PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2011, 12:00am


by Aloys Winterling
University of California Press

How does one take a new look at those who have been monstrous tyrants? Either one emphasises the horrors of the tyrant's reign for shock effect or argues that his motives have not been understood and the record is distorted. It is already being done with Stalin, Mao and Gaddafi.

Revisionism is also the name of the game with Roman emperors as witnessed by this year's exhibition in the Colosseum on Nero, which stressed that he was not a sadist who fiddled while Rome burned.

Nero was a nephew of another emperor, Caligula, with a solid reputation as a mad monster. Aloys Winterling, professor of ancient history at Basle University, revises the conventional view of the emperor. A prime example of the emperor's alleged insanity was his proposal to give his horse the highest civic office as consul. But for Winterling this represents not Caligula's insanity but his policy of deriding the senate and all the Roman aristocracy. The senate represented Republican traditions and outlook in contrast with the imperial role assumed by Augustus and Tiberius, Caligula's predecessor. Winterling views Caligula's actions in the light of this structural clash between the senate and the imperial role. He wanted to downgrade the senate to establish an absolute monarchy.

Caligula, born Gaius Caesar Germanicus, spent his early years in the military camps commanded by his father but, from the age of 18, lived with Tiberius. This was more dangerous than being on battlefields because even relatives were not immune from purges by the paranoiac emperor.

Caligula, Tiberius' adopted grandson, kept his cards very close to his chest, avoiding any reactions even when Tiberius banished his mother and had two of his brothers killed.

He was largely an unknown quantity when, on the death of Tiberius, he became emperor in AD37 at the age of 24. Rome had never been ruled by a young man and this was one who fought gladiators and participated in chariot races. Initially he respected the senate, won widespread approval by his generosity towards the army and the Roman populace, and had a vigorous foreign policy which later included the conquest of Britain. But in the third year of his reign he squashed a conspiracy against him by some senators. Little Boots (the meaning of Caligula) then began to walk all over the senate and the aristocracy.

He indulged in a bloodbath, in weird excesses and licentiousness until a bodyguard and some aristocrats, believing they were endangered by his purges, murdered him during a theatrical performance. He was 28.

Winterling admits that contemporaries had reason to fear cruel Caligula but points out that later historians such as Suetonius twisted evidence, for their own polemical purposes, to claim he was mad. It would be little consolation to those he had consigned to torturers or induced to commit suicide to know he was not mad but bad.

However, Winterling shifts the analysis of Caligula from the psychological to the political, which enables readers to find modern parallels. The fear-haunted Roman governing elite recalls accounts of the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Within a short span Winterling provides an acute study of Caligula but also describes clearly how Roman society functioned. Occasionally he is let down by his translators.