Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Rosy-Fingered Goddess Dawn

A Byzantine historian I know once told me he envied the wealth of primary sources that American historians have to work with, even in under-documented periods like the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Classical historians, he noted, have far fewer sources at their disposal, many of which are fragmentary, and they can assume that no "new" documents on their subject will be discovered in their lifetime.  Americanists, he concluded, can always write a book based on "new" documents, previously unseen by historians, whereas Classicists can only offer new interpretations. With respect to my friend, I must reply that interpretation is the heart of the historical profession, and that new interpretations of old stories are often much more interesting than new stories.

Take, for instance, the case of the Roman Emperor Caligula (12-43 CE), whom Anglo-Americans mainly know (thanks to Robert Graves and Bob Guccione) as an insane and sexually depraved tyrant who impregnated his own sister, then cut out and ate her fetus.  In a new biography (U. of California Press, 2011) of the third Julio-Claudian emperor, Aloys Winterling argues that much of Caligula's apparently crazed behavior was actually a form of political satire, intended to keep a dissembling and sycophantic Senate in check. Caligula famously made his horse a senator, for example, not because he was insane but as a critique of the Senate's self-aggrandizement. Similarly, when Caligula fell ill and a prominent senator offered his life to the gods in exchange for the emperor's, Caligula demanded his suicide, not because he was a crazed tyrant but in order to deter excessive flattery. Flattering the emperor, the author suggests, was the primary way that individual senators jockeyed for power in the early imperial era, but as a result of competition for previous emperors' favor the political "coin" of flattery had become badly inflated and debased, to the point where ambitious senators were offering their lives on the emperor's behalf; in calling the senator's bluff Caligula was trying to "deflate" the currency of flattery and make the surviving senators more reserved in their praise. It is an intriguing argument, and one which makes sense of Caligula's abuse of the Senate; one might add, as reviewer Mary Beard has done (see the link above), that there were no established rules of hereditary succession in the early empire, and that Caligula had reason to assume that the more ambitious senators might be aspiring to the throne. In any event, Caligula died at the hands of several senators, and later imperial historians, such as Suetonius, treated him unkindly in order to flatter his successors by comparison.

What of Caligula's sexual deviancy? Mostly this was made up by Graves, Pulman, and Guccione, of course, though the famous story about his staffing a brothel with noble Roman women appears to have been true. Whether this makes him a tyrant or just a misogynistic asshole I leave to the reader's judgment. Myself, I would like to think he once dressed up as the Goddess Dawn and danced for his uncle Claudius, but regrettably historical reality is not always more interesting than fiction.

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