In Time of Trump, Caligula Biography Topical
The Great Oracle Google reports, today, 3,790,000 occasions of a comparison between Donald Trump and Caligula. Some representative samples: Donald Trump has ‘fascinating parallels’ with Caligula, says historian; Caligula and Trump: Two disturbingly similar despots centuries apart; Ask a classicist: is Donald Trump more of a Caligula or a Nero; Trump is Caligula; Trump Makes Caligula Look Pretty Good….
One could go on.
Yet ars longa vita brevis.
Trump, unclear on the concept of “search engine” – or card catalogue -- may find all this very, very Unfair. Perhaps so. That said, the cultural leitmotif makes Caligula: The Mad Emperor of Rome (Turner Publishing) by military historian Stephen Dando-Collins extremely topical.
Before Hitler, before Stalin, before Pol Pot … if one wanted to conjure the concept of a monstrous national leader Caligula was your man. Or as Wikipedia has it, “[S]ources focus upon his cruelty, sadism, extravagance, and sexual perversion, presenting him as an insane tyrant.”
“Caligula,” for those, like me, who dozed through ancient history in school, is a nickname. As a tot, he was affectionately called “Little Boot” – Caligula – by the troops of his wildly popular father, General Germanicus. The troops made him their mascot.
As an adult he was generally known as Gaius, short for Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. After an extremely perilous youth he served as the third Roman Emperor, after Augustus and Tiberius. He ruled for a little less than four years before his well-earned enemies assassinated him.
He has gone down in history reviled yet known by his affectionate diminutive. A bit of a paradox, as if Hitler came to be generally known in history and pop culture as “Dolpho.”
Dando-Collins briefly and cryptically alludes to a column of mine at Forbes.com, headlined Donald Trump, Caligula, Michael Wolff, Suetonius, Infamia, And The 'Fake News' Wars. I am a lonely neutral Switzerland in the #NeverTrump #ForeverTrump war. I saw the widespread use of Caligula to vilify Donald Trump as an opportunity to ponder “fake news,” then and now.
“M. Icks and E. Shiraev, in Character Assassination throughout the Ages, put it:
"Suetonius makes no attempt to hide the polemical bias of his sources. He does not cite these texts because he believes them to be accurate per se, but rather because their mere existence serves as proof of the existence of infamia. This might seem trivial at first glance, but I consider it central: Suetonius’s use of such sources permits us to assess to a certain extent how effective the Romans considered such invectives. In several passages, Cicero refers to the topical character of sexual allegations that seem scarcely believable on their own merits. In order to be truly effective, an orator has to seize upon existing rumors of infamia and, building on them, attach all the remaining characteristics of the stereotypical vir mollis [effeminacy].”
“[A]s Vivian Green wrote in The Madness of Kings:
“The reliability of many of the Roman historians has been questioned. Tacitus and Suetonius were writing long after the events which they described; they were anti-imperialist in attitude and republican in sympathy. Both Dio Cassius and Herodian have been described as gossipy and anecdotal. Yet the force of their writing, and the stories they tell, if they need to be questioned, must be admitted.”
Thus, without exonerating his many mortal sins, Caligula presents as something of an enigma. We are left with many vivid stories, some plausible, some dubious. Enter Dando-Collins.
I found his story of “the mad emperor of Rome” a compelling page-turner. It reads like a political thriller. It reads like a work of investigative journalism. It reads like a myth-busting period history. Indeed it is all the above, while also presenting a drama – ending in Caligula’s assassination – of Shakespearean proportion.
The author is clearly familiar with, yet never pedantic about, all the sources of evidence. He deftly presents and dispels many old libels taken, for centuries, as history. Not infrequently, Dando-Collins persuades us that some of the accusations against Caligula are what the president calls “fake news.” The author assesses other (often blood curdling) stories to be reliable. It is gratifying to have the Caligula stories lucidly recounted and put into perspective by a master literary detective.
As a bonus we are presented with many piquant historical details. It is recorded that Caligula forced Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator who washed his hands of the crucifixion of Jesus, to commit suicide. For those who might like to make a pilgrimage to the grave of he who asked quid est veritas? lore locates Pilate’s tomb at la Pyramide, in Vienne, France.
For those simply looking for a compelling read, Dando-Collins provides an abundance of felonies and capital offenses by his protagonist. He also provides a transfixing, little known, back story. Many of his stories are so lurid as to dwarf the incumbent president’s mere unseemly tweets and rhetorical excesses. President Trump presents as a piker by comparison.
Caligula: The Mad Emperor of Rome may herald the perfection of a whole new literary genre: "forensic history." Long ago I was tipped off to an open secret. Colleen McCulloch's pulp masterpieces in Masters of Rome were so uncannily accurate as to be held in awe as a kind of occult secret history by the "secret fraternity of Latin Teachers.”
For pure pleasure, if you enjoy historical fiction surely you’ll find much to love among the historical facts of Caligula: The Mad Emperor of Rome. And by way of improving the mind this small masterpiece reminds us just how venerable “fake news” is.