The Life of Caligula by Suetonius

‘I am rearing a viper for the Roman people.’
(Tiberius talking about young Caligula, in Suetonius’s Life of Caligula, section 11)

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known by his nickname Caligula (meaning ‘little boots’), was the third Roman emperor.

Born in 12 AD, Caligula ruled from 37 until his assassination in 41, four brief, chaotic years. He was the son of the popular Roman general Germanicus Julius Caesar and Augustus’s grand-daughter, Agrippina the Elder.

Family tree of the Julio-Claudian emperors

Coming from a small nuclear family I find extended family trees confusing at the best of times. The family tree of the early Roman emperors is especially confusing because:

  1. the emperors and everyone else in their families married multiple times
  2. many of the emperors, and people in their families, had the same names or combinations of the same names, such as Drusus, Germanicus, Nero and Tiberius
  3. they regularly changed their names, exemplified by Octavian who went through half a dozen name changes – but most of all because:
  4. all the key men adopted nephews or grandchildren as sons, thus radically confusing the traditional notion of ‘sons’ being the blood relative of at least one of their ‘parents’ – not in Imperial Rome, they weren’t

Which goes to explain why none of the Julio-Claudian emperors was a blood descendant of his immediate predecessor.

Maybe the family tree below helps. It is very much simplified. What I like about it, compared to the many similar trees on the internet, is the use of dotted lines to indicate adoption, which makes it clear how Julius Caesar adopted Octavian, Octavian – renamed Augustus – adopted Tiberius, Tiberius adopted Germanicus (who predeceased him) and then Gaius (Caligula) and Claudius adopted Nero.

Family tree of the Julio-Claudian emperors.

From it you can see that Caius Julius Caesar adopted his great-nephew Octavianus as son and heir. Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Thirteen years later (31 BC), after two further civil wars, Octavianus had become the sole power in Rome. Awarded the honorific ‘Augustus’ in 27 BC, he adopted a number of male members of his extended family but these died before him, so he ended up adopting his step-son, Tiberius Claudius Nero, as his son and heir.

Augustus had forced Tiberius to a) marry his daughter, Julia and b) to adopt Julia’s son, Germanicus, as his own son, sitting alongside his actual biological son, Drusus. According to Suetonius, Tiberius hated both these ‘sons’. He was happy when his adopted son, the popular charismatic Germanicus, died in 19 AD, and when his biological son, Drusus, died in 23 AD (possibly had him poisoned).

Suetonius’s life of Caligula

Roman texts were divided into short sections, sometimes called ‘chapters’ though most are less than a page long. Suetonius’s biography of the emperor Caligula is 60 sections long.

Suetonius himself divides his Life of Caligula into two halves: sections 1 to 21 deal with The Emperor; then the last 40 sections deal with The Monster.

Part One: The Emperor

1. Germanicus Julius Caesar was son of Drusus and the younger Antonia. A charming, immensely popular figure, successful general, popular with the crowd, stylish and elegant, he was adopted as ‘son’ by his paternal uncle Tiberius. He processed through the posts of quaestor­ship and consul before the legal age.

When Augustus died Germanicus was sent to the army in Germany. The legions there didn’t want to accept Tiberius as emperor but Germanicus made them. He defeated the Germans in various battles and was a warded a triumph back in Rome.

Chosen consul for a second time, he was sent to restore order in the Orient, and after vanquishing the king of Armenia and reducing Cappadocia to a province, died of a lingering illness at Antioch, aged just 33.

It was widely believed that Tiberius had him poisoned by the governor of Syria, Gnaeus Piso, governor of Syria. In consequence Piso narrowly escaped being torn to pieces by the people on his return to Rome, and was condemned to death by the senate.

3. Suetonius delivers a paean to Germanicus: he was a paragon of a man: handsome, brave: in battle he fought the enemy hand to hand; a great orator; adept at the best learning of Greece and Rome, among other fruits of his studies he left some Greek comedies. He was kind, with a remarkable capacity for winning men’s affection.

In Germany Germanicus planned to bury all the dead of Varus’s three lost legions (massacred in the Teutoburger Forest in 9 AD) and took the lead in collecting and assembling them by hand.

4. Germanicus was so popular with the masses that he was greeted by cheering crowds wherever he went. When he returned from Germany after quelling the rebellion, the entire population poured out of Rome as far as the twentieth milestone.

5. Popular sadness at Germanicus’s death was immense. The temples were stoned and the altars of the gods thrown down, some flung their household gods into the street. Even barbarian peoples unanimously consented to a truce as if all the world shared in the tragedy. It is said that some princes cut off their beards and had their wives’ heads shaved.

6. False rumours that he had recovered led to widespread rejoicing, only to be cast down when the final confirmation of his death came through. Public grief knew no limits and continued even during the festal days of the month of December.

Germanicus’s fame and regret for his loss were increased by the horror of the times which followed since it was widely believed that Tiberius’s cruelty had been held in check through his respect for Germanicus and was now given free rein.

7. Germanicus had married Agrippina, daughter of Marcus Agrippa and Julia, who bore him nine children. Two died in infancy, one in boyhood. Of the surviving six, three girls – Agrippina, Julia Drusilla and Livilla, born in successive years – and three boys – Nero, Drusus and Gaius Caesar, the future emperor. Nero and Drusus were accused of being public enemies by the senate on the accusation of Tiberius.

8. Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born in 12 AD when his father was 27. Suetonius spends several sections weighing the evidence about where Gaius was born.

9. Gaius’s surname, ‘Caligula’, was a jokey nickname awarded by the soldiers he grew up among. [Caliga was the name of a type of military boot. His father liked dressing his little son in a child’s version of a soldier’s outfit, including miniature versions of these boots. Latin formed diminutives of words by adding ‘-ula’ to the end of them. So ‘caligula’ literally meant ‘little boots’ and the nickname stuck.]

10. As a boy Caligula accompanied his father on his expedition to Syria. After Germanicus’s death, his widow, Caligula’s mother, Agrippina, returned with her six children to Rome, where she became entangled in a bitter feud with Tiberius, which led to her banishment. Caligula went to live with his great-grandmother Livia and when Livia died (in 29 AD), he lived with his grand-mother Antonia. The emperor Tiberius had retreated to Capri in 26. In 31, as he reached the age of manhood (18), Caligula was summoned to join him.

In Capri Caligula proved resilient to the ill-will of the emperor and his flatterers. He ignored the bad treatment of his mother and brothers, and was so obsequious to his grandfather that it was said of him that no one had ever been a better slave or a worse master.

11. Here in Capri his natural cruelty and viciousness were allowed to flourish. He developed a taste for witnessing torture and execution and by night revelled in gluttony and adultery. He liked wearing a wig and practicing the arts of dancing and singing. It was observing his cruelty and immorality blossoming which led Tiberius to (allegedly) say that Caligula’s advent marked the ruin of him (Tiberius) and the world; that he was rearing a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the world. [In the Greek myth Phaethon tricked his father, Apollo, into letting him drive the chariot of the son which, not being strong enough, he let plunge down towards the earth, drying up rivers, causing earthquakes and destroying entire cities.]

12. Gaius took to wife Junia Claudilla, daughter of Marcus Silanus, a man of noble rank. He was appointed augur then advanced to the role of pontifex maximus. After the fall of Sejanus, Tiberius’s henchman, in 31, Tiberius encouraged Caligula to think of himself as the heir to the throne.

After Junia died in childbirth, Caligula seduced Ennia Naevia, wife of Macro, who at that time commanded the praetorian guard, promising to marry her when he became emperor. Difficult for us to understand that, according to Suetonius, he did this in order to worm himself into Macro’s favour.

Suetonius then, with astonishing casualness, claims that Caligula poisoned Tiberius. He ordered his signet ring of power to be taken from him and when it was discovered that Tiberius was still breathing, himself placed a pillow over his face. Others claim he strangled the old man (Tiberius was 78 when he died) with his own hand, immediately ordering the crucifixion of a freedman who cried out at the awful deed.

Later, Caligula put it about that he was avenging Tiberius’s execution of his mother and two brothers.

13. Caligula was popular with the general population because of his youth, his popularity with the soldiers, who he’d grown up among, and the aura from his legendary father, Germanicus. And Tiberius had led a reign of terror for over a decade. So his accession was greeted with rejoicing. His journey from Capri to Rome accompanying the body of Tiberius was greeted by cheering crowds at each town.

14. When he entered Rome, full and absolute power was at once put into his hands by the unanimous consent of the senate and of the mob, contrary to Tiberius’s will which had named his other grandson as joint heir with Caligula.

Foreign rulers sent messages of congratulation, including king Artabanus of Parthia who had been outspoken in his contempt for Tiberius.

15. At the beginning of his reign Caligula carefully courted popularity. He delivered a tearful eulogy at Tiberius’s funeral, then send to the islands where his mother and brothers had been banished, to fetch back their ashes to give a decent burial as well as games in the Circus in honour of his mother, providing a carriage to carry her image in the procession.

In memory of his father he renamed the month of September Germanicus. He lavished on his grandmother Antonia all the honours Livia Augusta had ever enjoyed. He took his uncle Claudius as his colleague in the consul­ship (37 AD). He adopted his brother Tiberius on the day that he assumed the gown of manhood and gave him the title of Chief of the Youth. He caused the names of his sisters to be included in all oaths.

He recalled those who had been condemned to banishment, had all documents relating to the cases of his mother and brothers carried to the Forum and burned, declared the era of anonymous informers over.

In other words, he dazzled everyone by displays of filial duty and respect.

