How extreme and how offensive was the emperor Gaius' self-deification?
As it has been conventionally documented, Gaius’s rule can be broadly divided into two eras: an initial golden age of democracy, humility and tax abolition giving way to a period of appalling paranoid delusion and wayward tyranny which affected most of the Empire seriously and adversely. In his 59th book, the eyewitness historian Cassius Dio explains how Gaius “gained with the multitude a certain reputation for generosity,” since he distributed to the soldiers the money that had been bequeathed them, “amounting to a thousand sesterces apiece” and even adding more. He earned favour with the people by paying in excess of the “forty-five millions bequeathed to them”, and adding the two hundred and forty sesterces, plus interest, each that they had been owed since his receiving the toga virilis. Dio goes on.
“He paid the bequests to the city troops, to the night-watch, to those of the regular army outside of Italy, and to any other army of citizens that was in the smaller forts, the city guard receiving five hundred sesterce per man, and all the others three hundred. And if he had only spent the rest of the money in a fitting manner, he would have been regarded as a generous and munificent ruler,”
While Dio asserts that it was fear of the people and soldiers that sometimes caused him to make these gifts, he notes that “in general they were made on principle; for he paid the bequests not only of Tiberius but also of his great-grandmother, as well those left to private citizens as the public ones.” Any apparent philanthropy was also quickly neutralised by his indiscriminate spending. Gaius lavished enormous amounts of wealth on people he admired: actors; horses; gladiators; women, thus exhausting extremely rapidly the wealth that had been accumulating in the treasury.
“At all events he had found in the treasury 2,300,000,000 or, according to others, 3,300,000,000 sesterces, and yet did not make any part of it last into the third year, but in his very second year found himself in need of vast sums in addition.”
Gaius’s erratic and extraordinary approach to fiscal matters, along with his mortal assumption of the title Caesar, would certainly seem to represent an unusual lack of responsibility, at odds with our conventional understanding of a good leader; but this does not necessarily point to insanity. Indeed, to suggest insanity would be to automatically relieve Gaius of responsibility for many of his harsher crimes. In order to ascertain its extremity, this essay will look at how unusual Gaius’s self-deifying behaviour truly was, in the context of the Imperial tradition.
In order to assess the Emperor’s offensiveness, it will consider some of the ways in which his behaviour and attitudes have been received. Another thread will run alongside the core of this assessment, taking into account more modern and theoretical approaches to character determination. In order to see quite how offensive the Emperor’s behaviour was, it will be necessary to explore, if not reach consensus on, what the precise nature of Emperor-character is, and whether, indeed, the figure of Gaius drawn by history can ever be real enough to sustain the weight of responsibility for the atrocities laid at its door. This investigation will be described at the end of the essay.
Before speculation or exploration, however, a sort of project of literary archaeology must be undertaken, in order to retrieve information about Gaius’s reception. Finding out how his people reacted to him, and how unusual his behaviour truly was, will represent a sort of combined project. Imperial rituals, for example, were an established convention, that had long ensured the Roman Emperor’s integration into the religious framework of the city. From 30 B.C, for example, games were celebrated every five years by one of the priest colleges, in honour of Augustus’s health. On three occasions, special “votive” games were even held, in thanks for the Emperor’s safe return to Rome. Augustus appeared in a contemporary hymn, on coins, and in the shrines in peoples’ homes. As Religions of Rome explains,
“ The numen, or divine power, of Augustus also received public honour in Rome. Although, strictly speaking, there was no official cult in the city of the living Augustus as a god, Tiberius did dedicate an altar on the Palatine next to the house of Augustus, at which the four main priestly colleges sacrificed to his numen”
While “numen” was supposed to draw attention to the difference between the Emperor and the gods, in practice, of course, it generally had the opposite effect, “There must have been all the difference (and yet none at all) between worshipping Augustus and worshipping his numen”.
