Biographies & Memoirs


Five Months of Monarchy


On his twenty-eighth birthday, 31 August A.D. 40, Caligula reentered Rome after a year’s absence and was greeted with an ovation. We can glean only indirectly what had occurred in the city during the preceding months, after the emperor’s open threats. Those days must have resembled the end of Tiberius’s reign. In his time, denunciations, accusations, trials in the Senate, torture, and executions had been the order of the day. Now the question was: How would the young emperor deal with the senators in Rome, after everything that had happened in the previous year? He had staged a public demonstration of his role as sovereign ruler, independent of Republic and aristocracy, by riding horseback over the sea. How would he now impose his authority in the venerable capital of the Empire, where the Senate and the aristocracy were inescapably present? The fears of the Roman nobility are reflected in the claim (reported by several sources) that after his return Caligula planned to eliminate the entire Senate or the most distinguished men of both the senatorial and the equestrian orders.


Figure 5. Bust of Caligula. Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek 637 (Inv. 1453).

The emperor did indeed rely on fear and violence, but he employed them in his own characteristic manner. Whereas Tiberius had stood helplessly by as the aristocracy destroyed itself in the trials for maiestas, Caligula promoted the disintegration of Rome’s noble society and used it to his own advantage. He let the aristocracy do itself in. The events are reflected in the accounts of the sources, which claim several times that baseless executions of senators and high-ranking knights at the emperor’s instigation were becoming the order of the day. Strangely, however, these reports mention only a few victims by name, and investigation of the individual cases exposes the tendentiousness of such a sweeping judgment.

Seneca reports that after a long argument with the Stoic philosopher Julius Canus the emperor ordered his execution, for which the philosopher mockingly offered his thanks. The condemned man spent the ten days until his death perfectly calmly, playing board games and discussing philosophical questions. There is some evidence that that the emperor did not order his execution on a whim, however, for a later source notes that Caligula had accused Canus of being an accessory to a conspiracy against him. Tiberius had attempted to rein in the Senate’s zeal for maiestas trials by introducing a requirement that ten days must elapse between sentencing and execution. The circumstances therefore suggest that Canus was formally accused of conspiracy and sentenced to death by the Senate.

There is less clarity in the case of Julius Graecinus’s death, which also appears to fall in this period. Seneca claims that Caligula killed him because he was too good a man to be of use to a tyrant. Graecinus was the father of Agricola, Tacitus’s father-in-law. In Tacitus’s biography of Agricola he is depicted as an example of steadfast conduct in the face of the emperor, so lacking in Rome at that time. A noted orator and philosopher himself, Graecinus had refused to prosecute Marcus Silanus and was for that reason eliminated by Caligula, as Tacitus reports. Silanus had died by his own hand near the start of 38, however, while according to Tacitus’s account Agricola was born on 13 June of Caligula’s third consulship, in 40 (and apparently at a time when his father was still alive). Whatever the reason for Graecinus’s death, then, it cannot have been a steadfast refusal to prosecute Silanus.

The only reported instance of courage and strength of character in the autumn of 40 that stands up to closer examination involves not a senator, but a freedwoman, to whose case Caligula responded with pity rather than cruelty. According to Cassius Dio, a high-ranking senator named Pomponius was accused of conspiracy by a friend named Timidius; in Josephus’s version of the incident, the charge was maiestas and Timidius an enemy of the accused. (At that time, of course, it was difficult to tell one from the other.) Timidius named as his witness Quintilia, an exceptionally beautiful actress with whom Pomponius was having a love affair. Cassius Chaerea, an officer of the Praetorian Guard, tortured Quintilia so badly that afterwards she was permanently disfigured, but she neither denounced her lover (if he was innocent) nor betrayed him (if he was not). When she was brought before the emperor he was touched by her appearance and impressed by her behavior. He released Pomponius and gave Quintilia a present of 800,000 sesterces for her steadfastness.

Indeed not only were the senators denouncing one another in order to voice their ostensible fear for the emperor’s safety and thereby to procure personal advantage for themselves. Some sought to strike anew, to transform their pent-up hatred for the emperor into action. A third conspiracy of aristocrats against Caligula took shape, although in the end it was no more successful than the first two. According to Seneca, one night in the lamplight of a festive gathering attended by ladies and other senators, Caligula had three men beaten with whips, tortured, and brutally killed for his “amusement.” They were Sextus Papinius, whose father had been consul; Betilienus Bassus, an imperial quaestor and the son of an imperial procurator; and an unnamed senator. Before their execution they were gagged so that they could not utter rebukes. Centurions went to the houses of the victims’ fathers that same night and killed them as well.

From the parallel account of Cassius Dio it emerges that these executions were not arbitrary sadism on the emperor’s part but rather swift measures to defeat the new conspiracy. Dio mentions that a certain Anicius Cerialis (whom he mistakenly considers a victim) was involved. This same man is mentioned by Tacitus in a different context, where there is no reason to suspect unreliability; there the author says that during the reign of Nero he attracted attention through his exceptional opportunism: After the Pisonian conspiracy of 65 he brought forward in the Senate the motion that a temple to the divine Nero should be erected at public expense. Not long afterward he was charged with crimes himself and committed suicide; few people pitied him, Tacitus reports, since they remembered that he had once betrayed a conspiracy against Caligula. Seneca’s account, written shortly after Caligula’s death, is thus revealed once again as tendentious and denunciatory, because he leaves out the conspiracy to which the emperor was reacting. Furthermore, in his effort to paint the aristocracy as the emperor’s helpless victims, Seneca suppresses a senator’s role in betraying the conspirators, a betrayal still recalled in Rome a quarter of a century later.

An episode that appears credible precisely because it is reported in aristocratic sources documents the disintegration prevailing within the senatorial order after the exposure of a third conspiracy, and how Caligula made use of it. After Papinius and Bassus had been executed, Caligula called the Senate into session and granted the remaining members impunity, adding that there were only a few toward whom he still bore ill will. Naturally this only increased the level of fear and uncertainty among those present. During a later session of the Senate that Caligula did not attend, Protogenes, the emperor’s confidant, who kept the books for him on the conduct of the aristocracy, entered the building. As the senators were greeting him and shaking his hand, he gave the senator Scribonius Proculus a sharp look and asked him, “Do you, too, greet me, when you hate the emperor so?” (Dio 59.26.2).

During the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius a person accused of hostility toward the emperor had usually met a swift demise, since either he was prosecuted by opportunistic fellow senators and sentenced to death by the Senate as a whole or he committed suicide. In this instance the senators fell to work immediately without waiting for formal procedures; according to Dio they surrounded their colleague in the Senate House itself and tore him to pieces. Suetonius reports that Proculus was stabbed with pens and ripped apart; his limbs and entrails were then dragged through the streets and piled up before the emperor. Suetonius claims that Caligula incited certain individuals to this savagery, without mentioning that they were senators; he does not deny, however, that all the others joined in. In any case, the scene manifests the senators’ fear of reprisals and at the same time their utter lack of scruples, up to and including murder, each man prepared to save his own skin at the others’ expense. Certainly the emperor had a part in the staging of the affair. He exploited aristocrats’ willingness to tear one another to pieces—in this instance literally—for his own purposes, without having to get his hands dirty.

