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About Caligula, who had madness written on his face

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Caligula | Photo: Copenhagen, New Carlsberg Glyptotek, Inv. Yeah. 1453

Caligula is a particularly important ruler for the study of the descriptions of the appearance of emperors in the works of Suetonius because his body was supposed to clearly reflect the nature of the emperor. The features of the ruler’s disposition (e.g. lust and madness) were not only to be shown through specific events in his life but also manifested in his appearance (Suet. Cal. 50.1 -3).

In works dealing with the rule of Caligula, one can find information about the madness of the ruler (e.g. Philo, Message to Gaius Chapter 2.14, 3.15). Already in his youth, the emperor was to display reprehensible behaviour (Suetonius, Caligula 11), which worsened with age. A large part of the biography by Suetonius is filled with colourful descriptions of the excesses of the supposedly mentally ill ruler.

The narrative of Caligula’s evil deeds is introduced by Suetonius himself saying that after the introductory chapters about the reign of the emperor, he now wants to tell the readers about the monster (Suet. Cal. 22.1). Caligula himself made himself known not only to his closest circle but also to the rest of the citizens as an extremely harsh ruler (e.g. Cassius Dio LIX 3.3-4.1). In the name of entertainment, he did not hesitate to force Roman notables to fight gladiators, and he watched their deaths with pleasure (e.g. Seneca, On benefices IV 31.1-5). He was supposed to kill wealthy citizens in order to get money to play dice, which he was not very good at (Cassius Dio, LIX 22.3-4). For the authors, Caligula was the personification of a cruel and ruthless tyrant, murdering in the name of his whim (e.g. Seneca, On Anger III 19.1). He was to be not only cruel but also lecherous, not hesitating to have sexual intercourse with his own sisters, even in front of the guests of his richly seasoned banquets (Suet. Cal. 24.1) . The emperor was said to have no control over his anger (Philo Against Flacus 180, Cassius Dio LIX 13.3-7), which made him mentally unstable. He demanded truly divine worship for himself, which was treated by the then inhabitants of the Empire as a symptom of his megalomania (e.g. Suet. Cal. 22.2-4). His madness was to manifest itself not only in deeds but also visible on the monarch’s body. Caligula is a particularly important ruler for the study of the descriptions of the appearance of emperors in the works of Suetonius because his body was supposed to clearly reflect his nature. The features of the ruler’s disposition (e.g. lust and madness) were not only to be shown through specific events in his life but also manifested in his appearance (Suet. Cal. 50.1 -3)1:

He was very tall and extremely pale, with an unshapely body, but very thin neck and legs.​ His eyes and temples were hollow, his forehead broad and grim, his hair thin and entirely gone on the top of his head, though his body was hairy. Because of this to look upon him from a higher place as he passed by, or for any reason whatever to mention a goat, was treated as a capital offence. While his face was naturally forbidding and ugly, he purposely made it even more savage, practising all kinds of terrible and fearsome expressions before a mirror.
He was sound neither of body nor mind. As a boy he was troubled with the falling sickness,​ and while in his youth he had some endurance, yet at times because of sudden faintness he was hardly able to walk, to stand up, to collect his thoughts, or to hold up his head. He himself realised his mental infirmity, and thought at times of going into retirement and clearing his brain. It is thought that his wife Caesonia gave him a drug intended for a love potion, which however had the effect of driving him mad. He was especially tormented with sleeplessness; for he never rested more than three hours at night, and even for that length of time he did not sleep quietly, but was terrified by strange apparitions, once for example dreaming that the spirit of the Ocean talked with him. Therefore weary of lying in bed wide awake during the greater part of the night, he would now sit upon his couch, and now wander through the long colonnades, crying p483 out from time to time for daylight and longing for its coming

The appearance of Caligula described by Suetonius was for many scientists another proof of the emperor’s mental disorders, constituting – in their interpretations – a collection of reliable information about the changes that the disease made on the ruler’s body. For decades, e.g. an attempt was made to diagnose Caligula’s disease based on the face, with many conflicting conclusions2. Of course, such speculations are baseless. The description of Caligula’s appearance was created from images that in antiquity were associated with madness[note id=”3″]. In describing the appearance of Caligula, Suetonius metaphorically depicted the nature of the ruler. The deeds of Caligula – as expressed by Ch. Roning – required interpretation, which makes the authors’ information about the disease an attempt to explain the irrational behaviour of the ruler4. The description of Caligula’s body is nothing more than a visualization of a mentally ill person through the prism of stereotypes existing in antiquity on this subject. Reading the description of Caligula’s body in Suetonius, we face an attack on the hated ruler, who was tried to defame in every way. A ruler declaring himself a god during his lifetime5 was judged harshly by the authors, and one of the ways to slander the ruler was to speculate about the madness written on his face.

Author: Radosław Domazet (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  1. Swetoniusz, Żywoty cezarów, tł. J. Niemirska-Pliszczyńska, Wrocław 1987
  2. The first works on the subject date back to the 19th century: e.g. F. Wiedemeister, Der Cäsarenwahnsinn der Julisch-Claudischen Imperatorenfamilie, geschildert an den Kaisern Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Hannover 1875. Streszczenie najważniejszych teorii o chorobie Kaliguli: B. Sidwell, Gaius Caligula's Mental Illness, “The Classical World”, Vol. CIII, No. 2, 2010, s. 183-206
  3. E. Evans, Personal Appearance in History and Biography, "Harvard Studies in Classical Philology", Vol. XLVI, 1935, s. 63-7.
  4. Ch. Ronning, Zwischen ratio und Wahn. Caligula, Claudius und Nero in der altertumswissenschaftlichen Forschung, [w:] Zwischen Strukturgeschichte und Biographie: Probleme und Perspektiven einer neuen Römischen Kaisergeschichte zur Zeit von Augustus bis Commodus, ed. A. Winterling, München 2011, s. 254.
  5. Literary sources on the subject were collected and interpreted by: C. J. Simpson, The Cult of the Emperor Gaius, “Latomus”, Vol. XL, No. 3, 1981, s. 489-511.

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