Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

An Imperial Monster

A being, half monster, half madman, had come to empire in Rome. This was Caius Cæsar, great-grandson of Augustus, who in his short career as emperor displayed a malignant cruelty unsurpassed by the worst of Roman emperors, and a mad folly unequalled by any. The only conceivable excuse for him is mental disease; but insanity which takes the form of thirst for blood, and is combined with unlimited power, is a spectacle to make the very gods weep. We describe his career as the most exaggerated instance on record of mingled folly and malignity.

Brought up in the camp, he was christened by the soldiers Caligula, from the soldier's boots (caligæ)  which he wore. By shrewd dissimulation he preserved his life through the reign of Tiberius, and was left heir to the throne along with the emperor's grandson. But, deceiving the senate by his pretended moderation, he was appointed by that body sole emperor.

They little knew what they did. Tiberius, who appears to have read him truly, spoke of educating him "for the destruction of the Roman people," and Caligula seemed eager to make these words good. At first, indeed, he seemed generous and merciful, mingling this affection with a savage profligacy and voluptuousness. Illness, however, apparently affected his brain or destroyed what little moral nature he possessed, and he quickly embarked on a career of frightful excess and barbarity.

The great wealth left by Tiberius—over twenty-five million dollars—was expended by him in a single year, and to gain new funds he taxed and robbed his subjects to an incredible extent. One of his methods of finance was to force wealthy citizens to gamble with him for enormous sums, and when they lost their all (they dared not win), he would make their lives the stake and bid their friends redeem them. In addition to this open robbery of the rich, taxes of all sorts were laid and unlimited oppressions enforced. The new edicts of the emperor were written so small and posted so high as to be unreadable, yet no excuse of ignorance of the law was admitted in extenuation of a fault.

The funds obtained by such oppressive means were lavished on the most extravagant follies. We are told of loaves of solid gold set before his guests, and the prows of galleys adorned with diamonds. His favorite horse was kept in an ivory stable and fed from a golden manger, and when invited to a banquet at his own table was regaled with gilded oats, served in a golden basin of exquisite workmanship.

In addition to these domestic follies, he built villas and laid out gardens without regard to cost; and, that he might vie with Xerxes, he constructed a bridge of ships three miles long, from Baiæ to Puteoli, on which he built houses and planted trees. This madness was concluded by throwing a great many of his guests from the bridge into the sea, and by driving recklessly with his war-galley through the throng of boats that had gathered to witness the spectacle.

These cruelties were mild compared with his more deliberate ones. Rome was filled with executions, the estates of his victims being confiscated; and it was his choice delight to have these victims tortured and slain in his presence while at dinner, the officers being bidden to protract their sufferings, that they might "feel themselves die." On one occasion he expressed the mad wish that all the Roman people had but one neck, that he might strike it off at a blow.

Priding himself on the indifference with which he could gaze on human torture, it was one of his enjoyments to witness criminals torn to pieces by wild beasts, and if criminals proved scarce he did not hesitate to order some of the spectators to be thrown into the arena. In the same manner, if a full supply of gladiators was wanting, he would command Roman knights to battle in the arena, taking delight in the fact that this was viewed as an infamous pursuit. He kept two lists containing names of knights and senators whom he intended to put to death, and these contained the majority of both those bodies of Roman patricians. He is said to have put one man to death for being better dressed than himself, and another for being better looking.

He married more wives than he had years of empire; but when one of these wives, Drusilla by name, died, he affected the bitterest grief, exiling himself to Sicily, and letting his beard and hair grow into wild disorder. On his return to Rome his subjects found themselves in a dangerous quandary. Those who made a show of sadness were declared guilty of disrespect to the memory of the queen, who had been translated to the joys of heaven. Those who seemed glad were adjudged equally guilty for not mourning her loss. And those who showed neither joy nor sorrow were accused of criminal indifference to his feelings. One man, who sold warm water in the streets, was sentenced to death for daring to pursue his occupation on so solemn an occasion.