“Gaius showed pleasure” at the death of Scribonius Proculus, Dio reports, and declared that he had become reconciled with the senators. In response “they voted various festivals and also decreed that the emperor should sit on a high platform even in the very Senate House to prevent any one from approaching him, and should have a military guard even there” (Dio 59.26.3). The fact that the emperor needed a guard in the Senate (a measure to which Augustus had also had recourse in precarious situations, and which the Senate had once offered to Tiberius) shows that the dominant mood after what was now the third conspiracy within a year and a half was in fact anything but conciliatory. At the same time the senators’ decree documented once more the absurdity of the paradoxical communication between the emperor and the aristocracy. In one and the same resolution the Senate revealed both its concern for the emperor’s safety and the fact that the threat to his life stemmed from its own members, from the same people who had voted the resolution.

The military guard now posted in the Senate was not the sole consequence of the conspiracy. Behind the facade of reconciliation the emperor increased his pressure on the aristocracy, creating even more fear. Josephus reports that Caligula permitted slaves to bring charges against their masters at that time, and to his satisfaction they made copious use of the privilege. If one remembers that a high-ranking aristocrat might have several hundred slaves in his palace in Rome and that some masters were anything but humane in the exercise of their authority (which included the right to kill), it is not hard to imagine how alarmed the nobility must have felt. Now they were not safe from betrayal or denunciation even in their own homes. Any unguarded conversation could be dangerous, and their own servants could turn them in.

It must be said that this measure was not Caligula’s invention, as Josephus suggests. In Tiberius’s reign Sejanus had ordered slaves and freedmen to be tortured as a way of obtaining evidence against their masters, and two years later Claudius too used the denunciation of slaves and freedmen against their masters as a means of revealing the background of the first conspiracy against him. Now, during Caligula’s reign, Claudius became a victim of the tactic. A slave of his named Polydeuces denounced him, but without success. Josephus writes that Caligula appeared at Claudius’s trial, hoping (in vain) that his uncle would be sentenced to death. It is an open question whether this is true, but the report does indicate that the emperor had no direct influence on the outcome of trials: Once again he left it to the senators to condemn one another.

But that was not all. Suetonius reports, without giving a date, that the emperor sought to increase his revenues not only by establishing certain new taxes, but also by opening a brothel on the Palatine Hill and making Roman matrons, that is, married women, and freeborn boys available in rooms whose elegant furnishings betokened the dignity of the place. Then he sent his nomenclators to all the markets and public halls to invite young and old to come and satisfy their desires. Allegedly customers could borrow money at interest, and the emperor’s clerks wrote their names down openly, because they were contributing to his revenues. Once again we have a bizarre story intended to demonstrate Caligula’s “madness” but self-contradictory. If someone is short of money, he doesn’t furnish spaces lavishly and then lend money at interest. More likely the story reveals the harshest measure the emperor used to demoralize the aristocracy.

What actually happened can be inferred from Cassius Dio’s account of the end of A.D. 40 (where he says nothing about a brothel). He mentions that the occupants of the newly furnished rooms near the imperial palace were “the wives of the foremost men as well as the children of the most aristocratic families,” and he might have added that this location meant they could easily be seized by the Praetorian soldiers guarding the emperor. Dio writes that Caligula forced them to live there at exorbitant cost, but notes at the same time: “Some of those who thus contributed to his need did so willingly, but others very much against their will, lest they should be thought to be vexed” (Dio 59.28.9). Supposedly the plebeians were pleased by the aristocrats’ discomfiture and about the “gold and silver” that the emperor collected from his tenants.

Suetonius, then, suppresses the fact that the occupants of these quarters were the wives and children of the prōtoi (the word Dio uses), meaning the consulars; he reverses the direction of the payments and turns the apartments into a brothel. If we leave aside this last and set both reports in the context of the now frequently reported manner and habit in which the emperor exploited the aristocracy’s code of behavior, then it becomes clear what was going on. Remember that relationships between the emperor and the aristocracy continued to be expressed in the old ceremonies of friendship, morning receptions, evening banquets, reciprocal support in financial matters, and testamentary bequests. In this process it had become necessary for imperial nomenclators to keep records of the emperor’s “friends,” because there were so many he could no longer keep track of them himself. After the consulars conspired against him in early 39, Caligula had cynically exposed the ambiguity of these forms of communication by reproaching them for their enmity and hatred for him, but then demanding payments of money from individuals on the basis of their friendship with him, which no one could disavow. The highest form of imperial favor was the privilege to live as familiares on the Palatine in the palace buildings, a dispensation known from reports about other emperors, such as Agrippa in the reign of Augustus, or later Titus Vinius, Cornelius Laco, and Marcianus Icelus under Galba.

So once again Caligula took aristocrats’ protestations of friendship at face value and showed extraordinary favor to the leading consulars. After their conspiracy was exposed they had shown concern for his safety by murdering Scribonius Proculus and voting him a military bodyguard in the Senate. Now he responded by allowing their wives and children to live on the Palatine Hill, where they could enjoy the greatest possible proximity to the emperor, a distinction in which all of them took so much satisfaction. Simultaneously his nomenclators, who kept the lists of the emperor’s friends and the favors they did for one another, visited the former consuls and asked them for a gift in return.

In actual fact, of course, this meant that the emperor was holding the family members of the Senate leadership hostage on the Palatine under the eye of his Praetorian Guard, while at the same time extorting payments of gold and silver from the senators, forcing them to pay “voluntarily,” as Dio notes expressly, since one can describe paradoxical circumstances only in paradoxical language. This was Caligula’s response to the third attempt to murder him. He had put aristocrats in their place again and continued to humiliate them with jokes. At a solemn banquet he suddenly burst out laughing; the two consuls, who were reclining on the couches next to him, politely inquired what had amused him so. “What do you suppose,” he replied, “except that at a single nod of mine both of you could have your throats cut on the spot?” (Suet. Cal. 32.3). We have already observed in Suetonius’s style a kind of montage technique (and will encounter it again in further examples), in which he takes Caligula’s cynical jokes literally, thereby distorting their meaning and presenting his behavior as aberrant. Caligula in these days may have had even a further joke, particularly about the new building on the Palatine, the wives and children living there, and the profits resulting from them that he had provided for himself: “I now have a brothel on the Palatine.”

If we adopt Seneca’s moral standards (and if we bear in mind that the aristocracy itself—and Seneca in the opinion of the aristocracy—was utterly depraved according to these standards), then we can agree with his drastic conclusion: Caligula was the emperor who showed how “far supreme vice could go, when combined with supreme power” (Sen. Ad Helv. 10.4). The Roman aristocracy was finished, its resistance broken.