16. Caligula banished from Rome the sexual perverts called spintriae who Tiberius had patronised.

He published the accounts of the empire, which had regularly been made public by Augustus,​ a practice discontinued by Tiberius. He allowed the magistrates unrestricted jurisdiction, without appeal to himself. He revised the lists of the Roman knights strictly and scrupulously. He tried also to restore the suffrage to the people by reviving the custom of elections. He paid faithfully and without dispute the legacies named in the will of Tiberius as well as in that of Julia Augusta, which Tiberius had suppressed.

He remitted the tax of a two-hundredth on auction sales in Italy, made good to many their losses from fires, and whenever he restored kings to their thrones, he allowed them all the arrears of their taxes and their revenue for the meantime.

This was all wildly popular and a golden shield was voted him, which was to be borne every year to the Capitol on an appointed day by the colleges of priests, escorted by the senate, while boys and girls of noble birth sang the praises of his virtues in a choral ode. It was decreed that the day on which he began to reign should be called the Parilia (the festival celebrating the founding of Rome) indicating that, after the long cruel years of Tiberius, Rome had been founded a second time.

17. Caligula twice gave the people a gift of 300 sesterces each, and twice a lavish banquet to the senate and the equestrian order, together with their wives and children. To make a permanent addition to public gaiety he added a day to the Saturnalia and called it Juvenalis.

18. Caligula gave several gladiatorial shows. He exhibited stage-plays continually, of various kinds and in many different places, sometimes even by night, lighting up the whole city. He also gave many games in the Circus, lasting from early morning until evening, introducing the manoeuvres of the game called Troy.

19. Caligula bridged the gap between Baiae and the mole at Puteoli, a distance of about 3,600 paces,​ by bringing together merchant ships from all sides and anchoring them in a double line, afterwards a mound of earth was heaped upon them and fashioned in the manner of the Appian Way. Over this bridge he rode back and forth for two successive days, the first day on a caparisoned horse, resplendent in a crown of oak leaves, a buckler, a sword, and a cloak of cloth of gold.

[Interestingly, Suetonius makes mention, here, of his own family, telling us that his grandfather told him the reason for the work was that Thrasyllus the astrologer had declared to Tiberius, when he was worried about his successor and inclined towards his natural grandson, that Gaius had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding about over the gulf of Baiae with horses.]

20. Caligula gave shows in foreign lands, Athenian games​ at Syracuse in Sicily, and miscellaneous games at Lugdunum in Gaul.

21. Caligula completed the public works which had been half finished under Tiberius, namely the temple of Augustus and the theatre of Pompey. He likewise began an aqueduct in the region near Tibur and an amphitheatre beside the Saepta (the former finished by his successor Claudius,​ while the latter was abandoned). He planned to have a canal run through the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece and sent a chief centurion to survey the work.

Part Two: The Monster

22. So much for Caligula as emperor; Suetonius tells us that the rest of his biography will now tell of the monster.

Caligula claimed to be a god. He ordered all the best statues in Greece brought to Rome, decapitated and topped with copies of his own head.

Caligula converted the temple of Castor and Pollux into the vestibule of a hugely expanded Imperial palace and often took his place between the divine brethren to be worshipped by citizens.

He set up a temple to his own godhead, with priests and with victims of the choicest kind. He placed in it a life-sized statue of himself made from gold, which was dressed each day in the same clothes he was wearing.

During the day he would talk confidentially with Jupiter Capitolinus, now whispering in his ear, then turning his ear to the god’s mouth. Sometimes they had angry arguments if Jupiter disobeyed Caligula’s orders.

23. Caligula hated to be thought of as the grandson of Agrippa, a mere commoner, so spread the rumour that his mother was the product of an incestuous passion between Augustus and his daughter, Julia. He insulted the memory of Livia, and drove his grandmother Antonia to an early death with insults (although some think that he also gave her poison)

He had his brother​, Tiberius, put to death without warning, suddenly sending a tribune of the soldiers to do the deed. He drove his father-in‑law Silanus to end his life by cutting his throat with a razor.

He spared his uncle, Claudius, as a laughing-stock.

24. Caligula lived in habitual incest with all his sisters. He is believed to have violated Drusilla when he was still a minor, and even to have been caught lying with her by his grandmother, Antonia. Afterwards, she married Lucius Cassius Longinus, an ex-consul, but Caligula took her from him and openly treated her as his lawful wife

After Drusilla died Caligula was beside himself with grief, not cutting his hair or shaving his beard. He never afterwards took an oath about matters of the highest moment except by the godhead of Drusilla. The rest of his sisters he slept with sometimes, or prostituted them to his favourites.

25. Suetonius says it is hard to decide whether he behave more appallingly in contracting his marriages, annulling them, or as a ‘husband’.

At the marriage of Livia Orestilla to Gaius Piso he gave orders that the bride be taken to his own house, where he ravished her for two days before ‘divorcing’ her. Two years later he banished her on the suspicion that she’d gone back to her former husband.

When he heard the rumour that the grandmother of Lollia Paulina, who was married to Gaius Memmius, had once been a remarkably beauti­ful woman, he recalled her from the province where he husband was serving suddenly called Lollia from the province, separated her from her husband, and married her; then in a short time had her put away, with the command never to have intercourse with anyone.

Though Caesonia was neither beauti­ful nor young, and was already mother of three daughters by another, Caligula loved her passionately, often exhibiting her to the soldiers riding by his side, decked with cloak, helmet and shield, and to his friends even in a state of nudity. Only when she bore him a daughter did he formally declare her his wife (in 39 AD). He named the child Julia Drusilla.

Ptolemy, son of king Juba, his cousin, Macro and Ennia, who helped him to the throne, he had put to death.

He forced senators to run alongside his chariot and to wait on him at table. Some he had put to death. When the consuls forgot to proclaim his birthday, he deposed them and left the state for three days without its highest magistrates.​

His sleep was disturbed by the noise made by people who’d come in the middle of the night to get the free seats in the Circus, so he had them driven out with cudgels and in the melee more than twenty Roman knights were crushed to death, with as many matrons and a countless number of others.

He liked to scatter free tickets at the theatre in order to sow confusion.

At gladiatorial shows he ordered the awnings pulled back when the sun was hottest and give orders that no one be allowed to leave, leaving the audience to burn.

27. When cattle to feed the wild beasts which he had provided for a gladiatorial show were expensive, Caligula ordered them to be fed with criminals. He had prisoners lined up and selected on a whim those to be executed and fed to the animals.

He had many men of noble rank branded with hot irons then condemned to the mines, to work at building roads, or to be thrown to the wild beasts, or he had them up in cages on all fours, or sawn in half.

These punishments were not for serious offences, but having maybe having criticised one of his shows or not having sworn by his Genius.

He forced parents to attend the executions of their sons, sending a litter for one man who pleaded ill health, and inviting another to dinner immediately after witnessing the death of his son and baiting him trying to with jokes and gaiety.

He had the manager of his gladiatorial shows and beast-baitings beaten with chains in his presence for several successive days until the stench of his putrefied brain prompted him to finish him off in disgust.

He burned a writer of Atellan farces alive in the middle of the arena of the amphitheatre, because of a humorous line of double meaning.

When a Roman knight on being thrown to the wild beasts loudly protested his innocence, he took him out, cut off his tongue, and threw him back again.

28. Caligula conceived the notion that exiles were conspiring against him and so sent emissaries from island to island to butcher them all.

He had one of the senators stabbed with quills then turned over to the mob. He wasn’t satisfied till he saw the man’s limbs, members and bowels dragged through the streets and piled up before him.

29. Caligula’s speech was full of threats. When his grandmother Antonia gave him some advice he replied: ‘Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody.’

After banishing his sisters, he made the threat that he not only had islands, but swords as well.

An ex-praetor who had retired to Anticyra for his health, sent frequent requests for an extension of his leave, so Caligula had him put to death, joking that anyone who had not been helped by a long course of hellebore needed to be bled.

When he signed the list of prisoners who were to be put to death, he said that he was ‘clearing his accounts’.

30. Caligula seldom had anyone put to death except by numerous slight wounds, his constant order, which soon became well-known, being: ‘Strike so that he may feel that he is dying.’ He often uttered the familiar line of the tragic poet Accius:

‘Let them hate me, so they but fear me.’

He regularly castigated the senators for having informed against his mother (who Tiberius had exiled then killed on trumped-up charges).

He constantly tongue-lashed the equestrian order as devotees of the stage and the arena.

Angered at the rabble for applauding a faction which he opposed, he cried: ‘I wish the Roman people had but a single neck.’

31. Caligula lamented that there had been no great disaster during his rule, saying the reign of Augustus had been made famous by the Varus massacre,​ and that of Tiberius by the collapse of the amphitheatre at Fidenae, while his own was threatened with oblivion because of its prosperity. So he was heard wishing for famine, pestilence, fires or a great earthquake.

32. Even while feasting or at amusements, he was cruel, having people tortured in front of him as he ate, and employing a soldier who was adept at decapitation to cut off the heads of people brought from prison.

At the dedication of a bridge he’d had constructed at Puteoli, he invited members of the crowd to join him on the bridge, then ordered them all to be thrown into the water.

At a public banquet a slave was caught stealing a strip of silver from a couch so he ordered his hands to be cut off and hung round his neck and that he then be led about among the guests, preceded by a placard giving the reason for his punishment.

When he was training with a murmillo from the gladiatorial school who was using a wooden sword and fell out of deference to the emperor, Caligula stabbed him with a real dagger.

At a particularly sumptuous banquet he suddenly burst into a fit of laughter and when the consuls politely inquired why, he replied: ‘I was just thinking that at a single nod of mine both of you could have your throats cut on the spot.’