The cult of post-humus Caesar entitlement looks no less suspicious to our modern eyes. Augustus was promoted to Caesar after death, an act that followed on from his life of expressed anticipation of the event; there was nothing surprising or convincingly metaphysical about the attribution. After his funeral a senior senator declared an oath that he had seen a vision of Augustus ascending to heaven. Rumours abound that the “ascension” report had been handsomely funded by the deceased’s widow, and Augustus set a precedent as a new convention of Caesar-ships being justified by Imperial visions was established. The subtle self-deification of Emperors may have been the norm, but by no means was it blindly accepted by the public, and it would be a mistake to forget that every one of the historians passing all this information on to us have their own agendas,
“Roman historians regularly use accusations…that an Emperor was claiming the status of a god as a symbol of his utter transgression of all the rules of proper behaviour. So it was recounted that Gaius Caligula, after a popular start to his reign, began to make assertions of his own personal divinity: he is said to have sat between the statues of Castor and Pollox in the temple in the Forum, showing himself to be worshipped by those who entered; he wore the clothing or attributes of a wide range of deities, and established a temple to his own godhead.”
It may indeed be the case that historians from the time, Cassius included, aimed to demonise Gaius in order to warn subsequent Emperors against subverting the Augustan numus convention. Gaius’s successor appears to have made a point of reverting to the customs of his Roman ancestors,
“he corrected various abuses, revived some old customs, or even established some new ones,” while Religions of Rome identifies a repeat pattern of “paraded transgression and reassertion of the Augustan norm” , occurring throughout the first century, and this would seem to be born out by the evidence. Nero’s excessive ambition to equal gods was followed by modest, pragmatic rule of Vespasian. Vespasian’s son Domitian, however, demanded to be addressed as “dominus et dues noster”: “our master and god”. Later, again according to Cassius Dio, Commodus became so fixated with Hercules that he had the Colossus statue converted into one of himself as Hercules. The observation of such patterns says more about the observer than any historical fact, and, of course, all opinions on the good or bad character of the Emperors are self-perpetuating through historical literature, regardless of the truth. Even modern writers have speculated on the possibility that Gaius’s evil is so intrinsic that it has been described in Biblical references to the Apocalypse,
“The ten horns are the governors of the ten Provinces of the Roman Empire (the dragon). The dragon gave power to this beast (the imperial power). The beast reigns 42 months, which is exactly the period of the reign of Caligula who reigned from the 1st July, 37 AD till the 21st January 41 AD and who wanted to be worshipped as a God (Zeus Epiphanes neos Gaios), even in the temple of Jerusalem: the absolute horror for iconoclastic monotheists.”
1: The Jewish Perspective
Gaius’s hatred of the Jews has been well documented and it does seem to have given him an excuse to expand his deification project in ways that enraged his people more than ever. Caesar and the Jews had a good relationship so the Emperor had accorded them certain privileges: they had been allowed religious freedom were able to keep the Sabbath; were exempt from military service- and in Judea Roman coins would not contain the Emperor's likeness, as a mark of respect for the Jewish ban on graven images. In the same vein, Jews were not required to participate in the imperial cult (deification). This is where Caligula fell down. The Greeks of Alexandria had long resented the exemptions that the Jews had been allowed, and railed for Caligula's statue to be erected in the Temple in Jerusalem. Riots broke out in support of this in Alexandria, and Caligula took over the notion, and ordered that his likeness be erected in the Temple.
Philo has described in length the story of Flaccus, the governor of Egypt, who he believed headed the riot at Alexandria in an attempt to win favour with Gaius and was won over by the anti-Semites. He gave the mob a free rein in their attacks upon the "alien Jews." When Agrippa, the grandson of Herod was passing through, the Alexandrian mob were roused and, as Flaccus looked on, the people attacked the Jewish quarters, sacking the houses, and assaulting anyone who tried to resist them. The most distinguished Jews were not spared, with thirty members of the Council of Elders being dragged to the marketplace and slain. Philo's account gives a picture strikingly similar to that of a modern holocaust. Ultimately, and perhaps rather ironically, the brutal indifference of Flaccus did not effectively ingratiate him with the Emperor, who had him recalled to Italy, exiled, and finally executed.
Removing Flaccus did not end the troubles, however- the mob had got out of hand and anti-Semitic demagogues were elated. What happened next seemed specifically and spitefully contrived to offend and outrage the Jews,
“The mad Emperor, having exhausted ordinary human follies, went on to imagine himself first a god and then the Supreme God, and finally ordered his image to be set up in every temple throughout his dominion. The Jews could not obey the order, and the mob rushed into fresh excesses upon them, defiled the synagogues with images of the lunatic, and in the great synagogue itself set up a bronze statue of him, inscribed with the name of Jupiter.”
