The Emperor Caligula and his Unlikely Role Model

The Emperor Caligula and his Unlikely Role Model

Alexander Meddings - September 24, 2017

If there was one foreign ruler who, through the sheer extent of his achievements, managed to capture the imagination of the doggedly militaristic Romans, it was the ancient world’s live fast, die young poster boy: Alexander the Great. Having conquered most of the known world and more—Greece, Egypt, Persia, Asia Minor and parts of India all the way up to Pakistan—before dropping dead in Babylon aged just 33, his exploits inspired Romans of all generations who saw themselves as Alexander’s heirs as the new masters of the world.

At least in this respect, the mad, bad, and dangerous to know Emperor Caligula was no different to any other Roman. In Alexander, Caligula saw a figure well worth emulating; a leader whose many military victories Caligula, as a young emperor at the head of the world’s most powerful empire, could one day hope to replicate. In reality, however, Caligula would replicate only Alexander’s vices—his violence, his alcoholism, and his megalomania. But Caligula wasn’t the first Roman leader to recognize Alexander’s great potential as a model for imitation. Generals of the Roman Republic also drew heavily on the Macedonian’s great legacy, beginning with Pompey “Magnus” and Julius Caesar.

As a young man, the Pompey was often compared to Alexander in terms of both his looks and his skill as a general. He didn’t mind the comparison. In fact, he went well out of his way to promote it, allegedly wearing Alexander’s chlamys (a type of short tunic) during his military triumph over Mithridates in 61 BC. Alexander was apparently also on the mind of Pompey’s great rival, Julius Caesar. When reading about Alexander’s achievements it’s said that Caesar, burst into tears, lamenting the fact that at his age Alexander had conquered so many nations while he himself had achieved so little.

The Emperor Caligula and his Unlikely Role Model
The Mad Monarchist

The emperors too drew on Alexander’s valuable currency as an example of valor and military virtue. The first emperor, Augustus, had a lot of respect for the great Macedonian. On his visit to Egypt in 31 BC after defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, he made a special trip to Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria where he reverentially laid flowers and a golden crown across the Macedonian king’s body. When asked whether he’d like to see the tombs of the Ptolemies, he sneered, replying:

“I’ve come to see a king, not a row of corpses.”

Upon his return to Rome, Augustus decorated the capital with paintings and statues of Alexander, including two paintings by the renowned Greek artist Apelles which he displayed in his forum. The message was clear. In making the association between himself and Alexander, Augustus was announcing himself as the new cosmocrat or world conqueror. But there was a crucial difference: Augustus would be better. For as the emperor himself once said, while Alexander had been so obsessed with conquering that he’d never bothered to consolidate his empire, he had no intention of making the same mistake.

The Roman who was most similar to Alexander the Great was not Augustus, however, but Caligula’s father, Germanicus. Germanicus traveled to Egypt in around 18 CE on a tour of the province, and at one point he gave a speech in Alexandria, some of the words of which have been preserved on a piece of papyrus. Amongst the usual rhetoric Germanicus talked in lofty terms about Alexander: “the hero and founder of Alexandria whose goals of conquest he also shared.” The comparison wasn’t lost on others.

The historian Tacitus, writing about the aftermath of Germanicus’s death by poisoning, said that there were some who compared the young Roman prince to Alexander the Great. Both had been very handsome and of noble descent, both had died in faraway lands, and both had possibly been poisoned by their countrymen. But Tacitus makes the point that Germanicus was the better man. Unlike Alexander, he didn’t need scores of wives, banquets or binges to keep himself happy. Roman simplicity was good enough for him.

The Emperor Caligula and his Unlikely Role Model
Young, inexperienced, and without proper guidance, Caligula needed a good military role model to win over the support of his people and secure his position as emperor. The History Channel

Why Caligula turned to Alexander

To be a Roman emperor you had to be a military man, and if you weren’t you had to at least pretend to be one. Caligula was only 25 when he came to power, and although 25 years was more than enough time for most aristocratic Romans to gain valuable military experience, Caligula had spent his teens and early twenties shut away on the Island of Capri with Tiberius. There he’d been forced to keep his head down, trying to survive the toxic environment of paranoia, executions, and the emperor’s increasingly twisted sexual degeneracies.

So it makes sense that when Caligula eventually came to power, he had to look for inspiration elsewhere. For sure his father Germanicus provided a great role model. But Germanicus was long dead, and his consignment to the underworld meant he had never come to realize his potential on earth. Then again, his father had taken an incredible role model of his own in Alexander; one who was daring, driven and oozed militarism. Why shouldn’t Caligula do the same?

