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Corrupters of Power

ISSUE:  Winter 1991
Caligula: The Corruption of Power. By Anthony A. Barrett. Yale. $27. 50.
Claudius. By Barbara Levick. Yale. $25.00.

It is hard to like the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula. His uncle and successor, Claudius, found a defender in Robert Graves, who published his I, Claudius in 1934, and followed it up with Claudius the God, both of which have in turn been translated into a popular TV series which stamped Claudius with the image of a well-meaning prince, a sort of Scattergood Baines in the midst of a coven of murderous scoundrels. But the series also reinforced the old perception of Caligula as a monster or madman or both.

The image has had a long history. The disappointing son of Marcus Aurelius, the emperor Commodus, no angel himself, is said to have put a man to death merely for reading the Life of Caligula by Suetonius, and near the end of the last century, a German professor at Munich narrowly escaped a charge of lèsé majesty for publishing a treatise on the emperor: his Caligula had too close a resemblance to Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had come to the throne six years earlier. An English translation of the work sold very well during World War I at a penny a copy. For that matter, the original German publication was a best seller: 30 editions and a quarter million copies sold, which are breathtaking statistics for a work with pretensions to scholarship.

Now we have a new biography. Anthony Barrett’s Caligula is neither madman nor monster. Instead he was is a product and victim of the Roman imperial system, which had been painstakingly put into place by his great-grandfather, the first emperor Augustus. He succeeded Tiberius in 37 A.D. to immense popular acclaim. The morose old emperor who had spent the last decade of his life in seclusion on the island of Capri, died at last at the age of 78, and Gaius Caligula was a breath of fresh air. Even a hostile witness like Philo Judaeus, who led a Jewish delegation to Caligula to entreat him to exempt the Jews from his decree that he be worshipped as a god, confirms the universal sense of elation. The Golden Age had returned! Then Caligula fell ill.

Barrett notes that modern scholarship has produced various diagnoses: hyperthyroidism, epidemic encephalitis, or an unexplained virus that attacked the central nervous system. “Some scholars,” he writes, “have tended to agree with Philo, that the illness was some kind of nervous breakdown caused by the stress of the first six months of his reign.” In fact, Philo Judaeus attributed the illness to too much drink and food, hot baths and overindulgence in sexual activities of every variety. When Caligula recovered, the honeymoon was over. Caligula had grown distrustful and more than a little paranoid, probably with reason. He had no obvious successor, though the emperor Tiberius had left a young grandson, Tiberius Gemellus whom he had made co-heir with Caligula in his will, which was, however, annulled. When Caligula fell ill, the predators began to circle, and when he recovered, he moved swiftly to safeguard himself. The boy Gemellus was the first to perish. And thereafter Caligula’s conduct became increasingly erratic.

Unfortunately we lack a first-rate historical source for his reign. There is a gap in the manuscripts of Tacitus’ Annals covering Caligula and the first years of Claudius. His biography in Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars is only a sketch, well-laced with gossip. The other important source, Cassius Dio, lived a century and half after Caligula, and for him Caligula’s four-year rule was a brief episode in the pageant of Roman history. The Jewish sources, Philo and Josephus, give us the story of his attempt to impose emperor worship on the Jews, but no balanced account of his reign. Barrett also makes skillful use of the coins and monuments. Probably Caligula did not entirely deserve his reputation, which is repeated casually in the second book under review here: Caligula, writes Barbara Levick, not only let things slide but was out of his mind. But he seems to have grown increasingly incoherent and insensitive as his reign progressed.

Thus he mustered an army to invade Britain; then cancelled the invasion at the last moment and ordered his troops to collect seashells which he took to Rome as booty. He built a floating bridge of boats across the Bay of Baiae, just west of Naples, paraded across it and back again, and then indulged in horseplay, ducking various unfortunate subjects into the water, some of whom drowned. Yet Barrett believes him rational enough. He was obsessed, however, with self-importance to the extent that it suppressed any sense of moral responsibility. Caligula was not another balmy King Ludwig of Bavaria, building fantastic castles out of Grimm’s fairy tales, but rather a potentate like Stalin in his later years. He was corrupted by power. “Power corrupts,” wrote Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But we finish this fine piece of scholarship with the feeling that some men seem to corrupt with remarkable alacrity, and Caligula was among their number.

As Caligula left the theatre on Jan. 24, 41 A. D. , he was cut down by officers of his Praetorian Guard, led by a tribune who had been the butt of one of his cruel jokes. His wife and child were caught and slain in the palace. Claudius had also taken refuge in the palace and might have been killed, too, except that he was found by a guardsman who instead saluted him as emperor. He was taken in a litter to the barracks of the Praetorian Guard, whose loyalty he secured with a liberal gratuity, thereby setting an unfortunate precedent for his successors. The Roman senators, who had rejoiced at Caligula’s death, accepted Claudius reluctantly; in the end, they had no choice.

How much of Claudius’s unforeseen coronation was chance and how much cool calculation? It is not likely that he was involved in the murder of Caligula. He had the officers who killed him put to death. On the other hand, he wasted no tears on Caligula. Claudius, whom everyone had underestimated, was no fool.

Barbara Levick has given us a balanced report of his reign. He took his duties seriously, and in the early years of his rule, he showed an energy that contrasted with Caligula and the elderly Tiberius. He sat regularly to hear law cases and dispense justice. Rome had seen nothing like it for 15 years. He was a poor judge: too unpredictable and emotional, but Levick points out that there was a homespun quality to his justice. His public works program was utilitarian: aqueducts, roads, and a new harbor at Ostia to accommodate the grain transports that fed Rome. No pleasure boats or palaces for him. Caligula built a huge ship to bring a great obelsik from Egypt to Rome, where it still is, standing in the midst of Bernini’s colonnade in front of St. Peter’s in Vatican City. Claudius had the ship, which was useful only for carrying obelisks, filled with concrete and sunk to form the footing for the Ostia lighthouse. And he invaded Britain. The invasion made little economic sense, but it gave Claudius a modest military reputation. His son took the name Britannicus to commemorate his victory.

But he was a flawed emperor. A slightly ridiculous figure, never accepted by Rome’s ruling classes, he depended on ex-slaves for his staff; for only among men who owed their position entirely to his favor could he find loyal aides he could trust. Levick thinks it was the weakness of his position which led him to make his last marriage, to his niece Agrippina, the mother of the future emperor Nero. It may have been Agrippina who killed him, though Claudius was old and could equally well have died of natural causes. But it was certainly she who saw to it that the next emperor was Nero, not Claudius’s son, Britannicus. Nero was the last of the line. With his death, the end came for the Julio-Claudian dynasty which had emerged from the civil war that followed Julius Caesar’s murder.

Levick’s verdict on Claudius is mixed. He began as a usurper, and in the early years of his reign he tried hard to win the favor of the Roman nobility and to acquire some prestige with the army by invading Britain. He never quite succeeded. Toward the end, he was old, tired, and too much in need of support to control the succession. A Robert Graves might give him good marks. His contemporaries were not so sure.


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