Digital Sculpture Project: Caligula

Caligula Now: Displaying Caligula to a 21st Century Audience

Peter Schertz

As the curator in charge of the ancient art collection and, therefore, responsible for the display and interpretation of VMFA's statue of Gaius, I am often asked, "Was he really like that?" Like what? Did he really declare himself a god, did he really sleep with his sisters, did he really make his horse a senator (no, he didn't, and it was the consulship he threatened his poor horse with, not the senate; see Suetonius Caligula 55.3)? Where do people get these notions? As a classicist who grew up to be an art historian, I would love to believe that they have been reading their Suetonius or Philo or Josephus – or any ancient source on Caligula – but on the whole, probably most visitors to today's museums are not well-versed in ancient biographies and histories or even such recent biographies of Caligula as those by Aloys Winterling, Sam Wilkinson and Anthony Barrett, discussed elsewhere in this volume by John Pollini and Vasily Rudich. For the most part, it is probably safe to assume that the museum audience's image of Caligula is formed by his portrayal in popular culture. The questions I therefore wish to explore in this paper concern the image contemporary viewers bring to their encounter with an ancient depiction of Caligula, in particular why has this emperor, who ruled for only four years and had very few concrete positive accomplishments during his reign, assumed such a prominent place in our culture?[1]

The image is generally negative and, as I mentioned, frequently features horses, incest, and cruelty. For some reason, these qualities seem to have made Caligula one of the most easily remembered of Rome's rulers, and while I cannot quantify that statement, it is telling that in advertising a DVD entitled When Rome Ruled National Geographic declares "From iconic figures, including Caligula, Caesar, and Constantine, to epic events such as the eruption of Vesuvius, the invasion of Britain, and the fall of Rome, When Rome Ruled challenges our perception of what we know about the Romans."[2] Of all the noble Romans of old that National Geographic's copywriter could have chosen, from Romulus and Remus to Romulus Augustulus, the advertisement lists three – and Caligula is the first in the list! Not Augustus, the founder of the imperial system; not Hadrian, the aesthetician; not Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher; but Caligula. But what does he signify on that list beyond – like Caesar and Constantine – being a recognizable name? I would suggest that he stands for an image of Rome as a fascinating but decadent and immoral society and that Caligula came to represent this view of Rome owing to two depictions of him in the 1970s.

The first and by far the more genteel (although nonetheless racy) depiction of Caligula that penetrated the popular culture is the BBC production of I, Claudius, which first aired in 1976 and starred Derek Jacobi as Claudius and John Hurt as Caligula.[3] The second major depiction of Caligula in popular culture is the infamous 1979 film Caligula, produced by the founder of Penthouse Magazine, Bob Guccione, and starring Malcolm McDowell, Sir John Gielgud, and Dame Helen Mirren.[4] In neither I, Claudius nor Caligula is the emperor portrayed with sympathy, subtlety, or as much more than an out-of-control and rather perverse tyrant – in other words, both productions follow the general image of Caligula created by his ancient biographers and this is the image most people have of him today.

While these may be the best known depictions of Caligula in recent popular culture, they are far from the only ones. I have come across story lines from the 1980s underground comic book Judge Dredd entitled Judge Caligula (in which Caligula, chief judge of Megacity, threatens to make his goldfish a Judge, Megacity's highest magistrate);[5] a hip hop artist named "Caligula" (who released a 2010 solo album called Caligula – Divine Madness featuring such songs as "Caligulanity 2003 (Remix)," "A Living God," and "Dysfunctional Family");[6] a rather eccentric book by the cultural historian Stephen Barber entitled Caligula: Divine Carnage – Atrocities of the Roman Emperors (with a forward signed by "James Havoc").[7] There are at least three recent novels in English featuring Caligula: John A. Schmidt's The Gardens of Lucullus: A Novel of Caligula's Rome (1982); Allan Massie's Caligula (2004); and Douglas Jackson's Caligula (2009). Of these, Massie at least tries to follow the ancient sources and is familiar with the recent revisionist treatments of these sources discussed by Pollini and Rudich in this volume.[8] Schmidt, on the other hand, writing in the early 1980s, appears to have been more strongly influenced by the films Caligula and I, Claudius than by the ancient sources and assigns a major role in Caligula's assassination to Valeria Messalina (the future wife of Emperor Claudius), extending his novel well into the reign of Claudius in order to encompass Messalina's activities as empress (especially her notorious competition with a prostitute, whom Schmidt identifies as Pyrallis). Jackson treats Caligula almost as a secondary character who, nonetheless, establishes the tone of corruption that permeates the novel. In addition to the novels (as well as Robin Price's Catligula, part of the Spartapuss series about a Rome run by cats[9]), the past decade has seen no fewer than two English-language musicals referencing Caligula in their titles: Caligula: An Ancient Glam Epic, with music, book, and lyrics by Eric Svejcar was apparently a finalist for a Richard Rodgers award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[10] The second is Caligula Maximus, performed in 2012 in Brooklyn at the House of Yes and produced by Stephen Pevner.[11] There is also at least one Spanish-language musical of Caligula, first produced in 1983 and popular enough to be revived in Chile in 2008.[12]