33. Caligula stood next to a statue of Jupiter and asked the tragic actor Apelles which of the two seemed to him the greater and, when he hesitated, had him flayed with whips.

Whenever he kissed the neck of his wife or sweetheart he would say: ‘And this beautiful throat can be cut whenever I please.’

He loved Caesonia but he sometimes playfully threatened to torture her to find out why he loved her so passionately.

34. Caligula made malicious attacks on men from every era. Augustus had moved some statues of famous men from the court of the Capitol to the Campus Martius. Caligula had them all destroyed, and thereafter forbade the erection of the statue of any living man anywhere, without his knowledge and consent.

He even considered destroying the poems of Homer, asking why he should not have the same privilege as Plato, who excluded Homer from his ideal commonwealth.

He came close to More than that, removing the writings and the busts of Vergil and Livy from all the libraries, calling Virgil talentless and Livy wordy and inaccurate.

He considered abolishing the legal profession altogether in order to prevent any opinions being given which contradicted his wish.

35. Caligula deprived the noblest families in Rome of their traditional emblems.

He invited King Ptolemy to Rome, entertained him lavishly and then had him put to death merely because, when giving a gladiatorial show, he noticed that Ptolemy on entering the theatre attracted general attention by the splendour of his purple cloak.

Whenever he ran across handsome men with fine heads of hair he ordered the backs of their heads shaved.

There was no one of such low condition or such abject fortune that he did not envy him whatever advantages he possessed.

36. Caligula had no respect for his own chastity or anyone else’s.

He is said to have had unnatural relations with Marcus Lepidus, the pantomime actor Mnester, and certain hostages.

Valerius Catullus, a young man of a consular family, publicly proclaimed that he had buggered the emperor and worn himself out in the process.

Beside incest with his three sisters and his passion for the concubine Pyrallis, there was scarcely any woman of rank whom he did not proposition.

He invited them to dinner with their husbands and, as they passed by the foot of his couch, inspected them critically as if buying slaves. Then he would leave the room, sending for the one who pleased him best, returning soon afterwards with evident signs of what had occurred, after which he would openly commend or criticise the woman, commenting on her body and performance.

37. Caligula’s extravagance was unparalleled. He invented new sort of baths and unnatural varieties of food. He bathed in hot or cold perfumed oils, drank pearls of great price dissolved in vinegar, and set before his guests loaves and meats of gold, declaring that a man ought either to be frugal or Caesar.

He scattered large sums of money among the commons from the roof of the basilica Julia for several days in succession.

He built galleys with ten banks of oars, with sterns set with gems, multi-coloured sails, spacious baths, colonnades and banquet-halls, and even a variety of vines and fruit trees. Then he would recline at table as they cruised up and down along the coast of Campania amid songs and choruses.

He built villas and country houses with utter disregard of expense.

He deliberately set out to achieve the impossible: he built moles out into the deep and stormy sea, tunnelled rocks of hardest flint, built up plains to the height of mountains and razed mountains to the level of the plain.

In sum, he squandered vast sums of money, including the 2.7 billion sesterces which Tiberius had amassed, in less than a year.

38. When he ran low on funds he devised a complicated system of false accusations, auction sales, and taxes. For example he demanded proof of Roman citizen­ship or payment.

He disallowed all returns of property from emperor to owner, if the owner had subsequently made any additions or improvements.

If any chief centurions since the beginning of Tiberius’ reign had not named that emperor or himself among their heirs, he set aside their wills on the ground of ingratitude.

With the result that hosts of people included Caligula as beneficiaries of their wills. But if he learned of this and the will-maker hadn’t died, he accused them of toying with him and sent them poisoned food.

He conducted trials of people like this himself, assigning fines at random, naming in advance the amount he intended to fleece them by.

At one sitting he condemned in a single sentence more than forty prisoners who were accused on different counts, boasting to Caesonia, when she woke after a nap, of the great amount of business he had done while she was taking her siesta.

He attended auctions and deliberately drove the bids as high as possible, forcing people to pay ridiculous sums, bankrupting bidders, forcing some of them to commit suicide.

39. When Caligula was in Gaul he had arranged to be sold for huge amounts the jewels, furniture, slaves, and even the freedmen of his sisters who had been condemned to death. He found this so profitable that he sent to Rome for all the paraphernalia of the old palace,​ seizing for its transportation public carriages and animals from the bakeries with the result that bread became scarce at Rome.

40. He levied new and unheard of taxes. There was no class of commodities or men on which he did not impose some form of tariff. On all eatables sold in any part of Rome he levied a fixed charge. On lawsuits and legal processes he demanded a fortieth part of the sum involved, on the daily wages of porters, an eighth, on the earnings of prostitutes, as much as each received for one trick.

41. He opened a brothel in his palace, setting aside a number of rooms where matrons and freeborn youths should stand exposed. Then he sent his pages​ about the fora and basilicas to invite young men and old to come and enjoy themselves, lending money on interest to those who attended and having clerks openly take down their names, as contributors to Caesar’s revenues.

42. When Caligula’s daughter was born he complained that, in addition to the burden of a ruler he now had to bear that of a father and asked for contributions for the girl’s maintenance and dowry.

He declared he would accept New Year gifts and on 1 January took his place in the entrance to the Palace, to receive the coins which a throng of people of all classes showered on him.

Finally, seized by with a mania for money, he would pour out huge piles of gold pieces, walk over them barefooted or wallow in them for a long time.

43. On a whim Caligula announced an expedition to Germany. It was a farce. He assembled legions and auxiliaries from all quarters, collecting provisions of every kind on an unheard of scale. Then he made a forced march for the border, while he himself was carried in a litter by eight bearers. He required the inhabitants of the towns through which he passed to sweep the roads for him and sprinkle them to lay the dust.

44. On reaching his camp, to overawe everyone, Caligula dismissed in disgrace the generals who were late in bringing in the auxiliaries. In reviewing his troops he deprived many of the chief centurions who were well on in years of their rank, in some cases only a few days before they would have served their time.

All that he accomplished was to receive the surrender of Adminius, son of Cunobelinus king of the Britons, who had been banished by his father and had deserted to the Romans with a small force. But he sent a letter back to Rome boasting as if he’d conquered the whole island.

45. Finding no one to fight with, he had a few Germans of his body-guard taken across the river and hidden and then word brought to him after lunch that the enemy were close at hand. This allowed him to rush out with his friends and flatterers, where they ‘captured’ these Germans and brought them back to the camp where he berated everyone else for their cowardice.

Another time he had hostages sent ahead and, again, suddenly left a banquet with some of the cavalry, galloped off and overtook these entirely quiescent friends, leading them back to the camp in fetters like a great hero.

Meanwhile, he rebuked the senate and people back in Rome for living the life of luxury while he exposed himself to untold dangers.

[If we compare this behaviour to the eight hard years fighting of Julius Caesar in Gaul, it really feels like history repeats itself, first as genuine struggle, then as pantomime.]

46. Caligula drew up his army on the coast (presumably the Channel coast) and then ordered them to…gather seashells and fill their helmets and the folds of their gowns with them.

As a monument of his victory he erected a lofty tower, from which lights were to shine at night to guide the course of ships, as from the Pharos.

47. Caligula then stage managed a triumph back in Rome in which he ordered various friendly Gauls to dye their hair red and pose as captured German chieftains.

He had the triremes in which he had sailed on the Channel carried overland to Rome. Imagine the effort of just this one act!

48. Before leaving Gaul Caligula conceived the insane idea of massacring all the legions there because, 20 years earlier they had, upon hearing of the death of Augustus, besieged the headquarters of his father Germanicus.

He was only just restrained from this order but insisted on decimating them i.e. killing every tenth one, so had them assembled without their weapons, but when he saw some sneaking off to get their swords, he panicked, and fled, travelling back to Rome and taking his fury out on the Senate.

49. Caligula entered Rome to an ovation (one step down from a formal triumph), meditating further crimes and atrocities, but four months later he was dead.

It is said that he intended to massacre all the best men of both orders (presumably senate and knights) and then move the capital of the empire to Antium or maybe to Alexandria. Two lists were found of the men to be executed.

50. Caligula’s physique He was very tall and extremely pale, with an unshapely body, but very thin neck and legs. His eyes and temples were hollow, his forehead broad and grim, his hair thin and entirely gone on the top of his head, though his body was hairy. Because of this to look upon him from a higher place as he passed by, or for any reason whatever to mention a goat, was treated as a capital offence.

While his face was naturally forbidding and ugly, he purposely made it even more savage, practising all kinds of terrible and fearsome expressions before a mirror.

He was sound neither of body nor mind. As a boy he was troubled with epilepsy and it recurred in manhood. During attacks he was hardly able to walk, to stand up, to collect his thoughts, or to hold up his head.

Some say his wife Caesonia gave him an aphrodisiac which had the effect of driving him mad.

He suffered from insomnia, never getting more than three hours sleep a night. He had bad nightmares and premonitions.

51. Caligula combined two mental faults: extreme assurance and excessive timorousness. He claimed to despise the gods but was terrified of lightning and thunder.

Panicked by rumour of a German attack, he deserted his troops, rode quickly back to the bridges, which were packed with troops, and so had himself passed from hand to hand over the men’s heads.

Hearing of an uprising in Germany he made preparations to flee Rome. His assassins played on this well-known fear when they claimed to the soldiery, after they’d murdered him, that he committed suicide after hearing of a defeat.

52. Caligula wore outlandish clothes. Instead of a plain toga, he often appeared in public in embroidered cloaks covered with precious stones, with a long-sleeved tunic and bracelets, sometimes in silk​ and in a woman’s robe, now in slippers or buskins, again in boots, such as the emperor’s bodyguard wear, and at times in the low shoes which are worn by women.

