Is this the face of a tyrant or a hero — or both? The Roman Emperor Gaius (usually known by his nickname, Caligula, meaning ‘little boot’) has always had a pretty bad press. Today his name has become a byword for violence, tyranny, ostentation extravagance and even lunacy.
But in his own day, the public’s opinion of him may have been much more divided. The Roman upper classes and perhaps much of the middle class appear to have genuinely and totally loathed him. But many in the Roman working classes may have taken a very different view.
Indeed, when he was murdered in 41 AD, there were public expressions of grief — and substantial crowds even assembled to demand that his assassins should be caught and punished. This particular marble head — potentially deliberately damaged after his death — was not known to the academic world until very recently, having been in a Spanish private collection since the early 20th century.
Of the 50 known portraits of Caligula, most of which are in marble, around half we re-cut as later Emperors or former Emperors after his assassination. The majority of the others were not mutilated. Of those that were, however, the only ones that have been found are in Italy and Spain.
Statue representing the Emperor Caligula (Gaius Caesar Germanicus, 12 - 41 AD). Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Copyright: www.bridgemanart.com
Apart from Italy and southern France, Spain was almost certainly the place where the largest number of aristocratic Romans lived. Apart from Italy itself, it was the oldest part of the empire, key parts of it having been conquered back in the late 3rd century BC.
So, why did well-to-do Romans hate Caligula with a passion — and, conversely, why did many ‘working class’ Romans look more favourably upon him?
The upper classes seem to have disliked him for four main political and economic reasons. Firstly he persecuted Rome’s senatorial and other elites. Often suspected of plotting against the Emperor, around 30 of them are known to have been executed or forced to commit suicide.
Secondly, he levied a tax on slave sales in Italy, which pushed up the price of slaves and thus infuriated many slave owners. Up till this fiscal action, slave sale taxes had only been levied on the rest of the empire — not in Italy itself.
Caligula had a dark sense of humour, the butt of which was all too often Rome’s elite
Thirdly, he used the Empire’s wealth (including tax income) to hold extravagant public games and to build substantial numbers of extravagant buildings — all of which was viewed by the upper classes as a disgraceful waste of resources (not to mention their taxes).
And lastly, he had a dark sense of humour, the butt of which was all too often (for the every senator’s comfort) Rome’s elite. In the end, after a reign of just four years, it was, of course, members of that elite who very likely engineered his assassination.
From a Roman proletarian perspective, the reality of those four Caligulan years may have been more positive. His extravagant construction projects (and lavish public games) created widespread additional employment opportunities for craftsmen and workers by pumping the modern equivalent of billions of pounds into the economy. This policy may have even caused a redistribution of wealth, although it is highly unlikely that was the reason for it.
Added to this, his persecution of some members of the Roman elite may well have been justified. Indeed many of them had almost certainly been plotting to overthrow him. Caligula also gained favour from non-Italian-originating provincials by increasing the number awarded Roman citizenship.
A Roman marble portrait of the Emperor Gaius, known as Caligula (37-41 AD). This work is offered in our Antiquities Sale in London on 15 April. Estimate: £60,000-80,000
On the geopolitical front, he secured peace with the great Parthian (Iranian) Empire in the East and extended Roman territory to cover western Algerian and Morocco, thus bringing stability to North Africa. In Europe, he began the process of pacifying the Rhine frontier — and laid the foundations for the conquest of Britain (including the creation of two new legions).
What’s more, he was seen by the mass of the Roman population as a flamboyant and more pro-active character than his predecessor, the long-serving dour, mean and introspective Tiberius.
But, in the end, it was not the Roman proletariat who determined his fate but the senatorial elite who, ultimately, had him killed. Indeed there is now a school of thought that believes his successor, Claudius (who is normally regarded as a ‘good’ emperor) may have been involved in his murder.
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