Caligula's role in popular culture dates back at least three hundred years to the play Caligula: A Tragedy, written by John Crowne in 1698 and dedicated to Henry Sydney, First Earl of Romney. Henry Sydney was one of the authors of the Invitation to William, a letter written by seven prominent Englishmen asking William III of Orange to take the throne of England and ensure that the nation was ruled by Protestants after the exile of James II. In his preface to the play, Crowne thanks Henry Sydney for his role in the Glorious Revolution, especially as the Invitation to William was written during a reign, according to Crowne, "when the least opposition to unlimited power, was judg'd an unpardonable Crime." Crowne's goal in writing the play (again, according to his dedicatory letter to Henry Sydney), was to "set Tyranny before the Eyes of the World, and the dreadfull Consequences of lawless and boundless power." Crowne, in other words, used Caligula's reign to explore the danger tyrants represent to society and, in keeping with the England of his times, was not averse to criticizing the priesthood:

"Tyrants and priests in mysteries abound.
Perhaps their arts will not the light endure,
They strike most awe, like temples, when obscure." (Act I, see p. 362).

Some hundred and thirty years after Crowne's use of the Caligula story to reflect on the nature of tyranny, two plays were performed in France that also took Caligula as their theme and that were also written soon after a change of regime.[13] The first, by Charles D'Outrepont, explored both the tyranny of Caligula and the decadence of Rome, with D'Outrepont declaring in his preface: "The reign of Gaius Caligula proves something incontestable in my view: that the Romans deserved this monster. When a people is spineless enough that for three years it supports the same tyranny, I am much more inclined to despise than to decry it; but I necessarily accept that generous hearts have worked to throw off the yoke."[14] Clearly, D'outrepont was extolling the July revolution and the French willingness to overthrow unpopular leaders and replace them with other leaders (who were, at least in theory, more democratic). Thus, it appears that one legacy of Caligula's rule – and downfall – was that it became paradigmatic of tyranny and, by extension, his assassination became a paradigm of the justifiable overthrow of a government.[15]

A second theatrical exploration of Caligula at this time was by Alexandre Dumas, author of such novels as the Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas was inspired to write a play on Caligula by the fame of a performing horse with the Cirque Franconi, who would have played Caligula's horse, Incitatus. Unfortunately, the horse died, but Dumas' showmanship lived on, and he reworked his play to tell the story of Christian persecution in Rome. Dumas apparently discussed this with Pope Gregory XVI, who noted that the earliest persecutions of Christians in Rome are thought to have taken place during the reign of Nero; Dumas referred to a folk tradition that allowed him to stretch historical truth, which satisfied the pope's objections. In the play, Caligula orders that a young woman, Stella, be tortured and killed. Stella, though originally from Baiae, had spent time in southern France, where she had converted to Christianity. In Dumas' play, Stella's lover, Aquila, assassinates Caligula to avenge Stella.

