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12 Books in 12 Months

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caesars

Revisionism and Excerpts

As I suspected a few posts back, Roman historians like Suetonius were pretty biased against Caligula, and had a tendency to write down the most outrageous rumours without assessing their validity in any way.  So whilst what I have written so far is stuff a bit like:

Had to have a consul executed today.  He forgot to announce my birthday in the public records.  Seriously.  A child of five could have remembered to do that.

Now I’m wondering whether he was actually as bad as all that.  The gaps in historical evidence make it hard to judge, but it seems pretty clear that it was in the interests of all the sources that survive from the time (Suetonius, Dio, Claudius, Seneca) to make Caligula out to be an evil nutjob.  So, the question is really whether to go with them and write him in a sort of cartoony, madder than a box of snakes type of way, or to take on board the revisionist work available and write him with a bit of empathy. 

My answer to this is to try both.

Perhaps I should use Incitatus [the horse he was meant to have made a consul, according to Suetonius] to upset senate a bit more.  That’s always fun – I still get a kick out of the time I made them run alongside my litter for ten miles in the blazing sun.  Served them right – all that time feasting and sitting indoors and conspiring to kill me makes them pasty and unfit.  They should try going to battle, see what that does for them.

I think I will commission a legion of men to carve Incitatus a stable of marble.  And he will have a collar blazing with precious jewels, and a manger of ivory.  I’ll have the grooms mix flakes of gold into his food, too.  He will live in as lavish and decadent a manner as the gods themselves.  Senate will be furious!  But frankly that horse is twice as clever as all of them put together.  Self important, plotting dunderheads that they are.  They’ll soon learn that they can’t have any effect on me.

Caligula’s Adiatrepsia

As January’s book is Caligula’s Blog, today I have mostly been reading a book about Caligula by a Roman historian called Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.  It’s essentially a massive list of the crazy stuff he did, which is very handy from my point of view because each item can be a blog entry (or several).

I haven’t finished it yet, but some of the highlights have included:

– Caligula having a gold statue made of himself.  Every day some lucky slave got to dress it up in clothes identical to whatever the man himself had thrown on that morning.

– Inviting the moon to go to bed with him every time it was full.  Well, I assume he was after the goddess of the moon rather than the lump of rock, although he pretty much seemed to do anything and anyone that stayed still long enough…  I will look into that.

– On meeting handsome men with good hair, he had the backs of their heads shaved to make them look daft.  He wanted to be the sexiest, you see.  Perhaps making other men look bad would detract from the fact he was a terrifying, all-powerful sex pest.

– He apparently described his maternal grandmother as “Ulysses in a dress.”  He didn’t like her very much.

– He referred to signing execution lists as “clearing his accounts.”  As you may have gathered, he was a sensitive soul.

– He liked to get members of Senate to run alongside his litter for several miles at a time.  A bit like having a performing animal, I suppose.

– Lots more things, but I’m not going to list them all.  They’ll be in the blog…

I don’t know much about Suetonius himself yet, so won’t be 100% sure how reliable he is as a source till I’ve done some more research on him.  I do know that the man had some lovely turns of phrase and that several subsequent biographies of the Caesars were based on his works.  Also, he was mates with Pliny The Younger, which is interesting in the sort of way that makes you say, “oh really?” because you’ve vaguely heard of him.

Which is nice.

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