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Alfred J. Church

The Madman on the Throne



I f it were a law of nature that a son inherits the virtues of his parents, Rome would have had the best of rulers in the young man who, in his twenty-sixth year, succeeded to the throne of Tiberius. Caligula was the youngest son of Germanicus and Agrippina. On Germanicus Suetonius bestows the comprehensive praise that he had all bodily and mental virtues, and these in such degree as no man had ever possessed before or since. Agrippina, though she lacked the gentler virtues of her husband, was a Roman matron of the noblest type. Much was hoped from the son of such parents, but never were hopes more cruelly falsified. The old emperor, indeed, with whom it was the young Caligula's misfortune to live, saw deeper into his nature, and had no illusions. "This lad," he would often say, "will be the death of me and many more." In fact he was a madman, and had all a madman's cunning. In his heart he hated the old emperor, but he kept this hatred a profound secret. So invariably respectful and obedient was he, that it was well said of him, "Never was there a better slave or a worse master."

For the first few months of his reign, he seemed to be all that could be wished. The exiles of the late reign were recalled, and general amnesty proclaimed. The trade of the informer was declared to be at an end. Books proscribed by the jealous tyranny of Tiberius were again permitted to be sold. In short the young emperor seemed determined to "crown the edifice of liberty." "So far," says the historian of the Caesars, "I have been speaking of a ruler; now I have to speak of a monster."

In the front of his offences comes, curiously enough, the insane desire, as a Roman thought it, to be a crowned king. Some of the tributary monarchs, who were protected by Rome, were visiting the city, and he was jealous of their diadems, for was he not the King of Kings? His courtiers prevailed upon him to forego what would have been a fatal offence to the people, always ready to be slaves, so that their master was not a king. He was too great for a crown, they told him; and he turned his thoughts to claiming the honours of godhead. He took his place as a third with the twin brethren Castor and Pollux. He consecrated a temple to his own divinity, founded a college of priests, and set up a statue of gold, which was always covered with the same garments that he himself wore. With Jupiter he claimed the equality of familiar intercourse. He held private conferences with the great deity of the capitol, the head of the Roman Pantheon, whispering in the ear of the statue, and listening in his turn, and sometimes breaking into loud threats. "Slay me, or I slay you," he was once heard to say.

If gods fared thus at his hands, it may be imagined that men did not escape. Aged senators, who had filled the highest offices of State, were compelled to run at his side for miles, or stand, napkin in hand, while he dined. Rome seems to have been always very tolerant of these indignities to the nobles. It was a new and audacious experiment on its patience, when he shut up the granaries, and brought all the city to the verge of famine. In audacity, indeed, he was never wanting. It seems to have been rather by way of a practical witticism than of a measure of precaution that he ordered a general massacre of the exiles. "What were your thoughts while you were in your island?" he asked of one who had come back from exile after the death of Tiberius. "I always prayed to the gods that Tiberius might die, and you come to the throne." "That is exactly what the exiles are doing now," he replied, and he sent round the executioner.

After these atrocities, which, indeed, are only a few out of the dismal catalogue of Suetonius, it is relief to turn to more harmless eccentricities. He thought of destroying all the copies of Homer. "Plato," he said, "banished him from his commonwealth; why should not I do the same?" Virgil and Livy came under his censure, and he was very nearly expelling their writings and their busts from the libraries. Virgil he thought to be without genius and learning; Livy was a crude and careless historian. His one campaign, albeit it had the merit of being bloodless, was one of his maddest acts. He marched against Britain, which, since the day of Julius Caesar, had been left to itself, winning a victory over the Germans on his way.

The enemy indeed was a sham, a handful of prisoners dressed up for the purpose, whom he was summoned from his mid-day meal, with a great show of alarm, to drive back from the camp. He returned after routing a host which did not exist, loaded his companions with honours, blamed the cowardice of those who had stayed behind, and censured in an angry despatch the carelessness of those who were living at ease in Rome, while their Emperor was imperilling his life. Britain he never saw. But he drew up his army in array, and with all the engines of war in their places, on the opposite coast. No one could imagine what was his purpose, when suddenly he bade the soldiers fill their helmets and their pockets with shells. "Spoils of ocean," he called them, destined for the capitol and the palace. It was possibly in a lucid moment that he ordered a light-house to be built on the spot.

For such a prodigy of cruelty and folly it is hard to feel anything but abhorrence. Yet it moves one's pity to know that the creature was conscious of his own frenzy, and sometimes thought of going into retirement and submitting to some treatment. Of course there is the common story of how his wife Caesonia gave him a love-potion which made him mad; but the historian's account of the matter is sufficient. "He was chiefly troubled by a want of sleep. He never rested for more than three hours in the night. Even then his sleep was not undisturbed. He was visited by terrible dreams. Accordingly he was wont, wearied as he was of lying so long awake, sometimes to sit upon his bed, sometimes to wander up and down the long corridors of the palace, praying and longing for the dawn."


Cæsonia gave him a love-potion.

After all, it was not the public indignation but private vengeance that brought him to his end. His own household feared and hated him, and no one more so than one Cassius Chærea, a tribune of the Praetorian guard, whom he took every opportunity of insulting. He had risen from his bed after noon-day, for he was indisposed by the excesses of the previous day. He hesitated about leaving his chamber, but his attendants, who, doubtless, were in the plot, urged him to go. He had to pass through an underground chamber, where some boys were rehearsing a spectacle that was in preparation. As he was speaking to them, Chærea struck him on the neck with his sword, crying, "Take this!" Another conspirator dealt him a blow on the breast. He fell on the ground, and huddling his limbs together, tried to shelter himself from the blows, crying out all the time, I am alive, I am alive. Ninety wounds were found afterwards on his corpse. When it was too late, his German bodyguard hurried up. They could do nothing but kill some of the assassins.

Such a story only wants one horror to complete it. The body was hurriedly placed on the funeral pile, and buried when half-burnt in the gardens of Lamiae. The keepers of the place were disturbed by the spirit of the dead (so Suetonius tells us, as if it were a well-known fact), till his sisters, whom he had banished, returned and paid the last honour to his remains in a more seemly fashion. And in his palace, too, till it was burnt to the ground, not a night passed without some terrible sight.