He frequently wore the uniform of a triumphing general, even before his campaign, and sometimes the breastplate of Alexander the Great, which he had had taken from Alexander’s tomb at Alexandria.

53. Caligula wasn’t very interested in literature but paid attention to oratory and very eloquent. When he was angry he let forth an abundant flow of words and thoughts, he paced up and down, and his delivery was such that he was clearly heard at a distance.

The Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4 BC to 65 AD) was popular during his reign but Caligula accused him of writing ‘mere school exercises’ and of being ‘sand without lime’.

He liked to compose speeches for and against those he had brought to trial and often forced the senate and knights to listen to both addresses, before making a decision on a whim.

54. Caligula was very active. He appeared in the Circus as a Thracian gladiator, fighting with the weapons of actual warfare; as a charioteer; and even as a singer and dancer.

He fancied his talents so much that even at public performances he couldn’t refrain from singing with the tragic actor as he delivered his lines, or from openly imitating his gestures by way of praise or correction.

On the day he was assassinated he seems to have ordered an all-night vigil for the sole purpose of taking advantage of the licence of the occasion to make his first appearance on the stage.

On one occasion he summoned three senators of consular rank to the palace and when they arrived in fear of their lives, he seated them on a stage and then suddenly burst onto it amid a great din of flutes and clogs, dressed in a cloak and a tunic reaching to his heels, performed a song and dance and disappeared again.

Yet he could not swim.

55. Those Caligula loved he loved with a mad intensity. He used to kiss Mnester, the pantomime actor, even in the theatre, and if anyone made the slightest sound while his favourite was dancing, he had him dragged from his seat and scourged him with his own hand.

On the day before the games, in order to prevent his horse, Incitatus, from being disturbed, he sent his soldiers to enforce silence in the whole neighbourhood.

Besides a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones, he gave this horse a house, a troop of slaves and furniture, for the elegant entertainment of the guests invited in his name. It said that he planned to make his horse consul.

56. There were many conspiracies, until two men succeeded in killing Caligula with the co-operation of his most influential freedmen and the officers of the praetorian guard.

They decided to kill him at noon as he left the Palatine games. The principal part was claimed by Cassius Chaerea, tribune of a cohort of the praetorian guard. Caligula used to taunt him, a man already well on in years, with voluptuousness and effeminacy and every form of insult. Whenever he asked for the watchword Gaius would give him ‘Priapus’ or ‘Venus’ and when Chaerea had occasion to thank him for anything, Caligula would hold out his hand to kiss, forming and moving it in an obscene fashion.

57. Caligula’s approaching murder was foretold by many prodigies:

  • the statue of Jupiter at Olympia, which he had ordered to be taken to pieces and moved to Rome, suddenly uttered such a peal of laughter that the scaffoldings collapsed and the workmen took to their heels
  • a man called Cassius turned up, who declared that he had been bidden in a dream to sacrifice a bull to Jupiter
  • the Capitol at Capua was struck by lightning on the Ides of March, and also the room of the doorkeeper of the Palace at Rome
  • he soothsayer Sulla, when Gaius consulted him about his horoscope, declared that inevitable death was close at hand
  • the lots of Fortune at Antium warned him to beware of Cassius, and he accordingly ordered the death of Cassius Longinus, who was at the time proconsul of Asia, forgetting that the family name of Chaerea was Cassius
  • the day before he was killed he dreamt that he stood in heaven beside the throne of Jupiter and that the god struck him with the toe of his right foot and hurled him to earth
  • the day before his death, as he was sacrificing, he was sprinkled with the blood of a flamingo,
  • the pantomimic actor Mnester danced a tragedy which the tragedian Neoptolemus had acted years before during the games at which Philip king of the Macedonians was assassinated
  • in a farce called ‘Laureolus’, in which the chief actor falls as he is making his escape and vomits blood, several understudies​ so vied with one another in giving evidence of their proficiency that the stage swam in blood

58. On the ninth day before the Kalends of February, at about the seventh hour, he hesitated whether or not to get up for luncheon, since his stomach was still disordered from excess of food on the day before, but at length he came out at the persuasion of his friends.

In the covered passage through which he had to pass, some boys of good birth, who had been summoned from Asia to appear on the stage, were rehearsing their parts, and he stopped to watch and to encourage them and had not the leader of the troop complained that he had a chill, he would have returned and had the performance given at once.

From this point there are two versions of the story: some say that as he was talking with the boys, Chaerea came up behind, cried ‘Take this!’ and gave him a deep sword wound in the neck, and that then the tribune Cornelius Sabinus, who was the other conspirator and faced Caligula, stabbed him in the breast.

Others say that Sabinus, after getting rid of the crowd through centurions who were in the plot, asked for the watchword, as soldiers do, and that when Caligula gave him ‘Jupiter’, he cried ‘So be it’ and, as Caligula looked around, he split his jawbone with a blow of his sword.

As he lay writhing on the ground crying ‘I am still alive’ the other conspirators dispatched him with 30 wounds as the cry went around, ‘Strike again.’ Some even thrust their swords through his privates. At the beginning of the disturbance his bearers ran to his aid with their poles and then some of the Germans of his body-guard, who killed several of his assassins, as well as some innocent senators who happened to be nearby.

59. Caligula lived 29 years and ruled 3 years, 10 months and 8 days. His body was conveyed secretly to the gardens of the Lamian family, where it was partly consumed on a hastily erected pyre and buried beneath a light covering of turf. Later his sisters on their return from exile dug it up, cremated it, and consigned it to the family tomb.

Before this was done, it is well known that the caretakers of the gardens were disturbed by ghosts, and that, in the house where he was murdered, not a night passed without some fearsome apparition until at last the house itself was destroyed by fire.

With Caligula died his wife Caesonia, stabbed with a sword by a centurion, while his daughter’s brains were dashed out against a wall.

60. The atmosphere of fear and paranoia continued after his death. Not even after the murder was made known was it believed that Caligula was dead. People suspected that Caligula himself had staged his own death and would return to punish anyone who was celebrating.

The confusion was exacerbated because the conspirators had not agreed on a successor. The senate was unanimously in favour of re-establishing the republic and so called the first meeting, not in the senate house, because it bore the by-now hated name Julian Building, but in the Capitol.

Some wanted all memory of the Caesars obliterated and all their temples destroyed. Men commented that all the Caesars whose forename was Gaius had perished by the sword, beginning with the one who was slain in the times of Cinna. [Although Michael Grant tells us in a footnote that this is not factually correct, it indicates the terrible reputation the family had acquired.]

[Once Claudius was securely in power he had Caligula’s assassins, including Cassius Chaerea and Julius Lupus, the murderer of Caligula’s wife and daughter, put to death – to ensure Claudius’s own safety and to act as a deterrent against conspirators during his reign.]


Credit

Robert Graves’s translation of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius was published by Penguin in 1957. A revised translation by Classicist Michael Grant, more faithful to the Latin original, was published in 1979. A further revised edition was published in 1989 with an updated bibliography.

Related links

Roman reviews

Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos, Slave Trader by M.I. Finley (1968)

This blog post started out as simple notes on a short essay by the noted historian of the ancient world, Sir Moses Finley (1912 to 1986) – until I stumbled on the wider context of the essay on the internet, which I then try to summarise.

Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos, Slave Trader

The essay ‘Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos, Slave Trader’ was published in the early 1960s, then included in a slim Pelican paperback collection, ‘Aspects of Antiquity’, published in 1968, which I picked up sometime in the 1980s.

It is far from being a big definitive essay on the huge subject of slavery in antiquity. Rather, it’s a set of meditations which flow from contemplating just one artifact from the ancient world, a seven-feet-high, finely decorated marble tombstone to this man, Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos.

Tombstone of Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos, Slave Trader

The tombstone

This tombstone was found at a town near the border between modern Turkey and Greece. It shows three carved scenes: a typical banquet at the top; a work scene in the middle; and on the bottom, a depiction of 8 slaves, chained together by the neck, being led in single file, accompanied by two women and two children, not chained, preceded by a man who is obviously in charge. Between the top and second row is an inscription in Greek, reading:

Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos, freedman of Aulos, slave trader

Apparently what makes this stone rare and unusual is its blunt candour. In the scattered writings we have from the ancient world slave trading was looked down on, sometimes despised, which is odd because the entire economies of ancient Greece and Rome relied on slaves in enormous numbers. But clearly, the writing classes – the people who left opinions for us to read – were ambivalent about it at best.

The American South

Finley compares and contrasts the situation in the ancient world with that in the Southern United States in the nineteenth century. American slave owners were uneasily aware that the rest of the civilised world had abolished slavery and strongly disapproved of them. Hence their increasingly anxious over-compensating justification of the ‘peculiar institution’.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had no external voice of conscience to upbraid them. The reverse. Everywhere they looked they saw all other societies of their time practising slavery.

The racial justification for slavery

The slave society of the Deep South justified its exploitation with widespread propaganda about the intrinsic inferiority of black people. You don’t read far in any text about the American civil war without coming across southern ideologues using the Bible or any other spurious means they can lay hands on to justify the intrinsic superiority of whites and the intrinsic inferiority of blacks. Plenty of authors and politicians claimed that blacks could only find true happiness in the condition of slavery, blacks are children who need the strong hand of a father etc etc.

So a black person in America could never lose the stigma associated with slavery, even if they were free, even if they lived in the north, ran a business, lived a free life, could never be completely free.

