“Caligula” was never meant to be historically accurate, unless its creators genuinely believed that the entire reign of Rome’s third emperor was one, long orgy. But it has certainly been influential, and it wouldn’t be farfetched to suggest that “Caligula” is mainly responsible for shaping our views of the Roman elite as a debauched and orgiastic bunch (due in no small part to the fact that the producer Bob Guccione insisted that the final cut contain a six-minute, full-on hardcore porn scene, leading it to be banned in several countries).
Historically speaking, the problem with “Caligula” is that, if we blindly believe everything the ancients wrote about the emperor, this $22 million movie could be mistaken for a documentary. Admittedly it takes an extreme view. Where there are any doubts in the ancient literature, “Caligula” always opts for the most violent or depraved version. There are parts that are patently ridiculous: the moving wall of death with spinning blades at the bottom that decapitate sand-trapped victims being a personal favorite. But there are other scenes that, as crazy as they may seem, are actually rooted in historical fact.
Take the part where Caligula declares war on the sea. Unbelievable as it seems, the ancient sources unanimously agree that this actually happened. Suetonius describes how Caligula drew up his battle lines on the shore of Northern France before giving the order for his army to fill their helmets and tunics with seashells. He then declared victory for Rome, paid his men a bounty, and returned to Rome to celebrate a triumph. In reality what probably happened is that terrified of crossing into Britain, the troops mutinied (as they would do later under Claudius in 43 AD) and the furious emperor mocked them by making them collect seashells. But, as with everywhere else, “Caligula” ignores this possibility, using it to illustrate Caligula’s madness.
This is the movie’s defining feature. It takes every attested murder, sexual depravity or act of madness and exaggerates it tenfold. But it’s still a movie of real historical merit—not because of its subject, but from the cult status of the movie itself. “Sickening, shameless trash”, one critic called it, few were any kinder. But whatever your view, you have to admire how Bob Guccione managed to entice some of the biggest names in the show business into unwittingly starring in what is essentially a big-budget porno.