Caligula With Mary Beard: The man behind the infamy

Friday 26 July 2013, 12:01

Mary Beard Mary Beard Classicist

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Caligula has gone down in history as the worst Roman emperor ever: pervert, sadist and probably completely bonkers.

That’s one of the reasons we decided to make a documentary about him.

We wanted to take a look at some of the famous stories (having sex with his sisters, making his favourite horse into the Roman equivalent of “prime minister”) and see if we could work out if they were true. Or were they just nasty gossip and rumour?

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What does the origin of Caligula's name reveal about his legacy?

The truth is we can’t always be sure. We have very little idea about what our own next-door neighbours do in their bedrooms, so there’s little hope of knowing for certain what Caligula got up to in his.

But in the process of investigating, we discovered that much more - and much more vivid - evidence about Caligula survived than even I had ever realised.

One of my own favourite glimpses of the emperor comes from a surviving eye-witness account of Jewish ambassador going to him to plead for Jewish political rights in Egypt.

Annoyingly, he turns out to be more interested in discovering why Jews don’t eat pork (and besides his mind is more on how he is going to give one of his many luxurious imperial properties a make-over).

And we managed to go to all kinds of places where Caligula had spent part of his short life (he’d been assassinated before he got to be 30).

Caligula Caligula's bust at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, an art museum in Copenhagen, Denmark

Best of all was the beautiful Lake Nemi just outside Rome, where Caligula kept two vast pleasure barges - really floating palaces.

These were brought up from the bottom of the Lake in the 1930s, then destroyed in a fire in World War II.

But quite a lot of the hardware still survives, including some vast lead pipes (feeding the hot tub?) with Caligula’s name stamped on them.

And I was busting to film what looked like a massive imperial bath plug, but the lock on the museum case had jammed and we couldn’t get it out or see it properly.

In the end, there was far more great evidence than we could possibly fit into an hour’s film.

I’m still sad we couldn’t squeeze in the marvellous inscription from Turkey which record how the little Prince Caligula made a brilliant public speech – aged six!

Professor Mary Beard is a classicist and the presenter of Caligula With Mary Beard.

Caligula With Mary Beard is on at 9pm Monday, 29 July on BBC Two and BBC Two HD. For further programme times please see the upcoming broadcasts page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I was enjoying this programme this evening, but then I realized that many of the museum scenes included scenes of Mary physically touching and even caressing these priceless objects. Showing her touching these objects with her bare hands is a disservice to every antiquities expert and professional of modern times.

    I don't care how important Mary Beard is to current pop-culture archaeology. Showing her touching irreplaceable objects with her bare hands is shameful.


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    Comment number 2.

    My understanding of Suetonius is that his histories were essentially propoganda - and not an accurate reflection of what had occurred in a previous era. How much of Suetonius can be trusted at all?

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    Comment number 3.

    Would you not consider a possible mental illness to account for the difference between Caligula's first six months as Emperor and the following three years or so. I personally would like to think he broke the indium "just because you can doesn't mean you should".

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    Comment number 4.

    MCWhite: While I think stroking the objects is certainly a bit inappropriate, curators and conservators are divided on the need for/safety of gloves and institutions tend to differ in their guidelines and practices. Many conservators now believe that for specific object-based tasks gloves can actually increase the risk of damage because - obviously - they impair the sensitivity of touch which can affect one's control over the object being handled, particularly if it has a smooth or fragile surface. What they don't want though is members of the public touching objects, and there is a danger in showing Mary caressing as you put it, items it may encourage others to do so.

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    Comment number 5.

    Excellent documentary as ever from a very good presenter. Certain a lot of the tales have elements of propaganda and perhaps some re-interpretation along the way. Probably very hard to ever get a totally true story even if we ever find the autobiography of Emperor Gaius (as I guess we should now call him). Always surprises me how many buildings I have never seen in Rome, so many more to see on another visit (the pleasure gardens etc)

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    Comment number 6.

    Very much enjoyed the programme. Could it be that calling an Emperor by his childhood nickname "Little Boots" or "Bootsie" was a ploy to make him seem less threatening? This seems a more logical explanation to me - people do this in our day & age when faced with tyrants. I look forward to more from Professor Beard!

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    Comment number 7.

    I was very disappointed that such an interesting subject was treated in such an insubstantial and shallow way. Did the programme makers not consider that delving into the psychology of Caligula might be a useful way to explore WHY he behaved as he did, rather than just recounting his recorded exploits (although the difficulty with the sources was alluded to). What do you think of the hypothesis that Caligula was simply a youngster thrown into a position of absolute power with an expectation based on the kind of princeps that Germanicus might have been? But without the experience and maturity Caligula could not handle the responsibility (he was only 24 when he took power and had had Tiberius as a role model). His acts of cruelty and what we might call today psychopathic tendencies (although we must respect the context of the time) were mostly manifested after his illness and Macro and others had manoeuvred in expectation of Caligula's death. Perhaps Caligula recognised that he wasn't that important to irreplaceable and thus acted in an immature way, with the power at his hands, in an attempt to secure his position as he saw it?

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    Comment number 8.

    Just watched your show on Caligula which I enjoyed

    99% of the presentation was guess work and that's not surprising

    Without accurate records what is there to believe

    What is an accurate record ? Even today when 2 people witness the same event there could very well be vastly different reports. In the Middle East we are pretty sure there is an uprising in Syria we know a few more details but 90% is biased propaganda. It will all end up like the folk stories we saw tonight, I enjoy some folk stories

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    Comment number 9.

