was showing the common people how absurd the senate was in worshipping him. Winterling argues that these "jokes," far from making Caligula appear crazy, made the senate look ridiculous.

Perhaps this assessment is true, but what does it say of Caligula to open himself up to such ridicule? And what does it say of him that he, unlike his two forebears (and, possibly, successor), was unable to handle the paradoxical world he found himself in? It was not uncommon to have people murdered or force them to commit suicide, as both Tiberius and Augustus did, but neither of them was accused of insanity or killed, even though Tiberius was so hated that the Senate attempted to expunge his memory. Both they and, most likely, Claudius, were able to navigate the ambiguities between senator and emperor. Even if Winterling is correct in arguing that Augustus and Tiberius never explicitly said that they were both monarchs and effectively sovereign, every senator knew this to be true.

Ultimately, Winterling seems concerned only with establishing Caligula's sanity and not why he was killed, which seems to have been a combination of his ineffectiveness in responding to the conspiracies against his life and navigating the cult of personality established by Augustus. While Winterling is effective in clearing up misinformation about Caligula, he either doesn't know or doesn't care to do the same with the other historical figures involved in his life. That said, I found this to be an extremely readable work of history (which, if you read history, you know how rare this accomplishment is) that, along with books such as Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths, makes us reconsider what we think we know about our history.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 25, 2012 7:24:57 AM PDT
Caligula did not make his horse Incitatus a senator. He is supposed to have said he would make the horse Consul. The remark was intended to be an insult to the sycophantic senate.

In reply to an earlier post on May 25, 2012 7:37:33 AM PDT
Jared Branch says:
Ok.
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