Digital Sculpture Project: Caligula

Caligula and the Jews: Some Historiographic Reflections Occasioned by Gaius in Polychrome

Steven Fine

Recent research on polychromy has occasioned a wholesale reevaluation of classical art.[1] No longer the staid white phantoms of our neo-classical turned modernist imaginations, classical art has burst forth from its nineteenth and twentieth century frames into the full light of color. In recent years, scholars in Europe and now in the United States have worked actively to colorize the past, analyzing ancient art both through computer scanning and careful art historical connoisseurship. In 2009 I joined a team organized by Bernard Frischer of the University of Virginia and Peter Schertz of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to analyze and reconstruct and interpret the colors of a rare sculpture of the Emperor Gaius, long a part of the VMFA collection (figures 1, 2).[2]

Fig. 1 Fig. 2

Traces of purple were discovered on the rear of the torso, and based upon parallels, reconstructions suggested. We then turned to the "meaning" of this sculpture, and to consider ways that the now-colorized Caligula helps to understand culture in the first century. My task was the Jewish experience. To my surprise, relatively little is written on the relationship between Caligula and the Jews, and to date no monograph has appeared. This essay is my own first reflection on that relationship, as developed through my experience of Caligula in color.

Few characters in Roman history continue to evoke such strong feelings as the emperor Gaius, known as Caligula-- "little boots." In ancient times Caligula was treated with fear and loathing by a broad range of authors, in Greek, Latin and even in Hebrew and Aramaic. In fact, not a single extant ancient author actually has much good to say of Caligula, and even in his lifetime Gaius' sanity was called into question-- a theme that has been amplified through the years-- right up to Robert Graves' I Claudius[3] and the art pornography of Bob Guccione.[4] Attitudes toward Gaius have served as touchstones for modern identity. One nineteenth century Prussian author, for example, was arrested because his biography of Gaius tread too close to questioning the sanity of the autocratic Kaiser Wilhelm II, even as his influential study went into thirty printings.[5] In more recent times, apologists for Gaius have appeared, one author adducing that Caligula was not "insane" as charged, but merely and understandably in his context, "cruel" (try applying that distinction to Hitler, and explaining that to my mother!).[6]

Historians of the Jewish past have had a particularly complicated relationship with Caligula.[7] The Caligula incident bore particular resonance for Jews of the 19th and 20th centuries. In this period of halting (often faltering) Emancipation, the status of the Jews of Alexandria under Rome was a point of pride, if not longing. It need be remembered that Jewry received equal rights at differing speeds and levels of intensity in both Europe and the United States, the process continuing well into the second half of the twentieth century. Even when they achieved equal rights before the law, Jews were often restricted from professions, universities and neighborhoods. As they did with the Spanish Jews of the so-called "Golden Age" which preceded the expulsion of the Jews in 1391[8] and Italian Jewry of the early modern period,[9] this community projected its hopes for the future into the past, imagining a golden age of Alexandrian Jewry.[10] The life of Jewish communal leader, philosopher and historian Philo of Alexandria—a "loyal Jew" who wrote in Greek and "hobnobbed" with the Greek-speaking aristocrats of both pagan Alexandria and Jewish Palestine, was a model to be emulated. He was painted by some as the quintessential reform Jew and by others as the quintessential modern Orthodox Jew—and of course, the Conservative Jews were not far behind. Philo's success in negotiating his identities was a source of pride, developed by Jews of various proclivities as they set out to form their own modern Jewish identities.[11] Few events haunted this group more than the Alexandrian riots and the Caligula incident, where the carefully built network of relationships and rights constructed by a diaspora community under the Ptolemies and the Romans unraveled, and conflict became inevitable. The events of Caligula's reign only reminded them of their own modern vulnerability, and reinforced their worst nightmares--which, of course, were far less horrific than what actually happened under the Third Reich. It is not accidental that in the midst of the Nazi onslaught the great Zionist classicist Hans Yohanan Lewy, having arrived in Jerusalem in 1934, translated and introduced Philo's Flacus and Legatio in the Schocken Library. Published in Berlin, this series was an important form of cultural resistance to the Nazis. Following on Quidde's response to Wilhelm II, Lewy implicitly compared German anti-Semites, first among them Hitler himself, to Caligula and the Alexandrian mobs—while evading Nazi censors.[12] Years later, another Berlin-trained Zionist historian, Victor A. Tcherikover-- writing from Jerusalem in 1960, analogized the modern and ancient situations, referring to "'The Jewish Question in Alexandria."[13] These are only two prominent examples.

