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Caligula’s Madness

By Suetonius (c. 69–c. 122 A.D.)

From the ‘Lives of the Twelve Cæsars’: Translation of Thomson and Forester

HE used also to complain aloud of the state of the times, because it was not rendered remarkable by any public calamities; for while the reign of Augustus had been made memorable to posterity by the disaster of Varus, and that of Tiberius by the fall of the theatre at Fidenæ, his was likely to pass into oblivion, from an uninterrupted series of prosperity. And at times he wished for some terrible slaughter of his troops, a famine, a pestilence, conflagrations, or an earthquake.

Even in the midst of his diversions, while gaming or feasting, this savage ferocity, both in his language and actions, never forsook him. Persons were often put to the torture in his presence, whilst he was dining or carousing. A soldier who was an adept in the art of beheading used at such times to take off the heads of prisoners, who were brought in for that purpose. At Puteoli, at the dedication of the bridge which he planned, as already mentioned, he invited a number of people to come to him from the shore, and then suddenly threw them headlong into the sea; thrusting down with poles and oars those who, to save themselves, had got hold of the rudders of the ships. At Rome, in a public feast, a slave having stolen some thin plates of silver with which the couches were inlaid, he delivered him immediately to an executioner, with orders to cut off his hands, and lead him round the guests with them hanging from his neck before his breast, and a label, signifying the cause of his punishment. A gladiator who was practicing with him, and voluntarily threw himself at his feet, he stabbed with a poniard, and then ran about with a palm branch in his hand, after the manner of those who are victorious in the games. When a victim was to be offered upon an altar, he, clad in the habit of the Popæ, and holding the axe aloft for a while, at last slaughtered, instead of the animal, an officer who attended to cut up the sacrifice. And at a sumptuous entertainment he fell suddenly into a violent fit of laughter; and upon the consuls who reclined next to him respectfully asking him the occasion,—“Nothing,” replied he, “but that upon a single nod of mine you might both have your throats cut.”

Among many other jests, this was one: As he stood by the statue of Jupiter, he asked Apelles the tragedian which of them he thought was biggest? Upon his demurring about it, he lashed him most severely; now and then commending his voice, whilst he entreated for mercy, as being well modulated even when he was venting his grief. As often as he kissed the neck of his wife or mistress, he would say, “So beautiful a throat must be cut whenever I please;” and now and then he would threaten to put his dear Cæsonia to the torture, that he might discover why he loved her so passionately.

In his behavior towards men of almost all ages, he discovered a degree of jealousy and malignity equal to that of his cruelty and pride. He so demolished and dispersed the statues of several illustrious persons,—which had been removed by Augustus, for want of room, from the court of the Capitol into the Campus Martius,—that it was impossible to set them up again with their inscriptions entire. And for the future, he forbade any statue whatever to be erected without his knowledge and leave. He had thoughts too of suppressing Homer’s poems; for “Why,” said he, “may not I do what Plato has done before me, who excluded him from his commonwealth?” He was likewise very near banishing the writings and the busts of Virgil and Livy from all libraries: censuring one of them as “a man of no genius and very little learning,” and the other as “a verbose and careless historian.” He often talked of the lawyers as if he intended to abolish their profession. “By Hercules!” he would say, “I shall put it out of their power to answer any legal questions otherwise than by referring to me!”

He took from the noblest persons in the city the ancient marks of distinction used by their families: as the collar from Torquatus; from Cincinnatus the curl of hair; and from Cneius Pompey the surname of Great, belonging to that ancient family. Ptolemy, mentioned before, whom he invited from his kingdom, and received with great honors, he suddenly put to death; for no other reason but because he observed that upon entering the theatre, at a public exhibition, he attracted the eyes of all the spectators by the splendor of his purple robe. As often as he met with handsome men who had fine heads of hair, he would order the back of their heads to be shaved, to make them appear ridiculous. There was one Esius Proculus, the son of a centurion of the first rank, who, for his great stature and fine proportions, was called the Colossal. Him he ordered to be dragged from his seat in the arena, and matched with a gladiator in light armor, and afterwards with another completely armed; and upon his worsting them both, commanded him forthwith to be bound, to be led clothed in rags up and down the streets of the city, and after being exhibited in that plight to the women, to be then butchered. There was no man of so abject or mean condition, whose excellency in any kind he did not envy.