Conquering Britain From Afar: Caligula and the Best Triumph

In honor of the World Cup Semi-final Match today between the former Roman Provinces of Britannia and Dalmatia, we wrote a slightly farcical post for the SCS blog. This is one of my favorite anecdotes from the Julio-Claudian Clan. It reminds me of a certain leader traveling in Europe right now.

Cassius Dio, Roman History 59.25

“Once he arrived at the ocean—as if he were about to mount a campaign against Britain—[Gaius Caligula Caesar] stationed all his soldiers on the shore and climbed on a trireme. After sailing a little from the land, he sailed back again. Then, after that, he perched on a high platform and gave the soldiers a sign for battle, even urging the trumpeters to help them. Then, suddenly, he ordered them to collect seashells.

Once he acquired all of this booty—for he obviously needed spoils for his triumphal procession—he was deeply impressed with himself, as if he had made a slave of the ocean itself. Then he gave many gifts to his soldiers. He took the seashells back to Rome so he could display his war booty to them too.

The senate had no plan for how it could take these things calmly—because it understood that he was acting as if this were a big deal, nor could it praise him in any way. For if someone showers lavish praise or weighty honors for some middling or minor accomplishment, there is a lingering suspicion of hissing or mockery for it.

And yet, once he entered the city, Caligula nearly asked for the whole senate to be killed because it did not vote him immortal honors for this…”

     ἐς δὲ τὸν ὠκεανὸν ἐλθὼν ὡς καὶ ἐν τῇ Βρεττανίᾳ στρατεύσων, καὶ πάντας τοὺς στρατιώτας ἐν τῇ ᾐόνι παρατάξας, τριήρους τε ἐπέβη καὶ ὀλίγον ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς ἀπάρας ἀνέπλευσε, καὶ μετὰ τοῦτο ἐπὶ βήματος ὑψηλοῦ ἱζήσας καὶ σύνθημα τοῖς στρατιώταις ὡς ἐς μάχην δούς, τοῖς τε σαλπικταῖς ἐξοτρύνας αὐτούς, εἶτ’ ἐξαίφνης ἐκέλευσέ σφισι τὰ κογχύλια συλλέξασθαι. λαβών τε τὰ σκῦλα ταῦτα (καὶ γὰρ λαφύρων δῆλον ὅτι πρὸς τὴν τῶν ἐπινικίων πομπὴν ἐδεῖτο) μέγα τε ἐφρόνησεν ὡς καὶ τὸν ὠκεανὸν αὐτὸν δεδουλωμένος, καὶ τοῖς στρατιώταις πολλὰ ἐδωρήσατο. καὶ ὁ μὲν ἐς τὴν ῾Ρώμην τὰ κογχύλια ἀνεκόμισεν, ἵνα καὶ ἐκεί-νοις τὰ λάφυρα δείξῃ· ἡ δὲ βουλὴ οὔθ’ ὅπως ἐπὶ τούτοις ἡσυχάζοι εἶχεν, ὅτι μεγαλοφρονούμενον αὐτὸν ἐπυνθάνετο, οὔθ’ ὅπως αὐτὸν ἐπαινέσειεν· ἂν γάρ τις ἐπὶ μηδεμιᾷ ἢ μικρᾷ τινι ἀνδραγαθίᾳ ἤτοι ἐπαίνους μεγάλους ἢ καὶ τιμὰς ἐξαισίους ποιῆται, διαμωκᾶσθαί τε καὶ διασιλλοῦν αὐτὴν ὑποπτεύεται. ὅμως ἐσελθὼν ἐς τὴν πόλιν τὴν μὲν βουλὴν ὀλίγου ἐδέησεν ἀπολέσαι πᾶσαν, ὅτι μὴ τὰ ὑπὲρ ἄνθρωπον αὐτῷ ἐψηφίσατο…

Suetonius, Gaius Caligula 46

“At last, as if he was about to finish the war, he had the battle line stretched out along the shore along with the ballistas and siege engines. When no one understood or had any idea what he was going to do, he suddenly ordered them to gather shells and fill their helmets and clothes, announcing that there were “the Ocean’s spoils, owed to the Capitoline and Palatine.”

He also had erected as a monument to his victory a really tall tower from which fires were meant to shine for the purpose of guiding the course of ships at night just like the lighthouse of Pharos. Once he promised to each soldier a bonus of one hundred denarii—as if this were a sign of extreme generosity—he said “Go happily away; leave here rich.”

