Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born in 12 CE into the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The son of beloved Roman general and hero Germanicus, he became popular with his father’s troops when, at just three years of age, he accompanied them on a campaign in Germania wearing a full miniature soldier’s uniform, right down to little versions of their hardy footwear. It was from these little boots that he would gain a nickname from the troops which would follow hi throughout his life: Caligula.
Caligula succeeded Tiberius – with whom he had a strange relationship as the second emperor’s “ward”-come-prisoner – in 37 CE to become the third emperor of Rome. His rule started as a time of get popularity: he seemingly put a stop to the terror of Tiberius’ treason trials with their executions and exiles; he recalled those exiled back to the freedom of Rome; he decreased the overwhelming burden of tax on those the most affected; he re-established elections to public service positions, and spent treasury money on lavish games and entertainments for the citizens.
Almost all of that largesse vanished barely eight months into his rule. Struck down by a sudden and potentially life-threatening illness, his recovery left him with a far darker, crueller demeanour, one which saw the return of executions and exile, a lust for money and power, the ruthless extermination of real or perceived threats, and a growing belief in his own righteousness. It is claimed that the latter reached a point where he allegedly demanded he be regarded as Neos Helios, the “New Sun”, and in 40 CE announced his intention to relocate his seat of power from Rome to Alexandria, Egypt, where he believed he would be worshipped as a living deity. Whether or not this is true is subject to debate; however it was later recorded as the primary reason for his assassination in early 41 CE, allegedly because such a move to Alexandria would result in Rome – and the Senate – losing its power and prestige as the seat of the empire.
History tends to regard Caligula as insane; but is this true? Certainly in the generations that followed, Suetonius and his contemporaries looked back on Caligula as such. But they based their views on the contemporaneous writings of Seneca and Cluvius Rufus – neither of whom may have had an unbiased view of the emperor; Caligula almost executed Seneca out of malice in 39 CE whilst Rufus was a conspirator in Caligula’s assassination – and of Philo of Alexandria. They also potentially took Seneca’s and Philo’s references to insanity out-of-context, as both couched the word in terms of Caligula being corrupted over time in his role as emperor, rather than being genuinely mentally unstable.
So what is the truth behind Caligula? Was he born a sociopath who would inevitably cave in to his own blackness of heart and be regarded as a madman? Or was he born of good heart and intent, only to be corrupted by the absolute power bestowed upon him as emperor? Or did the legacy of his upbringing – the imagined ancestral weight of the dynasty into which he was born, coupled with all he witnessed first-hand as the prisoner / ward of Tiberius – ultimately combine to drive him to excess? Or did all three combine within him over time?
Which of these might be true is lost to the passage of history. But while time may well have moved on, and the structures of family, society and power have changed, are we, as individuals and a society, really that far removed from Caligula and the Rome over which he held sway? These are the questions swirling through The Book of Caligula, an exhibition by Chuck Clip and hosted within a suitable Roman villa-like setting at Frank Atisso’s Artsville Galleries and Community.
Comprising 40 individual pieces (including three positioned to suggest a triptych), these are fantastical and not a little disturbing works offered almost as etchings, rich in detail. Each offers a window into Caligula’s life and times: the elevation of bloody gladiatorial games; the corruption born of power (be it emperor or the Senate); the mercurial swings between generosity and and brilliance and bloody, murderous intent, and more. Some, such as Incitātus, offer a very direct reference to the legend (if not necessarily the reality) of Caligula’s life. Others, like Mockery, offer a more subtle hint as to the foundations of the darkness in his heart (his young adult view that the nickname bestowed upon him by his father’s troops was intended as form of derision).
But within each of the intricate nightmarish twisting of form and content – almost Boschian in extent – each offers lies something deeper. Note only might they be seen as windows opening onto Caligula’s time, but also mirrors reflecting the realities of the human condition.
Yes, times have changed, as have the strictures of society such that murder, assassination and blood games are no longer considered openly acceptable and apart of the natural order of things; but are we not all still as potentially fallible as Caligula, whether through a failure of mental health or through the corruptions of society and (particularly) political power? Are we not equally vulnerable to excesses which can so easily swing our moods erratically from kindness and generosity to cruelty of word and viciousness of action? Does not power still corrupt, and do we still not, when perceiving ourselves as victims, all too often lash out viciously and blindly? In short, when all is said and done, are we really any more immune to the underpinning weaknesses and failings evident in Caligula’s rule?
Thus, as Chuck notes in the introduction to the exhibition, The Book of Caligula is not merely about the life and times of a fallible Roman emperor ages dead, it is about all of us, and the continued complexities and failings of the human condition.
- Artsville Gallery Complex (Caribbean Ocean, rated Moderate)