The steps Caligula took against the aristocracy after returning from the North were not limited to furthering their self-destructive tendencies, encouraging slaves to denounce their masters, and interning consulars’ wives and children on the Palatine. He also set about destroying the foundation of every aristocracy: its honor. Following the earlier consulars’ conspiracy he had mocked how hollow the old aristocratic conceptions of honor were under a changed form of government by granting awards to his horse Incitatus. Now, after two further conspiracies, he shifted from symbolic actions to concrete ones. Josephus and Suetonius report that the emperor abolished reserved seating for senators and knights at the theater. As a result there were pushing and shoving, and even fights, before performances began, and the highest-ranking members of society were forced to compete with commoners for a place. The seating order was left to chance. The emperor is said to have been amused by it all. His primary motive was certainly to annoy the aristocracy, but at the same time the resulting thoroughly mixed order of seating demonstrated that differences in rank were observed only when the emperor stood behind them; if he failed to support them, they were obsolete.

As the emperor allowed traditional social distinctions to be abolished by society itself, he also set about strategically dishonoring individuals among the leading members of the aristocracy. His uncle Claudius, who enjoyed particular distinction because of their close relationship, received much the same treatment as Silanus had earlier. Caligula decreed that of all the former consuls Claudius should always be the last to vote in the Senate. Because rank coincided with the order of voting, he was thus permanently demoted to the lowest place among them. But the emperor’s main targets were now the remaining members of the higher ranks of old Republican aristocracy, the nobilitas, who played a leading role in the group of consulares. He ordered that the statues of famous men from the Republican era, which Augustus had moved to the Campus Martius, be taken down, and announced that in the future he alone would decide in whose honor statues and portraits could be displayed. Living members of distinguished old families were prohibited from using certain emblems of an ancestor’s fame to which they had traditionally been entitled. A Torquatus was forbidden to wear his torque, a Cincinnatus could not wear his lock of hair, and a descendant of Pompey lost the right to add “the Great” to his name.

In the last case Caligula’s proceeding can be traced in some detail. Suetonius describes these insults without naming a year, making them seem arbitrary, but they can in fact be dated with relative precision. Pompey’s descendant, a great-grandson on his mother’s side of the famous Pompeius Magnus, is still listed with the unshortened form of his name in an inscription from the start of 40. Thus the prohibition of the cognomen belongs among the measures ordered by the emperor after his return to Rome. Secondly, Dio reports the reason Caligula gave for withdrawing the honor: He remarked that “it would be dangerous for anyone to be called Magnus [‘the Great’]” (Dio 60.5.9).

This statement could also have come from a modern social historian. “Noble birth still . . . was perilous,” writes Ronald Syme in his famous study of the early Empire. Every emperor had a “rational distrust” of the old nobilitas, whose very existence challenged his claim to exercise rule alone, for “even if the nobilis forgot his ancestors and his name, the emperor could not.” This Pompey’s later fate took a predictable course. The emperor Claudius restored his cognomen and even chose him as a son-in-law. But then the combination of distinguished ancestry and membership in the emperor’s inner circle proved to be too much of a good thing. Falling victim to an intrigue of the empress Messalina in 47, he lost his life “because of his family and his relationship to the emperor” (Dio 61[60].29.6a). Caligula turned out to be right in the end. But he was not a social historian, and Pompey cannot have had any interest in abstract insights. Caligula’s remark represents a cynical insult added to the injury. Not only did he devalue Pompey as a potential rival; he openly alluded to the dangerous rivalry between him and members of highly distinguished families. He thus justified the dishonor inflicted on Pompey with the need to protect him from the ruler—from himself.

As Pompey’s case shows, the most painful humiliations for the aristocracy undoubtedly occurred in personal contact with the emperor. Philo reports that even though everyone suffered from Caligula’s actions, people still continued to flatter him. Among the guests at the emperor’s last banquet in early 41 was Quintus Pomponius Secundus, one of the sitting consuls and a half brother of the empress Caesonia. According to Cassius Dio, Secundus sat at the emperor’s feet—like a slave—during the meal and “kept bending over continually to shower kisses upon them” (Dio 59.29.5). Suetonius recounts that when the emperor dined in the evening sometimes a few senators who had occupied the highest offices would stand at the head or foot of his couch dressed in short linen tunics: that is, comporting themselves in the manner of his personal slaves.

Thus the forms of debasement suffered in personal contact with the emperor began with voluntary, submissive, individual acts; when Caligula did not discourage these, everyone else was obliged to imitate them. This was not a new phenomenon. Tacitus used strong language to characterize aristocrats’ opportunistic behavior under Augustus and Tiberius and, as we have seen, they acted no differently under Caligula even before the autumn of 40. Now, however, the emperor began to demand self-abasing behavior from them. Dio writes that to most senators he offered his hand or foot to kiss but did not kiss them in return—an act that would have symbolized equality in rank. In one hate-filled passage, Seneca describes an incident in which a consular wished to thank Caligula for saving his life; clearly he had been denounced, and he may have been the lover of Quintilia. The emperor held out his left foot to be kissed, and this man, who had held the highest offices in Rome, prostrated himself and kissed the emperor’s foot in the presence of the leaders of the Senate. Caligula further subverted the traditions of the social hierarchy by offering the honor of his kiss in public to favorites whose official rank was far below the senators’, such as the well-known actor Mnester.

The reaction of aristocrats to their ceremonial degradation is illustrated by Dio’s report that those senators who were granted the exceptional honor of a kiss from the emperor thanked him in speeches in the Senate. The submissiveness continued, in other words. But Caligula went further in using his contacts with the aristocracy to humiliate specific individuals. All the sources mention his rhetorical talent and his quick wit, and we have noted his fondness for cynical jokes.

A sense of the horror aroused by Caligula’s presence among senators forced into submissive behavior has been preserved in various accounts: “Amid the multitude of his other vices,” writes Seneca, Gaius Caesar “had a bent for insult” and “was moved by the strange desire to brand every one with some stigma.” Seneca immediately gave him a taste of his own medicine by describing his appearance: “Such was the ugliness of his pale face bespeaking his madness, such the wildness of his eyes lurking beneath the brow of an old hag, such the hideousness of his bald head with its sprinkling of beggarly hairs. And he had, besides, a neck overgrown with bristles, spindle shanks, and enormous feet” (Sen. De Const. Sap. 18.1). According to Suetonius, Caligula’s face “was naturally forbidding and ugly,” but “he purposely made it even more savage, practicing all kinds of terrible and fearsome expressions before a mirror” (Suet. Cal. 50.1).

It cannot be verified whether Caligula’s feet were in fact enormous or whether he used a mirror to practice making horrible faces. Here again, remember that the behavior described as illustrating the emperor’s character can belong only to the time after he returned to Rome in the autumn of 40. Josephus and Dio’s accounts show that up to the time of the consulars’ conspiracy he had treated the aristocracy courteously, and after the great conspiracy he had spent a year away from Rome. The fears that he inspired in senators from then on, and his consistent efforts to humiliate them, thus formed part of a conscious new strategy. Much of it, especially the insults directed at individuals, should probably be ascribed to the emperor’s desire to take personal revenge and should be taken as his response both to the events of the previous year and to the most recent conspiracy. But Caligula’s remarks on the emperor’s paradoxical position of honor within the senatorial class show that his goal went even further: His aim was to destroy the aristocratic hierarchy as such and expose it to ridicule.