Postremo quasi perpetraturus bellum, derecta acie in litore Oceani ac ballistis machinisque dispositis, nemine gnaro aut opinante quidnam coepturus esset, repente ut conchas legerent galeasque et sinus replerent imperavit, “spolia Oceani” vocans “Capitolio Palatioque debita,” et in indicium victoriae altissimam turrem excitavit, ex qua ut Pharo noctibus ad regendos navium cursus ignes emicarent; pronuntiatoque militi donativo centenis viritim denariis, quasi omne exemplum liberalitatis supergressus: “Abite,” inquit, “laeti, abite locupletes.”

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Augustus Caesar, Maybe Not the Nicest Guy

Suetonius, Divus Augustus 15

“Following the capture of Perusia, [Augustus] turned his mind to vengeance on many people—facing those who were trying to beg forgiveness or make an excuse with one response: “you must die.”

Some authors record that three hundred people from both orders were picked out from the war-prisoners and slaughtered like sacrificial animals at the altar built to Divine Julius on the Ides of March. There are those who report that he turned to war with a specific plan, namely to trap his secret adversaries and those whom fear rather than willingness constrain and, once the model of Lucius Antonius* was offered, to pay the bonuses promised to veterans once he had conquered his enemies and liquidated their assets.”

Perusia capta in plurimos animadvertit, orare veniam vel excusare se conantibus una voce occurrens “moriendum esse.” Scribunt quidam trecentos ex dediticiis electos utriusque ordinis ad aram Divo Iulio exstructam Idibus Martiis hostiarum more mactatos. Exstiterunt qui traderent conpecto eum ad arma isse, ut occulti adversarii et quos metus magis quam voluntas contineret, facultate L. Antoni ducis praebita, detegerentur devictisque iis et confiscatis promissa veteranis praemia solverentur.

*Lucius (Marcus Antonius’ brother) had been a target of the siege at Perusia. Octavian [Augustus] let him live and sent him to serve as governor in what is now Spain.

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Augustus as Pontifex Maximus, A Righteous and Religious Man

“Beware the many, if you do not fear the one”

From the Historia Augusta, on the two Maximini, IX

“In order to hide his low birth, he had everyone who knew about it killed—not a few of them were friends who had often given him much because of his pitiable poverty. And there was never a crueler animal on the earth, placing all in his strength as if he could not be killed. Finally, when he believed that he was nearly immortal because of the magnitude of his body and bravery, there was a certain actor whom they report recited some Greek lines when he was present in the theater which had this Latin translation:

Even he who cannot be killed by one is killed by many
The elephant is large and he is killed.
The lion is brave and he is killed
The tiger is brave and he is killed.
Beware the many if you do not fear the one.

And these words were recited while the emperor was there. But when he asked his friends what the little clown had said, they claimed he was singing some old lines written against mean men. And, since he was Thracian and barbarian, believed this.”

IX. nam ignobilitatis tegendae causa omnes conscios generis sui interemit, nonnullos etiam amicos, qui ei saepe misericordiae paupertatis causa pleraque donaverant. neque enim fuit crudelius animal in terris, omnia sic in viribus suis ponens quasi non posset occidi. denique cum immortalem se prope crederet ob magnitudinem corporis virtutisque, mimus quidam in theatro praesente illo dicitur versus Graecos dixisse, quorum haec erat Latina sententia:

“Et qui ab uno non potest occidi, a multis occiditur.

elephans grandis est et occiditur,
leo fortis est et occiditur,
tigris fortis est et occiditur;
cave multos, si singulos non times.”

et haec imperatore ipso praesente iam dicta sunt. sed cum interrogaret amicos, quid mimicus scurra dixisset, dictum est ei quod antiquos versus cantaret contra homines asperos scriptos; et ille, ut erat Thrax et barbarus, credidit.


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I am big. Really big. Everyone is saying that, not me. I mean, look how big I am.

A Failure of Education: Commodus’ Cruelty

From the Historia Augusta on Commodus, 1

“Therefore, when his brother had passed, Marcus tried to educate Commodus with his own writings and those of famous and prominent men. As teachers he had Onesicrates for Greek literature, Antistius Capella for Latin and Ateius Sanctus for rhetoric.

But teachers of so many disciplines were useless in his case—such was the power of his native character or of those who were kept as instructors in the palace. For from his early childhood, Commodus was nasty, dishonest, cruel, desirous, foul-mouthed, and corrupted. For he was already a craftsman in those things which were not proper to the imperial class, such as making chalices, dancing, singing, whistling, playing a fool, and acting the perfect gladiator.

