The Julio-Claudian dynasty is the subject of many fantasies: madness, excess, crimes and sex are common places when one deals with the beginnings of the Roman Empire. Who better than Caligula to synthesize all these turpitudes? Tinto Brass stages this imaginary in his film Caligula in 1979, transgressing certain cinematographic limits. Who really was the "mad" Emperor? Is it possible to know it so much the historiographical traditions modified our perception of the beginnings of the Empire from the end of the 1st century. Jean-Noel Castorio who had already written a biography on Messaline offers us a new Caligula biography to Ellipses editions with the same method.
A new approach
In the introduction, Jean-Noel Castorio makes a quick historiographical assessment: attempt at psychological explanations, misunderstood political innovator or true madman, the emperor's biographies oscillate between these three axes. The author wishes to write a new biography which would be different. For this, it uses an already proven methodology.
Messalin like Caligula are literary figures in the writings of Antiquity. It is therefore very difficult to know who these individuals really were. To have a new look, it is therefore necessary to take this fact into account and analyze this construction for what it is, namely a reflection of "the real Caligula" "who died one fine morning in January 41 under the blows of swords. conspirators ”(p. 16).
The author begins by placing the biography of Caligula in the larger framework of imperial and Germanic propaganda. Son of the illustrious general and designated heir, Caligula becomes his counter-portrait over time. The supposed qualities of the deceased father facilitated his accession to the throne and reinforced his plural legitimacy: a legitimacy of blood, another drawn from his popular attachment and a last based on arms. What the author clearly shows is the importance of the propaganda linked to the figure of Germanicus during his lifetime and before the reign of Caligula in the context of a struggle for power: Germanicus appears as an ideal prince who refuses the monarchical ideal, respects the Senate and shows no hostility towards the old institutions. This image makes it possible to denigrate the Julio-Claudian monarchs such as Tiberius. Behind the myth, the character seems quite “bland” p. 73 and according to A. A. Barrett quoted by Jean-Noël Castorio, it is “much more important after his death than during his life”. The stories about the mutiny of the year 14 let us glimpse a man suffering more from the events than controlling them. Its diplomatic mission in Asia, on the other hand, was a significant success.
Chapter 2 discusses at length the place, networks and role of Caligula during the last years of Tiberius' reign. After a portrait of the reigning emperor, the highlighting of his relations with the Germanician family, the place and role of Sejanus with the Prince are discussed at length: the praetorian prefect has worked a lot against the heirs of Germanicus and is notably at the origin of the death of his mother Agrippina and his brothers Drusus and Nero Caesar. Despite this, Tiberius chooses Caligula as his heir. This succession would have been favored by precious supporters such as Macron, praetorian prefect or Herod Agrippa. The author also discusses the “literary” relationship between Tiberius and Caligula. : if the old emperor transmitted the empire, he would also be at the origin of the vices of the future sovereign.
The author cuts out part of his work thematically: recalling the work of Dante, the various circles of "sins" of Caligula form the titles of the chapters and provide the framework for studying an aspect of the reign. The author then retraces the main features of the reign and their literary treatment. Starting from the assassination, he shows the extent to which historiography has shaped our perception of events and masked very real facts and in particular certain plots. Chapter IV in particular shows the difficulties of the nascent imperial system, with its court and its perpetual intrigues.
Get out of traditional prejudices
The author draws up the history of the reign from non-chronological themes and identifies three major periods. The first is that of the Prince's desire for consensus. Restoring old freedoms to different sections of society, this policy has been very popular. The new august takes over the liberal Germanic heritage but also uses the Augustan figure to stage a new restoration. The second phase (from 38/39 after our era) is that of the failure of this policy and the rise of conspiracies. This deeply questions the chosen policy and tends towards what the author calls the "charismatic and demagogic monarchy". The Emperor chooses to consolidate his legitimacy thanks to military expeditions (legitimacy of victory) but also thanks to a divine legitimacy very finely and at length analyzed in chapter III.
Chapter V titled “The Lower Circles” paints a picture of the various faults attributed to Caligula: cruelty, lust, gluttony and buffoonery. The author shows that these have been part of the tyrant's topos since Greek times. The many parallels present show how ancient literature cannot do without an intertextual analysis. The scenes are repeated, compared and answered over several centuries. Contemporary readers too often forget it.
The other shows in the last part the legacies of these literary traditions. Abandoned in the Middle Ages because of the success of Nero, he becomes a major literary figure in modern and contemporary times. Whether as a figure of the bad tyrant, in praise of tyrannicide, or as a subject for the study of the excesses or the madness of the Prince, these images have been germinating since Antiquity. Albert Camus and others will rather dwell on the absurdity of which Caligula would be a symbol. The Emperor becomes fully aware of the absurd nature of the world and of his government and chooses to break its rules. Today, works on Caligula tend to portray an ancient "trashy" world, like the contemporary production of peplums such as the Spartacus series.
Jean-Noel Castorio's biography of Caligula is very successful. The work paints a fine portrait of the imperial regime of the first Julio-Claudians and highlights the fragility of the regime, intrigues and strong oppositions. The personality of the emperor strongly obscured by literary traditions is partly deciphered according to ancient cultural codes and traditions. A certain number of stereotypes are jostled in order to draw up a fragmented portrait of the sovereign, and this, in spite of the abolitio memoriae. This book is therefore not a rehabilitation or a praise of the Emperor but a fragmented mosaic of the reign of a man.
Caligula, by Jean-Noël Castorio. Ellipses, 2017