Lucius Vitellius, Suetonius reports, “was the first to begin to worship Gaius Caesar as a god; for on his return from Syria he did not presume to approach the emperor except with veiled head, turning himself about and then prostrating himself” (Suet. Vit. 2.5). The father of the later emperor had presumably been replaced as governor of Syria at the beginning of the year and then must have feared for his life. Dio provides more details. In order to save his life, Vitellius dressed as a man of lower rank than he actually was, threw himself at the emperor’s feet, addressed him with many divine names, prayed to him, and finally vowed that he would offer sacrifices to him. In other words, in Caligula’s presence Vitellius performed a ritual combining an element of Roman cultic practice (veiling the head) with the custom known in the Hellenic world and the East of prostrating oneself before a divine ruler (proskynēsis). He started a trend.

After Caligula released Pomponius, Dio relates, the senators praised him “partly out of fear and partly with sincerity,” some calling him a demigod (Greek hērōs) and others a god (Dio 59.26.3–5). They didn’t stop there. In accord with a decree of the Senate a temple was built to the emperor; he was to be worshiped there as divine. A college of priests was founded to take charge of the emperor’s worship. “The richest citizens used all their influence to secure the priesthoods of his cult and bid high for the honor” (Suet.Cal. 22.3). Dio writes that “these honors paid to him as a god came not only from the multitude, accustomed at all times to flattering somebody, but from those also who stood in high repute” (Dio 59.27.3). What had happened to the senators of Rome? Had fear driven them insane? Not at all. Their behavior was less surprising than it may appear at first glance.

The heaven of the ancients was not nearly as distant as that of Christianity, the religion beginning to spread from the East at that time. In the myths handed down in the ancient world, the gods were not above appearing on earth from time to time, for instance for the purpose of pursuing attractive mortal women. Similarly, from the fourth century B.C. on it was possible to designate persons who possessed power or wealth far in excess of human norms as “heroes” or gods and to venerate them accordingly. In Hellenistic times this led to the founding of cults for individual kings and their dynasties. Roman senators who had conquered the Greek East in the era of the Republic had direct knowledge of this custom, since they had been objects of the same kind of veneration there themselves. Finally, Roman emperors and members of their families were worshiped as gods in the eastern cities of the Empire and not long afterwards in the western provinces as well. Caligula had experienced this himself as a child when he accompanied his parents to the East.

In Rome itself the situation was somewhat more complicated. Julius Caesar had been offered various divine honors by the Senate before he was assassinated. He was designated “Jupiter Julius,” and plans were made for a temple dedicated to him and his clemency; Marcus Antonius was chosen to serve as his priest. In the time of Augustus poets such as Ovid, Horace, and Propertius often addressed the princeps as a god, and in Tiberius’s reign various senators attempted to gain recognition by attributing a divine aura to him. Thus it is reported that the emperor’s activities were called “sacred occupations,” that offerings were made to images of the emperor and Sejanus, or that some senators prostrated themselves before him.

The idea of divinity seems to have been not entirely without appeal for recipients of the honor. Alexander the Great and other Hellenistic kings had sometimes appeared attired as various deities, and Roman senators were not unfamiliar with performances of this kind: In a triumph, the highest honor achievable, a victorious Roman general appeared dressed to resemble Jupiter, the supreme god of the Roman polity. Wearing a tunic embroidered with palm trees and red make-up on his face, he carried a scepter; all three features were typical attributes of the god. It is reported of Octavian, the later Augustus, that during the triumvirate he gave a party that became known as the “banquet of the twelve gods,” at which he appeared costumed as Apollo and the guests also came dressed as divinities. His rival Antonius did not lag behind. He allowed himself to be honored in the eastern parts of the Empire as the “new Dionysus” and appeared with the corresponding costume and paraphernalia.

When he assumed the position of princeps in 27 B.C., however, Augustus altered his behavior in this respect, as he did in many others. When the civil wars ended, he refused divine honors, since they would have run directly counter to his aim of being accepted as sole ruler by reviving Republican forms and honoring the senatorial order as equals. As emperor he seems to have insisted that throughout the Empire he should not be honored in a cult of his own, but only in conjunction with the capital city, so that temples were dedicated to Roma et Augustus. Tiberius followed a similar policy. He rejected the idea of such honors for himself and was criticized by the Senate for it. He permitted others in their place, however, granting to the cities in the province of Asia in 23, for instance, the right to erect one temple to him, his mother, Livia, and the Senate. The attempts of some senators to flatter him obsequiously apparently repelled him; every time he left the Senate House, he supposedly exclaimed, “These men! How ready they are for slavery!” (Tac. Ann.3.65.3).

There had been, then, no shortage of attempts to venerate emperors as divine even before Caligula’s time. These did not entail belief that the emperors were superhuman; rather they formed part of the ambiguous communication that had become requisite in imperial Rome. The first two emperors had tried to block this development because they feared correctly—as could be seen in Caesar’s case—that the more honors the aristocracy awarded them, the lower their acceptance sank among those very aristocrats. The Senate itself was venerated as “sacred” or as a “divine assembly,” in some cities in the eastern part of the Empire, after all, so that worship of the emperor as a god would clearly detract from the “divinity” of its members. This did not prevent some senators from pushing for veneration of the emperor all the same, and their colleagues could hardly voice any objection.

Now the question was how Caligula would react to the veneration of his person. Clearly he was in a different position from his predecessors in that he did not need to weigh acceptance by the aristocracy in his decision. That was a thing of the past, since open enmity now reigned. The offer of worship belonged to the mode of ambiguous communication the senators still practiced, both out of fear and because they lacked an alternative; it had nothing to do with whether they actually accepted his position as emperor. Caligula was clearly aware of all this: He himself was the one who had pulled back the curtain a year and a half earlier, after the consulars’ conspiracy, and exposed their manner of communicating with him for what it was: obsequiousness and insincere flattery. So how did he now respond to veneration of himself as a god by the “divine assembly”?

Caligula was the first emperor who permitted the aristocracy in Rome to venerate him as divine. Suetonius provides a description of the temple that was erected “to his own godhead” (numen). “In this temple was a life-sized statue of the emperor in gold, which was dressed each day in clothing such as he wore himself,” and the animals sacrificed to him were “were flamingoes, peacocks, black grouse, guinea hens, and pheasants, offered day by day each after its own kind” (Suet. Cal. 22.3). But Caligula not only allowed the senators to pray to the golden statue of him; he allowed himself to be worshipped as a god by them. He “built out a part of the palace as far as the Forum, and making the Temple of Castor and Pollux its vestibule, he often took his place between the divine brethren, and exhibited himself there to be worshiped by those who presented themselves; and some hailed him as Jupiter Latiaris” (Suet. Cal. 22.2). The terms Suetonius uses suggest that Caligula turned the customary morning salutatio, when the senators and others greeted the emperor at home, into veneration of himself as a god. In addition it is reported that he appeared not only as Jupiter, but also costumed as a great variety of other ancient gods, both male and female: as Hercules, as one of the Dioscuri, as Dionysus, Hermes, Apollo, Ares, Neptune, Mercury, or Venus. At times he appeared shaved, at other times with a golden beard; he would appear with or without a wig, depending on which god he was portraying. And the senators of Rome worshiped him. What did that mean? Had the emperor now gone mad? In this case, too—as in the case of the senators—the answer is clearly no.