The writings of Philo, a participant in our story, and of Josephus (d. ca. 110 CE), who told it twice, in around 75 and again 90 CE, well reflect the ambivalence of the Jewish predicament in the Roman Empire spoke to their modern chroniclers. These authors share a kind of liminal--borderline--status, Philo the Alexandrian aristocrat, comfortable with the ways of Rome, the loyal Jew and leader within his own ethnos, and Josephus, the elite Jerusalem priest and general in the first Jewish Revolt of 66 CE, who became an apologist for both the Flavian emperors and for Jews and Judaism. Their writings exist specifically because late antique and medieval Christian intellectuals found them of use.[14] They were not preserved by Jews, who had long since mostly abandoned Greek—and besides, possessed a rich internally focused literature that didn't need these patrollers of the boundaries (though it was this very liminality that appealed to modern Jewish readers). With some minor divergences, Philo and Josephus tell much the same story, of a time when Greeks living in close proximity to Jews--both in Alexandria and in Jamnia, a Jewish town on the limus-- at the edge of Jewish Palestine in newly-Imperial territory--sensing an opening, attempted to gain an advantage in their relationship with Jews by setting statues of the by-then Divine Gaius (including a bronze sculpture of Gaius driving a quadriga [Legation 135]) within the Alexandrian synagogues and an altar to Gaius within the public area of the Jewish town of Jamnia, Yavneh in Hebrew, on the southern Judaean coast. This escalated, when, in response to the destruction to the Emperor altar in Jamnia set up by Greeks and destroyed by local Jews, Gaius ordained that a statue of himself be set up in the Jerusalem Temple. Reading the accounts of Philo and Josephus in light of the polychrome Copenhagen and Richmond Caligula sculptures, offers a real sense of the terror felt by these Jews as full-size sculptures of the Divine Gaius that came close to appearing life-like were placed in their holy places. Scholars of robotics have suggested this very sense of approximating, but not fully reaching, full humanity causes revulsion or fear in humans.[15] The assertion of authority--closely associated with fear, was certainly a major purpose served by imperial sculpture. To Jews, these were not mere white ghosts, but represented the presence of a usurping "divinity" in a place where only the invisible God of Israel was to hold court.

The fact that the flashpoint of this conflict was a statue of Gaius makes perfect sense in terms of Hellenistic/Roman-Jewish relations in antiquity. From biblical times onward, Israel had distinguished itself in large part by its adherence to one God, and abhorrence of anyone else's. This was a well know Jewish eccentricity, having been noted by Greek authors as early as the 4th century BCE (citations preserved, not coincidentally, only by Josephus!).[16] Hellenistic and then Roman conquest of the East occasioned complex accommodations on both sides, particularly in Palestine, as the rather stringent (and often, increasingly hostile and besieged) demands of Jewish monotheism interacted with colonialist and often brutal imperial regimes that were sometimes deeply antagonistic, at other times accommodating. Jewish self-presentation even had it that the "Rubicon" moment in the life of Father Abraham was the day that he declared that cult statues made by his father Terach false, and he broke them up. In the earliest version of this story, preserved in the book of Jubilees, a sectarian book partially preserved among the Dead Sea Scrolls, Terach admits to the fallacy of his "idols," and leaves with Abram for the promised land.[17] In the next extant version, dating to ca. 400 CE, Terach is as evil as the rest of the people in "Ur of the Chaldeans," and Abram sets out alone.[18] This transformation of Terach in many ways epitomizes Jewish-gentile relations in the holy land, which went from bad to worse with Antiochus IV Epiphanes' attempt (with at least some Jewish aristocratic support) to establish his cult in Jerusalem. Among his sins, I Maccabees (1:46) recounts that the Seleucid commanded "to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals." Antiochus may not have been the only Greek moved to install idolatry in the temple. Mishnah Taanit 4:6, a text redacted around 200 CE, vaguely recalls an otherwise unknown episode when a certain Apostomos "burned the Torah and stood up a statue (צלם) in the shrine" of the temple in an undisclosed year on the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz in the summer. This cultural trauma is listed as one of the reasons that a fast (still observed today) was established yearly on that date.[19]