Caligula’s biographer, Suetonius, tells us that while Caligula was visiting Egypt he stole Alexander’s breastplate from his sarcophagus in Alexandria. Whether this is true or not we’ll never know. But the authenticity of the breastplate isn’t as important as the fact that Caligula claimed it was real. We’re told that Caligula would often wear Alexander’s breastplate and dress up as the great Macedonian; one of the many costumes in his wardrobe as well as those of Bacchus, Jupiter, Venus, and even the moon (Caligula liked dressing up a lot).

The big occasion on which Caligula donned Alexander’s breastplate was when he constructed a bridge of ships across the Bay of Baiae sometime in 39 AD. After spending the day riding up and down it on horseback—supposedly to retrospectively disprove a prophecy that he would sooner ride across the waters of Baiae than become emperor—he spent the evening leading some kind of military procession which quickly descended into a Bacchic rave. So much alcohol was consumed that several of Caligula’s companions fell into the water. Instead of helping them out, however, the emperor ordered them to be held underwater with oars as he fell about laughing.

Caligula also introduced Rome to an eastern practice called proskenysis. Though it had different forms, it traditionally involved bowing and kissing a ruler when greeting them, thereby treating them as a god. From our sources, it seems proskenysis was rife at Caligula’s court. The later emperor Vitellius once shamed himself by falling at Caligula’s feet and addressing him as if he were a god. Another man, Pompeius Pennus, was spared his execution by Caligula, and was made to kiss the emperor’s left foot as a thank you. And at Caligula’s last meal before his assassination, we’re told that one of the consuls for that year passed the evening showering kisses on the emperor’s feet.

The proskenysis was linked to another famous figure too: Alexander. He introduced it at his court in Bactria, Central Asia, in around 327 BC, demanding that Greeks, Macedonians, and Persians perform the act whenever they greeted him. This may have been caught up with Alexander’s “delusions of grandeur”, to put it lightly (or “believed he was a god” to put it bluntly). Alexander claimed divine descent from Zeus Ammon, and with Caligula too being the first emperor to demand worship as a god, it’s more than likely that Caligula looked to Alexander when introducing this to his court. Unfortunately for him—as his assassination would ultimately prove—in doing so he made a fatal error of judgement.

The Emperor Caligula and his Unlikely Role Model
“Alexander the Great and Apelles” by Antonio Balestra (late 17th / early 18th century). Wikimedia Commons

Alexander’s reputation during the Reign of Caligula

There was a considerable amount of interest in Alexander during Caligula’s reign, with his name cropping up time and again in writing about philosophy, morality, and personal conduct. Unlike the writing that had come before, however, remarkably little of it was positive: mostly relating to his cruelty, insatiable appetite for death, and raving alcoholism.

There was also a lengthy historical biography about the Macedonian, written during this period by one Quintus Curtius Rufus, which gives us more information about the Macedonian conqueror than almost any other source. In the book, Alexander starts his reign well but soon becomes corrupted by the luxuries of the East (sound familiar?), changing how he dressed, demanding worship as a god, and drinking excessively. So excessively, in fact, that on one occasion he burns down a city and on another he murders his close friend, Cleitus.

Caligula’s reign had a similar trajectory, and it’s unlikely the parallel was accidental. When he ascended to the throne in 37 AD the Roman people were full of hope for their young emperor. After all, as the son of Rome’s golden boy Germanicus what, they thought, could possibly go wrong? Caligula did in fact start off well. But a mysterious illness that nearly killed him a few months into his reign tipped him into (a probably completely justified) paranoia. He became cruel, arbitrarily executing any who threatened him and accepting worship as a god from the sycophantic senators who surrounded him.

One final anecdote, which historians have always overlooked, confirms Caligula’s close association with Alexander. In the days following Caligula’s assassination at the hands of his praetorian prefect in 41 AD, angry mobs (for when are mobs never angry) ran amok through the city, tearing down the emperor’s statues and defacing his images in a practice we now call damnatio memoriae or “damnation of memory.” But we’re told by Pliny the Elder that Caligula’s image wasn’t the only one people wanted to be wiped out.

I’ve already mentioned how in the Forum of Augustus there were two paintings of Alexander by the renowned artist Apelles. We’re told that shortly after coming to power Claudius decided to erase Alexander’s face from these paintings and replace it with that of Augustus. This doesn’t make much sense; it’s hard to imagine what the historian Emperor Claudius would have had against Alexander, especially as his brother Germanicus had managed to forge an association with him so successfully. It does make sense, however, if we see it as an indirect attack on Caligula.

Caligula had wanted to milk Alexander for his militarism. He’d styled himself (quite literally, by wearing Alexander’s breastplate) as a young prince who would lead by example, conquer nations, and—for won’t of a better term—make Rome great again. But he did none of this, and as his reign sunk into degeneracy his association with Alexander only served to reawaken a host of negative associations with the great Macedonian—his cruelty, his heavy drinking, and his aspirations to divinity—which poisoned Alexander’s reputation in Roman culture for generations to come.