The raceless basis of ancient slavery

The situation was drastically different in the ancient world because slavery wasn’t associated with any particular race or ethnicity. Literally anyone could be enslaved – in Spain, in Gaul, in Greece itself, conquering Roman armies enslaved entire cities of white Caucasians.

The crucial point is that there were no specifically slave races or nationalities. Literally anyone and everyone might be enslaved, and which groups predominated at one time or another depended on politics and war. (p.157)

The association of slavery with skin colour was an invention of the Atlantic slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Freed names

Back to Aulos – his first two names, Aulos Kapreilio were those of his master, which he took when he was made free, as per Roman custom. Timotheos was his slave name.

Roman slave names

In the early days of slavery Romans gave their slaves names like Marcipor or Lucipor which was simply a contraction of Marcus puer or Lucius puer, puer being Latin for ‘boy’ (hence the English word ‘puerile’, which has come to mean ‘childishly silly and immature’).

From the year of the twin defeats of Carthage and Corinth, 146 BC, the number of slaves began to steadily increase and so they needed more names.

After 146 the empire became unofficially divided into a Latin-speaking West and a Greek-speaking East, and so slave names sometimes indicate a slave’s origins, east or west.

Side

A city on the south coast of Anatolia, became notorious as a slave market. But maybe the epicentre of the ancient slave trade was the island of Delos

The people of Phrygia in central were notorious for selling their own children into captivity. Many slaves from Scythia (the area to the north of the Black Sea) were bought from their own chieftains, captives in their own wars, or children, or simply human levies, like tax, sold at a profit (p.163).

Slave sales

Given the millions of men, women and children who were slaves it is notable that we have just two visual depictions of an actual slave auction. In both of them a male slave stands on a platform while another man, presumably the buyer, lifts his tunic to admire his strong thighs.

The condition of a slave

is to be brought into a new and alien society violently and traumatically; to be torn not only from his homeland but from all the relationships which provide identity and psychological stability, with family, kin, tribe, village, region, gods, customs, dress – everything.

All this is replaced with just one cardinal relationship – with the slave’s male owner who controls not only every aspect of his physical existence, but his mental horizons, the language he has to use, the new religion he has to practice, rules he has to obey – everything.

Slave sexual exploitation

Complete control over the person of slaves meant the master class had unfettered unlimited sexual access to all slaves, male, female, young or old. As I’ve read the chatty odes of Horace or elegiacs of Tibullus, Propertius or Ovid, I have been disturbed again and again by the casual way they talk about being ‘given’ slaves (of either gender) for sexual purposes.

Slave punishments

The most chilling thing for me, though, has been the casual references, in all the Roman literature I’ve read from Plautus onwards, of the horrific punishments slaves could be subject to, starting with whipping and escalating through torture, having limbs deliberately broken, and so on, up to the ultimate punishment of crucifixion.

Finley returns to the attempts of Americans to justify slavery through the intrinsic inferiority of one race and say not only was it not attempted in the ancient world, it was actively disproved by the case of the Greeks.

Greek revenge

After the brutal conquest of the Greek League in 146 BC, over the next few centuries hundreds of thousands of Greek men, women and children were brought back to Italy as slaves. However, in the long term this caused a kind of cultural revolution. The Gauls or Germans might have been considered ‘barbarians’ (they wore trousers, for God’s sake!) but the Greeks were citizens of the culture which had taught the Romans literature, philosophy and architecture. Hard to maintain the fiction that these people were in any way ‘inferior’. On the contrary many of them, while remaining technically ‘slaves’, rose to become secretaries, assistants or teachers to the master’s children.

Manumission

This leads into another important issues, which is manumission, which is the fancy word for freeing your slaves. The Romans became famous among the cultures of the ancient world for freeing their slaves, as reward for loyal service. It was a disconcertingly simple procedure – the owner declaring the slave free, maybe touching them or gently pushing them away, and a state official such as a consul or a praetor touching the slave with a rod called a vindicta and pronouncing him or her to be free.

The slave’s head was shaved and a pileus was placed upon it. The pileus was a brimless felt cap of undyed wool. Based on what we can see in surviving frescos, sculptures, and coins, the pileus ranged from a short cone to a gumdrop shape. It was the identifying garment of a freedman.

Anyway, we know that the rate of manumission became a real problem in Roman society because the emperor Augustus passed laws trying to limit it:

He established maxima on a sliding scale, according to which no one man was allowed to free more than one hundred slaves in his will. (p.158)

Finley points out a notorious contradiction in Roman attitudes to slavery: which is that noted jurists such as Florentinus clearly stated that slavery as an institution was ‘contrary to nature’, that this idea was shared in some of the literature and incorporated into legal codes – and yet it didn’t make any difference to the actual practice.

He instances the moral philosopher Seneca who freely admitted that a slave is a person with a soul like you and me, but from this premise he draws the conclusion that one should live on friendly terms with one’s slaves, dine with them, converse with them etc – everything except actually free them, which seems beyond the scope of his philosophy (p.164).

War

Because, as Finley points out, war was central to the entire institution of slavery and the slave trade.

The ancient world was one of unceasing warfare, and the accepted rule was that the victor had absolute rights over the person and property of the captives, without distinction between soldiers and civilians. (p.159)

Caesar

went to Gaul an impoverished nobleman and returned a multi-millionaire and this was partly because of the huge number of captives he seized and sold into slavery, taking a commission. After he captured the town of the Atuatuci he sold the entire population of 53,000 into lifelong slavery. After the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC he gave one captive to every one of his legionaries.

War slavers

Enormous numbers like this would slow an army down so by Caesar’s time arrangements were in place to have slave traders accompany the army, or meet them at arranged rendezvous, there to buy the newly captured slaves, take them off the commander’s hands, and do with them as he please, tramp them all the way back to Italy or sell them locally.

Maybe the procession on Timotheos’s tombstone depicts such a merchant marching off some of his new merchandise.

Pirates

From a business point of view the problem was the extreme unpredictability of war. Hence the inexorable rise from 150 or so onwards of piracy in the Mediterranean. This wasn’t a case of a few swashbuckling privateers but ‘a complex business network of pirates, kidnappers and slave dealers’, with its headquarters at Side and its main emporium on the Greek island of Delos. Finley quotes the figure I’ve read elsewhere that the docks and warehouses of Delos were extended so that at its peak it turned over as many as 10,000 slaves a day.

(On the subject of scale, Finley says that as early as the 4th century BC the number of slaves working in Athens’s silver mines was probably as high as 30,000.)

Latifundia

The rise and rise of slavery went hand in hand with a crucial socio-economic development in mainland Italy. This was the eradication of the small family farm – the kind of place which Virgil and Horace idolised as the cradle of morality and right living – and its replacement by vast estates or latifundia owned by enormously rich absentee landlords and worked by slave gangs often working in chains.

The servile wars

The scale of the exploitation and the resentment it bred led to the three major slave revolts which escalated so far as to be called ‘wars’, the so-called Servile Wars:

  • First Servile War (135 to 132 BC) in Sicily, led by Eunus, a former slave claiming to be a prophet, and Cleon from Cilicia
  • Second Servile War (104 to 100 BC) in Sicily, led by Athenion and Tryphon
  • Third Servile War (73 to 71 BC) on mainland Italy, led by Spartacus

Training

Specialist skills were in great demand. If a slave could play music, recite poetry, take dictation or any number of other skills then he or she might secure a relatively comfortable lifestyle. Alternatively, slaves could be trained, specially if started young.

Many slaves became masters of crafts and trades; the chain-ganged brute labour of the countryside was matched by highly skilled slaves in more urban settings who worked in potteries or textile mills, on temples and other public works, sometimes performing artistic and delicate work.

The sheer number of slaves present at every level of Roman society, participating in a huge range of activities, suggests the ‘condition’ or psychology of slavery must have been hugely varied, as varied, maybe, as the number of individual slaves.

The end of ancient slavery

Slavery ended not because of any abolitionist movement but because of profound socio-economic changes in the Roman Empire. These slow economic transformations replaced both the ‘chattel slave’ and the free peasant of Virgil and Horace’s dreams, with a new social class, a new type of ‘bondsman’ – the colonus, the adscripticius, who was himself to evolve into the serf.

For the most part. But slavery didn’t disappear from Europe, not even from the Empire. Finley tells us that when the sixth-century emperor Justinian drew up a codification of all existing laws, the issues thrown up by slavery took up more space than any other topic.

The essay in the context of Finley’s career

Online you can read the first page of an essay about Finley and slavery by the American academic, Arnaldo Momigliano. This tells us that Finley had a lifelong interest in the question of slavery in the ancient world and that the present essay repeats some themes and ideas already discussed in his 1958 essay, ‘Was Greek civilisation based on slave labour?’ (itself included in a 1960 collection, ‘Slavery and Classical Antiquity’) and takes its place alongside other papers on the subject gathered in the 1981 volume, ‘Economy and Society in Ancient Greece’.

Apparently, Finley’s ideas about slavery were most fully expressed in the book-length study, ‘Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology’, published in 1980 (so when he was 68). If you go looking for it on Amazon, you find the latest imprint of the book and discover that it was republished in 1998 with new material by an academic named Brent Shaw.

This volume, ‘Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology’, isn’t a history of slavery as such, it’s an account of the interpretations succeeding ages have made of slavery in the ancient world, according to each era’s ideologies and principles. In what follows I’m indebted to the excellent review of ‘Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology’ on Amazon by Richard Mathisen. To be clear, I’m putting Mathisen’s words in italics.

Richard Mathisen’s summary of ‘Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology’

For Finley, there have been only five genuine slave societies, two ancient (Greece and Rome), and three modern (the Caribbean, Brazil, and the American South).