With the rather unexpected victory of the Hasmoneans against the Seleucids, during the next century the new Jewish kingdom created, according to 1 Maccabees, what I have called a kind of "idolatry free zone" in an enlarged Judaea. Within their expanding domain, the Hasmoneans consciously destroyed "pagan" sites, and also the great temple of the Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim near modern Nablus. Infringement on this zone, as later on in the mixed town of Jamnia under Caligula, was treated by Jews as a grave infraction and profanation of their "holy land." Truth said, pronouncements of the Julio-Claudian emperors (though often, not the actions of their functionaries) were usually quite accommodating--or at least laissez faire, regarding what was perceived as a strange "Jewish superstition." The emperors were cognizant of the central location of Judaea as the land bridge between Egypt and Syria and of the size and interconnectedness of the Jewish diaspora, both in the Empire and, significantly in the enemy Persian Parthian Empire (a place that was far more friendly toward Jews and Judaism than the Greco-Roman world ever was). Controlling the Jews by keeping them "on their side"--while de facto keeping this particularly complex ethnic group off-balance--was thus a useful Imperial strategy—even if this larger end was not always a cognizant goal. Caligula upset the balance at the imperial level, a situation recognized by both Jewish leaders and the Roman general and governor of Syria, Petronius, sent with overwhelming force to enforce Gaius' edict to place his image in the Jerusalem Temple (at first, a marble colossus carved in nearby Sidon, then perhaps a large cast bronze). If anything, Philo's Legation to Gaius--and Josephus' writings after him--are attempts in literary terms to restore the balance, to set Caligula's actions as an infraction of Roman imperial norms (thus Philo's claim of "madness," and Josephus' restraint in not repeating this claim) and the Jews as having maintained their side of a social contract that was enshrined in Roman law, custom and habits.[20]

Jewish-Roman negotiations surrounding the imperial cult are a good example of the ways that this modus vivendi had developed before Caligula. It was natural in the Roman world, and particularly in the eastern empire, to venerate and sacrifice before the image of the Emperor. Jews, of course, would have none of this, and the Ptolemies, followed by Augustus, accepted an accommodation whereby the Jews would pray "for" the ruler in the synagogues, and sacrifice on behalf of the emperor in the Jerusalem Temple. Numerous inscriptions from the Ptolemaic period that reflect this practice are extant. Thus, for example, "On behalf of King Ptolemy and queen Berenice his sister and wife and their children, the Jews (dedicate) the synagogue."[21] In response to such public statements of loyalty, synagogues were protected. In another inscription we read: "On the orders of the queen and king, in place of the previous plaque about the dedication of the synagogue let what is written below be written up. King Ptolemy Euergetes (proclaimed) the synagogue inviolate. The queen and king gave the order."[22]

Veneration of the ruler, after the death of Julius Caesar transformed into the cult of the Emperor, was thus translated into a set of behaviors that were workable for both sides, and the Roman Peace was maintained. In a similar way, Herod the Great, the Roman "King of Judaea" imposed by Augustus, rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple as a distinctly Roman building, reminiscent of a temple of the Imperial cult. Philo even tells that Augustus had "adorned our temple through the costliness of his dedications, and ordered that for all time continuous sacrifices of whole burnt offerings should be carried our every day at his own expense as a tribute to the most high God" (Legation 157). The main difference between Herod's temple and a standard (though particularly fine) Roman imperial Temple (like, for example, the smaller imperial temples he built just outside Jewish territory in Samaria and Caesarea Maritima and at Omrit in the north of Israel) was that there was no actual statue of a deified Emperor in the Temple --though a compromise was apparently effected, whereby a large imperial eagle did decorate the Temple, much to the dislike of at least some of the Jewish population.[23]

This carefully constructed modus vivendi did witness infractions, followed by Jewish and Roman attempts to gird its norms. When Herod was thought to be dead, in 5 BCE (a year before he actually died), for example, young students set out on a seemingly minor "intifada" and tore down the eagle, causing an internal crisis in which they and their teachers were publically executed, but the reigning high priest was replaced.[24] Similarly, when Roman governor Pontus Pilate (ruled 26-36)—famous from the trial and execution of Jesus for the treasonous claim of being "king of the Jews," attempted to set golden plaques that Jews thought might hide a kind of covert idolatry, on the walls of Herod's palace, and on another occasion marching through Judaea with their standards raised in the air (again, usual Roman practice), large numbers of Jews set out to thwart him, and he was punished by Tiberias.[25] This, at least, is what Philo and then Josephus, actors in this historical drama, and not disconnected recorders of the Jewish past, tell us. What we know for sure is that the Jewish polity hated the presence of Roman "idolatry," a stipulation to the relationship that the Empire mostly respected.