At a loss, as it would appear, in what madness next to indulge, Caligula finally not only declared himself a god, but erected a temple to his own divinity, and created a college of priests to serve at his altar. Among these were some of the first senators of Rome, who vied with each other in adulation to this impious wretch. Not content with these, he made his wife a priest, then his horse, and at length became a priest to himself. He played with the dignities of the realm in the same manner as with its religion, raised the ministers of his lusts to the highest offices, and finally went so far as to make his horse a consul of Rome.

In his position as a deity he pretended to be equal to and on friendly terms with Jupiter, and would whisper in the ears of his statue as if they were in familiar intercourse. He had a machine constructed to vie with Jupiter's thunder, and during the lightning of a storm would challenge the god to mortal combat by hurling stones into the air.

This succession of mad frolics and ruthless cruelties should, it would seem, have satisfied even a Caligula, but he managed to overtop them all by a supreme piece of folly, which stands alone among human freaks. Hitherto his doings had been those of peace; he now resolved to gain glory in war, and show the Romans what a man of soldierly mettle they had in their emperor. There were no particular wars then afoot, but he would make one, and resolved on an invasion of Germany, whose people were at that time quiet subjects or allies of Rome.

To decide with him was to act. The army was ordered to prepare with the utmost haste, and was driven so fiercely that all was in confusion, the roads everywhere being blocked up with hurrying troops and great convoys of provisions, all converging rapidly on the line of march. Not waiting their arrival, he put himself at the head of the first legions gathered, and set out on the march with such furious speed that the legionaries were utterly exhausted with fatigue. Then, suddenly changing his mood, he affected the slow progress and military pomp of an Oriental king.

On reaching the borders of Germany the emperor found no foes and showed no fancy for fighting. Concealing some boys in a wood, he got up a mock battle with them, and at its end congratulated the troops on their valor and felicitated himself on his success. Next, the British island being still under process of conquest, he marched his army, two hundred thousand strong, to the sea-shore of Gaul, and drew them up in line of battle. The legionaries stolidly obeyed, wondering in their stern souls what new madness the emperor had in mind.

They were soon to know. He bade them to fill their helmets with sea-shells, "the spoils of the ocean due to the Capitol and the palace." Then he distributed large sums of money among the troops, giving a reward for valor to each, and bidding them "henceforth to be happy and rich."

This was all well for the army, but the people of Rome must be impressed with the glory and victorious success of their emperor. Such a career was worthy a triumph; and to the German hostages and criminals, destined to figure in the procession to the Capitol, he added a number of tall and martial Gauls, chosen without regard to rank or condition, whom he ordered to learn German, that they might pass for German captives.

And now, his military expedition having ended without shedding the blood of a foe, Caligula's insane thirst for blood arose, and he determined to glut it out of the ranks of his own army. There were in it some regiments which had mutinied against his father on the death of Augustus. He ordered these to be slaughtered for their crime. Some of his higher officers representing to him the danger of such a proceeding, he changed his mind, and gave orders that these legions should be decimated. But the whole army showed such symptoms of discontent with this cruel order that Caligula was seized with consternation, and fled in a panic to Rome.

On reaching the city the senate proved bold enough to vote him an ovation instead of the triumph on which he had set his mind. Incensed at this, he met the advances of the patricians with stinging insults, and perhaps determined in his mind to be deeply revenged for this premeditated slight.

Whatever he had in view, he did not live much longer to afflict mankind. Four months more brought him to the end of his flagitious career. There was a brave soldier of the palace guard, Cassius Chærea by name, who happened to have a weak voice, and whom Caligula frequently insulted in public for this fault of nature. These insults in time grew heavier and viler than the veteran could bear, and he organized a conspiracy with a few others against the emperor's life. Meeting him without guards, the conspirators assailed him with their daggers and put an end to his base life.

Thus died, after twenty-nine years of life and four years of power, one of the vilest, cruellest, and maddest of the imperial demons who so long made Rome a slaughter-house and an abomination among the nations.