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on October 11, 2015
Caligula is commonly known as the mad, bad Roman emperor, who believed his horse should be a consul, and that was how his detractors wanted him to be known. Does one really get to be president of the world's greatest superpower if one is a madman? The reality, as posited by Prof. Winterling, is much more interesting: Caligula behaved as he did as a completely rational response to his predicament in the struggle for power against the aristocracy. He was neither mad nor unintelligent. Making his horse a consul, for example, was a calculated was of demeaning the aristocracy and weakening their power. It rubbed their nose in the fact that anyone or anything could be a consul, at the emperor's sole choosing, and it made fun of them in the eyes of the masses.
As well as being a good history, this book is an excellent study in power. Any head of department, entrepreneur, CEO or voter who has not yet learnt about power and how to hang on to it will gain from reading this book.
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on April 15, 2012
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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on June 8, 2014
The extant history of Caligula is a short list of infamous deeds. This book creates a plausible and highly readable account of events based upon the context of Roman society and culture of that time. What is fascinating is that the author argues that Caligula was not insane in the modern clinical sense but rather he yearned to create a monarchy with him as a Pharaoh or King and undermine and eventually render powerless the Roman Senate. Caligula's actions and deeds prank and jokes, almost all of them, were designed to humiliate and destroy the image of the Senate. His plans were to move the seat of power to Alexandria and govern from afar, but as we all know Caligula was brutally assassinated. In many areas of the text various possible explanations for various events are presented. Josephus and Suetonius and many other "reliable" sources are outed as being in the pocket of the aristocracy that was threatened to no end by Caligula. Perhaps Caligula was ahead of the curve and not quite different than other Roman tyrants, perhaps Caligula was correct to assume Rome needed a monarch, and perhaps Rome did tend to deify its emperors... Wonderfully written, with excellent and clear English translation this book also has extensive reference material if anyone wishes to compare Winterling's version with available sources, many of them ancient. My only criticism of the book is that it does in many ways gloss over the tyrannical aspect of Caligula's murder, torture and climate of fear he created during his reign. True, most of these were aimed at the aristocracy (people who have the power and resources to write and manipulate history)... nonetheless, this is a fascinating look at an emperor who wanted to be king. I think had he lived the Roman Senate would have been reduced to petty regional and city court proceedings and allocation of local funds and then perhaps at one point Caligula would have called for an insurrection to murder off the majority of the Senate. Knowing that this was their fate eventually they scrambled and found several of his guards to assassinate him. Caligula emerges as a bloody prankster, masterfully intelligent and worldly but truly capable to turn the tables on the aristocracy and Senate that killed his mother and and brother. His youth and adolescence are wonderfully described and also his rise to power is explained in a quite clear manner, given the available information. Overall, I felt the book was quite accurate and does not in any ways remove his tyrant status but does explain his actions as part of a plan to humiliate and usurp power from the Roman Senate he despised.
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on November 1, 2013
A quite interesting reading for those who like Roman history. In a very well fundamented narrative, Mr Winterling develops the idea that, nonetheless a cruel despot as other Roman emperors, before and after him, Caligula was far from being mad. In fact, information and anedoctes gathered from various contemporary sources, show him as a clever manipulator of the commoners and the aristocracy alike, though thru different means. His contempt for the aristrocats and sycophants, and his lack of confidence on the members of his entourage during the late years of his empire, was ultimately the cause of his assassination.
Very good reading, and a breath of fresh air on the life of this controversial historical figure.
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on January 8, 2014
I read a good bit in this area and the author makes a compelling case. I have always been troubled by the portrayal of Caligula in other books, both fiction and history. I Claudius comes to mind as an example. As usual truth is more interesting than myth. It never made sense to me that Tiberius would let him live out of some malice toward Rome itself. The fact that Caligula survived says something for his rationality. I do not want to spoil the thesis, but the author places Caligula's actions in a rational framework. The metacommunication between emperor and Senate was fascinating. Well done. And I am picky.
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on September 13, 2016
Oh, yeah, if you're interested in old Rome and Caligula, this is the book for you. I was rather surprised at some of the facts about him - different from what we had been told in history class. Very good book, enjoyable and well written.
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on January 5, 2014
Very interesting book. Examines Roman political culture and inconsistencies in historical texts to build arguments Caligua was not as "mad" (mentally ill) as classic historians want us to believe. Book's shortcoming is that it assumes readers know about Caligua. Good book for folks with basic understanding of the the Julio-Claudian emperors (Julius, Augustus, etc)
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on March 22, 2014
Overall, I thought this was a very good book and offered a different point of view of Caligula. For example, he wasn't a mad man and all of his actions were done on purpose to control the senate and keep them in place. The only negative part of the book is that I feel it was too short and wish it went in further detail about Caligula reign.
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on October 8, 2012
If you've heard any of the stories painting Caligula as nothing but a sadistic lunatic (maybe the one about him making his favorite horse a senator or the one where he marches his legions to the English Channel to collect sea shells), you'll enjoy the different perspective offered by this book. I really liked being able to put things into context and feel like I learned a lot about the emperor's life and times.
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on March 17, 2012
I am not a specialist in Roman history by any means, and came to this book looking for greater insight into both Roman culture and this specific emperor. This book did an exceptional job in both regards. My exposure to Caligula had been limited to "History channel" type presentations that focus almost exclusively on the "bizarre" and "shocking" aspects of his behavior (e.g., incest, arbitrary killings, raising himself to a deity). I knew that I was missing the context that would make such acts possible and perhaps even understandable. I hoped that this book would provide me with more detail and help me understand the culture that influenced the life and death of this notorious emperor. This book did! It is very well written, very informative, pleasantly argued, and thoroughly enjoyable.

