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Few people go down in history by their childhood nicknames, which is probably for the best. But such was the destiny of Gaius Caesar Germanicus, the emperor of Rome from 37 to 41 A.D. and the son of a much-loved commander of the Roman forces stationed in Germany. The father dressed young Gaius up in a kid-sized legionnaire’s uniform, to the delight of the troops, who dubbed him Caligula, meaning “Little Boots.”

The moniker stuck, although the last thing anyone remembers about Caligula is the cuteness. A couple of on-screen depictions of his reign are indicative. It was presented as the height of decadence in Caligula (1979), the big-budget, pornographic bio-pic produced and directed by Bob Guccione Jr., with Malcolm McDowell as the emperor, featuring numerous Penthouse Pets-of-the-Month, smouldering in lieu of dialogue. (Also, Helen Mirren, minus toga.) I have promised the editors not to embed any video clips from it in this column. Suffice it to say that the film was terrible, and Gore Vidal, who wrote the script, seems to have disowned it just as soon as the check cleared.

Better by far -- indeed, unforgettable -- was John Hurt’s turn as the mad tyrant in “I, Claudius,” the BBC miniseries from 1976. He portrayed Caligula as terrifying and monstrous, yet also strangely pitiful. Power corrupts, and absolute power sounds even more enjoyable. But having every whim met without hesitation does not make the descent into insanity any less agonizing, even for Caligula himself. By the time the emperor is assassinated (at the age of 29, after not quite four years in power), Hurt makes his death seem almost a mercy killing.

The BBC program was adapted from two novels by Robert Graves, who drew in turn from the accounts left by Roman historians -- in particular, The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. (It was also an influence on Guccione’s film, if not quite as much as Deep Throat.) Most of the really lurid charges about Caligula come down to us via Suetonius: the incest, the cross-dressing, the plan to name his favorite horse to an important position, his effort to pay soldiers with sea-shells….

And, most damaging of all, Seutonius records that Caligula proclaimed himself to be a god. He had altars to himself set up around the empire so that the public could worship him. Other sources confirm this, including the Jewish writers Josephus and Philo. They indicate that Roman officials put up statues of Caligula in synagogues, and that the emperor even tried (unsuccessfully) to plant his idol in the most sacred part of the Temple in Jerusalem.

According to Seutonius, the emperor walked around the palace chatting with the other gods. He would ask people whether they thought he was greater than Jupiter. You didn’t have to be a monotheist to find that sort of thing revolting.

But what if all of these claims about Caligula were wrong, or at least overblown? What if he was, in fact, completely sane -- his awful reputation the product of a smear campaign?

In 2003, Aloys Winterling, a professor of ancient history at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, published a book arguing that the emperor’s strange behavior was, in effect, normal Roman politics carried to extremes. Caligula played hardball with his enemies, giving them every reason to exact posthumous revenge. But the truth could be separated out from the slanders. The volume is now available in English translation as Caligula: A Biography, from the University of California Press.

Winterling’s reassessment of the legend of the mad emperor is hardly as contrarian as it may sound. By the 19th century, classicists had enough fresh material to work with (inscriptions on public buildings, for example, and documents of everyday governance) to feel less dependent on the accounts left by Roman authors. They were learning to take the ancient chronicles with a grain of salt. Suetonius, for example, reports things with all the confidence of an eyewitness, but in fact was writing 80 years after Caligula’s death. Evidently he never heard a rumor about the emperor he didn’t record. That makes his tell-all biographies very entertaining, and even useful in a way, but not exactly reliable.

So there were grounds for reasonable doubt. Revisionist accounts of Caligula have appeared from time to time, suggesting that his reign was not wildly different from that of other emperors. When Winterling published his book in 2003, it coincided with the centennial of the landmark study by Hugo Willrich that first made the case for Caligula as rational politician. (This is unlikely to be a total coincidence, but the translated edition says nothing about it one way or the other.) Winterling even expresses concern that some modern accounts have “gone too far in transforming a ruler depicted as immoral and insane into a good one whose actions were rational.”

