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Politics and the Plebs


Gaius’ political engagements went beyond the senators to the plebs. On the death of Tiberius, there was an out-pouring of emotion in his favour. Suetonius, Gaius 13, tells us that he was met on the road to Rome from Capri by crowds who called out to him. Pet names were used, such as ‘star’, ‘chick’, ‘babe’, ‘nursling’. Of course, Gaius is popularly known by an earlier pet name given to him by the soldiers in his father’s camp, ‘Caligula’ (‘little boots’).

  • Why are these names reported?
  • What is the significance of the names?

It is easy to dismiss the names as worthy only of anecdote and a little local colour, but they have significance: they show the support of the plebs for Gaius. They also show affection. Gaius was an imperial prince. His father had been extremely popular and Rome had been robbed by his early death. His mother and brothers had been oppressed at the hands of the widely disliked Tiberius: his situation appears to have provoked sympathy. But the pet names also suggest an emotional identification with the imperial house; the imperial family were people who mattered at an everyday level to the ordinary person in the street.

The up-swell of popular support and affection was no doubt encouraged by the young emperor’s generosity. He paid out 300 sesterces each to the urban plebs to mark his assumption of the toga virilis and from the bequests of Tiberius 45,000,000 sesterces. The level of generosity depends in part on the number of people who benefited from the donation. Augustus had given money to groups of 200,000, 250,000, 320,000 (Res Gestae 15). It would seem likely that Gaius’ gift amounted to 75,000,000, so substantially more than had been left by Tiberius. We are also told that he found in the treasury either 2,300,000,000 or 2,700,000,000, 3,300,000,000 sesterces (a pretty substantial difference one might have thought). Gaius’ donations dented that surplus, but there was still plenty of money (Dio, 59.2; Suetonius, Gaius 37).

At an individual level, the amount of money distributed was substantial, perhaps up to 480 sesterces for each recipient, perhaps enough for a small family for a year.

  • What would happen nowadays if the government gave everyone their living expenses for a year?

Later in the reign, perhaps on a consulship, he gave the people of Rome another 300 sesterces each (Suetonius, Gaius 17). More random distributions took place at the shows in the theatres and even supposedly by the emperor throwing money from the roof of the basilica Julia (Suetonius, Gaius 37).

Whereas Tiberius appears to have not put on shows himself and restricted expenditure at shows put on by others (Suetonius, Tiberius 34; 48), Gaius put on lavish shows at which gifts were distributed (Suetonius, Gaius 18) and large number of animals were killed. In one show, 500 bears and a large number of African animals were killed (Dio, 59.7).

The games were an important place for the Roman emperor. They were an occasion when the Roman emperor could show himself off. He would display his power and wealth and his care for the Roman people. It was there that the people could communicate their feelings. Ideally, an emperor could bask in his popularity.

Tiberius had likely avoided games not because he was unpopular, but because he did not want to be seen as courting popularity. His power and status was aristocratic, relating to his status as the great man of Rome. For Gaius, popularity was a source of legitimacy. Games allowed him to advertise the support of the people. His generosity marked him out as a different sort of emperor from Tiberius.

But like so much with Gaius, it all went wrong and it is not clear why.

Some of his actions against the plebs appear to have been gratuitously cruel. He sent guards into a crowd queuing for admission to the circus because they were too loud. He pulled back the awnings in the theatre, forcing the crowd to remain in the hot sun. He forced people to fight in the arena. He delayed his appearance at the theatre so that performances could not leaving the people waiting many hours for the emperor. Any perceived opposition of lack of enthusiasm from members of the crowd enraged him to the extent that he sent in the soldiers to attack any troublemakers. He closed the granaries, cutting the supply of food to the people (Suetonius, Gaius 24). When irritated by the behaviour of the crowd at the games, he wished allowed that the people had just one neck (Suetonius, Gaius 30; Dio, 59.13). There appears to have been a massacre of  crowd that demonstrated against him (Dio, 59.28).

Some of his problems may have been financial. He appears to have run out of money (or at least run sufficiently low to become worried). He started to levy new taxes on food, on the wages of porters, on law cases, on prostitutes and on pimps. These likely hit the poor far harder than the rich. A whole number of additional levies were made and fines for evasion. But since these were non-customary charges, the people did not know what they needed to pay and so complained publicly. Gaius responded by publishing the records in a high and inaccessible place.  (Suetonius, Gaius 40-41; Dio, 59.28).

On his death, the crowd rioted and attacked his images (Dio, 59.30).

What went wrong?

There is a tendency to see the politics of the plebs as simple: give them money and shows and they’ll be happy. But that’s not what we see under Gaius. They accepted the money and went to the shows. But they objected to the taxes. They also objected to the way he behaved, his political style so to speak.

As with the pet-names  with which they greeted the new Caesar, the eventual reaction of the crowd shows that they were politically engaged. The crowd was monarchic in sentiment. They liked the imperial family and participated in honouring them. . But they had expectations of imperial behaviour. As Gaius behaved as an arbitrary tyrant and an absolute monarch, they resisted and complained. They objected to the arbitrary violence. They objected to the lack of respect shown to citizens. They were still a political force.

Gaius and the Senate                                      Administration                                 The military



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