The case of Caligula is remembered in the Jewish sources of the subsequent centuries in a very spotty manner, mainly, I think, because it was overpowered by the immensity of Titus' destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and the eventual transformation of the Temple Mount into a temple to Jupiter of the Capitoline in Hadrian's rebuilt city, from the 130's CE known as Aelia Capitolina.[26] Even for Josephus, this event is a weigh station on the long road leading to the destruction of Jerusalem; a near catastrophe, but one averted nonetheless. In its own day, though, the death of Gaius is described by Philo as a manifestation of God's will—even if Philo expressed it more with a sigh of relief than with exuberance in the face of what in the end was a net Jewish success. A Hebrew text of the first century that regulates fasting and expressions of happiness makes special mention of this event. According to Megillat Ta'anit, the "Scroll of Fasts," "On the 22nd thereof [Shevat, roughly January] the deed of the hated one when he commanded to bring it into the naos was cancelled; [One is] not allowed to mourn."[27] Practicing a form of damnatio memoriae that Senators might well have appreciated, this text avoids mention of Gaius' name. A somewhat later text is more explicit: "Simon the Righteous heard from within the Holy of Holies [of the Jerusalem temple]: 'The deed of the hated one when he commanded to bring it into the naos was cancelled.' Caligula has been killed, and his decrees cancelled. He [Simon] heard this [Divine decree] in the Aramaic language."[28] All of this is to say that 22 Shevat 41 CE (not long after Caligula's death date, 24 January 41 CE) was a day of quiet celebration for first century Jews, living under an empire where the maintenance of happy days required some effort!

The beautiful statue of Gaius that stands at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is one of only two that survived a very thorough--if unofficial--Roman damnatio. This sculpture provides a valuable window into what those ancient Jews "saw" in the synagogues of Alexandria, what they feared Caligula would place in the Temple, and what was, visually, at stake. This is all the more so in his colorized near-human state. On a larger level, it allows for reflection on the crisis caused under Gaius, when the delicate fabric of relationships between the colonized Jews and the Imperial Romans broke down on the point that neither Caligula's temperament (whether "evil" or merely "mad") nor Jewish tradition (to the imperial Romans, a "superstition," if a venerable one) provided little wiggle room. The ancient Jewish historians and rabbis who wrote of this event, and the modern Jewish historians who chronicled it, had much to lose from the Caligula affair in terms of the place of the Jewish ethnos within both larger Roman and modern European society. In modern Israel, a nation formed in the shadows of the nineteenth and twentieth century's worst tyrants—on two continents, Caligula is still a potent enough cultural force that he is neutralized—apparently with a chuckle—in a national women's shoe chain named for "little boots" himself.[29] For classicists, Caligula continues to be a touchstone, a place to reflect upon the Roman heritage, and for some, a site to play out a subversive streak against their own Christian culture. When I first saw the Copenhagen Caligula, re-colorized in all his glory in an exhibition at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, I must admit that I gasped.[30] My next thought: "Now I get what they were so upset about!" I hope this short excursus illustrates how one "subaltern," and very literate, colonized people in the Roman world may have responded when they strolled through the forum of Alexandria or perhaps Rome and "saw" the visage of "Caligula in 3-D"--and of the continuing significance of that encounter.


[1]This essay is based upon a lecture at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, December 4, 2011.

[2]203.0 x 67.3 x 49.5 cm. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Arthur and Margaret Glasgow Fund, 71.20.

[3]Robert Graves, I Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Born 10 B.C. Murdered and Deified A.D. 54 (London, A. Barker, 1934), and perhaps more significant, I, Claudius, BBC Television production in association with London Film Productions Limited, Screenplay: Jack Pulman; producer Martin Lisemore, director Herbert Wise (London: British Broadcasting Company, 1976).

[4]William Hawes, Caligula and the Fight for Artistic Freedom: The Making, Marketing and Impact of the Bob Guccione Film (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2009).

[5]Ludwig Quidde, Caligula. Eine Studie über römischen Cäsarenwahnsinn (Leipzig: Wilhelm Friedrich, 1894), The Kaiser's Double, tr. C. Field (London: W Rider & Son, 1915); Karl Holl, Hans Kloft, Gerd Fesser, eds. Caligula - Wilhelm II. und der Caesarenwahnsinn: Antikenrezeption und wilhelminische Politik am Beispiel des "Caligula" von Ludwig Quidde (Bremen: Temmen 2001); Aloys Winterling, Caligula: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California, 2011), 2.

[6]Winterling, Caligula.

[7]See for example, in English, Heinrich Graetz, The History of the Jews, tr. B. Löwy (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1893), 2: 181-90.

[8]Ismar Schorsch, From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism (Hanover and London: Brandeis University Press, 1994), 71-92; Aaron W. Hughes, "The 'Golden Age' of Muslim Spain: Religious Identity and the Invention of a Tradition in Modern Jewish Studies," Historicizing "Tradition" in the Study of Religion, ed. S. Engler and G. P. Grieve (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), 51-74.