The Jews, understandably, found it impossible to incorporate Emperor-worship into their religion, and appealed directly to Gaius against this attack on their liberties. An embassy was sent to lay their case before him, and Philo prepared a long philosophical "apologia" for the Jews and set out with five colleagues for Italy. The anti-semites turned out in force too, with Apion, an Alexandrian, heading a hostile deputation. In Benwich’s words,
“The emperor, Gaius, was in one of his most flippant moods and little inclined to listen to philosophical or literary disquisitions. At first he received the Jewish deputation in a friendly way, and led them to think that he was favorable; but when they came to plead their cause…he behaved like an insolent, overbearing tyrant,”
He goes on to explain how this uncomfortable audience “if it can be so called” occurred around the palace gardens, with Gaius dragging “the unfortunate deputation” from one place to another around the palace, appearing not to listen, and shouting orders to his gardeners and other servants. Any time the hapless, bewildered, Jews attempted to present their case, the Emperor would speed ahead, apparently enjoying the fear evident in the faces of his visitors. On occasion he would make what must have seemed like taunting and heartlessly racist remarks, "Why don't you eat pork, you fools?", which were nevertheless heartily enjoyed by the Egyptians and the humour of which is probably slightly lost to us now.
Ultimately, the issue never arose because the statue never arrived: in 41 Caligula was assassinated by an officer the Emperor had offended, a member of the Praetorian Guard. In this way, then, it has been argued that Caligula’s deification was linked to his anti-Semitism, which was in turn connected to his assassination. Philo, perhaps typically of the Jewish population of the time, believed that Caligula’s anti-semitism derived from his self-deification: a kind of jealousy of the one race in his kingdom that insisted upon worshipping a single god and could make no room for him.
Of course, nothing is ever this simple. It is in actual fact rather unlikely that the Greeks erected images of Gaius in Synagogues as a sort of specious display of loyalty, in an effort to protect themselves from Gaius’s reprisal for previous crimes. While this argument is certainly appealling, as it justifies the Greek’s behaviour where they would otherwise seem to be guilty of wanton violence, there is no mention of this in either of Philo’s accounts of the story, Legatio and In Flaccum. In the Legatio, Philo writes that,
“the synagogues which (the Greeks) could not destroy either by fire or by demolition, because large numbers of Jews lived crowded together close by, they outraged in a different way, which involved the overthrow of our laws and customs. They placed portraits of Gaius in all of them.”
This passage, as Mary Smallwood argues in Philonis Alexandrini, suggests that Philo believed the Greeks’ principal intention was not to atone for former crimes or ingratiate themselves to the Emperor, but simply to disrupt the local Jewish community by removing their places of worship. In Smallwood’s terms,
“Desecration was resorted to only as a second-best in cases where wholesale destruction proved impracticable. Erecting an effigy of Gaius could be done more quickly and unobtrusively than destroying a building or burning it down, and therefore this method of rendering the synagogues unfit for Jewish worship was adopted in areas (where) attempts at arson or demolition (could be) observed and resisted.”
This argument would seem to work in Gaius’s favour. As Philo says in Legatio 137, installing portraits of Gaius in synagogues was likely to have been one stage of a scheme to damage the Jews, and not an end in itself, a distraction from an earlier crime. Similarly, if the Greeks intention had been to honour Gaius, destroying synagogues would have been an illogical method, as it would have destroyed the dedications to Emperors that already existed inside them. Smallwood’s conclusion throws a very different light on Gaius’s “self-deification”,
“On the whole, therefore, it seems most probable that the Greek mob, excited by the success of the Carabas episode, simply lost control of itself and acted completely recklessly in disregard of possible consequences, and that the motive behind its behaviour was not self-protection but mere jealousy and hatred of the Jews.”
Hence not only was Gaius not directly responsible for the historically recorded pogrom, but his name has been broadly used as an excuse by Greek apologists ever since, and their argument appears to have been seldom challenged. Caligula’s tyrannical acts of self-deification seem to have been accepted as fact to the extent that there is a great and persuasive wealth of evidential source materials that can now be used to retrospectively support the stories.