Historians of ancient societies have always been affected by ideological bias. Classical historians admired Greek and Roman civilisations so they downplayed the ugly aspects of slavery. Christian historians tried to claim that Christianity ended slavery, but it didn’t. Marxist historians wanted to interpret ancient slavery through their lens of class war while anti-Marxist historians took the opposite view.

While ancient slavery had no racial component, modern historians are influenced by racial concerns so that every “new interpretation of slavery has professed to be more anti-racist than the one it replaces.”

Finley’s aim is to trace the distorting effect of each of these ideologies on the history of slavery. Finley explains the emergence of ancient slave societies, which requires three conditions: private ownership of land, commodified systems of production, and a shortage of labour. He considers societal attitudes toward the humanity of slaves and traces the end of slavery as it transitioned into feudalism.

Finley carefully defines slavery, because many examples of forced labour have existed, including Egyptian pyramids, Assyrian and Babylonian empires, Spartan helots, feudal serfs, and indentured servants, but they were not slaves. Indeed, he notes that the most unusual labour system in history is modern free wage labour, with individuals free to move.

This leads to Finley’s real interest. What factors led to ancient slavery? When did it start, when did it end, and why? What aspects of ancient society were part of slavery’s support system? What were the ideological presuppositions of the Greeks and Romans? Why was the legitimacy of slavery never questioned in ancient times, even during slave revolts? Why did slavery exist only in certain areas of Rome, such as Italy and Sicily? Could slavery ever come back again in the modern world, if the necessary conditions seemed to demand it?

When re-issuing Finley’s book, Brent Shaw added a 1981 response by Finley to his critics and a 1979 essay on “Slavery and the Historians.” Shaw himself wrote a 76-page essay updating the slavery debate since 1980.

The vast historiography of a complex subject

All this builds up to quite a complex picture which can be summarised as:

  • during his career Finley wrote a number of essays about slavery in the ancient world
  • his main statement on the subject is a book which describes the changing interpretations of ancient slavery made by the leading ideologies of different eras
  • critics criticised this book
  • Finley wrote an essay addressing these criticisms
  • Brent Shaw added a long essay updating the debate since 1980 (presumably up till 1998, when this new edition was published)

But quite obviously a lot of this is very old. When I skimmed through the passages of ‘Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology’ available on Amazon, I caught references to the Soviet Union. The idea of describing an aspect of the ancient world as it has been interpreted, reinterpreted and misinterpreted by the leading ideologies of successive ages sounds really interesting, but…1980. Surely I ought to be reading something far more up to date.

And then, when I saw that the Arnaldo Momigliano essay about Finley had been published in a periodical titled ‘Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies’, my heart sank. Every month or so since the late 1970s this journal has been publishing articles about slavery. By now there must be a mountain of content – and I bet there are other journals on the subject, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of academic papers and tens of thousands of books, and hundreds of conferences which must have been held on the subject. How long would it take to read all the relevant studies, paper and books on the subject? A year? Three years? I’d like to learn and understand more but do I have the time required? Does anyone have the time?


Credit

‘Aulos Kapreilios Timotheos, Slave Trader’ was included in a collection of essays by M.I. Finley titled ‘Aspects of Antiquity’, published by Penguin books in 1968. References are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Roman reviews

Roman writers

As well to remember that all Roman literature was written by an elite for an elite about an elite, and is overwhelmingly conservative and traditionalist in tone. Even when they’re writing about farmers or ordinary citizens or soldiers, Roman writers are doing it from the perspective of privileged members of the highly educated aristocratic classes. The only possible exceptions are the first two entries in the list, the comic playwrights Plautus and Terence, whose work features numerous slaves and tradesmen (often cooks) – though here again, we should be cautious about treating these characters and their views as documentary evidence, as they are clearly based on standardised stereotypes which owe their origins, in any case, to the Greek theatre.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of Roman authors, that would be much longer. These are the important Roman authors and this is by way of being an ideal or personal, reading list.

The Republic

Plautus (Titus Maccius Plautus, 254 to 184 BC) Plautus’s comedies are the earliest Latin literary works to survive in their entirety: Asinaria, Aulularia, Captivi, Casina, Curculio, Epidicus, Menaechmi, Mercator, Miles Gloriosus, Mostellaria, Persa, Poenulus, Pseudolus, Rudens, Stichus, Trinummus, Truculentus.

Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, 195 to 159 BC) Six plays: Andria (The Girl from Andros), Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law), Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor), Phormio, Eunuchus, Adelphoe (The Brothers). Fanous for his t-shirt motto:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto – I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me

Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 to 43 BC) statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher. Cicero wrote more than 75% of the extant Latin literature that is known to have existed in his lifetime, including law court speeches, letters, treatises on rhetoric, philosophy and politics.

Julius Caesar (100 to 44 BC) author of accounts of his wars in Gaul, Egypt, Spain and Africa.

Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, 99 to 55 BC) poet and philosopher whose only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura or ‘On the nature of things’, a poetic exposition of the philosophy of Epicureanism.

Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus 86 to 35 BC) author of two historical monographs, on the Jugurthine War and the Catiline conspiracy.

Catullus (Gaius Valerius Catullus, 84 to 54 BC) known for an anthology of 116 carmina or poems which are divided into three parts according to their form: sixty short poems in varying meters, called polymetra, eight longer poems, and forty-eight epigrams.

Livy (Titus Livius, 59 BC to 17 AD) author of a monumental History of Rome titled Ab Urbe Condita Libri (‘Books from the Founding of the City’) which originally comprised 142 ‘books’, 35 of which still exist in reasonably complete form.

The Empire

Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70 to 19 BC) composed three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics and the epic poem, Aeneid.

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 to 8 BC) the leading Roman lyric poet during the rule of the emperor Augustus: famous for his Odes, Satires, Epistles and Epodes.

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BC to 18 AD) younger contemporary of Virgil and Horace, together considered the three canonical poets of Latin literature. His three three main works are the Metamorphoses, the Ars Amatoria (‘Art of Love’) and Fasti.

Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, 4 BC to AD 65) philosopher, statesman, dramatist and satirist: a dozen essays and 124 letters dealing with moral issues, 9 tragedies: Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules), Troades (The Trojan Women), Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women), Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes.

Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, 39 BC to 65 AD) known for his epic Pharsalia or De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’) about the wars between Julius Caesar and Pompey.

Plutarch (46 to after 119 AD) Greek philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest, author, among many other works, of the Parallel Lives, biographies of 50 eminent Greeks and Romans.

Tacitus (Publius Cornelius Tacitus, 56 to 120 AD) widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians known for two incomplete works, the Annals and the Histories, covering the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD) to 70 AD in the First Jewish–Roman War (66 to 73). Also a dialogue on oratory, the Germania or De origine et situ Germanorum and the life of his father-in-law, Agricola, the general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain (De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae). In the latter, a leader of the rebellious Scots is given a long speech criticising the Roman Empire which includes the famous quote:

ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant – they create a desert and call it peace

Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis, 55? to 150? AD) author of 16 satires divided into five books.

Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, 61 to about 113) lawyer, author and magistrate famous because he wrote hundreds of letters, 247 of which survive: the most notable are the hundred or so in his correspondence with the emperor Trajan in his capacity of governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, one of which asks advice about how to treat the new sect of Christians (one of the earliest references to Christianity) and the exchange where his friend Tacitus asks him for his memories of the eruption of Mount Etna which Pliny witnessed.

Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, 69 to 122 AD) historian whose most important surviving work is De vita Caesarum, a set of biographies of 12 successive Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

Petronius (Gaius Petronius Arbiter, 27 to 66 AD) was a courtier to the emperor Nero and is believed to be the author of the scandalously satirical novel, the Satyricon.

Cassius Dio (Lucius Cassius Dio, 155 to 235) Roman historian and senator of Greek origin who published 80 volumes of the history of ancient Rome, from the arrival of Aeneas in Italy through to 229 AD, covering about 1,000 years of history.


Roman reviews

Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

Surprisingly, given his notoriety, this is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Roman Emperor Nero or, to give him his full name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Marble bust of Nero. Italy (around AD 55) Photo by Francesco Piras © MiC Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, his predecessors having been:

  • Augustus, who overthrew the Roman Republic, established the principate and reigned 27 BC to 14 AD
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Caligula, star of the 1979 porn movie starring Malcolm McDowell (37 to 41)
  • Claudius, star of the famous TV series based on the novels by Robert Graves (41 to 54)

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nero, born in 37 AD, reigned from 54 to 68, 14 years, from the ages of just 16 to 30, so he was very young. He was the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus (his great-great grandson and so his death marked the end of what came to be called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was later claimed that during his reign he had his own mother killed, Agrippina, who had schemed to help her son to the succession, then did away with his first wife and allegedly his second wife.

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome occurred during Nero’s reign, in AD 64. For 9 days the flames rampaged through Rome utterly destroying 3 of its 14 districts. Later accounts claim Nero watched it from the vantage point of his palace, singing to the accompaniment of his lyre. Some later sources claim that Nero deliberately started it in order to flatten Rome so he could rebuild it more magnificently, not least by constructing his enormous Golden Palace.

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

  • a major uprising by British tribes led by Queen Boudica which seriously threatened Roman rule in this distant colony (60 to 61 AD)
  • ongoing war against the mighty Parthian Empire on Rome’s eastern border
  • then, in 66, a major insurrection of the Jewish population in Palestine which was to drag on for four years until the Romans finally suppressed it in 70 AD, razing much of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, including the temple of Solomon, and dispersing its Jewish population, a key event in the rise of Christianity

The Pisonian conspiracy There had been simmering discontent with various aspects of Nero’s rule among Rome’s traditionalist, aristocratic families, and a number of low-level conspiracies to overthrow him. The most serious came in 65, centred on Gaius Calpurnius Piso who aimed to have Nero assassinated and replace him. The conspiracy involved at least 40 individuals, all of whom were executed, forced to commit suicide or sent into exile.