    Alison, a theory not mentioned in the programme was that Caligula encouraged the use of Little Boots as he saw how much he'd been loved by the army as a child (parading about as a legionary as a toddler) and as he was older he understood the power of the army. It was his high handed and immature tenure (especially after his illness as I mentioned in an earlier post) that led to the enmity that resulted in his assassination.

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    Comment number 10.

    Here we go if the Mighty BBC doesn't approve a comment it will not be posted

    We must OBEY yes OBEY BBC's House Rules read them and then you will understand why people are reluctant to send comments. Scroll through the Rules little wonder that the truth will not be out.

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    Comment number 11.

    Excelent programme with an assured presentation, full of passion and understandable dialogue. This completely provided some factaul evidence soundly put to counteract the cartoon reputation of Caligula. providing a more informed view of this aspect of history.

    More of this please.

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    Comment number 12.

    I rather doubt autobiographies would be any more accurate than historical propogandists. I just wish there was an Imperial version of Thucydides.

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    Comment number 13.

    Another fascinating programme from Mary Beard and the BBC. Those who query the quality of the material presented in the programme must bear in mind that this is a TV programme and that a great deal of filmed material was probably cut out and left on the floor prior to final editing Also, although one might feel a bit queasy at the sight of a figure on TV actually touching (with bare hands!) an ancient artefact in a museum it should be noted that there ARE debates about the need to cover the hands when handling some of this material. One area where the hands really must be covered is when handling preserved wood - very often we don't know what was put into the wood in the past to preserve it. The gloves can then protect the handler from poisoning! Besides, it is likely that many of the objects handled by Mary Beard in the programme were handled with bare hands for many centuries before she arrived on the scene!

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    Comment number 14.

    I see Caligula's supposed action in proposing to appoint his horse as Consul as a way of denigrating the Consular class. He could have done it to belittle that ex Republican ruling elite who possibly opposed him in the Senate. A calculated act to put his opponents up to ridicule in front of the people of Rome who supported him, rather than the act of a madman. It was that same elite class that would eventually kill the populist Emperor and put their spin on his actions to paint in in a darker light and so justify their actions. Great show btw.

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    Comment number 15.

    I found Professor Beard's account of the fear and violence that stalked the Roman Imperial court very interesting. I think that that is the case wherever there is a large concentration of power in a small place (for example in BBC2's 'The Tudors'). With the imprint of their busts in public places and heads on coins, we see the beginnings of the idea of propoganda. I also thought it was interesting when she said that no one came to power in Imperial Rome without the support of the army, and that this was a parallel with twentieth century/modern dictators. However, my reading suggests to me that twentieth century tyrants like Stalin, used bureaucratic power and control of Communist Party apparatus to terrorize their society ("Political Economy of Stalinism", Paul R. Gregory). During the 1930s Stalin conducted a huge purge of both the Red Army & the Soviet Union generally in this way. Fascist rulers like Mussolini and Hitler, manipulated mass gatherings and used propoganda, and derived much of their power thus. In this way, I think modern dictators are different from the tyrants of Rome. I would like to know how itis that the Roman Republic ended, and the rule of the Emperors began. Also, I find their use of games and the amphitheatre for public entertainment interesting.

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    Comment number 16.

    Sorry, but I thought the programme was utter tosh. It is well known that Suetonious exaggerates, but he was most certainly NOT the only source on Caligula's antics. Prof Beard was, unfortunately, trying to be "controversial" for television. However, I don't think even she really believed that the emperor was just a bit misunderstood. It all looked like a rather nice holiday paid for by the BBC. Completed rubbish I'm afraid.

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    Comment number 17.

    Intrigued by this page, although being in New Zealand means I will not get to see this documentary for a time. I've liked Mary's work a lot (meet the Romans etc) and found her reasonably balanced. I allways understood that Suetonius had access to the imperial archives until he was dismissed for messing about with the empress Placidia and sadly the relevant bits of Tacitus are lost. But he does seem to fit more closely the absolute Hellenistic/Philhellene model of a ruler such as Nero, than say Augustus/Patrician style so you could not expect his reputation to be vilified by senatorial rancour.

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    Comment number 18.

    It was such a joy to watch "Caligula". I have watched and read "I, Claudius", studied a host of Ancient Roman history books and even read Douglas Jackson's book of the same name - strictly as an amateur. You, Mary, bring it all to life. Thank you for that. As for touching objects - go right ahead! You're going places we (the public) would never be allowed access to, seeing things with eyes we don't have and you're taking us with you. Brilliant!!

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    Comment number 19.

    Emily M: I understand your point about gloves. The difference here is that curators MUST sometimes touch these objects as part of their official duties. Showing Mary Beard touching them was unnecessary to the documentary and was done, in my opinion, solely for show-business purposes.

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    Comment number 20.

    On the one hand Professor Beard says that we can't necessarily trust the accounts by Suetonius and others but then concludes by saying that the accounts of Claudius show that he was just as bad as Caligula. Why are any of these accounts more trustworthy than any others? Any succeeding emperor would have an interest in vilifying his predecessor(s) - especially if they had been involved in their downfall, which Nero almost certainly was with Claudius.


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