Mary Beard: Caligula was a sadistic, perverted megalomaniac – but he didn’t eat his sister’s baby

The historian reveals the truth about the most notorious Roman emperor

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Emperors of ancient Rome were generally an unpleasant lot, but Caligula was the most sadistic, depraved and tyrannical of all. To be sure, he has some competition in Nero – who burnt Christians alive and kicked his pregnant wife to death – and also in the less well-known Elagabalus – who, during a very short reign in the third century AD, smothered his dinner guests with rose petals and is said never to have worn the same pair of shoes twice. But it is with Caligula that all the classic signs of the mad autocrat really come together.

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Top of the list is sexual perversion. He is said to have committed incest with each of his three sisters, not to mention wearing out his long- suffering male lovers with his insatiable appetite. But this was backed up by a nasty line in capricious and ingenious cruelty – one of his dinner-time jokes was to chuckle to himself, then say to his guests, “Ho ho, I’ve just realised that I could click my fingers and have all your heads cut off.”

No less shocking to the Roman in the street was his megalomania. Imagine the reaction when he claimed he was a living god (and used to sit in a temple to receive offerings from his worshippers), or when he gave his favourite horse its own miniature palace and made it a “consul” – head of the Roman government.

Caligula was only the third emperor of Rome, reigning between AD 37 and 41, when he was assassinated, aged just 28. He was not a symptom of the decadence of a declining power. Almost as soon as their empire was established, Romans knew what it was like for one-man rule to go horribly wrong. And it’s an image of tyranny that we have inherited. When we look at the cruelty and excess of the Pol Pots, the Kim Il-sungs and the Colonel Gaddafis of our own world, it’s not hard to spot a little bit of Caligula in them all (François Mitterrand once joked that Margaret Thatcher had the “eyes of Caligula”).

It was no surprise then that when Bob Guccione in 1979 made his infamous soft-porn movie of Roman depravity, it was Caligula who took the title role. And no surprise that in the classic BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’s novel I, Claudius, Caligula (played by John Hurt) is the most powerful symbol of tyranny, madness and corruption.

There is a wonderful walk-on part for the favourite horse, and the most shockingly memorable scene of the whole series is the appearance of Caligula’s bloody face in full screen – having just (off screen!) ripped the foetus of his own child out of his pregnant sister’s body and eaten it, in imitation of the god Jupiter, who in Roman myth had done much the same. This incident was a complete figment of the screenwriter’s imagination, but it captures horribly well the image of this ghastly emperor.

Fiction apart, how much of this can we actually believe? Was he really as bad as he is painted? How much is just Roman gossip – no more accurate than those tall stories we sometimes tell about modern royals. (Does Prince Charles really have a servant to squeeze his toothpaste onto his toothbrush? I very much doubt it somehow.)

Over the past few months I’ve had a curious kind of “date” with Caligula, trying to get to know him better, scratching the surface of the famous stories to see how far we can tell the lurid fantasy from the sometimes equally lurid truth.

It turns out that we know both less and a lot more about Caligula than you might think. Of course, we can never be sure whether the tales of incest with his sisters are true (it’s hard enough to know what your neighbours get up to in the bedroom; it’s nigh on impossible to know what went on in the Roman imperial bedroom 2,000 years ago).

And it is also frustratingly difficult to reconstruct any reliable account of what happened over the course of his very short reign. Was he excessively bad from the beginning? Or did some catastrophic event turn him into a monster – an illness, some historians have suggested, or a conspiracy against him that awakened his paranoia? We simply don’t know.

But, hidden away in ancient literature and in far-flung museums, we do find some amazingly vivid, and little-known, glimpses of the real Caligula – from his childhood spent parcelled round the army camps of the empire, the celebrity baby of his blue-blooded mum and dad, through his later passion for interior design, fancy shoes and luxury yachts, to his step-by-step movements on the day of his death.

Thanks to a long account by a Jewish historian, Josephus (who seems to have got information from an eye-witness), we have precise circumstantial details of how, when and why his assassins killed him. They were a motley crew of army officers, senators and his own slaves and servants: some highly principled freedom- fighters, others bearing all kinds of personal grudges, others simply on the make.

The would-be assassins were disorganised, and for ages couldn’t work out how to do it. Eventually they fixed on the day of some theatrical shows taking place just outside Caligula’s palace. As their luck would have it, the emperor decided to leave the theatre, skip lunch (as he had a frightful hangover) and take a bath instead. This led him, all alone, down a back alley in the palace compound, where they managed to jump on him and finish him off with their swords (the first blow went to his chin or neck, but many others followed – lurid gossip later claimed the murderers ate his flesh). Josephus’s description is so detailed that we can still, more or less, retrace Caligula’s steps and visit the spot where he met his end. And that’s where our documentary starts.

But there’s more than just a nasty murder story here. This chilling account of assassination within the palace walls reminds us just how dangerous the world of the Roman imperial court was, and how it must have been a breeding ground for just the kind of stories that grew up around Caligula. The emperor was in one sense “the king of his castle”, but he was also its prisoner, forced to rely on courtiers, soldiers and servants he couldn’t quite trust, and who might at any minute have the knives out for him – literally.

Later emperors took practical steps to protect themselves. One is said to have had the palace walls lined with mirrors, so he really could see who was coming up behind. So what about that story of Caligula making his horse a consul? Where does that fit in? If you watch the programme, you’ll discover what my guess is. It’s a guess that briefly turns the spotlight onto the corgis of our own (very unCaligulan) Queen.

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Caligula with Mary Beard is tonight at 9pm on BBC2