The Jewish part of Gaius’s story is integral, rather than incidental. Mainly thanks to Philo, perhaps, a large part of what we understand as Gaius’s character derives from the representation of his relationship with the Jewish people. The personality of an Emperor or King is a unique thing: it must straddle subjectivity and spirituality, and barely has room for reality’s appraisal. Gaius found himself preoccupied with the artifice of his role, and was profoundly unnerved by the awareness he alone seemed to have that the power of an Emperor resides precisely in that artifice.
Precisely like a deity, there is enormous power in the Imperial name, and politics, like religion, relies on an equivalent value of faith, invested in the leader, in order to sustain itself. Gaius knew that he could be more effective than the Roman deities, since his position came already filled with an enormous presumption of public faith. By folding into himself those aspects of public life the deities had been entrusted with, Gaius demanded less, not more, faith from his public.
The gods no longer demanded religious belief: they were bureaucratic tools.
Certainly, they made oaths and deals turn around faster, ensured clear boundaries between allies and enemies, embodied traditions and cultural rituals that sustained security and familiarity, and put faces and personalities to a set of rules and recommendations for a good life. But the gods did not ask people to believe they had any metaphysical value at all. The gods were pragmatic, but there was nothing mystical about them. When Philo suggests that Gaius might have done better to have emulated the behaviour of the gods, rather than their dress, he is making one good point, but missing the main one. The gods are their dress: it was this fact which Gaius tried to demonstrate, colourfully, ostentatiously, notoriously.
It is quite clear from Philo that the Jews objected to Gaius’s encroachment on presumptions of faith even more than they objected to any basic anti-semitism. Gaius may have been cruel towards the Jews, but, as even the Jewish commentaries show, he was cruel towards everyone, so this doesn’t prove very much. The Emperor’s efforts to deny his role, even as he seemed to enjoy it, offended the Jews. He constantly strove to experiment with other roles and personalities, playing at fictional characters- fictional, like the gods.
The blatancy of Gaius’s awareness of his own power was what offended the Jewish people more than anything. He exercised and enjoyed power so capably that he was a constant reminder, and a genuine threat to those who still believed their faith in religion represented a shareholder stake in the governance of the Empire. Thus through his obvious power that demanded neither gods nor believers in his own deity, Gaius was a living contradiction to anyone asserting religious the need for faith. The Jews, as the only significantly outspoken race to uphold their religion at the time, were understandably concerned.
2: Madness and the Impersonation of gods
The Romans maintained a pragmatic approach to their gods, assigning each a particular office that was then worshipped in place of personalities in the stories. In this way, religion was connected to the fundamental economics of agriculture. Rome found itself personified as a principle deity; some Greek gods were admitted to their pantheon, and deities were adapted according to the needs of the Romans.
Roman religion was controlled by the state, and each house-hold maintained shrines dedicated to fertility and plenty, with individuals being exempt from the religious rituals. These were generally carried out by priests and those allocated papal authority. This system continued until the “state cult” was overtaken by the Imperial one. Following Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, he was declared god by the Roman Senate, setting up a tradition of deification of strong emperors continued and while most preferred to rule under the aegis of a greater deity than themselves, the most popular being Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun.
“(Gaius) changed his appearance and dress to those of Apollo. He wore a radiant crown, grasped a bow and arrows in his left hand…choirs…singing paeans to him- choirs which had shortly before been calling him Bacchus, Evaeus, and Lyaeus, and chanting hymns in his honour, when he assumed the costume of Dionysus.”
The allocation of responsibility for this extraordinary phenomenon remains frustratingly unclear. The evidence seems to suggest that the people are often equally as responsible for the glorification of their leaders as the Emperors themselves. Gaius’s “bad press” has drawn on stories of his own deific affectations and magnified them to the point where they have eclipsed everything else. As such his self-deification may not have been that unusual or extreme, but has become so for the sake of retrospective scapegoating. Gaius, perhaps almost arbitrarily, but probably as a result of his convenient mental illness, has come to stand for everything despicable in Roman culture. Philo took pains to record his untrustworthiness, relating this to his fondness of actors,
“Gaius kept changing his masks as on a stage, and so misled his audience by his deceptive appearances”
The stories about Gaius’s antics are equally compelling and ridiculous, describing his incestuous relationships with his sisters, the building of a pontoon bridge across the Bay at Baiae, ludicrous battle plans, and, perhaps most notoriously, his intentions to make his horse a consul. Scholarship today seems to have reached an almost unanimous consensus that Gaius was insane.