Dumas is apparently the first author to discuss Caligula in connection with early Christianity, a trope that reappears in the 1982 film Caligola: la storia mai raccontata, starring Laura Gemser, the actress of the Black Emanuelle soft-core porn movies of the 1970s.[16] To make the link between Caligula and the persecution of early Christians in Rome, Dumas relied upon a tradition that Mary Magdalene had been shipwrecked on the coast of Gaul soon after Jesus' death. For those of you who know your conspiracy theories, the story of this shipwreck is perhaps best known today via Dan Brown's blockbuster best-seller The Da Vinci Code (2003), which itself seems to have drawn heavily from the ostensibly non-fiction book Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982), by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, Henry Lincoln.[17]

Dumas' Caligula is unusual in that it is primarily a story of early Christian faith and not an indictment, à la Crowne, of tyranny and tyrants or of the Senatus Populusque Romanus à la D'Outrepont. There are a number of twentieth century renderings of Caligula. Those from the early decades of the twentieth century are perhaps driven by two impulses: On the one hand, there is the history of tyranny and dictatorship in the twentieth century, which led to an interest in and re-evaluation of past tyrants; on the other hand, there is the development of psycho-analysis and the desire to explore human behavior, especially the extremes of behavior. Among Anglophones, the best known literary renderings of Caligula's life and reign are Robert Graves' novels I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina (1935), upon which the BBC series I, Claudius was based. Graves' I, Claudius first appeared in 1934, the same year that J.P.V.D. Balsdon published his biography The Emperor Caligula.[18] These books exemplify two quite distinct streams of the twentieth century reflection in Caligula. Balsdon, as he himself acknowledged, partook of the apologetic re-evaluation of Caligula's reign rooted in the work of Hugo Willrich's 1903 article in Klio.[19] Graves presented a much more lurid image of Caligula, in part because his was a literary work and in part because he used the ancient sources far less critically than Balsdon had. Lurking behind both these works, written in the early 1930s, is the rise of modern fascism in Italy, Germany, and Spain and it is perhaps not a surprise that Graves in particular explores the process by which republican liberties – and the longing for those liberties – are overwhelmed by an increasingly autocratic and unbridled system of government.

A third rendering of the Caligula story dating from the 1930s is the play by Albert Camus, first performed in Paris in 1945 but begun as early as 1938. Camus' play provides a key for understanding several of the phenomena that underlie later cinematic and literary depictions of Caligula. Among these phenomena are the exploration of Caligula as a man who knows no limits on either his power or imagination and the exploration of Caligula's psychology as Camus, more than any of the earlier writers on Caligula, seeks to portray him as a complex and conflicted character capable of both self-reflection and philosophizing. This more human Caligula causes different reactions in the other characters in the play. Thus, the character of Scipio, whose father Caligula has killed, withdraws from the conspiracy to kill Caligula because "something within me resembles him…I cannot choose because in addition to what I suffer, I grieve what he grieves. I understand everything" (Act IV, scene 1); on the other hand, Chaerea, who leads the conspiracy, is only able to kill Caligula because "I have silenced in me what could resemble him" (Act IV, scene 1).[20] Thus, both characters see Caligula as human and Chaerea, in order to kill him, must distance himself from Caligula's humanity. Chaerea also declares that Caligula's greatest crime, and what would give him the strength to kill Caligula even if he had committed no other crime, is that he has succeeded (in Chaerea's eyes) in disheartening Scipio and driving "a young soul to despair." What underlies Caligula's actions in the play, however, is that he is (in his own eyes), "the only free man in this empire" (Act I, scene 11), a motif that recurs in a number of later depictions of him (for instance in Schmidt's Gardens of Lucullus). As Chaerea recognizes, Caligula's freedom comes about because he has "unlimited power," something other people in Rome have had but Caligula is the first man to use that unlimited power "without constraints; to deny the existence of mankind and the world" (Act II, scene 2).

It is this conjunction of unlimited power permitting unlimited freedom that I believe underlies much of the fascination with Caligula in contemporary culture. What, other than an expression of unbridled excess, is Brass's Caligula, a movie described in equally unbridled (albeit tongue-in-cheek) language in the forward of Stephen Barber and Jeremy Reed's Caligula: Divine Carnage – Atrocities of the Roman Empire as "the cinematic holocaust of Tinto Brass' blood-splattered porno epic Caligula"? While this movie is, indeed, conventionally treated as a "porno epic," it belongs to a very specific sub-category of cinematic pornography, what might be called "art house porn," with a script written by Gore Vidal (although the script was so altered that Vidal successfully sued to have his name removed from the titles), directed by Tinto Brass (considered at that time an avant-garde film-maker; like Vidal, he, too, disassociated himself from the final film) and music by the Armenian-Soviet composer Aram Katchaturian (who probably had little say about his association with the film).[21] It is a sub-category that includes such films as Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 film Salò, also known as 120 Days of Sodom and based on the book of that title by the Marquis de Sade as well as Luchino Visconti's 1969 film The Damned, an early expression of what the sociologist and film historian Lynn Rapaport describes as the Italian cinema's "Nazi porn concept."[22] Thus, Visconti's film is related, if not an actual example, of a Nazi sexploitation (Nazisploitation) film.[23] While far removed from Caligula, the connection between Nazism and Caligula was made explicit in the English title of another Italian Nazisploitation movie, L'ultima orgia del III Reich, known as "Caligula Reincarnated as Hitler."[24]