The figure portrayed in Caligula: A Biography was a rational and competent leader, but “good” is not a word that comes to mind. He was capable, when pushed, of extreme viciousness, ranging from savage humiliation to torture and execution. Making him angry was never a good idea, but neither was trying to flatter him. The targets of his wrath were almost always his fellow aristocrats – which, according to Winterling’s analysis, is a crucial bit of context to keep in mind.

The core of his argument is that even Caligula’s wildest behavior reflected the instability of the political order, not of his mind. The transition from republic to empire in the decades prior to his reign had generated a rather convoluted system of signals between the Senate (the old center of authority, with well-established traditions) and the emperor (a position that emerged only after civil war).

The problem came from deep uncertainty over how to understand the role that Julius Caeser had started to create for himself, and that Augustus later consolidated. The Romans had abolished their monarchy hundreds of years earlier. So regarding the emperor as a king was a total non-starter. And yet his power was undeniable – even as its limits were undefined.

The precarious arrangement held together through a strange combination of mutual flattery and mutual suspicion, with methods of influence-peddling ranging from strategic marriages to murder. And there was always character assassination via gossip, when use of an actual dagger seemed inconvenient or excessive.

Even those who came to despise Caligula thought that his first few months in power did him credit. He undid some of the sterner measures taken by his predecessor, Tiberius, and gave a speech making clear that he knew he was sharing power with the Senate. So eloquent and wonderful was this speech, the senators decided, it ought to be recited each year.

An expression of good will, then? Of bipartisan cooperation, so to speak?

On the contrary, Winterling interprets the flattering praise for Caligula’s speech as a canny move by the aristocrats in the Senate: “It shows they knew power was shared at the emperor’s pleasure and that the arrangement could be rescinded at any time…. Yet they could neither directly express their distrust of the emperor’s declaration that he would share power, nor openly try to force him to keep his word, since either action would imply that his promise was empty.” By “honoring” the speech with an annual recitation, the Senate was giving a subtle indication to Caligula that it knew better than to take him at his word. “Otherwise,” says Winterling, “it would not have been necessary to remind him of his obligation in this way.”

The political chess match went smoothly enough for a while. One version of what went wrong is, of course, that Caligula became deranged from a severe fever when he fell ill for two months. Another version has it that the madness was a side-effect of the herbal Viagra given to him by his wife.

But Winterling sees the turning point in Caligula’s reign as strictly political, not biomedical. It came when he learned of a plot to overthrow him that involved a number of senators. This was not necessarily paranoia. Winterling quotes a later emperor’s remark that rulers’ “claims to have uncovered a conspiracy are not believed until they have been killed.”

In any event, Caligula responded with a vengeance, which inspired at least two more plots against him (not counting the final one that succeeded); and so things escalated. Most of the evidence of Caligula’s madness can actually be taken, in Winterling's interpretation, as ways he expressed contempt for the principle of shared power -- and, even more, for the senators themselves.

Giving his horse a palace and a staff of servants and announcing that the beast would be made consul, for example, can be understood as a kind of taunt. “The households of the senators,” writes Winterling, “represented a central manifestation of their social status…. Achieving the consulship remained the most important goal of an aristocrat’s career.” To put his horse in the position of a prominent aristocrat, then, was a deliberate insult. It implied that the comparison could also be made in the opposite direction.

So Caligula was crazy … like a fox. Winterling reads even Caligula’s self-apotheosis as a form of vengeance, rather than a symptom of mental illness. Senators had to pretend to believe that he conversed with the gods as an equal. Declaring himself divine gave him ever more humiliating ways to make them grovel -- to rub their noses in the reality of his brute and unchecked power.

It was one-upsmanship on the grandest possible scale. Beyond a certain point, I’m not sure where anger ends and madness begins. But Winterling makes a plausible case that his reputation was worse than his behavior. The memory of their degradation by Caligula gave the aristocracy every reason to embellish his real cruelties with stories that were contrived later. In the period just after the emperor's death, even his worst enemies never accused him of incest; that charge came decades afterwards.

So his reign may not have been as surreal as it sounded, but rather a case of realpolitik at its nastiest. Still, it won't be Winterling's portrait that flashes before my mind's eye the next time anyone mentions Caligula. It's a fascinating book, but it can't displace those indelible images of John Hurt in the grip of his delusions, screaming in pain from the voices in his head, and doing terrible things to his sister.

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