“Divine” Madness


Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (12-41CE), nicknamed Caligula “little boots”, was the third Roman emperor. Everyone was delighted when the young man came to power in 37, but the dream soon became a nightmare. So what was wrong with Caligula?

Childhood traumas he had many. His father Germanicus died when he was 7; then his mother Agrippina was exiled then killed, along with two brothers {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p316}. The teenager lived with Tiberius on Capri, believed responsible for their deaths. He had a “truly disastrous youth, likely to affect his development in the worst possible way” {Grant, p109}.

The ancients were not so sympathetic. Tiberius described his great-nephew as having all of Sulla’s faults and none of his virtues {Tacitus, p224}. Caligula was careful to speak no treason, leading to a later comment: “There had never been a better slave or a worse master.” {Tacitus p209}

Later in 37, the young emperor fell ill. Some blamed this on unhealthy luxuries {Philo}. Maybe this was brain fever, and his erratic behaviour began after recovery. {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert p317}  Modern historians attempt to diagnose Caligula with some mental illness, difficult to do. {Grant, p111} Suetonius mentions epilepsy and chronic insomnia. “He tired of lying awake the greater part of the night. . .invoking the day which, seemed as if it would never break.” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVv}

Perhaps a good diagnosis for Caligula is psychopath. “Everything that Caligula said or did was marked with equal cruelty, even during his hours of rest and amusement and banquetry.” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVxxxii} The first casualties were co-heir Tiberius Gemellus, then Praetorian Prefect Macro and his wife Ennia, who helped him to power {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p317}.

Many innocent people would meet their deaths, sometimes gruesomely, “not necessarily for major offences, but merely for criticising his shows, failing to swear by his genius, etc.” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IV} Their confiscated estates were sold to boost the treasury, Caligula called this: “I am clearing my accounts” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVxxix.} He even made parents attend their own son’s executions. {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVxxvi}

His sexual behaviour was also psychopathic. Caligula had homosexual affairs with Valerius Catallus and actor Mnester {Grant, p114}; but seems to have preferred stolae. This was unfortunate for the women of Rome, from meretrices to senator’s wives. He loved cuckolding other men, therefore showing his power, particularly senators. The ladies were told: “This beautiful throat will be cut whenever I please.” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVxxxii}

He committed incest with his sisters, especially Drusilla, who were put on coins {}. After her death in 38, Drusilla was made a goddess {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p317}. Julia Livilla and Agrippina were later banished by their brother, not such a terrible fate. Caligula later had himself deified, dressing as various god and goddesses and putting his statue in temples.

We can question whether these tales are true? “The consistent tone of the stories suggests a kernel of truth” {Grant, p114}.

Perhaps a more contemporary diagnosis for Caligula is tyrant, who Plato compares to a werewolf that eats human flesh {Plato Republic VIII}.  After looking at the means by which they stay in power, he adds: “A man becomes strictly tyrannical whenever by nature, or by habit, or by both together, he has fallen under the dominion of wine, or love, or insanity. {Plato Republic IX}

Whatever was wrong with Caligula was permanently cured on 24 Jan 41, when he was stabbed to death in the theatre, by Cassius Chaerea and his own Praetorian Guard {}. This tyrannicide was somewhat heroic, unlike the murders of his wife Caesonia and infant daughter. After his assassination the Romans wished to restore the Republic {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVlx}, but it was too late for that.


Barber, Stephen & Reed, Jeremy. Caligula: Divine Carnage. Creation Books, 2000.

Boatwright, Mary & Gargola, Daniel & Lenski, Noel & Talbert, Richard. The Romans: From Village to Empire, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Cassius Dio. “Roman History: Book LIX.” Loeb Classical Library edition, 1924. Retrieved from: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/59*.html

Grant, Michael. The Twelve Caesars. London: Phoenix Giant, 1997.

Philo of Alexandria. “ON THE EMBASSY TO GAIUS” The Works of Philo. Retrieved from: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book40.html

Plato. The Republic. London: Wordworth Classics of World Literature, 1997.

Suetonius Tranquilis, Gaius. The Twelve Caesars. Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1957.

Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. The Annals of Imperial Rome. London: Penguin Classics, 1956.


The “Divine” Augustus


Gaius Octavius Julius Caesar Augustus (63BC-14AD) was the first Roman Emperor. He titled himself Imperator, then claimed to be upholding the Republic, but was essentially an absolute monarch.

Octavius, with his efficient administration, certainly brought a new era of peace and prosperity, after the civil wars. He claimed: “I found Rome built of sun-dried bricks; I leave her clothed in marble.” {Suetonius Augustus II}

The price the Romans paid for this was submitting to autocracy. The Senate continued for centuries, but without the same powers. To make this palatable; Octavius used propaganda in the form of coins, literature and monuments.

