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.


  • rate this

    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?

  • rate this

    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".

  • rate this

    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.

  • rate this

    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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