Is History Too Hostile to Roman Emperors Caligula and Nero?

History Hit Podcast with Tom Holland

5 mins

13 Dec 2018

This article is an edited transcript of Tom Holland on Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 13 October 2015. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Soundcloud.

Caligula and Nero are the two most notorious emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. But I think that to make sense of the scandalous stories that were told of them, it helps to place them in the broader context of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which is founded by Augustus.

Augustus the radical

The whole aim of Augustus was to try and disguise his evident autocracy behind a show of constitutional propriety, to pretend that the Republic, the traditional Roman system of government, was still functioning while himself clearly holding the reins of power in his hands.

And essentially, although Augustus was brutally radical in his desire to seize power in the Roman state, no one had ever sought to do that with the sort of single-minded ruthlessness that Augustus showed.

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Augustus the old-fashioned

In almost everything else, he was incredibly conservative. He looked at the problems that Rome faced and he looked to the past, that’s essentially what Romans did. They were inherently conservative, most Roman statesmen, and Augustus was absolutely typical of that.

His heir and stepson, Tiberius, who was descended from the Claudians, one of the most preeminent aristocratic families in the old republic, likewise was a very, very conservative figure who self-consciously cast himself as the defender of propriety and tradition.

Claudius as well absolutely set himself up as a figure who was in the mainstream of the standards and the behaviour that Romans would have accepted as being normative for centuries and centuries and centuries. So that leaves Caligula and Nero.

A bust of Gaius Caesar, better known as Caligula. Credit: DIREKTOR / Commons.

Not-so-crazy Caligula

Caligula succeeded Tiberius, preceding Claudius and what he tries to do is something radically different.

Caligula had no loyalty whatsoever to the old traditions of the Republic. Instead, he was utterly contemptuous of them and he resented them because he saw them, correctly, as putting some kind of brake on his own autocracy.

Caligula’s political program essentially involved destroying the prestige and the reputation of the senatorial class and founding his own power in the love and admiration and affection of the Roman people. And the humiliations that he heaped upon the Senate were designed in part at least to delight and titillate the Roman people.

So the story of him making his horse a consul, it’s told as though he meant that seriously and it is therefore a sort of advance to demonstrate that he was mad.

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Caligula was not mad. Caligula was ruthless, cruel, certainly, but he was also very, very shrewd and what he was doing with that was making a joke at the expense of the Senate.  He was saying to the senators for whom the consulship was the absolute apogee of their career, it was everything that they ever aspired to.

He was saying to them, “I can make my horse a consul if I want. The highest prize in the Roman state, it’s entirely within my gift. I can do anything that I like with it.” So it was a very pointed political joke that then after his death, got told against him and given as proof that he was mad.

Ultimately, Caligula found that there were limits set on his power and those limits were set by the threat of assassination because he ended up being murdered. But that didn’t not stop Nero, the final emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty who succeeded Claudius.

Nero orders the murder of Agrippina, his mother. Painting by Noël Coypel I.

Nero’s shocking descent

It took Nero time to move into this policy (of humiliating the Senate and titillating the Roman people). During the first five years of his reign, he was generally remembered as being a good emperor and by good emperor, Roman historians meant that he was an emperor who sided with the Senate and with the aristocracy and the elite.

But once he became his own man, then he got more self-confident. And the marker of this change is the murder of his mother which, of course, was completely shocking and it was utterly shocking to the Romans as well.

Why did Nero do it? Well, certainly he did it because was fed up with his mother. His mother was also a political figure in her own right. She was the daughter of a war hero, she had the blood of Augustus in her veins. She held the loyalty of the military, and that of course is the key to power in any state. So, she was potentially a threat to Nero’s ambitions.

Revelling in his matricide

I think also though that Nero wanted to demonstrate to the Roman people that he was a different class of person to everyone else. And murdering your mother is the kind of thing that people do in Greek myth and Greek tragedy.

And Nero, by killing his mother and then not in any way disguising the fact that he’d killed her, was saying to the world, look at me I am not the normal run of human, I am like a hero.

And in due course, when he went on to take the stage which is something, again, that Romans are not meant to do, let alone emperors, he takes on the role of Orestes who is the figure in Greek myth who kills Clytemnestra, his mother. So Nero was going onto the stage, playing the part of Greek mythology’s most famous matricide.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting of Orestes being pursued by the Furies for his murdering of his mother.

He was not disguising what he had done. On the contrary, he was reveling in it. There were plenty who found this shocking, but there were also many others who responded to this and see in Nero his flamboyance, his theatricality, and the murderous quality of his charisma. They saw in him a superhuman figure. And after his death, he got toppled.

Finally, the Roman aristocracy had enough of him and there was a rebellion in the provinces and it doomed him. Nevertheless, Nero was commemorated and there were people who reappeared and claimed to be Nero. And obviously, they would not be doing that if he had no hold on the affections of the people who he had left behind.

So the reputations of both Caligula and Nero was systematically blackened and clearly, they left behind all kinds of deeds and crimes that enabled them to be blackened.

But the reason that people like Tacitus, people like Suetonius, people who are historians, who are clearly and closely identified with the values of the senatorial elite, the reason that they are so hostile to Caligula and Nero is that Caligula and Nero had been very actively hostile to them.