The biggest form of propaganda used by Octavius was the claim he was divine, calling himself Augustus in 27BC. The son of Atia and Gaius Octavius was now became son of the deified Julius Caesar (while having his natural son Caesarion killed). He name-dropped Mars, Jupiter and supposed ancestress Venus. Augustus seem to have superseded the worship of the gods when he wanted to have hemself venerated in temples, with god-like images. {Tacitus From Augustus to Tiberius I}

Many monarchs have claimed to be descended from gods, such as the Pharaohs, his arch-rival Cleopatra was considered a daughter of Isis. Today, the same claim was made by the Japanese Emperor, even the North Korean dictators. Opposing these rulers becomes not only treason, but also sacrilege.

So this was Augustus’ biggest form of propaganda, as seen in his own Res Gestae Divi Augusti:  “A copy below of the deeds of the divine Augustus, by which he subjected the whole wide earth to the rule of the Roman people, and of the money which he spent for the state and Roman people.”{Augustus} Unlike subsequent Caesars, he did not let this hype go to his head.

Marcus Antonius & Cleopatra


Marcus Antonius (83-30BC) has been linked often with the Queen of Egypt; in Roman histories, Shakespeare and Hollywood. The real Cleopatra was unfairly maligned by the patriarchal Romans as a femme fatale, not a powerful queen regnant. Rather than being her victim, Antonius had sound reason to want control of the eastern provinces, rather than just chasing stola.

In the early days of the Triumvirate, “Antony undertook to pacify the eastern provinces if Augustus led the veterans back to Italy.” {Suetonius Augustus II} This may have had something to do with defeating Julius Caesar’s assassins at Philippi, in Macedonia.

The major reason that Antonius wanted control of the east was the wealth of their cities, where he exacted much tribute. {Ward, Heichelheim, Yeo, p220} Hybreas commented: “If you can take tribute from us twice a year, no doubt you can give us two summers and two harvests.” {Plutarch Mark Antony IX}

After he met Cleopatra at Cilicia, as urged by Dellius, “she relied above all upon her physical presence and the speall and enchantment which it could create”. {Plutarch ibid} Love is one thing, there is also politics, power and wealth. “Each had something to gain by cooperating with the other: Cleopatra, the support of Roman arms against her rivals; Antonius, Egyptian wealth to defray the costs of a projected war against Parthia and rivalry with Octavian.” {Ward et al, p221} The wealth and grain supply of Egypt were now behind him.

Roman historians continued the story of Antonius’ extravagances while portraying the Egyptian Queen as a seductress. “Plato speaks of four kinds of flattery, but Cleopatra knew a thousand. Whether Antony’s mood were serious or gay [ie merry], she could always invent some fresh device to delight or charm him. She engrossed his attention utterly and never release him for an instant by day or by night.” {Plutarch ibid} It is possible the adulation that went with being the partner of a “divine” eastern potentate, went to his head somewhat.

In the end, controlling of the east and nothing there could save Antonius from being in the losing fleet in the Battle of Actium. Both he and Cleopatra would be vilified in histories written under the victor, who became the Emperor Augustus.


Plutarchus, Lucius Mestrius. Makers of Rome. Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1965.

Suetonius Tranquilis, Gaius. The Twelve Caesars. Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1957.

Ward, Allen & Heichelhim, Fritz & Yeo, Cedric. A History of the Roman People: Fifth Edition. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2010.

Alea iacta est


The Roman Senate, like any other political body, was only as good as the people making it up. In 50BC, when Julius Caesar was ending his governorship of Gaul, there was a major anti-Caesar faction in power. Their reasons were jealousy; plus fear of what Caesar was capable of, with his legions behind him. Normally a governor would resign his command, disband his army outside the pomerium on returning to Rome, then run for consul. Caesar could not do this because of the fear of prosecution for his 59BC consulship, once a civitus. Cato the Younger had looked forward to prosecuting him. {Suetonius}

Delicate negotiations could have saved the situation, but that was not possible with senators who disliked him; Cato the Younger, Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Crus and the Marcellii. “They had always hated Caesar and they now used every means, fair or foul, to dishonour and discredit him.” {Plutarch Caesar V} Marcus Claudius Marcellus, consul in 51BC, said that Caesar’s armies should be disbanded and he should stand for consul in person, rather than in absentia, as suggested by Pompey. {Suetonius Julius Caesar I} Cato added that Caesar should become an ordinary citizen, judged by other civitii. {Plutarch Pompey IV}

Caesar’s man in Rome was the tribune Quintus Scribonius Curio. He suggested that if Caesar lay down his command and disband his armies, then Pompey should also. This was passed by the Senate, with only 22 opposed. {} Claudius reacted with: “Enjoy your victory and have Caesar for a master.” {Appian Civil Wars IIxxx}

A rumour was spread that Caesar was already marching on Rome. Pompey was called upon to defend the city. He had once been an ally of Caesars, married to his daughter Julia, but this broke down with her death in 54BC. {} Now he became the Senate’s man, fighting against Caesar in the Civil War.