The German scholar Hugo Willrich has conjectured that by allowing himself to be worshiped as a god Caligula intended to abolish the established form of empire and replace it with a new kind of monarchy, one modeled on the Hellenistic kingdoms where the ruler was divine. This would mean that a new “state cult” had been founded in what Willrich calls an act of “religious policy.” In fact after his sojourn in Lyon Caligula did experiment with new forms of monarchy, which would have broken the paradoxical link between the emperor and the aristocratic hierarchy preserved from the time of the Republic. He borrowed elements from Hellenistic kingdoms, among which his identification with Alexander the Great was of particular significance, as can be seen from his horseback ride across the bay at Puteoli. Nevertheless there is important evidence against such an interpretation of his veneration as a god.

For one thing, he limited his appearances as a “god” to certain occasions. In a discussion of the emperor’s clothing Dio writes that the special attire “was what he would assume whenever he pretended to be a god . . . At other times he usually appeared in public in silk or in triumphal dress” (Dio 59.26.10). And Suetonius too mentions in addition to divine raiment the clothing of a triumphator, cloaks set with jewels or silken garments, in which the emperor allowed himself to be ordinarily seen. This fits with the specific reports on Caligula’s behavior after the autumn of 40 (and before), since they make no mention at all of unusual dress, let alone symbols of divinity. Hence it was a case of individual appearances or public presentations rather than a permanent ceremonial practice, as one would expect if the aim had been to establish a “divinely ruled kingdom.” Finally, evidence against the formal institution of a cult for a divine ruler is provided by the complete silence of the non-literary sources on the subject. Not a single inscription or coin mentions the emperor as a god in the context of the city of Rome or depicts him with emblems of divinity. In the evidence that survives, all honors awarded to Caligula or representations of him follow the patterns customary under his predecessors, Augustus and Tiberius.

Another explanation lies closer to hand. After his account of Vitellius’s innovation in approaching the emperor, Dio relates the following incident: On a later occasion the emperor told Vitellius that he was in conversation with the moon goddess and asked whether he did not see the goddess near him. The singer Apelles had a similar experience when Caligula, who was standing next to a larger-than-life-sized statue of Jupiter, asked which of the two seemed greater to him, the emperor or the god. The meaning of the emperor’s behavior can easily be interpreted if one recalls how he had dealt with insincere statements and flattery before, including the vows made when he fell ill in the year 37 and above all thereafter with regard to the “friendship” of the aristocracy since the year 39. Caligula exposed them all as lies by taking them at face value, and he humiliated the flatterer by cynically forcing him to do what he had announced. The pattern continues here. Neither Vitellius, who is notorious in the ancient sources for his servile flattery, nor Apelles actually believed Caligula was a god, and both of them knew that the emperor was aware of this. He reacted to being addressed as a god, which was intended as a gesture of submission, by compelling them to behave as if they really did take him for a god, that is, as if they were not in their right minds. Vitellius deftly managed to extricate himself from the awkward situation—an indication that he possessed the communicative skills required by the times. Trembling as if in awe, he dropped his gaze to the ground and replied softly, “Only you gods, Master, may behold one another” (Dio 59.27.6). Apelles, by contrast, who had fallen out of favor for unknown reasons after a period in Caligula’s special grace, was at a loss for words. Caligula had him whipped, noting that even when the singer was screaming his voice retained its sweet sound.

As a group the senators seem to have fared much as Vitellius and Apelles did. Caligula did not reject the new form of their flattery as such, but cynically demanded that they then act as if he really were a god. We happen to know from a biographical account of Claudius that Caligula used membership in the priesthood of his cult to demand ruinous sums from leading senators. Thus the emperor’s uncle “was forced to pay eight million sesterces to enter a new priesthood, which reduced him to such straitened circumstances that he was unable to meet the obligation incurred to the treasury; whereupon by edict of the prefects his property was advertised for sale to meet the deficiency, in accordance with the law regulating confiscations” (Suet. Claud. 9.2).

Some of the ancient sources themselves offer a different interpretation. They claim that the emperor, having lost his mind, took himself for a god and then forced the aristocracy to venerate his person accordingly. Modern biographers, too, have accepted this view, so that Caligula’s “divinity” has played a decisive role in establishing his reputation as a mad emperor. How should this be judged?

First of all, it is telling that the earliest Roman sources, Seneca and Pliny the Elder, make no mention whatsoever that the emperor in his mental derangement considered himself a god, even though such assertions would have conformed perfectly with their no-holds-barred depiction of him as a misbegotten monster. The reason is evident: The claim would not have seemed very plausible to contemporaries. For one thing, they had lived through that time themselves, and doubtless wanted not to be reminded of their own disreputable role in his veneration as a god. Further, attributing divinity to the emperor as a way of flattering him had continued under Caligula’s successors. Although Claudius forbade Romans to prostrate themselves before him or offer sacrifices to him, the author Scribonius Largus refers to him three times as “our god the emperor” (deus noster Caesar). After the Pisonian conspiracy under Nero in 65, the senator Cerialis, who had betrayed the conspirators, introduced a motion that a temple be built to the (living) emperor and a cult be established to venerate him.

Finally, both Seneca and Pliny reveal that they themselves were far from innocent of servility in their own dealings with emperors. Shortly after Caligula’s death in 41 Seneca was banned by the new emperor Claudius for an adulterous affair with Caligula’s sister Livilla; in his work dedicated to the emperor’s freedman Polybius, which was written around this time, he attributes his escape from death to the “divine hand” of Claudius. In the for-word to his Natural History (completed in 77) Pliny heaps extravagant praise on Vespasian’s son Titus and says that Romans approach his father at morning receptions “with reverential awe”; he even goes so far as to compare his own work, which he dedicated to the prince, to offerings made to the gods. In the decades following Caligula’s death, Roman aristocrats were far too caught up in the inflationary competition to praise the emperors themselves to consider or depict the cultic veneration of Caligula as a sign of madness—on the side of either the worshiped or the worshipers. But if this is so, how did the claim arise that Caligula believed in his own divinity?

Two other early authors—Philo and Josephus, who were Jewish—are the first to mention this subject. They left an account of Caligula because of a dramatic event in the history of the Jewish people in the last year of his rule. The emperor had given orders to dedicate the Temple in Jerusalem to his own cult and to place a larger-than-life-sized statue of himself there. It was a collision of two diametrically opposed views of religion. For Jews the desecration of their holiest site would have been the worst sacrilege imaginable, and it is Philo above all who pours out hatred for Caligula. From the Roman perspective, however, what was at stake was primarily a political matter. The cult of the emperor in the cities of the provinces was a demonstration of the local ruling class’s political loyalty to Rome, which was welcomed in the capital, and rewarded.

Despite their partisanship the accounts of the two authors reveal that, as in other cases, the veneration of Caligula was not imposed from above but initiated from below. In 38 terrible pogroms against the Jewish population had occurred in Alexandria, and the non-Jewish residents of the city made a shrewd attempt to win support in high places by placing pictures of the emperor in synagogues and turning them into shrines for his cult. Avilius Flaccus, the prefect at the time, was too involved in Roman affairs to be able to act. His successor, Vitrasius Pollio, seems to have made no decision on the matter either, so both the Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Alexandria sent delegations to Caligula, the first of which was headed by Philo. The problem worsened and spread to Judaea, where similar unrest occurred (presumably around the middle of 40, although there is disagreement about the precise chronology). Jewish worshipers in the town of Jamnia destroyed an altar of the emperor’s cult. From the Roman point of view this qualified as political rebellion, and it was only at this point that Caligula ordered Publius Petronius, the governor of Syria, to establish an imperial cult in the Temple in Jerusalem.

