The Emperor Caligula and his Unlikely Role Model
The Emperor Caligula and his Unlikely Role Model

The Emperor Caligula and his Unlikely Role Model

Alexander Meddings - September 24, 2017

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.