The author is almost an apologist for Emperor Caligula. His thesis is that the Emperor was an intelligent and crafty individual whose behavior is understandable in the context of his goal, which was to undermine the Roman Senate and the Roman aristocracy in general. In a context in which the currency of success and conflict was social status, Caligula's "erratic" behavior becomes understandable. Appointing his horse to the Senate served as a way to mock the Senators and their quest for status while simultaneously demonstrating how truly inconsequential and impenitent they were. Reviving the maiestas trials in which Senators accused each other of conspiring against the Emperor and sentenced each other to death while professing great love for Caligula again served as a convenient way for Caligula to attack and humiliate the senators. Dressing as a deity and forcing the aristocracy to compare him to Jupiter further humiliated the aristocracy and exposed them as undeniable sycophants and liars. Mr. Winterling makes many excellent observations to bolster his arguments that seem persuasive to me as a novice on this topic. For example, the author observes that Caligula did not dress as a god outside of his contact with aristocracy at formal receptions, suggesting that he was not "crazy" and did not truly believe he was divine. It was instead an act that he put on at particular times for a specific purpose.

If there is a flaw in the book (and the reason why I gave it 4 instead of 5 stars), it is that Mr. Winterling seems to ignore information that does not fit his thesis. For example, aspects of Caligula's life that do not fit the narrative of the Emperor as an understandable and rational man are not discussed. The incest with his sisters isn't mentioned, despite its historical validity (I think. The author certainly doesn't argue it is historically invalid as he does with stories such as Caligula turning part of his palace into a brothel featuring the Senators' wives.) He is also willing to change his narrative to fit his purpose. At one moment, he talks about how the Roman legions in Germania may have mutinied against Caligula, observing that the men who served under his father and were around when he was a child had long since left the legions (p. 117). Later (p. 161) the author then says that Caligula used soldiers from the legions as bodyguards because their loyalty was assured by their memory of how Caligula grew up in their camp. The author can't have it both ways. Accounts of Caligula raping (or at least openly sleeping with) the wives of senators are also missing, despite my understanding that this is well established.

Overall, this is an exceptional book. I learned a lot from it. However, I also realize that there is more to the story than the author presents, and that a detailed knowledge of Caligula will require me to consult other sources.
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