The whole episode had little to do with any ambitions of the emperor to be considered divine. This can be seen in the further course of the conflict. At first, Agrippa, the king of Judaea, who had been a member of Caligula’s inner circle since the days in Lyon, was able to persuade him to rescind the order. When Petronius wrote that the Jews had threatened him with open insurrection, however, Caligula changed his mind again. The issue had now become one of enforcing Roman rule in the province, and he gave orders to proceed accordingly: to use all available military means to break Jewish resistance and to erect the statue of him in the Temple after all.

It is highly significant that both Philo, who discusses Caligula’s mad belief in his own divinity at some length, and Josephus, who mentions it only briefly in three places, thereby become entangled in a fundamental contradiction. In Philo’s detailed account of his two audiences with the emperor, Caligula is described as friendly, addressing the delegation formally about their business. At the second interview, after news of the Jewish uprising has arrived, he reproaches the delegation for the Jews’ unwillingness to venerate him as a god—that was, of course, the fundamental problem—but his behavior is entirely normal then too. When shown into the emperor’s presence, the Jewish delegates make deep, respectful bows, but Philo reports nothing about proskynēsis. Caligula next makes fun of the Jewish custom of eating no pork, and his entourage laughs in agreement. He is mainly concerned with giving instructions for furnishing of his living quarters in the gardens of Maecenas and Lamia on the Esquiline Hill, where the audience is taking place. He walks through the rooms, ordering expensive glass to be installed in the windows and paintings to be hung, with the Jewish and Greek delegations from Alexandria trailing around after him, up and down the stairs. He behaves, that is to say, like a perfectly normal Roman aristocrat occupied with the fittings and decor of his houses. His dilatory treatment of the two delegations is humiliating for them, of course, but in Philo’s account Caligula shows not the slightest trace of a delusion that he is a god or, indeed, any other sign of insanity.

The same is true in the work of Josephus. In the historian’s extensive narrative of the events leading up to Caligula’s murder, the emperor is shown behaving completely normally. Josephus describes him offering a sacrifice to the deified Augustus, in whose honor games are being held on the Palatine Hill, and attending the theater with several trusted senators who occupy the seats around him and also accompany him when he leaves. Nothing in his dress or appearance differs in the least from that of his aristocratic companions; there is no mention of any special ceremony and not a word of anything out of the ordinary in the emperor’s behavior. Philo and Josephus claim that Caligula took himself for a god because he was insane, but their own depictions of him do not support the claim. The reason for the hostility in their accounts is not far to seek: It sprang from his order to enforce the imperial cult in Jerusalem, which had plunged Jews into extreme religious and political difficulties.

The first surviving Roman author who presents a similar report is Suetonius, a hundred years after Caligula’s death. In a brief passage in his Life of Gaius Caligula he writes that the emperor claimed “divine majesty” (divina maiestas) and instituted his own worship. Suetonius also includes anecdotes intended to raise doubts about the emperor’s mental health: “At night whenever the moon began to shine in full light he would regularly invite the moon goddess into his bed and his embrace, while in the daytime he would talk confidentially with Jupiter Capitolinus, now whispering and then turning his ear to the mouth of the god, now in louder and even angry language; for he was heard to make the threat, ‘Lift me up, or I will lift thee’ ” (Suet. Cal. 22.4).

By now the reader will not be surprised that Suetonius’s account is also on this occasion stamped with denunciatory intentions. In another text, however, the biographer himself provides information that calls these remarks into question. In the passage quoted above from his Life of Vitellius, Suetonius states explicitly that it was the emperor Vitellius’s father, Lucius, and not Caligula himself who initiated the veneration of him as a god. As it happens, we have a parallel passage that reveals how Suetonius adapted the information available to him and reworked the material. In his work On Anger, Seneca described a pantomime in which Caligula took part, followed by a feast the emperor hosted in the open air. When it was interrupted by thunder and lightning and the guests became alarmed, the emperor grew “angry at heaven” and quoted a verse from Homer, “Lift me up, or I will lift thee!” (Iliad 23.724). In other words he challenged Jupiter to a wrestling match. Seneca considered this sacrilegious and called Caligula demented for that reason. While the episode depicts the emperor as an arrogant man with an explosive temper, it does not in the least suggest that he was communicating with Jupiter in a state of mental confusion. That is exactly how Suetonius reports it, however, taking the incident out of its original context.

The story about the moon goddess can be similarly explained. As shown above, the basis for it was a cynical joke intended to demean the flatterer Vitellius. In Suetonius’s account, though, the emperor is depicted as suffering from a delusion that he is actually in contact with the goddess. Suetonius has turned Caligula’s own weapon against him: Just as the emperor pretended to take his aristocratic flatterers seriously so as to expose how mad their flattery was, now the biographer takes Caligula’s jests seriously, using them to portray him as insane. Nevertheless there is a difference: The point of Caligula’s joke could be grasped by those present—its effect depended on that. In contrast, Suetonius’s technique is not humorous at all. It extracts the emperor’s words from their original context so that their meaning is no longer the same. The result is a misrepresentation of what really occurred, but one that readers cannot immediately recognize as such.

This is evident again a hundred years later in Cassius Dio. On the one hand, he follows the opinion of Suetonius and takes Caligula’s divine adoration as evidence of his madness. On the other hand he reports (from other sources that he, like Suetonius, had available to him) a series of events in which the original context of the emperor’s deification can still be recognized, and assembles information that contradicts the interpretation he adopted from Suetonius. Thus, for example, he reports the seriousness with which even the most prominent Romans venerated the emperor as a god, although it clearly amazes him. This procedure reduces the consistency of his account, but renders it all the more valuable as a source.

Returning now to the situation in Rome in the autumn of 40, we can see that the senators had not reckoned with Caligula’s response to their conspiracies. They experienced a kind of humiliation they probably could not have imagined in their wildest dreams. The young man who was their ruler did not content himself with taking measures specifically designed to terrorize and dishonor them. He accepted the flatteries of individual senators and made the entire Senate venerate him as a god, treatment that alone would have represented extreme degradation for such an exalted group. But he did even worse: Counting on their submissiveness, he staged carnival-like performances at which they were forced to expose themselves to public ridicule by pretending they actually took the emperor in fancy dress for a god. Cassius Dio captured this bizarre way of shaming the highest-ranking members of Roman society in a vivid anecdote, although one suspects he may not have been entirely clear about what was going on. On one occasion when Caligula appeared on a stage costumed as Jupiter, there was a simple shoemaker from Gaul in the audience who burst out laughing. The emperor summoned him forward and asked: “What do I seem to you to be?” The shoemaker answered: “A big humbug.” He suffered no consequences, since according to Dio the emperor would tolerate outspoken comments from the common people but not from men in important positions. But if one recalls the parallel situation with Vitellius, another interpretation of the scene suggests itself: Far from considering himself divine or intending to introduce an official emperor cult in Rome, Caligula was instead appearing as a god at occasional public performances to expose the senators’ fearful and at the same time hypocritical submissiveness toward him in all its absurdity. And he did so before an audience of commoners who could not help laughing at the antics of the nobly born.