The blanket hostility of the ancient commentators must generate suspicion about their claims, particularly as Gaius's actions fit uncannily into the model of the ancient tyrant , a specific type enshrined in Greco-Roman literary tradition long before his reign. In reality, it seems, he was nervous and strange, and inadvertently gave plenty of fodder to those looking for evidence of mental unsoundness. He was spoke poorly in public, becoming so excited that his words would pour out and he had to keep moving around. He didn’t sleep well, often only three hours a night, and was driven by frustration to wander through his quarters calling for dawn. When he did sleep, he was often disturbed by vivid nightmares.
According to Suetonius, he was terrified of storms, which caused him to hide under the bed. Barrett treats such stories with suspicion, since “Such anecdotes were traditionally told about Emperors. Augustus, for instance, supposedly hid in an underground room during thunderstorms, and Tiberius was said to be so terrified by storms that he wore a laurel wreath.” The wealth of anecdotes relating Gaius’s arrogance to storms in different ways is telling, effectively portraying him either as a pathetic upstart, brought to his knees by the elements, or as dangerously cock-sure, raging at the sky.
Suetonius reports how Caligula held conversations with a statue of Jupiter in the temple on the Capitoline Hill, apparently challenging the god with the words Ajax cried to Odysseus in the wrestling match of Homer’s Illiad, “Lift me, or I’ll lift you!” Cassius Dio’s version of the story maintains the image of the Emperor as self-inflated with a childish temper, and again the themes of impersonation and god-challenging arise. He describes Gaius’s thunder machine, a device which, apparently , echoed the thunder in the sky and issues flashes of light when lightening was in the air. In Dio’s account, whenever a bolt fell, Gaius threw a javelin at a rock and shouted Ajax’s challenge. Seneca records a different version again. Gaius had been eagerly planning a theatrical show, and aimed to produce it himself, when a violent thunderstorm struck which suddenly washed away the whole set. It seems feasible that he would have shouted Ajax’s words in anger, here, not in madness or as a blaspheming challenge to the gods.
However, it seems to me that even Seneca’s relatively sympathetic version of the challenge is contrived against Gaius. The theme of suspicious and childish deception is still present in core premise of the anecdote: that Gaius is an actor; and the cautionary aspect, the moral, hinges on the assumption that Gaius’s acting is an insult to the gods and something to be wary of. It seems Gaius’s interest in acting and the theatre represents a ready-made analogy for moral commentators to use in support of their claim- but this does not make any of their claims true.
As the only eyewitness commentary, Philo's Embassy to Gaius, does not detail any clear and indisputable actions of an insane man. Philo conveys a sense of someone arrogant, highly-strung and capricious, certainly, and with a rapier wit, but not necessarily mad. As Fagan observes,
“The best explanation both for Gaius's behavior and the subsequent hostility of the sources is that he was an inexperienced young man thrust into a position of unlimited power, the true nature of which had been carefully disguised by its founder, Augustus. Gaius, however, saw through the disguise and began to act accordingly. This, coupled with his troubled upbringing and almost complete lack of tact led to behaviour that struck his contemporaries as extreme, even insane.”
One plausible explanation for the impression of madness Gaius seemed to project can be attributed to what Barrett describes as, “his own ironical view of the world, not fully understood in his time, and much distorted in the tradition.” Yet, while compelling, Barrett’s claims that Gaius was a skilled rhetorician ahead of his time seem almost too radical, leaving one wondering whether Barrett too has been seduced by a kind of trans-centurial Imperial charisma. This theory does give a novel spin to Philo’s accounts of the anti-Semitic insults, however. In Barrett’s terms, “The Jews were no more capable of understanding Caligula’s humour than were the Romans.” When Gaius met them with the greeting “haters of the gods,” the dismayed Jews protested that they had offered sacrifices. Gaius’s witty remark that the sacrifices had been offered “for him, not to him”, apparently terrified the Jews, but it is indeed quite possible he was exercising his linguistic and rhetorical muscles through elaborate word play.
