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Madness and the Presentation of Power

The Madness of Gaius

It is impossible to attempt a psychological diagnosis on a figure as complex as Gaius who lived so long ago. Mental derangement is an easy answer to the problems posed by his rule, but not, in my view, a satisfactory answer.

There is nevertheless supporting evidence.

  1. A grave illness in 37, the first year of his reign, could be taken as marking a change in the regime and his mental state (Dio, 59.8). On his recovery, he ordered the death of Tiberius Gemellus. Publius Afranius Potitius promised to give up his life if Gaius recovered. Gaius insisted that he keep his word. An equestrian promised to fight in the arena and so to the arena he was sent. Marcus Silanus took his own life, possibly under threat from Gaius. Nevertheless, although Gaius’ rule had started well and he had briefly enjoyed good relations with the senators, the first six months of the regime are hardly enough to create a pattern of rational rule against which to set the problems after the illness.
  2. Suetonius (Gaius 50)  discusses his ‘weakness of the mind’ and suggests that it was due to a love potion given to him by Caesonia. He suffered from insomnia and bad dreams, as one might if one had done what Gaius had done. As a youth he suffered from epilepsy. But none of this amounts to nothing much more than the information that he was balding.
  3. He talked to gods.
  4. He was violent and cruel in his personal relations.

The most extended account of an interaction with Gaius comes from Philo’s account in the Legatio ad Gaium (Embassy to Gaius). The embassy was sent to represent the Jews of Alexandria who were under attack from the Greeks of the city. Gaius was near impossible to deal with. Once the Jews secured an audience, he wandered around his palace, forcing them to follow him about. He made slighting remarks. He made jokes at their expense. He showed every sign of not concentrating on a conflict that was causing the deaths of his subjects. He was certainly cruel and capricious, but not irrational.

Rationality and Irrationality in Rome

What is to be mad?

We could define madness as an extreme state of psychological distress which has various manifestations. Issues of this sort tend to be treated to psychologists. Talking to gods, seeing things that are not there, or hearing voices might be manifestations of extreme psychological disturbance.

In more colloquial terms, we define madness as irrational behaviour. This may include behaving in ignorance of social conventions or of the operation of society.

If seems clear that Gaius deviated from many accepted conventions of Roman society and, indeed, of normal social relations. The cruelty, the sexual violence, and the capricious politics point to a failing to adhere to normal rules of sociability. The adoption of divine attributes and the sexual deviancy are more extreme manifestations of unacceptable and unconventional behaviours. One might see these as sociopathic or psychopathic behaviour, but it is not evidently irrational.

Power and Conventions

Rome was a deeply conventional society. Romans looked to their ancestors for moral guidance. The customs of the ancestors provided guidance on how to behave. They also provided guidance on respecting the various hierarchies of Roman society: these included the honouring of the gods, of family, the treatment of women (and women’s treatment of men), and inter-personal relations. These conventions encouraged a respect for one’s elders and social superiors. They encouraged the subjugation of women to men. They connected the functioning of institutions such as marriage and the Roman family with the continuity of Roman society.

  • So what happens if you cut away from these values?
  • What happens if you refuse to be bound by these conventions?
  • Why might one choose not to be bound by those conventions?

Augustus and Tiberius had employed conventions in maintaining their rule. Augustus especially had posed as a moral conservative. That conservatism had enforced a culture of respect for the great man (the pater patriae: father of the nation) which had been useful for his political position. Tiberius had continued down this conservative path. Gaius was a youth, faced with a senate who had acquiesced in the deaths of his brothers and his mother. He could spend his time working the senators, building consensus, and managing the opinion and egos of the great men of Rome, or he could rule.

Gaius ran his regime against convention and against tradition. But social conventions make it possible for us to live together. A regime that ignores conventions has to rely much more on hard power and the threat of violence. If you live without convention, people fail to understand your behaviour. You might want not to be understood for someone who cannot be understood is frightening. But in not being understood, one might be thought irrational or even mad.

Gaius Caligula                          Sex and Imperial Power           Politics: Relations with the Senate

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