That title gets to one of the most important functions of the name Caligula in modern culture: Caligula is the stand-in for the ultimate evil. As Camus notes, Caligula used his power to deny the existence of mankind and the world. He, however, lived two-thousand years ago, and to use his name is "safe" – he no longer offends in the same way that the name Hitler offends. To invoke the name "Caligula" is still to rebel against society conventions, whether for the maker of art-house porn, a sex-laden musical, a hip-hop artist, or, even an academic eager to challenge the image of Caligula history gives us. Caligula is transgressive, but he is no longer taboo.


Balsdon, J.P.V.D., The Emperor Gaius (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934).

Barber, Stephen and Jeremy Reed, Caligula: Divine Carnage. London: The Tears Corporation/Creation, 2001.

Bastién, Sophie, Caligula et Camus: Interférences transhistoriques (Amsterdam and New York: Editions Rodopi, 2006).

Camus, Albert, The Misunderstanding and Caligula : two plays by Albert Camus, translated by Christopher Williams (West Hobart, Tasmania: Knocklofty Press, 2008).

D'Outrepont, Charles, Caius Caligula, drame en cinq actes (Pairs: Chez Firmin Didot Fréres, Libraires, 1833).

Graves, Robert, I, Claudius (London: Arthur Barker, 1934).

Price, Robin, Catligula (Mogzilla Books, 2005).

Quidde, Ludwig. Caligula. Eine Studie über römischen Caesarenwahnsinn (1894).

Rapaport, Lynn, "Holocaust Pornography: Profaning the Sacred in Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS," in Sara Butsworth and Maartje Abbenhuis (eds.), Monsters in the Mirror: Representations of Nazism in Post-War Popular Culture (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO LLC, 2010) 101-130.

Stiglegger, Marcus, "Cinema beyond Good and Evil? Nazi Exploitation in the Cinema of the 1970s and Its Heritage," in Daniel H. Magilow, Elizabeth Bridges, and Kristin T. Vander Lugt (eds.), Nazisploitation: The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012) 22-37.

von Dassanowsky, Robert, "The Third Reich as Bordello and Pigsty: Between Neodecadence and Sexploitation in Tinto Brass's Salon Kitty" in Daniel H. Magilow, Elizabeth Bridges, and Kristin T. Vander Lugt (eds.), Nazisploitation: The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012) 115-133.

Wagner, John, The Complete Judge Caligula (Chronicles of Judge Dredd), parts 1-2, illustrated by Brian Bolland and Mike McMahon (London: Titan Books, 1991).

Williams, Christopher, Albert Camus, The Misunderstanding and Caligula (West Hobart, Tasmania: Knocklofty Press, 2008).


[1]This seems to be a general phenomenon; for a parallel, see a discussion of the influence of fictionalized histories of the Shoah on perceptions of that event: Marcus Stiglegger, "Cinema beyond Good and Evil? Nazi Exploitation in the Cinema of the 1970s and Its Heritage" in Daniel H. Magilow, Elizabeth Bridges, and Kristin T. Vander Lugt (eds.), Nazisploitation: The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012), 22-37.

[2]National Geographic Holiday 2011 Catalog, p. 5.

[3]Herbert Wise (director), I, Claudius (British Broadcasting Corp., 1976).

[4]Tinto Brass, Bob Guccione Giancarlo Lui (directors), Caligula (Penthouse Films International, Felix Cinematografica, 1979).

[5]John Wagner (author), Brian Bolland and Mike McMahon (illustrators), The Complete Judge Caligula (Chronicles of Judge Dredd), parts 1-2 (1982; London: Titan Books, 1991)

[6]Caligula, Caligula: Divine Madness. Krecik Entertainment, 2010.

[7]Stephen Barber and Jeremy Reed, Caligula: Divine Carnage. London: The Tears Corporation/Creation, 2001.