[9]Cecil Roth, History of the Jews of Italy (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1946). See my discussion of Salo Baron and his school, below.

[10]E.g. Joseph Modrzejewski, The Jews of Egypt: from Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), xi, xiii.

[11]Eg. Erwin R. Goodenough, The Politics of Philo Judaeus: Practice and Theory (New Haven: Yale, 1938); Samuel Belkin, Philo and the Oral Law: The Philonic Interpretation of Biblical law in Relation to the Palestinian Halakah (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1940); Samuel Sandmel, Philo of Alexandria: An Introduction (New York : Oxford University Press, 1979).

[12]Hans Yohanan Lewy, Von den machterweisen Gottes: eine zeitgenössische darstellung der Judenverfolgungen unter dem kaiser Caligula (Berlin: Schocken, 1935). On this series, see Anthony D. Skinner, "German-Jewish Identity and the 'Schocken Bücherei,'" Arche Noah: de Ideeden Kultur im deutsch-jüdischen Diskurs, eds. B. Greiner, C. Schmidt (Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach Verlag, 2002), 289–303.

[13]Victor A. Tcherikover and Alexander Fuks, Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), 2: 24.

[14]On the Christian appropriation of Josephus: Josephus, the Bible and History, eds. L. H. Feldman and G. Hata (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 315-427. On the Christian appropriation of Philo: David T. Runia, Philo in Early Christian Literature (Assen/Maastricht: Van Gorgum and Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993); idem, Philo and the Church Fathers: A Collection of Papers (Leiden: Brill, 1997).

[15]See, Masahiro Mori, "The Uncanny Valley," Energy, 7, no. 4 (1970), 33-35 (Japanese), tr. K. F. MacDorman and T. Minatofor , posted at: (accessed January, 2013). A More recent study is Jun'ichiro Seyama, "The Uncanny Valley: Effect of Realism on the Impression of Artificial Human Faces," Presence 16, no. 4 (2007), 337-351. My student Caleb Fischer brought the "uncanny valley" to my attention, and is currently studying this phenomenon in relation to Rabbinic attitudes toward the sculptural environment.

[16]This phenomenon was recently discussed by Daniel Barbu, "The Jewish Sacking of Alien Temples. Limits of Toleration in a Comparative Perspective," History of Religions 50, no. 1 (2010), 21-42.

[17]Jubilees 12:1-15, tr. J. VanderKam, The Book of Jubilees, (Louvain: Peeters, 1989).

[18]Ephraim E. Urbach, "The Rabbinical Laws of Idolatry in the Second and Third Centuries in Light of Archaeological and Historical Facts," Israel Exploration Journal 9, nos. 3-4 (1959), 149-65, 229-45.

[19]Daniel Sperber, "Apostomos," Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem: Keter, 1972), 2: 217-8. Louis Ginsberg, "Apostomus," The Jewish Encyclopaedia (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1902), 2: 21-2, identifies Apostomos as Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

[20]See Jason von Ehrenkrook, Sculpting Idolatry in Flavian Rome: (An)iconic Rhetoric in the Writings of Flavius Josephus (Leiden: Brill, 2012), who focuses upon this so-called "(An)Iconic Rhetoric within Josephus, with some reference to Philo.

[21]Jewish Inscriptions of Graeco-Roman Egypt, eds. W. Horbury and David Noy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), no. 22, pp. 35-7.

[22]Jewish Inscriptions of Graeco-Roman Egypt, no. 125, pp. 212-14.

[23]Fine, Art and Judaism, 73-5.

[24]Ibid. See the insightful analysis of Albert Baumgarten, "Herod's Eagle," 'Go Out and Study the Land' (Judges 18:2): Archaeological, Historical and Textual Studies in Honor of Hanan Eshel (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 7-21.

[25]War 2.169-74, Ant. 18.55-9. Fine, Art and Judaism, 75. See von Ehrenkrook, Sculpting Idolatry in Flavian Rome, 107-13, 165-6.

[26]See Yaron Z. Eliav, God's Mountain: The Temple Mount in Time, Place, and Memory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 83-124, and the bibliography cited there.

[27]Megillat Ta'anit: Versions, Interpretation, History, ed. V. Noam (Jerusalem: Yad Yzhak Ben Zvi Institute, 2003), 283-90, Hebrew.

[28]t. Sotah 13:7.

[29] (accessed May, 2012).

[30]The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present, ed. R. Panzanell (Malibu: The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Research Institute, 2008), 110-5.

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