We’ll stick to just two fabrications today:
- The nickname ‘Caligula’, little boot.
- The three month coma.
|Left: Gaius (12–41 CE) as depicted in antiquity, copy with colour restored by Stiftung Archäologie, Munich, based on particles preserved in the marble (original: Archäologisches Institut der Universität Göttingen). Right: Gaius as reimagined by @royalty_now_ (Becca Saladin).|
1. His name‘Caligula’ rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it? But he wasn’t called that. He was ‘Gaius’. Contemporary writers, later writers, they all called him Gaius. He wasn’t called anything else until three centuries after his death.
The nickname ‘Caligula’ was only when he was a toddler. His father’s soldiers used it when his parents dressed baby Gaius up in miniature military gear. Several sources mention the story —
Caligulae cognomen castrensi ioco traxit, quia manipulario habitu inter milites educabatur.There’s just one reported instance of someone using the nickname when Gaius was an adult. He didn’t like it.
He got the nickname ‘Caligula’ as a bit of fun in camp, because he was brought up among the soldiers wearing military uniform.
Suetonius, Caligula 9.1 (tr. Gainsford)
At idem Gaius omnia contumelias putabat, ut sunt ferendarum inpatientes faciendarum cupidissimi: iratus fuit Herennio Macro, quod illum Gaium salutaverat, nec inpune cessit primipilari quod Caligulam dixerat; hoc enim in castris natus et alumnus legionum vocari solebat, nullo nomine militibus familiarior umquam factus, sed iam Caligulam convicium et probrum iudicabat cothurnatus.Gaius may have been more tolerant when on campaign with the army, we don’t know.
The same Gaius took everything as an insult: those who are keenest on offering them are least tolerant of receiving them. He was angry at Herennius Macer when he greeted him as 'Gaius'. And he didn't let a chief centurion get away with it when he called him 'Caligula': he was born in an army camp and was regularly called that as a favourite of the legions, and that was the name by which he was always most affectionately known to the soldiers. But by now, wearing grown-up shoes, he took 'Caligula' as accusatory and belittling.
Seneca, On constancy 18 (tr. Gainsford)
But this story is even more striking for showing that he didn’t like ‘Gaius’ either. Probably for the same reason: his praenomen may have seemed just as over-familiar as a childhood nickname.
His own preference for a short-form name, I suggest, would probably have been ‘Germanicus’, a cognomen inherited from his father. That’s the name that takes up most space on his coins. And when Gaius renamed the month of September after himself (don’t worry, it didn’t last), ‘Germanicus’ is the name he gave it. But ‘Germanicus’ was too strongly associated with his father — the Germanicus — and Gaius’ reign was too short for him to succeed in co-opting the name for himself. (Suetonius opens his biography of Gaius with a mini-biography of Germanicus. Way to throw shade!)
|An inscription dated to ‘the 17th day before the Kalends of Germanicus’, that is, the 15th of August. The inscription could be from Gaius’ lifetime, or from the reign of Domitian, who renamed September to ‘Germanicus’ too. (CIL xi.5745; photo: Bill Thayer’s website)|
The second half of the 300s is when his name changes. Eutropius introduces him as ‘Gaius Caesar, Caligula by nickname’. Aurelius Victor and the Historia Augusta call him ‘Caligula’ consistently; Orosius calls him ‘Gaius Caligula’. There’s no indication of what it was that prompted the change, other than a general trend of belittling him — the Historia Augusta treats him as a byword for a bad emperor — but someone must have started it.
|Note. Eutropius, Breviarium 7.12; Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 3, epit. 3; Hist. Aug. Marc. Aur. 28.10, Avid. Cass. 8.4, Commodus 10.2, Heliogab. 1.1, 34.1, Aurelian 42.6.; Orosius, Hist. adv. paganos 7.5.5–7.|
|The oldest extant manuscript of Suetonius’ Lives, showing the end of ‘Tiberius’ and the heading for ‘Caligula’. (Cod. Paris. lat. 6115, 9th cent.)|
2. His coma
To decide whether Caligula was mad is a problem which requires a much fuller and more thorough discussion than it can be given here. For the moment, it is enough to recognize that the illness of September A.D. 37 was purely physical. Let us hope that the myth of Caligula’s ‘nervous breakdown’ can now be consigned to the oblivion it so richly deserves.Such sadly unprophetic words. If only it were consigned to oblivion. If only, if only.
Morgan 1973: 329
But it isn’t. It has been revived bloody well yet again by a Netflix docudrama series, which determinedly ignores everything that actual historians have said about Gaius over the last half century, in favour of the most sensationalist nonsense they could find.
The series depicts Gaius becoming ill and falling into a coma for three months. This illness is what supposedly damages his sanity and turns him into a cartoon villain.
The death of Tiberius vaults Caligula to power as Rome’s new emperor, a role at which he initially excels — until an illness unhinges his mind.All right, the illness was real. The coma and the unhinging ... were not.