“When he asked ‘Why don’t you eat pork?’ everyone, apart from the Jews, burst into loud peals of laughter…the precise point of the joke, so well received, is lost to us…but the Wildean character of his follow-up is readily apparent. When the Jews pointed out that in avoiding pork they were not exceptional, since other communities had dietary prohibitions against ordinary foods, such as lamb, ‘Quite right too,’ was his reply, ‘It isn’t nice!’”
Gaius’s treatment of the desperate, if humourless, Jews, is inconsiderate from any angle. But, while Barrett’s interpretation of it as a harmless exhibition of wit is probably a step to far, there is no indication of insanity here. When the Jews came to ask Gaius to consider their political rights, he drove them to despair, leading them from room to room while pitching orders to his servants and feigning inattention. This behaviour, witty or otherwise, surely stems from ingrained distaste with the people appealing to him, but it is some leap to assert that it was their Judaism with which he had a problem. Caligula ended the meeting with a remark about sparing the Jews, who he had decided to treat as misguided lunatics rather than criminals, in their inability to believe in his divinity. If it is present, then the irony is strong; the problem, as ever, is that we have no way of knowing whether it is.
Some portion of the outcry against Gaius’s deification is relatively easy to counter. When Balsdon writes that, “When Drusilla was born, he placed on the knees of the statue of Jupiter, ‘thereby hinting that she was Jupiter’s child’,” and “he asked Apelles the actor whether he thought Jupiter or Gaius the greater, and tortured him for hesitating over the answer,” we are presented, respectively, with biased speculation, and what sounds remarkably like anecdotal exaggeration. His fondness for acting and fancy dress was unfortunate, since it provided a perfect vehicle for endless speculative elaboration on his supposed divine intentions,
“he displayed himself at Rome in the traditional costume of gods and goddesses, as Jupiter, Neptune, Hercules, Bacchus, Apollo, and even as Juno, Diana and Venus,”
and has subsequently made it much more difficult to determine his motivations, sanity, and the context of his remarks and behaviour. Suetonius and Cassius Dio perceive his habit of dressing as gods as an extension of his irresistible desire to dress himself in fanciful costume. The desire has proved both unfortunate and confusing. As Balsdon puts it,
“ It is suggested that Gaius, in the spirit of Antiochus Epiphanes, wished to represent himself as the embodiment of all the Olympian gods, just as Drusilla, after her consecration as Panthea, became the divine personification of all goddesses. We may well ask in that case why it was necessary for Gaius to trespass on what should have been Drusilla’s recognised territory, and to impersonate goddesses as well as gods. On the other hand, it has been urged that Gaius was merely introducing to Rome what had been the normal practices of the Hellenistic monarchs.”
Gaius’s attitude to the gods, and the reaction of the public to him, may be convincingly contextualised by a good deal of contemporary literature that seems to support the notion that the gods were essentially anthropomorphic entities, and representative of neither ethics nor metaphysical alternate realities. To the Romans, gods were appreciated for their distinct identities, marked, in turn, by their distinct attributes. Emperor’s were, however, notoriously arreligious by this stage, and Gaius caused as much offence as any of them- but, it would seem, no more. While Gaius aimed to abolish what he perceived as antiquated traditions, he did not offer himself as an exact replacement of the ancient, polytheistic, religious cult.
Certainly, there are rumours that Gaius had a temple constructed in Asia, but it is unclear whether this was actually built. Also, he was following an established tradition in this- there already existed a temple of Augustus and Rome at Pergamon and one of Tiberius, Julia Augusta and the Senate at Smyrna. The form of his dedication differed, however: the temple was erected to honour him alone, not Gaius and Rome or Gaius and the Senate. He had a temple erected on the Palatine, entirely at his own expense, and apparently in honour of his own divinity, “numini suo proprium.” In this temple he aimed to place a statue of Zeus, and according to Seutonius, decapitate it and replace it with an image of his own head. As Seutonius describes it he sounds like an interminable monster,
“ He also set up a special temple to his own godhead, with priests and with victims of the choicest kind. 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. The richest citizens used all their influence to secure the priesthoods of his cult and bid high for