When he was twelve years old, he provided an omen of his cruelty at Centumcellae. For, when his bath was accidentally too cool, he ordered that the bath-slave be thrown into the furnace. Then, the slave who was ordered this, burned a sheep’s skin into the furnace, so that he might convince the punishment was performed through the foulness of the smell.”

mortuo igitur fratre Commodum Marcus et suis praeceptis et magnorum atque optimorum virorum erudire conatus est. habuit litteratorem Graecum Onesicratem, Latinum Capellam Antistium; orator ei Ateius Sanctus fuit.

Sed tot disciplinarum magistri nihil ei profuerunt. tantum valet aut ingenii vis aut eorum qui in aula institutores habentur. nam a prima statim pueritia turpis, improbus, crudelis, libidinosus, ore quoque pollutus et constupratus fuit. iam in his artifex, quae stationis imperatoriae non erant, ut calices fingeret, saltaret, cantaret, sibilaret, scurram denique et gladiatorem perfectum ostenderet. auspicium crudelitatis apud Centumcellas dedit anno aetatis duodecimo. nam cum tepidius forte lautus esset, balneatorem in fornacem conici iussit; quando a paedagogo, cui hoc iussum fuerat, vervecina pellis in fornace consumpta est, ut fidem poenae de foetore nidoris impleret.


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Coarse Wit, Captive Audiences: The Oratorical practices of Gaius Caligula

Suetonius, Gaius Caligula 53

“Of the liberal arts, Caligula paid the least attention to literature and the most to rhetoric. He was as eloquent and witty as you would want, especially when he could launch an attack on someone. Words and phrases used to find him whenever he was angry—his articulation and voice too rose up so that it was impossible for him to stay in the same place thanks to excitement and he was heard well by people standing far away.

When he was about to give a speech, he used to threaten to unsheathe the tool of his nocturnal strains, and he despised work composed smoothly and with style so much that he used to say that Seneca wrote “only school-essays” and was “sand without lime”. He was also in the custom of responding to the successful speeches of orators and of working on accusations and defenses for major matters brought to the senate; when his stylus progressed well, whether he was adding guilt or lightening responsibility with his own oration, the whole equestrian class was invited to hear him by edict.”

LIII. Ex disciplinis liberalibus minimum eruditioni, eloquentiae plurimum attendit, quamtumvis facundus et promptus, utique si perorandum in aliquem esset. Irato et verba et sententiae suppetebant, pronuntiatio quoque et vox, ut neque eodem loci prae ardore consisteret et exaudiretur a procul stantibus. Peroraturus stricturum se lucubrationis suae telum minabatur, lenius comptiusque scribendi genus adeo contemnens, ut Senecam tum maxime placentem “commissiones meras” componere et “harenam esse sine calce” diceret. Solebat etiam prosperis oratorum actionibus rescribere et magnorum in senatu reorum accusationes defensionesque meditari ac, prout stilus cesserat, vel onerare sententia sua quemque vel sublevare, equestri quoque ordine ad audiendum invitato per edicta.


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Great Deeds Require Great Assistance (PS: Sejanus, I Love You) Velleius Paterculus 2.127

“It is rare for eminent men to guide their fortunes without making use of great assistants—as the two Scipios needed the two Laelii whom they treated as equal to themselves in everything or as the divine Augustus used Marcus Agrippa and then Statilius Taurus after him. For these men the newness of their families was certainly not any serious obstacle to selections to their multiple consulships, triumphs or priesthoods. For great deeds need great helpers and it is crucial to that state that those who are needed by it receive adequate rank and that their usefulness is fortified by authority.

With these men as examples, Tiberius Caesar elevated Seianus Aelius as his sole assistant in the burdens of the principate, a son of a father from a lofty equestrian family and on his mother’s side related to famous ancient men distinguished as well by their public service, a man who also had brothers, cousins and an uncle as consuls and who was himself a man most dedicated to loyalty and service, endowed with sufficient physical strength to match his mental ability, a man happily stern and strictly cheerful, busy though seeming at leisure, a man who neither acquires nor pursues anything for himself, and whose belief in himself always falls below the estimation of others, calm in his appearance and life though vigilant in his mind.”