The Galba revolt and suicide In 68 Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero. This set in train a series of events which led to Galba leading his forces on Rome.

Abruptly the Senate, who had always been resentful of his populist and unorthodox policies, abandoned Nero, declaring him a public enemy, and the leader of his own bodyguard went over to Galba.

Nero fled to a villa outside the city and, when he was told soldiers from the Senate were coming to arrest him and drag him to the Forum where he would likely be beaten to death, he ordered a loyal servant to kill him. It was 9 June 68.

Civil war

Far from securing a peaceful transition of power, the removal of Nero led to a series of short-lived civil wars or military battles for supremacy among a succession of provincial generals in what came to be known as the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, being:

  • Galba, governor of western Spain, murdered in January 69
  • Otho, governor of northern Spain who supported Galba, but then overthrew him, before committing suicide in April 69
  • Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior, who overthrew Otho and ruled for 9 months till he was executed December 69
  • Vespasian, general of the armies in the East, who marched on Rome, overthrew Vitellius and founded the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 79 AD

Once order had been restored by Vespasian, the Roman Senate excised Nero’s memory from official records, his images were defaced or destroyed in a ritual process known as damnatio memoriae, and his name was vilified in order to to legitimise the new ruling dynasty which emerged from the chaos, the Flavian dynasty.

Bust of Agrippina the Younger, younger sister of the emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of emperor Nero who, it was said, had her murdered in 59 AD.

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

Nero has been for nearly two thousand years vilified as a monster who murdered his own mother, had Christians set alight to illuminate the games, who fiddled while Rome burnt and possibly started the great conflagration himself, who indulged his absurd fantasy that he was a great artist, and wasted a fortune on his overblown Golden Palace.

Nowadays, we live in a great era of revisionism and Nero’s is one among many reputations which are coming in for a major reconsideration. And, in the spirit of the times, this major exhibition sets out to overturn the traditional image of Nero the monster.

The curators’ contention is that Nero’s bad reputation image was a political and literary fabrication, invented generations later, in order to legitimise the overthrow of the Augustan dynasty and validate the authority of its successors, the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) and the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which followed (96 to 192).

In the words of the exhibition curator, Thorsten Opper: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago.’

Certainly the Roman historians who are our main sources for the lives of the emperors were writing a long time afterwards. Tacitus (56 to 120) wrote his histories between about 100 and 110 AD, 40 to 50 years after the events he depicts.

The other main authority is the Lives of the Emperors written by the historian Suetonius (lived 70 to 122), a gripping read, even after all these years, because of the juicy and scandalous gossip it contains about the first twelve emperors of Rome but, like Tacitus, several generations removed from the events he describes.

A century later Cassius Dio (155 to 235) wrote a vast 80-volume history of Rome from its legendary origins to his own time, which includes a summary of the reign of Nero. It is one of only three sources we have for the rebellion of the British warrior-queen Boudicca against Roman occupation in 60 to 61 AD.

The exhibition implies that all three of these main sources are not what we would nowadays think of as attempts at historical veracity, but narratives created much later in order to bolster the authority of the later dynasties by discrediting their predecessors. Seen in this way, Tacitus and Suetonius tell us as much about the conflicts among the elite of their own times as of Nero’s.

The curators make a series of claims to back up this theory, but they can all be subsumed under what is maybe the basic premise of the exhibition which is that: A whole host of new (and newish) archaeological discoveries shed more light than ever before on the attitudes and lives and opinions of people living in 50s and 60s Rome and, taken together, these undercut the idea that Nero was perceived in his own time as a vicious tyrant. If anything, these new discoveries tend to prove the reverse: that Nero was extremely popular during his life and long afterwards, among the common people of Rome and, particularly in the East of the Empire.

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

So the curators set up a dichotomy which runs through the exhibition, between the written texts of later ‘historians’ which (they claim) are seriously compromised and biased, written to please sponsors in the tiny Senatorial elite – and the archaeological evidence which, in numerous ways, suggests the opposite: that demonstrates that many Romans liked and even worshipped Nero, during his lifetime and even after his death.

The evidence they bring is highly varied in style and weight:

  • They show how melodramatic speeches put into the mouth of Agrippina by the ‘historians’ Tacitus and Dio Cassius, as Nero supposedly stabbed her to death, are in fact copies of speeches from a play written soon after Nero’s death, Octavia, which itself adapted the entire scene from Seneca’s Oedipus, itself, of course, dependent on ancient Greek originals. In other words, Tacitus and Suetonius’s accounts are less to do with what we think of as ‘objective history’ and much more to do with tapping into well-established literary stereotypes and tropes, not least for producing high drama with its requirement for tearful victims and callous, cold-hearted villains.
  • Nero had nothing to do with starting the Great Fire of Rome nor singing during it, as he was absent in Antium at the time. On the contrary there is evidence that he made great efforts to shelter refugees from the flames and then organised the rebuilding of the city afterwards.
  • Talking of building, Nero inaugurated building schemes throughout Rome including the building of a new larger central market and also the rebuilding and expansion of the port of Ostia, popular with the people and merchants.
  • Nero certainly performed onstage but there is evidence that this was a popular move. He created a claque of followers, the Augustiani, who clapped and cheered his performances. Spinning his association with the theatre as a populist tactic reminded me of King Charles II, who was also criticised by the elite for his debauched lifestyle but was wildly popular with the general public. Was Nero the Charles II of his day?
  • Nero expanded the chariot races and other games held in the Circus, also very popular.
  • There are several exhibits focusing on Nero’s haircut. He initiated a new style of having his hair brushed forward and a little curled at the front. We know this from statues and know that other nobles followed him. He set a fashion. ‘I’ll have a Nero, please, Mario.’
  • Down at the more plebeian end of the scale, the exhibition displays some pro-Nero graffiti found on a wall and which the curators have blown up large and displayed on an exhibition wall. There’s also a caricature of Nero from the wall of a shop on the Palatine Hill, which the curators have entertainingly animated, so we can watch it slowly being drawn on a screen.
  • On a more elevated geopolitical plane, Nero continued to be popular in the East after his death. We know this because a succession of impersonators arose who used his name and reputation to gather followings and lead forces before, inevitably, being crushed by the army but still, why would anyone set themselves up as followers, devotees or reincarnations of the man unless he retained a high degree of popularity?

The Senate

The Roman Senate consisted of some 600 men from Rome’s oldest and most prestigious families. They saw themselves as guardians of traditions and values. The first room or space in the exhibition is devoted to an impressive raised platform maybe 50 feet long on which stand a series of lifesize statues or busts of the first Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) and some of the key female figures (Livia, Agrippina), behind them on the wall an enormous family tree of the Julian Dynasty.

Gallery of statues of emperors from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (photo by the author)

As usual I found it challenging to follow the precise details of who married who, adopted who, murdered who and so on. But I was struck by a thread that ran through the labels for all of the figures and this was mention of the Senate and how each of the emperors sooner or later incurred the criticism of the oligarchy, the small number of hugely rich and influential senators who regarded themselves as keepers of Rome’s traditional values, many of whom thought they had as much right to the principate (as Augustus called his position) as the madman Caligula or the stammering wretch Claudius.

As you carry on reading the wall labels this undercurrent of Senatorial resentment keeps recurring. Nero’s appearances on the stage may have been popular with the plebs, but the aristocrats severely disapproved. Lowered the tone. Conduct unbecoming.

Agrippina, Nero’s mother, certainly seems to have been the powerful schemer historians depict and so – she brought down on herself the vituperative criticism of the Senate, which strongly disapproved of powerful women. The legend that Nero had his own mother murdered reflects badly on both of them, and so was a perfect propaganda slur.

The people may have approved of the new building works in Rome, but the Senate disliked the higher taxes required to fund them, and so on.

Slowly but consistently, the curators are making the point that there was always opposition to the very idea of a prince, a princeps, a supposed ‘first among equals’, to the very idea of what people eventually came to call the ’emperor’, right from the time of Augustus.

Augustus’s homicidal rule (he had some 5,000 men from Rome’s leading parties executed in order to enforce his power) was only grudgingly accepted because the ruling class was exhausted after two generations of fratricidal civil war.

But the upper class sniping and criticism never stopped and highly educated, highly ambitious men never stopped gossiping and scheming against the First Family, and paying lawyers, orators and ‘historians’ to undermine and defame them at every opportunity. This then, should be understood as the background to the parti pris accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius.

The point being that it wasn’t just Nero. The exhibition slowly, subtly builds up a picture of a political system which was seething with resentments and power struggles at every level. The reputation Nero acquired for being a monster was just the latest in a succession of insults and abuse which had been hurled at Tiberius and the supposedly perverted goings-on at his villa on Capri, at the outright insanity of Caligula, at the doddery ineffectiveness of Claudius, and so on. The very idea of an ’emperor’ was deeply resented.

The more you look into it, the more you realise that all opinions in such a society were party pris, biased, sponsored by and supporting particular factions in the never-ending struggle for supreme power.

It prompts the thought that maybe being Roman Emperor was simply an impossible job. Maybe it was impossible to try and balance all the forces and please everyone in such a strife-ridden society, trying to suppress the slaves on the estates as much as the rebellions which kept breaking out throughout the occupied territories, all the time watching your back for the unceasing threat of a coup or assassination closer to home. Maybe it’s this simple fact which explains why so many of them started out welcomed and hailed by writers and people, yet ended their reigns in paranoia and violence.