The emperor’s authority was uncontested. The soldiers of the Praetorian Guard—who were responsible for arrests, torture, and executions—profited from the prevailing conditions and were loyal to the emperor. Alongside them and sometimes in competition with them his Germanic bodyguards played an important role. As foreigners who did not speak Latin and hence were cut off from most contacts with other groups in Rome, they fixed their attention firmly on the emperor. By their constant presence they ensured his safety, and he paid them generously in return. Among the legions on the frontiers of the Empire, where little news arrived about conditions in Rome, the young emperor’s popularity was unaffected. For them he remained the son of Germanicus, who had grown up in their camp and rewarded them so liberally at the start of his reign.

The people of Rome also continued to stand behind the emperor, who provided a generous supply of bread and circuses. Discord arose occasionally: When the people protested higher taxes Caligula sent out the Praetorian Guard, and he mocked the traditional relationship between the aristocracy and the commoners by sending old gladiators and injured men into the arena to fight against broken-down animals. This did not damage his popularity permanently, however, for he continued to sponsor “serious” games, and regularly distributed large sums of money. Josephus reports that the common people of Rome had an unfavorable opinion of the Senate and saw the emperor as their protection from the greed of the aristocracy.

The emperor’s support among soldiers limited the threat that provincial governors from the senatorial order could pose to him. Moreover, Caligula’s predecessors had already developed a new approach to the fundamental problem of rivalry with the aristocracy. There was an increasing tendency to choose “new men” from the equestrian order to fill positions that conferred extensive military power. Most of these appointees had excellent military and bureaucratic abilities, and they also owed their promotion, and consequent advancement into the highest rank of society, to the emperor. They enjoyed little prestige among aristocrats, commoners, or soldiers. All of this checked any danger of usurpation they might have represented. The recent failure of Lentulus Gaetulicus no doubt functioned as a curb on similar ambitions, and the recall of Lucius Vitellius from Syria proved that the emperor kept an eye on everything.

There were also senators in Rome who cooperated with the emperor and benefited from their ties to him. Various sources confirm that some of them maintained particular “friendships” with Caligula, attending his banquets, inviting him to their own, and accompanying him to public events such as theatrical performances. A few have already been mentioned. Vitellius had counted as a close friend of Caligula’s since his diplomatic comment on the conversation with the moon goddess; he was the son of a man from the equestrian order who had served as a financial administrator under Augustus. His own son Aulus Vitellius, the later emperor, belonged to the emperor’s inner circle as a familiaris. Quintus Pomponius Secundus, Caligula’s co-consul at the start of 41 and the man who kissed the emperor’s feet at a banquet, was the empress Caesonia’s half brother. Gnaeus Sentius Saturninus was the son of a senator who had accompanied Germanicus, Caligula’s father, on his journey to the East.

Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus, a well-known orator, is said to have enjoyed Caligula’s special favor and to have accompanied him on his march to Germania. His father had been the first member of the family to achieve consular status, under Augustus. After that he had been adopted by the knight Gaius Sallustius Crispus, one of the closest confidants and most important political advisers of the first princeps. Later, under Claudius, he was married for a time to Agrippina, Caligula’s sister and Claudius’s niece (and later wife). Another member of Caligula’s inner circle was Valerius Asiaticus. He came from the town of Vienna in the province of Gaul and owed his membership in the Roman Senate to the patronage of Antonia Minor, Caligula’s grandmother, whom he had once courted at the same time as Lucius Vitellius. It appears that he was married to Lollia Saturnina, sister of the Lollia Paulina who was briefly Caligula’s wife. Other documented members of the emperor’s coterie in early 41 are Marcus Vinicius, Annius Vinicianus, and Paullus Arruntius. Vinicius had married Caligula’s sister Julia Livilla in 33, but clearly had been able to thrive politically despite her banishment. His grandfather came from the equestrian order and rose to senatorial status as one of Augustus’s most important generals. While Arruntius is otherwise unknown to us, Vinicianus was presumably Vinicius’s nephew.

Some of these senators are reported to have been extraordinarily wealthy. None of them was descended from an old senatorial family of the Republican era; they had all risen to prominence in the Senate and the consulship through service to the emperor and as a result of his support. A few had been able to cement their position by marrying into his family. It was probably these men who took the lead in proposing flattering honors for Caligula and denouncing colleagues, and who procured themselves personal advantage through their proximity to the emperor and the opportunities for influence that resulted from it. In the case of Lucius Vitellius this is documented. Nonetheless their position was anything but pleasant. Claudius also was among Caligula’s everyday associates, and just as he had to endure mockery and humiliation, so must the other members of this circle, as Vitellius and Pomponius did. The relationships between Caligula and these “friends” from the senatorial order were thus hardly characterized by mutual trust; here, too, communication ran in the customary ambiguous ways: In public they were submissive, but in fact, according to Josephus, they hated him. They were even aware of the others’ hatred but did not dare to mention it, let alone initiate a conspiracy. While they maintained “friendly” relations with one another, they were full of suspicion and feared denunciation if they spoke out.

The center of power was occupied by others. Besides the empress Caesonia, the closest circle around Caligula comprised the two Praetorian prefects and freedmen like Callistus, Helicon, or Protogenes. What was true of the “new men” in the aristocracy was even truer for them: They owed their rise from obscurity to the emperor; he had been their path to enormous power and wealth, and they were accordingly hated by the aristocracy. They were, so to speak, identified with the emperor, and there was little chance that they could survive his fall.


As we have seen, the emperor had a firm grip on power. All the same, toward the end of 40, many people in Rome were probably asking themselves how long things could go on this way. Caligula had been back in the city for four months, and he had used this time to attack the aristocrats of the senatorial order—forcing them to submit to him, exploiting them financially, humiliating them in personal relations, and exposing them to public ridicule. The odds that they could mount a successful conspiracy had dropped to near zero since the consulars’ wives and children had been interned on the Palatine Hill. But what were the emperor’s plans? At some point his revenge on the aristocracy for its attacks would have to be satisfied. What would come next?

Caligula must also have been asking himself questions about the future. He had already a year and a half earlier unmasked the ambiguity that had characterized communication between the emperor and the aristocracy since the time of Augustus in a way that made a return to it impossible. He had openly addressed the truth behind the aristocracy’s public displays of obsequiousness—the fundamental rivalry between every emperor and high-ranking senators—most recently in jokes at the expense of Pompeius Magnus. He had likewise laid bare his own paradoxical position within the ranks of the aristocracy. He had long since ceased to envision Rome under imperial rule in the Augustan sense. Now he had chosen to destroy the old hierarchy and introduced a cult of his own worship. Was that a real alternative? Of course not, since he was using his deification largely as one more way to expose the senatorial aristocrats’ self-abasement as hypocritical. It merely represented the high point of his campaign to dishonor them and confirmed at the same time that in reality no one venerated the emperor at all.