Raro eminentes viri non magnis adiutoribus ad gubernandam fortunam suam usi sunt, ut duo Scipiones duobus Laeliis, quos per omnia aequaverunt sibi, ut divus Augustus M. Agrippa et proxime ab eo Statilio Tauro, quibus novitas familiae haut obstitit quominus ad multiplicis consulatus triumphosque et complura eveherentur sacerdotia. 2 Etenim magna negotia magnis adiutoribus egent interestque rei publicae quod usu necessariurn est, dignitate eminere utilitatemque auctoritate muniri. 3 Sub his exemplis Ti. Caesar Seianum Aelium, principe equestris ordinis patre natum, materno vero genere clarissimas veteresque et insignes honoribus complexum familias, habentem consularis fratres, consobrinos, avunculum, ipsum vero laboris ac fidei capacissimum, sufficiente etiam vigori animi compage corporis, singularem principalium onerum adiutorem in omnia habuit atque habet, 4virum severitatis laetissimae, hilaritatis priscae, actu otiosis simillimum, nihil sibi vindicantem eoque adsequentem omnia, semperque infra aliorum aestimationes se metientem, vultu vitaque tranquillum, animo exsomnem.

The last sentence seems to go on a bit suspiciously long for Sejanus, the leader of the Praetorian guard who ran the Roman Empire after Tiberius withdrew to Capri. Things did not go well forever for Sejanus–he was executed in 31 CE.

Whence Commodus? Blood-Magic or Adultery (Historia Augusta, Marc. Ant. 19)

[Earlier we posted a passage contrasting the virtue of Marcus Antoninus (Aurelius) with the vice of his son Commodus. here’s the rest.]

“Some men report a thing which seems likely, that Commodus Antoninus, his son and successor, was born not from him but from adultery and they support such a tale with a common rumor. There was a time when Faustina, Pius’ daughter and Marcus’ wife, saw some gladiators pass and was set afire with love for one of them. Later, when she was suffering from a long sickness, she told her husband about this. When Marcus relayed this to the Chaldaeans, their advice was that he should have Faustina bathe herself in the blood of the killed gladiator and then lie with her husband. When this act was complete, the passion was quenched, though their son Commodus was as a result born to be a gladiator not a princeps. This tale is treated as likely since there was never a son of a prince so virtuous with ways worse than a gladiator master, a street-actor or some arena-fighter, a man who could summon up a trophy of crimes from a surfeit of blessings.

Many others, however, claim that Commodus was really conceived through adultery because it is known that when Faustina was at Caieta she would choose lovers from the sailors and the gladiators. When this was mentioned to Marcus Aurelius so that he would reject her or kill her, he is reported to have replied, “If I divorce my wife, I must return her dowry.” And what did he consider her dowry but the empire which he had received when he was adopted by his father-in-law at Hadrian’s urging.”

Aiunt quidam, quod et verisimile videtur, Commodum Antoninum, successorem illius ac filium, non esse de eo natum sed de adulterio, ac talem fabellam vulgari sermone contexunt. 2 Faustinam quondam, Pii filiam, Marci uxorem, cum gladiatores transire vidisset, unius ex his amore succensam, cum longa aegritudine laboraret, viro de amore confessam. 3 Quod cum ad Chaldaeos Marcus rettulisset, illorum fuisse consilium, ut occiso gladiatore sanguine illius sese Faustina sublavaret atque ita cum viro concumberet. 4 Quod cum esset factum, solutum quidem amorem, natum vero Commodum gladiatorem esse, non principem, 5 qui mille prope pugnas publice populo inspectante gladiatorias imperator exhibuit, ut in vita eius docebitur. 6 Quod quidem verisimile ex eo habetur, quod tam sancti principis filius his moribus fuit, quibus nullus lanista, nullus scaenicus, nullus arenarius, nullus postremo ex omnium decorum ac scelerum conluvione concretus. 7 Multi autem ferunt Commodum omnino ex adultero natum, si quidem Faustinam satis constet apud Caietam condiciones sibi et nauticas et gladiatorias elegisse. 8 De qua cum diceretur Antonino Marco, ut eam repudiaret, si non occideret, dixisse fertur : “Si uxorem dimittimus, reddamus et dotem.” 9 Dos autem quid habebatur [nisi] imperium, quod ille ab socero volente Hadriano adoptatus acceperat?

