Gaius Caligula has become a study in tyranny. He has entered popular culture as the prime example of Lord Acton’s cautious adage ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. In the late 1930s the French playwright and philosopher Albert Camus was drawn to Caligula for an exploration of power and amorality which could be seen as a treatment of fascism. Later dramatisations explored the limits of madness and sexual excess. Alongside Nero, Caligula can be seen as a warning about the concentration of power in the hands of any one individual.
Gaius was the son of Agrippina and the beloved Germanicus, and great-grandson of both Augustus and Antony. In him, the imperial house, so long divided, was united. The friends of Agrippina would have been pleased at the accession of her son. The friends of Tiberius could console themselves that he had been chosen by the old emperor. He was a young man, 24, and great things could be expected of him. The senate accepted him with a show of enthusiasm.
Unlike Tiberius, who had held all the formal powers of emperor before his accession, Gaius had held no important office. His accession followed few of the patterns of the Tiberian accession. Gaius needed to acquire the powers of emperor and these had to be voted to him by a legal act. There could be no pretence over what was happening and no continuity with the legal arrangements of the Tiberian period. Consequently, the powers that defined the imperial position needed to be bundled together in a single legislative act, a lex de imperio. Although we do not have the law by which Gaius became emperor, we do have a similar law for Vespasian’s accession.
The senate set aside the will of Tiberius which had made him co-ruler with his cousin, Tiberius Gemellus (Tiberius’ grandson), who was still a minor. A child could not hold a magisterial position, but could be an heir. As Tiberius could only bequeath his private wealth, there should have been no problem. But sorting out what was private and what was public was complicated (e.g. Did Tiberius own the palaces, or were they res publica (public things?). All problems were resolved if the will was set aside and Gaius made sole heir.
The process of accession was not just about law: it was also about politics. Tiberius Gemellus was too young to have any support and he had no prominent male to protect him. Gaius had much in his favour:
- The people had supported Gaius’ family in the face of imperial persecution.
- The troops probably welcomed him as the son of Germanicus.
- Many of the senators probably welcomed the death of Tiberius and the prospect of a fresh start.
- The new commander of the praetorians, Macro, was closely tied to Caligula.
- Gaius’ father-in-law, Marcus Silanus, was a respected and senior member of the senate. He could be expected to guide the young man and manage his relations with the senators.
- He had been part of the imperial court on Capri and one assumes that the friends of Tiberius had made every effort to ingratiate themselves with the heir presumptive.
- One suspects that his major political asset was, after the horrors of the Tiberian period, he was not Tiberius.
Gaius assumed power smoothly. Within six months his support was ebbing away. Within four years, he was murdered
The standard explanation is that Gaius went mad. There are, however, reasons to worry about that explanation,. Not least, living as we do in an era when we have a greater understanding of mental illness, being ‘mad’ needs closer definition. Gaius’ reign allows us to consider issues of:
- rationality and the models of power
- the treatment of a failed emperor by hostile sources
- the models of imperial power by which the Romans understood their politics
- faults and failures in the imperial system
In following up these issues, we will look at