A second factor also came into play. The more time Caligula spent working to destroy the honor of aristocrats, the more he demonstrated how deeply his own position was embedded in Rome’s aristocratic society. It must have been apparent that to make his superior position manifest and to enhance his own status he needed to degrade the others. In other words, he remained enmeshed in the old system of ranking precisely because he was so intent on abolishing it. His attempts to escape from the paradoxes of the emperor’s role created new paradoxes, which perpetuated the old ones in inverted form. Was there a way out of such a quandary? Certainly not in Rome. There was no possibility of establishing a monarchy there, within political and social structures built up over centuries of Republican tradition.

In Philo’s report on his legation to Caligula he mentions three times that the emperor was planning a journey to Alexandria, the city that the emperor had first seen as a child and where he had already been awarded great honors: “He was possessed by an extraordinary and passionate love for Alexandria. His heart was entirely set upon visiting it and on his arrival staying there for a very considerable time. For he thought this city was unique . . . and that its vast size and the worldwide value of its admirable situation had made it a pattern to other cities . . .” (Phil. Leg. 338). Philo ascribes part of Caligula’s fascination with the city to the powerful influence of his servant Helicon, who was himself originally from Alexandria: “Elated with visions of that occasion when in the presence of his master and of almost the whole habitable world, since undoubtedly all the men of light and learning in the cities would journey from the furthermost parts to join in homage to Gaius, he [Helicon] would be honored by the greatest and most illustrious city of them all . . .” (Phil. Leg. 173). Philo also writes, however, that Caligula believed he could realize his wish to be venerated as a god there. The majority population of Alexandria had in fact enhanced its standing in his eyes by promoting the emperor’s cult over the protests of the Jewish inhabitants. Josephus confirms that the emperor had plans to travel to Alexandria and reports that all the preparations had been completed by January of 41. Finally, Suetonius states that Caligula was then planning to move his residence and the imperial capital first to Antium, where he had been born, and afterwards to Alexandria.

Intentions of this kind were less aberrant than they might seem. Julius Caesar had stayed in Alexandria for a time, with Cleopatra. Before he was murdered, there were rumors that he wanted to leave Rome and concentrate the armed forces of the Empire in Alexandria (or Ilium), and that he would entrust the governing of Rome to his advisers. Marcus Antonius, Octavian’s last great rival in the civil war and, like him, a great-grandfather of Caligula, had governed his part of the Empire from Alexandria and it is reported that he, too, had plans to make the city into a permanent capital. Last but not least, both Plutarch and Cassius Dio mention that as Nero’s fall was approaching in the year 68 he intended to flee to Egypt and try to sustain his position from there.

In fact the city of Alexandria, the old capital of the Ptolemaic kings, was excellently suited as an alternative center of rule. According to Tacitus, one of Augustus’s dominationis arcana, his “secret principles of domination,” consisted of keeping Egypt for himself after the civil war. From then on senators and leading knights were prohibited from setting foot there without special permission. The old monarchical structures of the country remained intact, and the representative of the emperor governed through them in the role of a vice-king. Hence no one of senatorial rank was appointed as proconsul; prefects from the equestrian order were sent instead, as less likely to conceive thoughts of usurpation from the extent of their powers. In that era Egypt was the source of the Italian grain supply, so that—as Tacitus observes—it would have been easy to starve Italy from there. Furthermore, because of Egypt’s geostrategic location it was possible to occupy and defend the country with a small force “against armies however formidable” (Tac. Ann. 2.59.3).

Egypt’s special status was one part of Caligula’s thinking. Another part derived from what he had experienced in his own short life. His first seven years as a member of his father’s entourage in Germania and the East, his own campaigns in the North, his sojourns in Gaul and on the Gulf of Baiae—all these experiences had demonstrated that a Roman emperor could function as a mobile hub of government, so to speak, military and financial affairs included. With a minimum of military and administrative staff, he could collect taxes and draft recruits wherever he happened to be; he could carry out massive construction projects and display his power; he could correspond with cities and governors throughout the Empire, or receive delegations. Most importantly, Caligula had observed at close range that Tiberius served essentially unchallenged as Roman emperor even though permanently absent from Rome. For almost twelve years, from 26 until his death, he had resided on a small island and not set foot in the city. If it was possible to govern from Capri, why not from Alexandria, where the preconditions were considerably better?

Still it is possible that something quite different prompted Caligula to leave Rome. During the investigation of the most recent conspiracy, the senators’ hatred for him had found expression in a scene he could not have anticipated. Caligula had intended to force Capito, father of the conspirator Betilienus Bassus, to witness the execution of his own son and finally threatened to kill him as well. Faced with death, Capito made a statement that took the weapons of denunciation and fear, which had prevailed in Caligula’s hands up to that time, and turned them against the emperor: “Finding his life in danger, he pretended to have been one of the conspirators and promised to disclose the names of all the rest; and he named the companions of Gaius and those who abetted his licentiousness and cruelty.” That is, he denounced Caligula’s close aristocratic associates (probably the persons mentioned above), as well as his nonaristocratic aides, into which category people like Helicon or Protogenes must have fallen. “And he would have brought many to their deaths,” as Cassius Dio reports, “had he not gone on to accuse the prefects, Callistus, and Caesonia, and so aroused disbelief.” (Dio 59.26.7 [Zonaras]).

The people Capito denounced suffered no harm, and Capito was executed, but he had achieved his goal: Caligula began to harbor suspicions about his closest advisers and confidants, misgivings about the powerful people who both profited from his rule and served as its most important props. This is understandable, given his experiences a year earlier with his sisters and Aemilius Lepidus. Later, when he was alone—without his bodyguards—he sent for the prefects and Callistus and told them, “ ‘I am but one, and you are three; and I am defenseless, whereas you are armed. If, therefore, you hate me and desire to kill me, slay me!’ When they fell at his feet and besought him, claiming that they had no such intention regarding him, he withdrew, pretending to be convinced. As a result of this affair, he believed that he was hated and that they were vexed at his behavior, and so he suspected them and wore a sword at his side when in the city; not only was he suspicious of their friendship, but they, also, on their side, were filled with fear. And to forestall any harmony of action on their part he attempted to embroil them with one another, by pretending to make a confidant of each one separately and talking to him about the others, until they understood his purpose . . .” (Dio 59.28.8).

Now the situation had become hazardous. The fates of Callistus and the Praetorian prefects were attached to the emperor. If he let one of them fall—or all of them, one after the other—there would be general rejoicing, at least within the Roman aristocracy. If the emperor himself were brought down, they would fall with him. With the power they wielded through their proximity to him, they could achieve all kinds of things, but there was one thing that remained beyond their reach. Callistus was a former slave, and the prefects had been knights of no particular distinction. Their social standing meant that they could not remove him and take his place. Their lack of social prestige had been precisely what qualified them for the offices they held. The most powerful men in the Empire after the emperor were now under pressure to act. If the emperor did not regain his confidence in them, they had only one option. Caligula too must have clearly recognized what that meant.

According to Josephus his departure for Alexandria was scheduled for 25 January 41. Who was to accompany him there and who to remain behind in Rome is not recorded.

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