Marcus Aurelius Would Have Done Better to Have No Sons (Historia Augusta, Marc. Ant. 18-19)

“Such a great man [Marcus Aurelius], joined to the gods in life as well as death, left behind his son Commodus—if he had been truly blessed, he would have not left a son. So it was not enough that people of all ages, gender, social position, and condition gave him honors, but a man would be declared sacrilegious if he did not have his image in his own home, should he be able to do so thanks to fortune. Indeed, even today status of Marcus Antoninus [Aurelius] remain in many homes among the household gods. There was no lack of men who claimed that he predicted many things in dreams that they foretold future events in truth. Hence, , a temple was constructed in his honor, and there were priests dedicated to the service of the Antonines, along with Flaminess and Sodales, all those things which tradition has established for sacred rites.

So men report a thing which seems likely, that Commodus Antoninus, his son and successor, was born not from him but from adultery and they support such a tale with a common rumor….[to be shared later…]”

Hic sane vir tantus et talis ac diis vita et morte coniunctus filium Commodum dereliquit: qui si felix fuisset, filium non reliquisset. 5 Et parum sane fuit, quod illi honores divinos omnis aetas, omnis sexus, omnis conditio ac dignitas dedit, nisi quod etiam sacrilegus iudicatus est, qui eius imaginem in sua domo non habuit, qui per fortunam vel potuit habere vel debuit. 6 Denique hodieque in multis domibus Marci Antonini statuae consistunt inter deos penates. 7 Nec defuerunt homines qui somniis eum multa praedixisse augurantes futura et vera concinuerunt. 8 Unde etiam templum ei constitutum, dati sacerdotes Antoniniani et sodales et flamines et omnia, quae de sacratis decrevit antiquitas.

XIX. 1 Aiunt quidam, quod et verisimile videtur, Commodum Antoninum, successorem illius ac filium, non esse de eo natum sed de adulterio, ac talem fabellam vulgari sermone contexunt.

“I’m Kind of a Big Deal”: Augusuts’ Res Gestae on Pirates, Slaves, Consuls and Priests

Res Gestae 25 (Column V)

“I cleared the sea of pirates. The nearly thirty thousand slaves who fled their masters in the war and carried arms against the Republic, I captured and handed over to their masters to be punished. All of Italy willingly swore an oath to me and requested me as leader in the war at Actium in which I prevailed. They swore the same oath to me in the provinces of Gaul, Hispania, Africa, Sicily and Sardinia. More than seven hundred senators were among those who marched under my banners at the time and among those eighty-three served as consul and 170 have been priests either before or after as of the day on which this is written.”

Mare pacavi a praedonibus. Eo bello servorum qui fugerant a dominis suis et arma contra rem publicam ceperant triginta fere millia capta dominis ad supplicium sumendum tradidi. Iuravit in mea verba tota Italia sponte sua, et me belli quo vici ad Actium ducem depoposcit; iuraverunt in eadem verba provinciae Galliae, Hispaniae, Africa, Sicilia, Sardinia. Qui sub signis meis tum militaverint fuerunt senatores plures quam DCC, in iis qui vel antea vel postea consules facti sunt ad eum diem quo scripta sunt haec LXXXIII, sacerdotes circiter CLXX

Θάλασσαν πειρατευομένην ὑπὸ ἀποστατῶν δούλων εἰρήνευσα· ἐξ ὧν τρεῖς που μυριάδας τοῖς  δεσπόταις εἰς κόλασιν παρέδωκα. § Ὤμοσεν εἰς τοὺς ἐμοὺς λόγους ἅπασα ἡ Ἰταλία ἑκοῦσα κἀ18 μὲ πολέμου, ὧι ἐπ᾽ Ἀκτίωι ἐνείκησα, ἡγεμόνα ἐξῃτήσατο. Ὤμοσαν εἰς τοὺς αὐτοὺς λόγους ἐπαρ20 χεῖαι Γαλατία Ἱσπανία Λιβύη Σικελία Σαρδῶ. Οἱ ὑπ᾽ ἐ21 μαῖς σημέαις τότε στρατευσάμενοι ἦσαν συνκλητικοὶ πλείους ἑπτακοσίων· ἐν αὐτοῖς οἳ ἢ πρότερον ἢ  μετέπειτα ἐγένοντο ὑπατοι εἰς ἐκείνην τὴν ἡμέραν, ἐν ἧι ταῦτα γέγραπται, ὀγδοήκοντα τρεἲς, ἱερεἲς 1 πρόσπου ἑκατὸν ἑβδομήκοντα

As always, the full text has been made available by the indefatigable Lacus Curtius.