Monday, April 9, 2012


Aloys Winterling, Caligula: a Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 229. ISBN 9780520248953. $34.95.

Reviewed by Jonathan Eaton, Newcastle College (

Version at BMCR home site


The emperor Gaius Caligula continues to haunt the imagination of scholars and members of the general public alike, as evidenced by a number of biographies which have attempted to assess his reign and character.1 Advances have been made in understanding Caligula's actions in the context of the political upheavals of his reign. In this new biography, originally published in Germany in 2003, Winterling seeks to explain why the ancient accounts of Caligula express such intense hatred towards him.

Winterling begins by examining Caligula's family background and early years. Winterling emphasises the importance of Augustus' intention to establish sole rule through his professed restoration of the Republic. This innovation produced two problems that would trouble his successors. First, Augustus' delicate manoeuvring to preserve the Republican façade would prove difficult for later emperors to emulate. It would cause Caligula considerable consternation. Second, the imperial family became increasingly politicised, particularly towards the end of Augustus' life. Much of Caligula's early life was spent in the provinces with his father, Germanicus. Indeed, his nickname was awarded by the soldiers in honour of his penchant for wearing miniature army boots. It may have been Agrippina who deliberately promoted this, as a means of building a relationship between her family and the provincial armies.

The death of Germanicus proved a major turning point in Caligula's career. The mysterious circumstances surrounding Germanicus' death and his enduring popularity with the plebs and armies would prove useful for Caligula in the years to come. In the short term however, Caligula and his immediate family would find themselves under threat from Tiberius and Sejanus. Winterling notes that Caligula's survival was owed to his usefulness as a hostage for the good behaviour of others and perhaps also to the unexpected downfall of Sejanus. Caligula's behaviour on Capri was savaged by Suetonius, but some of his accusations clearly belong to the later emperor Nero. The young Caligula can perhaps be forgiven for doing whatever it took to survive in an atmosphere as poisonous as the court of Tiberius.

Winterling next deals with the first two years of Caligula's reign which, he argues, saw the new emperor adopt the Augustan promotion of the survival of the Republic as a tool for securing his regime. Caligula conscientiously distanced himself from the actions and policies of his predecessor. He avoided excessive displays of power and renounced honours due to him. In these policies, Caligula must have won the approval, at least of the upper classes. Yet, the paradox of maintaining the façade of an established Republic alongside an autocratic regime soon caused fractures in his relationship with the Senate. Caligula's serious illness in 37 CE led to an ill-judged attempt by his two senior advisors, Macro and Silanus, to pave the way for the succession of Tiberius Gemellus. All three men would perish when Caligula recovered his health. Winterling highlights a bizarre incident arising from the same episode. Afranius Potitus, a citizen, and Atanius Secundus, an equestrian, had sworn oaths to commit suicide and fight as a gladiator respectively if the emperor recovered. Caligula forced them both to fulfil their promises. Winterling argues that this was a demonstration by the emperor of his insistence on taking communication with his subjects at face value. Extravagant attempts to flatter the emperor would not be rewarded.

The conspiracy of early 39 CE led to an escalation in the deteriorating relationship between the emperor and the Senate. Winterling suggests that the numbers killed as a result of the uncovering of the plot were limited. However, it provoked Caligula's burgeoning suspicion of the Senate. He launched a vitriolic attack in a speech which signalled his willingness, if necessary, to pursue the same measures as Tiberius in controlling and repressing the Senate. His willingness to acknowledge the existence of the Republic was exhausted, as was his intention to maintain the Augustan Principate. The infamous story from Suetonius of Caligula planning to make his horse consul can be understood in this context. By awarding the horse with conspicuous symbols of status and honour, he satirised the position and ambitions of the senators.

The conspiracy of early Autumn 39 CE had far more serious consequences for Caligula's relationship with the Senate. The conspiracy reached the heart of Caligula's inner circle, including his sisters Agrippina and Livilla. Ominously, the commander of Upper Germany, Gaetulicus, was also implicated. Winterling argues that Caligula's rapid departure for the German legions was designed to remove Gaetulicus from his command as swiftly as possible. The discovery of the conspiracy exacerbated the paranoia of the young emperor towards the upper classes. It would mark an escalation in his campaign of intimidation against the Senate.

Caligula's northern campaign is a source of particular controversy for ancient and modern scholars alike. Winterling notes the careful reorganisation of the northern legions by Caligula, presumably with the intention of removing any lasting vestiges of support for Gaetulicus and his fellow conspirators. Steps were also taken to reinforce the discipline of the legions in Germany. According to Winterling, Suetonius' account of Caligula's pursuit of some of his bodyguards disguised as German tribesmen could be a misreading of military exercises designed to prepare the troops for future combat operations. Similarly, Winterling favours Balsdon's theory that the failure of Caligula's British campaign in 40 CE was due to a mutiny caused by fear of the unknown.2 Caligula's order to gather sea shells as the spoils of the ocean was therefore the emperor's attempt to ridicule the cowardice of his soldiers. Caligula's return to Rome from the northern provinces resembled a triumphal procession. However, Winterling suggests that Caligula's crossing of the bridge of boats at the Gulf of Baiae was consciously designed to emulate non-Roman monarchies such as those of the Persian kings and Alexander the Great, whose breastplate he wore. It demonstrated his real position as a monarch far beyond the power and sensibilities of the Senate.

The final five months of Caligula's reign witnessed the final degradation of the senatorial class. Many of the stories of Caligula's cruelty and sadism come from this period. One of the most notorious rumours is that the emperor opened a brothel on the Palatine Hill, staffed by the wives of senators. Winterling masterfully deconstructs this story and demonstrates convincingly that Caligula had, in fact, moved the wives and children of leading senators into rooms within the palace complex. Taking senatorial declarations of friendship and loyalty at face value, he had rewarded them by bringing their families into close proximity with him. At the same time, it meant that these women and children were hostages for the good behaviour of their husbands and fathers, who were also forced to make 'voluntary' financial contributions to provide for their families. Caligula's persecution of the senatorial class continued through the restriction of traditional marks of honour for the nobilitas. Reserved seating for senators and equestrians at the theatre was abolished. Those with distinguished names were prevented from laying claim to the fame of their ancestors. Winterling argues that the purpose of these measures was to humiliate the Senate. Caligula's appearance as a god may also have been designed to force the Roman elite to act in a shameful and ridiculous manner.

The downfall of Caligula, and indeed the hostility of many of the ancient sources towards him, stemmed from the emperor's inability to overcome the challenges in maintaining the Augustan Principate. Traditional aristocratic methods of winning honour, status and political office challenged the authority of the emperor. Likewise, those who flattered the emperor risked descending to absurd depths in their quest to win imperial favour. The suspicions of an already paranoid emperor were exacerbated by the lack of clear and genuine communication between him and the Senate.

Winterling has produced an innovative biography which takes a novel approach to interpreting the historiography of Caligula's reign. It is written in an accessible style and would be particularly useful as reading material for undergraduate courses.


1.   Balsdon, John P. V. D. The Emperor Gaius Oxford, 1934 (reprinted 1964). Barrett, Anthony A. Caligula: The Corruption of Power. London, 1989. Ferrill, Arthur. Caligula: Emperor of Rome. London, 1991.
2.   Balsdon 1934 (1964) 88-95.

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