Roman Empire, blurb for S03E02 ‘A new hope’ (2019)
No ancient source says that his supposed madness was caused by illness. No ancient source says that his illness provoked any kind of transformation of character. No ancient source says that he suffered from headaches. No ancient source describes any symptoms of his illness. No ancient source mentions a coma, let alone a coma lasting three months. It’s all 20th century supposition.
|Caligula (John Hurt) begins having headaches, a symptom of his supposed mental illness, watched anxiously by his sister Drusilla (Beth Morris). BBC, I Claudius (1976), episode 9 ‘Zeus, by Jove!’ The story is based on Robert Graves’ novel (1934), but even Graves, creative though he was, didn’t make up the headaches: they were invented for the TV series.|
- combination of alcoholism and epilepsy (Jerome 1923: 419)
- schizophrenia, or ‘dementia praecox’ (Esser 1958: 134–136)
- encephalitis lethargica, or ‘sleeping sickness’ (Sandison 1958)
- psychopathy (Lucas 1967)
- thyrotoxicosis (Katz 1972, 1977)
- an anxiety disorder (Massaro and Montgomery 1978)
- interictal temporal lobe epilepsy (Benediktson 1989)
- herpetic encephalitis (Ferreira Camargo and Ghizoni Teive 2018)
That. Is. All. No coma. No epileptic seizures.
Everything else is a crumbly edifice built on a hodgepodge of details strewn across all the rest of Gaius’ lifespan. Suetonius mentions that he suffered from comitialis morbus as a child, a sickness characterised by lethargy: the phrase is sometimes translated as epilepsy, but it’s very inexact, and it was confined to his childhood in any case. Katz’ diagnosis of hyperthyroidism relies very heavily on Suetonius’ physical description of Gaius, a description that is demonstrably false (Morgan 1973; notwithstanding Katz’ denial of this when he revisited the subject in 1977). The headaches invented for the 1976 BBC series I, Claudius are surely based on Sandison’s theory of encephalitis: that must also be where the coma story comes from. (Though it’s also possible that the headaches are an attribution error: there’s some indication that the dictator Julius Caesar suffered from migraines.)
The idea of a transformation in Gaius’ character comes from Philo’s report that he became licentious upon becoming emperor, and that he returned to licentiousness and savagery after recovering from the illness. That is, as far as Philo is concerned, the illness was an interruption to the licentiousness: and the licentiousness caused the illness, not the other way round.
If you want a reliable account of Gaius, don’t rely on Netflix. I don’t particularly recommend Stephen Dando-Collins’ 2019 book either: he at least doesn’t make things up, but it’s still terribly sensationalist. For a balanced treatment, which doesn’t play up Gaius’ supposed insanity, and which doesn’t downplay his corruption either, the best is still Anthony Barrett’s Caligula: the abuse of power (2015, 1st edition 1989).
Here’s Philo’s description of the illness. This is as much detail as we get. Take a look and see if you think it justifies a diagnosis of rare forms of encephalitis or epilepsy.
But in the eighth month Gaius was struck down by severe sickness. He had exchanged the recent more homely and, therefore, healthier way of life which he had followed while Tiberius was alive, for one of extravagance. Hard drinking, luxurious feeding and appetites still unsatisfied when the cavities were stuffed full, hot baths, ill-timed, and acting as emetics, followed at once by renewed toping and gormandizing in its train, lasciviousness venting itself on boys and women, and everything else that can destroy soul and body and the bonds in both which keep them together, joined in the assault. Self-restraint is rewarded by strength and health, incontinence by infirmity and sickness bordering on death.Now, there are plenty of lurid things to say about Gaius that are solidly grounded in Philo’s and Suetonius’ testimony. Maybe at a later date we’ll come back and look at the business of Gaius’ horse Incitatus, or his supposed declaration of war on the god Neptune. Suetonius’ stories aren’t remotely trustworthy, but still, he does at least attest these things.
Philo, Embassy to Gaius 14 (tr. Colson)
But you can’t base any kind of sensible diagnosis on Philo’s vague description. Reading through these articles by modern pathologists feels like watching one of the crazier episodes of House, M.D. Real life isn’t like that.
Or if it is, then I’ll finish by offering my own diagnosis: clearly, it must have been lupus. It’s always lupus.
- Barrett, A. A. 2015 . Caligula. The abuse of power (orig. Caligula. The corruption of power). Routledge.
- Benediktson, D. T. 1989. ‘Caligula’s madness: madness or interictal temporal lobe epilepsy?’ Classical World 82.5: 370–375.
- Esser, A. 1958. Cäsar und die julisch-claudischen Kaiser im biologisch-ärztlichen Blickfeld. Brill.
- Ferreira Camargo, C. H.; Ghizoni Teive, H. A. 2018. ‘Searching for neurological diseases in the Julio-Claudian dynasty of the Roman empire.’ Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria 76.1: 53–57.
- Jerome, T. S. 1923. Aspects of the study of Roman history. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
- Katz, R. S. 1972. ‘The illness of Caligula.’ Classical World 65.7: 223–225.
- —— 1977. ‘Caligula’s illness again.’ Classical World 70.7: 451.
- Lucas, J. 1967. ‘Un empereur psychopathe. Contribution à la psychologie du Caligula de Suétone.’ L’antiquité classique 36: 159–189.
- Massaro, V.; Montgomery, I. 1978. ‘Gaius — mad, bad, ill, or all three?’ Latomus 37.4: 894-909.
- Morgan, M. G. 1973. ‘Caligula’s illness again.’ Classical World 66.6: 327–329.
- Sandison, A. T. 1958. ‘The madness of the emperor Caligula.’ Medical History 2.3: 202–209.