[8]For instance, when the narrator discusses the bridge Caligula built between Baiae and Puteoli, he declares, "One should never underestimate the credulity of the public – or the credulity of the intellectuals. I sometimes think they will believe anything. How else to explain the eagerness with which so many repeated – and, for all I know, still repeat – that story about the prophecy Thrasyllus made to Tiberius?... In fact Gaius had a good reason for this exercise. It wasn't a caper. It was an experiment. And it had a purpose, or rather a double purpose. It was first a training exercise for the corps of military engineers which Tiberius had created but which had seldom been displayed…[Second] he would pursue his father's work, achieve the triumph which the caution of Tiberius had denied Germanicus, complete the conquest of Germany, and extend the bounds of Empire…" (Massie, Caligula, 138-39).

[9]Robin Price, Catligula (United Kingdom: Mogzilla Books, 2005).

[10]See (last accessed 20 December 2012).

[11]See (last accessed 20 December 2012).

[12]Pepe Cibrián Campoy (book), Angel Mahler (music). Caligula: un nuevo musical For a video clip of a 2008 production, see: (last accessed 20 December 2012).

[13]In general, for the pre-Camus depictions of Caligula, see Sophie Bastién, Caligula et Camus: Interférences transhistoriques (Amsterdam and New York: Editions Rodopi, 2006), 63-85.

[14]Charles D'Outrepont, Caius Caligula, drame en cinq actes (Pairs: Chez Firmin Didot Fréres, Libraires, 1833 [rpt]), v. Ludwig Quidde, the German pacifist, took a similar position in his 1894 pamphlet Caligula. Eine Studie über römischen Caesarenwahnsinn, which was read (despite his denial of such a reading at his trial for lèse majesté) as an implicit criticism of the rule of Kaiser Wilhelm II (for an English translation of the pamphlet, see: (last accessed 24 December 2012).

[15]I know of no mentions of Caligula with reference to either the American or the French revolutions of the eighteenth century. One wonders whether this has some connection to the aims of those revolutions – in both America and France (at least initially), there was a change of the system of government, while the Glorious Revolution and the July Revolution saw changes in the leadership of the government (i.e., they more closely resemble the replacement of Caligula with Claudius).

[16]Joe D'Amato, Caligola, la storia mai raccontata (Metaxa Corporation, 1982) (released on DVD as Caligula: The Untold Story, Woodhaven Entertainment, 2004).

[17]The authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail sued Random House, the publisher of the Da Vinci Code, in 2005 (see, last accessed 30 November 2011); Brown does mention the success of Holy Blood, Holy Grail in Chapter 60.

[18]Robert Graves, I, Claudius (London: Arthur Barker, 1934); J.P.V.D. Balsdon, The Emperor Gaius (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934).

[19]H. Willrich, "Caligula", Klio 3 (1903) 85-118, 288-317, 397-470.

[20]I use the translation by Christopher Williams: Albert Camus, The Misunderstanding and Caligula (West Hobart, Tasmania: Knocklofty Press, 2008).

[21]This was Brass' second venture into what I have termed art-house porn, following his 1976 film Salon Kitty, a Nazisploitation film (see Robert von Dassanowsky, "The Third Reich as Bordello and Pigsty: Between Neodecadence and Sexploitation in Tinto Brass's Salon Kitty" in Daniel H. Magilow, Elizabeth Bridges, and Kristin T. Vander Lugt (eds.), Nazisploitation: The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2012), 115-133; Dassanowsky refers (pp. 115 and 131, n. 1) to Raymond Durgnat's term for the same movies, "Eurodecadence." The specifically Italian films of the Nazisploitation genre are often discussed with the term "il sadiconazista," see Stiglegger, "Cinema beyond Good and Evil?," 27.

[22]Lynn Rapaport, "Holocaust Pornography: Profaning the Sacred in Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS" in Sara Butsworth and Maartje Abbenhuis [eds.] Monsters in the Mirror: Representations of Nazism in Post-War Popular Culture (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO LLC, 2010), 104.

[23]On Nazisploitation, see the essays in Magilow, Bridges, and Vander Lugt (eds.), Nazisploitation 2012.

[24]Cesare Canevari, L'Ultima orgia del III reich (Cine Lu. Ce., 1976); the film was apparently banned in the U.K. and has appeared under several titles, see (last accessed 24 December 2012).

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