Good governance and responsible politicians are a blessing for every nation, but no fun to read about. Caligula was quite the opposite and his behaviour during his short reign is more reminiscent of Idi Amin and some other African dictators, than of say Obama or Angela Merkel. Little is known about him and what is known is mostly from the biographical notes by Suetonius (69-122). Suetonius is hardly a reliable source -when it comes to gossip, he is as reliable as a journalist of The Sun - but there is no doubt that there was something severely wrong with Caligula’s mental health. The following extract tells about his pleasure in sadism and even though the Roman world was very sadistic, his sadism stands out.
As for sadism: it is an exercise in all kinds of ablativi!
Suetonius, De vita Caesarum, Caligula, c 32
Animum quoque remittenti ludoque et epulis dedito eadem factorum dictorumque saevitia aderat. Saepe in conspectu prandentis vel comisantis seriae quaestiones per tormenta habebantur, miles decollandi artifex quibuscumque e custodia capita amputabat. Puteolis dedicatione pontis, quem excogitatum ab eo significavimus, cum multos e litore invitasset ad se, repente omnis praecipitavit, quosdam gubernacula apprehendentes contis remisque detrusit in mare. Romae publico epulo servum ob detractam lectis argenteam laminam carnifici confestim tradidit, ut manibus abscisis atque ante pectus e collo pendentibus, praecedente titulo qui causam poenae indicaret, per coetus epulantium circumduceretur. Murmillonem e ludo rudibus secum battuentem et sponte prostratum confodit ferrea sica ac more victorum cum palma discucurrit. Admota altaribus victima succinctus poparum habitu elato alte malleo cultrarium mactavit. Lautiore convivio effusus subito in cachinnos consulibus, qui iuxta cubabant, quidnam rideret blande quaerentibus: "Quid," inquit, "nisi uno meo nutu iugulari utrumque vestrum statim posse?"
Animum quoque remittenti ludoque et epulis dedito: abl. abs. (remittenti is an abl. with an omitted eo (= Caligula) understood.)
animum remitto: to relax the mind
epulae: dishes (plurale tantum)
eadem saevitia: his cruelty had already been mentioned before
in conspectu prandentis: in front of him eating (prandeo)
comisor commatus sum: to celebrate a festival, have a party
seriae quaestiones: severe interrogations
decollandi artifex: skilled in decapitating
quibuscumque e custodia capita amputabat = capita a quibuscumque e custodia (prison) amputabat
Puteolis dedicatione pontis: at the dedication of bridge at Puteoli
excogitatum ab eo: designed by him
significavimus: I have pointed out
cum multos e litore invitasset ad se: Cassius Dio reports this incident in more detail, telling that the feast continued well into the night. Caligula - standing on the bridge - became drunk and threw some of his friends into the water and ordered ships to ram and kill them. Fortunately the sea was calm and many were able to escape.
praecipito: to cast down (Latin has no verb `to let’ implying a causative in such constructions. What is meant is that he ordered them to be thrown down cf. detrusit below)
quosdam…detrusit: he pushed (detrudo) of those
contis remisque: with pikes and oars
ob detractam lectis argenteam laminam = ob laminam (strip) argenteam detrectam (a) lectis (bed)
carnifex –icis: executioner
manibus abscisis atque ante pectus e collo pendentibus: abl. abs.
e collo pendentibus: hanging from the neck
praecedente titulo: a placard going in front
coetus –us (m.): crowd, gathering
Murmillonem e ludo rudibus secum battuentem et sponte prostratum confodit: he (Caligula) stabbed (confudo -fudi -fussum) a gladiator (murmillo, the name probably refers to the insigne of a kind of fish)
ludus: (here) training school for gladiators
rudis –is (f.): wooden stick used for practising fighting
battuo: to beat, strike, fight
sponte prostratum: voluntarily falling down (in order to feign that Caligula was the winner!)
Admota altaribus victima: abl. abs. (victima: animal for sacrificing)
succinctus poparum habitu elato: girded in the bound up dress of an assistant priest (popa) (i.e. Caligula is acting as an assistant priest whose task was to give the animal a blow with a hammer (malleus). The officiating priest (here called a cultrarius) killed the animal subsequently with a knife (culter). Alas! Caligula was not that trained in using a hammer…)
alte malleo: with the hammer high up
macto: to kill, sacrifice
Lautiore convivio effusus: indulging in a very lavish banquet
cachinnus: loud laughing
blande: flatteringly (with (consilibus) quaerentibus)
nutus –us (m.): sign, nod
iugulo: to cut the throat, murder
Translation by A.S. Klyne (2010)
Book Four: XXXII His More Casual Cruelties
His words and actions were just as cruel when he was relaxing, amusing himself or feasting.
Trials by torture were often carried out in his presence, even while he was eating or playing, an expert headsman being retained to decapitate prisoners.
When his bridge at Puteoli (Pozzuoli), which I mentioned, was being dedicated, he invited a number of people to cross to him from the shore then had them thrown, suddenly, into the sea, those who tried to cling onto the rudders of the boats being thrust back with boathooks and oars.
There was a public banquet of his in Rome where a slave was promptly handed over to the executioners for stealing some silver-strip from a couch, his hands to be cut off and hung round his neck, after which he was to be led among the guests preceded by a placard describing his crime.
On another occasion, he was fighting a duel with a swordsman from the gladiatorial school, using wooden blades, when his opponent engineered a deliberate fall. At once Caligula ran up and stabbed him with a real dagger, then danced about waving a palm-branch, as victors do.
Again, he was once acting as assistant-priest at a sacrifice, and swung the mallet high as if to fell the victim, but killed the priest holding the knife instead. And at a particularly sumptuous banquet, he suddenly burst into peals of laughter, and when the consuls reclining next to him politely asked the reason, he answered: ‘Only that if I were to give a single nod both your throats would be cut here and now.’