Friday, August 24, 2012

Holy Shit, Caligula!

Stop right there! I know what you're thinking. "Oh, Caligula, that crazy Roman Emperor. This one's gonna be all about how insane he was." Perish the thought, my history buff friend, for I have come not to rehash old oddities, but to make you honest-to-god mutter, "Holy shit." That's why I'm here to tell you that Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, or "Little Boot" to his friends, was likely not insane, and was, in fact, merely a colossal douchebag.

The reports of Caligula's madness are entertaining enough, but they all have one pretty important explanation: Caligula was the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated after the fall of the Republic. He was assassinated by a conspiracy that consisted of a very large portion of Roman nobility. While he was vastly popular amongst the plebeians, who do you think had more sway over written history: the illiterate underclasses or the elite, educated folks in power?

A lot of this shows through the accounts of insanity that Roman historians gave us. One of the most popular stories is of how Caligula said he was going to make his favorite horse a consul. Pretty crazy, right? Silly Little Boot. Horses can't even talk, much less become lawmakers! Why don't you sit quietly in the corner while grownups work with the government?

That sort of attitude is a bit misguided. Caligula probably did promise to make his horse a consul, but it wasn't because he thought the horse would actually be good at it. In fact, he was well aware that a horse would make a terrible legislator. That's the point. He was making a statement, telling the Senate, "I'm so much more important than you, I could put my big dumb horse in a higher office than any of you. So suck it."

Most of the other rumors are what you would expect from a posthumous defamation campaign: sexual depravity, murder, etc. If you look at some of the things that actually got done under his reign, though, the insanity thing starts to lose even more traction. He created new aqueducts to improve the flow of water in Rome. He published public funds, creating unprecedented financial transparency for the Roman government. He brought back democratic elections. One of his political enemies (you know, the ones who called him crazy) said that giving the vote to the lower classes "delighted the rabble, but grieved the sensible."

Now, don't get me wrong, it certainly wasn't all peachy roses under Caligula. He also spent vast sums of money on extravagant personal construction projects. When people spoke out against him, he often circumvented the whole "democracy" thing and just had them put to death. When they got mad at him, he told them they were all dumber and less important than his horse. So that's pretty mean.

Still, the thing that's important to remember is that Rome actually did pretty well under Caligula. When you compare him to some of the other Emperors and statesmen of the era, he really wasn't that bad, and he very likely wasn't actually insane. He was just kind of a jerk. As it turns out, being kind of a jerk can make you seem like a demon-spawned lunatic if the right sources survive the march of time.

The thing that really blows my mind, though, is how trusting we are of the source. The same people who called our own system of government insensible compared to an oligarchy are the ones who called Mr. Boot insane, and we just said, "Okay." Holy shit. That's messed up.

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