Finance under Gaius is a puzzle. The sources provide three figures for the amount left by Tiberius in the treasury: 2,300,000,000 or 2,700,000,000, 3,300,000,000 sesterces (Dio, 59.2; Suetonius, Gaius 37). The difference is puzzling given that Gaius published figures n the imperial finances at his accession. This is clearly a substantial accumulated resource, sufficient to pay 3,000,000 soldiers for a year. It is normally assumed that military expenditure was the largest element in the imperial budget.
There was considerable expenditure during Gaius’ first months. There were gifts to the people, bequests from Tiberius, and rewards for the soldiers. There were shows to be put on. The court was probably also extravagant to celebrate the new reign.
The key sources are clear that Gaius ran out of money (Suetonius, Gaius 38-41). The new taxes levied on the plebs are explained by money worries. His rapacity in Gaul and the killing of leading figures of the Gallic nobility is also attributed to a need for cash (Dio, 59.21-22). His recruitment of priests for his cult is seen as a money-making measure (Dio, 59. 28). Wealthy Romans were seemingly detected in criminal activity simply so that Gaius could secure their cash (Dio, 59.14).
If we assume that a wealthy Roman would produce on average 4,000,000 sesterces, the treasury should have been healthily replete with cash. Gaius had no major rebellions that would have interfered with tax incomes, nor any natural disasters that would oblige him to offer a tax rebate.
How could he spend so much money so quickly?
- The obvious answer is unbelievably reckless expenditure.
- The less obvious answer is that he didn’t run out of money. One of the standard accusations to level against a tyrannous regime is that it killed people for their money. We can understand the claim as being a standard trope about tyrants. We might thus disbelieve them.
- More interesting is the possibility that because tyrants killed people for money, Gaius did precisely that. Taking people’s lives for their money was a potent act of political terrorism. If we believe that Gaius forced people into sexual intercourse to demonstrate his power, is ti so unlikely that he killed people for their money to demonstrate his power?
The Imperial Household
For fairly obvious reasons, Gaius’ management of his household is rather lost in the whirl of insanity that surrounded his dealings with others. But there is just a hint of things to come under Claudius. When Gaius took against Domitius Afer, Callistus, a freedman of the emperor, intervened on Domitius’ behalf. He is even said to have criticised the emperor for bringing a complaint against Domitius (Dio, 59.19).
What does the anecdote suggest?
- Most obviously, Callistus had influence with Gaius, even though he was only a freedman.
- There was a capacity for rational discussion of Gaius’ behaviour, even criticism, which might point to there being rationality in Gaius’ actions than the dominant narrative would have us think.
- Freedmen (or at least this one) had real power and could cultivate the friendship of leading aristocrats, such as Domitius.
Callistus also appears in the assassination story (Dio, 59.25; 29).
We have another figure of the household attested playing a major role, Helicon. Helicon was a slave of Egyptian origin who rose in the imperial house under Tiberius, but achieved particular prominence under Gaius. He played a destructive role in the relationship between Gaius and the Jews of Alexandria and is singled out for vehement criticism by Philo (Legatio ad Gaium, 26 (166-170))
- How did the Empire survive an emperor like Gaius?
Emperors relied on those around them to do much of the basic work in running an empire. Many of the leadership roles were taken by senators. It is too easy to assume that because Gaius was hostile to many in the senate, he was hostile to all. The senate was not a unit; it was a collection of individuals. As some lost from the hostility of Gaius, some won from his friendship.
The emperor relied on his household to do much of the basic administration. Callistus and his colleagues probably kept the imperial boat afloat. Hence, Callistus and Helicon were men of power and influence, to whom Gaius listened, in spite of their status as freedmen, and hence anyone who wanted to influence Gaius would benefit from their friendship.
Foreign Administration and the Empire
Gaius was in power for a short period. His administrative record was, however, disastrous. His time in Gaul was marked by conflict with the Gallic aristocracy and the removal of an experienced governor (Dio, 59.21). His most serious problems, however, came in the East. These are associated with the Jewish community: these can be discussed as a form of anti-semitism. His policies saw Alexandria, second city of the Empire, convulsed by inter-communal violence. He removed the governor Flaccus. His plans for the treatment of the Temple in Jerusalem threatened a major war in Syria-Judaea and brought him into conflict with Petronius, the governor of Syria.
The previous governor of Syria, Vitellius, was also summoned back to Rome to face execution, for reasons not related by our sources (Dio, 59.27). Vitellius had forcibly intervened on the Armenia frontier to bring the Parthian Artabanus to peace. It is difficult not to relate these events to one of Gaius’ greater extravagances, the bridging of the bay of Naples at Baiae. Represented by Dio (59.17) and Suetonius (Gaius, 19) as reckless extravagance, the bridging of the bay was an obvious allusion to Xerxes bridging the Hellespont so as to invade Thrace. Gaius dressed as Alexander the Great, conqueror of Persia, for the event and the Persian prince Darius was in the party. The message was not subtle: the Romans were coming!
Observations and Problems
Any evaluative judgement on Gaius’ administration would need to take into account the extreme nature of the sources’ treatments of his regime. As far as I can see, there was some policy at work in some of the decisions. But one cannot escape the fact that in so many areas of his government, so much went wrong.