In 49BC, the consuls were Lentulus and Gaius Claudius Marcellus, who denounced Caesar as “robber”. {Plutarch Pompey IV} On 7 January 49BC, they passed the senatus consultum ultimum, outlawing Caesar. His followers Curio and Marcus Antonius were driven from the Senate, then fled Rome.

This would lead to the famous march across the proverbial Rubicon River, civil war and finally the end of the Roman Republic as a representative form of government. Truly, the die was cast.



Nothing is known about Spartacus’ early life, even less about his partner the Dionysian priestess. He grew up in Thrace (now Bulgaria) and may have joined the auxillia, a legion for foreigners, perhaps in Sulla’s time. Then he deserted his post, was caught and sold into slavery, becoming a gladiator.

One thing we can say for certain: it was the Romans who taught Spartacus to fight.

From the time he and 77 others broke out of Lentulus Batiatus’ establishment at Capua, in 73BC– Spartacus was a great danger to Rome. The reasons were not only what he did but what he represented.

“There was now more to disturb the senate than just the shame and the disgrace of the revolt. The situation had become dangerous enough to inspire real fear.” {Plutarch Crassus III} What was it they were they so afraid of?

Physically, the danger was defeats to Roman legions: first Clodius Glabrus, then Furius and the quaestor Publius Virinius. Even the consul Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus was humiliated by “those who ought to have been hauled away by the overseers, themselves pursued praetorian generals in flight from the battle-field.” {Florus IIBvii }

Psychologically, the danger was greater. Slaves might demand to be treated as hominae, even civitii, while brandishing kitchen knives. All ancient sources talk about Spartacus’ plans to march on Rome, but danger within was greater than a Hannibal outside the gates.

This explains the harsh punishments, once “Licinius Crassus vindicated the honour of Rome.” {Florus IIBviii} Spartacus himself died bravely in battle, but 6000 rebels were crucified along the Via Appia.

Spartacus remains a hero to generations of freedom fighters.


Appian. “The Civil Wars,” The Histories of Appian, Loeb Classical Library. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Appian/Civil_Wars/1*.html

Florus. “Epitome of Roman History,” LacusCurtius, Loeb Classical Library. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Florus/Epitome/home.html

Plutarch, Fall of the Roman Republic. Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1958.

Cyril Robinson, A History of Rome. London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1935.

Barry Strauss, The Spartacus War. London: Phoenix, 2009.

Roman Coups d’Etat


A lot can happen in one year.

In early 88BC the more legitimate leader of the Roman army was undoubtedly Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78BC). He had recently won honours in the infamous Social War, being elected consul. A terrible massacre of Romans in Pontus {Appian XIIiv 22-23}, led to war with King Mithridates. Sulla was appointed commander of the legions.

This was opposed by Gaius Marius (157-86BC), a military genius who had transformed the Roman army into a professional fighting force. He won victories against the Teutones, Cimbri and in Numidia; capturing King Jugurtha with his quaestor Sulla’s kidnapping tactics. {Sallust, XII} A new man in the Senate, he had been elected consul six times. At nearly 70, “Marius ought to go and take the warm baths at Baiae and look after his health.” {Plutarch, I} Instead he schemed with the violent tribune Publius Sulpicius Rufus to transfer leadership of the Pontic legions to him.

Sulla’s reaction broke all the rules. Escaping to the army camp, he marched his six legions against Rome, staging a coup d’etat. NEVER had an army crossed the sacred pomerium before. Rufus was killed and Marius fled to Africa. So when Sulla marched away to Pontus, he was no longer the legitimate leader of the Roman army. He had used the military to gain power against a representative government, when he had other options as consul. Sulla would lead a larger coup in 82BC, appointing himself military dictator.

Marius was hardly better. Returning from Africa in 87BC, he formed a junta with Lucius Cornelius Cinna. Perhaps he was suffering from senility, because he began proscribing his enemies – and a terrible bloodbath began. When Marius died in early 86, “it seemed that the city had been freed from a harsh and savage tyranny.” {Plutarch, I}

Sulla would be no better when he took over. In his proscriptions, approximately 40 senators and 1600 equites were killed {Appian I xi95-xii103}. Truly, in a development that reverberates to the present day, Sulla had enlisted the military dictator into the ranks of Plato’s tyrants.