Wider context

And this brings me to the most important thing I want to say about this exhibition, which is this: the pre-publicity and the posters and the website and the title of the exhibition itself all promote this idea that the exhibition addresses this one big question: was Nero the monster posterity has made him out to be? (And answers, pretty solidly, No, he wasn’t).

But in fact, the exhibition is much bigger and more ambitious and more wide-ranging than that. It feels like it sheds light on an enormous range of subjects going far beyond the personality or role of one man. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a panoramic overview of an entire society, analysed at multiple levels, from high politics and military strategy, through colonial rule, the role of women, of slaves, theatre and the arts, architecture and town planning, right down to day to day implements such as lamps and mirrors and coins and jewelry.

It feels like a wonderfully informative and dazzling total immersion in every aspect of first century Roman culture.

Exhibits

The exhibition fills the Museum’s largest gallery, the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. I’ve been to some shows, such as the Rodin one, where the gallery is fully lit and sparkles with Scandinavian clarity. For this exhibition the overhead lights are turned off and the different spaces are separated by dark wood panelling and gauze hangings to create a dark and brooding atmosphere. In this setting are displayed over 200 objects, large and small, which appear out of the gloom, beautifully mounted and lit.

The very first exhibit has been carefully chosen to set the tone. It is a bust of Nero which, we are told, started life as the likeness of a different emperor but was extensively remodelled in the 1660s. In what way? To make the image blunter, heavier, more sensual and crude. Why? Because the sculptor was following the by-then established myth of the sensual, murderous tyrant. It is symbolic of the way the curators think Nero’s image was systematically besmirched after his death.

Bust of Nero, marble with later alterations (AD 59 to 98) Roma, Musei Capitolini. Photo by the author

The exhibition includes numerous objects from the Museum’s own collection, alongside rare loans from Europe, and ranges from humble graffiti to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales.

The new archaeological finds include:

  • treasures hidden during the destruction of Colchester in AD 60 to 61 during Boudica’s Iceni rebellion
  • burned artifacts from the Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • evidence from the destruction of Pompeii which suggest a new understanding of Nero’s reign

Statues

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain

The so-called Fenwick Hoard was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewelry similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Fenwick Hoard, England (AD 60 to 61) © Colchester Museums

It’s impressive but it is dwarfed by two other exhibits in the same section. First there’s a map of Roman Britain which shows where the important mines were. Just like the conquistadors who conquered Central America in the 16th century, the conquering Romans came looking for resources of all kinds to exploit and these included mines which were worked with slave labour. The exhibition includes some massive lead ingots shaped and marked with stamps indicating they date from Nero’s reign, and invites us to consider the back-breaking slave labour which went into their production.

But the most striking exhibit is a big slave chain of the type used to shackle native Britons, as they were bought, sold, transported around the country to work the land and the mines. People forget that Roman society was first and foremost a slave economy. People really forget that Britain was famous in the first century for the quality of its slaves who were widely exported throughout the empire.

Iron slave chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales (100 BC to AD 78)

Later on we are told a spine-chilling story concerning slaves. In 61 a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests from the populace, Nero backed the senate’s decision to uphold an existing law which stipulated that, if one slave committed a capital crime, all the enslaved members of the owner’s household must be executed, to act as a deterrent.

Brutality was all around, at every moment, in a strictly controlled, rigidly hierarchical society subjected to multiple types of power and enforcement.

Nero the performer

Famously, Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. The exhibition includes some vivid depictions of these chariot races including oil lamps show a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot), a victorious racehorse and a triumphant charioteer, as well as mass-produced architectural panels showing details of the races, like this one in which a quadriga is approaching the turning posts at the end of the course. (Next to it the exhibition actually includes three life-sized replicas of these turning tall conical posts.)

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (AD 40–70) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obviously, ancient Rome was also famous for its gladiator contests and the exhibition includes a selection of scary-looking gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre. Nero set up his own gladiatorial school, the Iudus Neronianus. A famous gladiator of the day, Spiculus, later became the loyal commander of his bodyguards.

Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii (1st century AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes rivalries connected to the games got out of hand. In AD 59, a violent riot erupted during a gladiatorial contest in Pompeii’s amphitheatre between opposing supporters from Pompeii and nearby Nuceria. The show includes a photo of a wall painting giving an aerial view of the event, showing the amphitheatre and people fighting in the arena and in the stands, as well as in the streets outside. Nero handed the investigation to the Senate, which issued Pompeii with a 10-year ban on holding gladiatorial games. Football hooliganism is nothing new.

Compare and contrast those bloody scenes with the rather less blood-thirsty spectacle of the ancient theatre. The show includes some large frescoes from Pompeii depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Mind you, Roman tragedy could be a bloodthirsty affair, as the tragedies written by Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, amply demonstrate.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy (AD 30 to 40) With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aged 21, Nero first took to the stage as part of private games, but a few years later he performed publicly in Naples and then in Rome itself. This event was described in elite sources as unprecedented and scandalous, but contemporary evidence shows that Nero was hardly the first young man of good family to take part in public performances.

No doubt Nero thought of himself as a great artist – and the curators emphasise that he put a lot of time and energy into learning the play the cithara, or lyre, to professional standard – but his performances may also a political motivation, reaching out to the crowd, the plebs, the common people, showing he was one of them and enjoyed popular entertainment; part of his ongoing attempts to create and maintain a popular power base to balance the ever-present threat from the disapproving aristocracy. Again I think of Charles II, never really confident of his throne…

Nero created a group of supporters, the Augustiani which comprised knights and commoners alike, young men who accompanied Nero’s performances with rhythmic clapping and chants, steering the reactions of the audience. Not content to leave it at that, the curators have actually created a one-minute long aural recreation of these roisterers cheering and chanting in Latin, which plays from speakers directly above the theatre frescos.

In one of the show’s smaller pleasures, there’s a six-inch-high ivory carving of a Roman actor in the middle of a tragic performance. His pose and gestures are theatrical, you can see his face behind the stylised mask they all wore, but what was news to me was that the actors wore raised platform shoes called cothurni. He looks like a member of a Glam Rock band (admittedly, wearing a toga).

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. As you might expect the exhibition includes a bit of peppy son-et-lumiere, with flickering red flames licking around a map of the city blocks affected with sound affects of a Big Fire. The prime exhibit is a big iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, which was twisted and warped by the fire’s intense heat.

As mentioned, Nero was for centuries blamed for the fire and not doing enough to quench it. Nowadays, opinion is that Nero a) was not even in Rome when it occurred b) took prompt steps to both rehouse those made homeless, but to rebuild Rome bigger and better.

The Domus Aurea

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the centrepiece of Nero’s building a new palace called Domus Aurea or Golden House. It shows us photographs of the surviving rooms, corridors and halls and displays fragments of the luxury frescoes and wall decorations which adorned it.

Fresco fragments from the Domus Aurea, Italy (AD 64 to 68) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The elaborate designs and the use of precious materials such as exotic marbles, cinnabar and gold speak to the height of imperial luxury. Another display case shows a selection of silver cutlery, plates and mirrors, all top luxury items. It’s all housed in a distinct setting which is, unlike the rest of the exhibition, bright and well lit, to subliminally give us the impression that we have entered the villa itself. Clever.

Conclusion

The curators argue that the conclusion to be drawn from this wide survey of the archaeological evidence is that Nero was not the merciless, matricidal maniac of legend; that the physical evidence gathered here suggests, on the contrary, that Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, his funding of and participation in extravagant games, his grand building projects, even his popular haircut, and that he remained popular, notably in the East of the Empire, long after his death.

In this version, the Domus Aurea was vast but large parts of it were open to the public. The great fire certainly happened but far from fiddling, Nero organised the rescue and rehousing of much of the population.

So the infamous legend which went down to posterity is the product of authors representing the view of the later Roman ruling classes and Senatorial factions who triumphed in the civil war which immediately followed his death.

Do I buy this new revisionist version? Difficult to say, maybe impossible for anyone who isn’t a real scholar of the times, and even the historians themselves (as so often) seem to disagree.

What I think is clear is that by the end of this huge and sumptuous exhibition, the narrow question ‘Nero: Man or Monster’ has been superseded by the awesomely wide-ranging and thought-provoking variety of artefacts on show, which inform you about all aspects of a society which was so completely, almost incomprehensibly, unlike our own. This is a really great exhibition.

Marble portrait of Nero, Italy (AD 64–68). Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich

This portrait dates to the last years of Nero’s reign. It was probably created to mark his 10-year anniversary as emperor. Nero’s forehead is framed by a row of curls and his hair is worn long, intended to convey a sense of vigour, refinement and god-like beauty. Contemporary poetry likened Nero to Apollo and Mars. His elaborate hairstyle set a new trend that remained fashionable for decades.

BC and AD

I thought that some time ago we all adopted the terms BCE and CE denoting ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era’ to replaced BC and AD, which were seen as too Christian, Eurocentric and uninclusive. So I was surprised to see BC and AD used universally throughout the exhibition.

BP and the BM

Odd that the British Museum which hurries, like all other museums and galleries, to keep up to date with woke imperatives about diversity and inclusion, which in its wall labels and official pronouncements is hyper-sensitive to issues of race and gender, is tone deaf to the greatest single issue of our times, climate change, and so continues to allow exhibitions to be sponsored by the multinational, fossil fuel-promoting corporation BP.

Ironic that an exhibition about the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned is supported by a corporation which is helping the planet to burn.


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