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Caligula: A Biography.

Caligula. A Biography. By Aloys Winterling. Translated by Deborah Lucas Schneider, Glenn W. Most, and Paul Psoinos. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011. Pp. viii, 229. $34.95.)

Caligula [AD 34-71] is one of those Roman emperors whose fame has spread beyond narrow academic circles. Even those who have never heard, say, of Marcus Aurelius know that this particular emperor wanted to make his horse consul and slept with his sisters. And those who do probe a little further in the sources find Caligula portrayed as exceedingly dangerous, as he was of a morose and savage disposition.

Plainly we have here a character of great interest, and Aloys Winterling effortlessly rises to the challenge presented by his subject. Undeterred by those--chiefly textual critics and historical commentators--who doubt that such an enterprise can be attempted for an ancient figure, he gives us a biography that brings the man and his times to life. Aimed at the general reader, this racy narrative (translated from German) moves along at a brisk pace to give us a full and accurate account of this emperor's brief reign. This is underpinned by a full citation of sources and a selection of secondary literature.

Where this reviewer parts company from Winterling is in his attempt to rehabilitate his subject. Although the question of clinical insanity is not addressed, the author attacks the popular notion that Caligula was mad. Instead he argues that we are dealing with a structural problem, which would appear to be an abstract way of saying what we can all agree on: there were tensions between the emperor and the Roman nobility that led to treachery, conspiracy, and terror (34, 72). This leads Winterling to rationalize such notorious incidents as the gathering of seashells as booty (118).

Throughout the study, the author seems to see in Caligula a calculating intelligence with a plan to transform the nature of imperial rule and the emperor's relations with the aristocracy. This reviewer believes, however, that another explanation is possible, and it is one that does not do violence to our sources. Today most historians live in societies where convention and law place restraints on the innately vicious or dangerously capricious (65). But there are, and were, societies where such checks did not exist. Imperial Rome was one such place. This enabled Caligula, like modern figures such as Gaddafi and Amin, to indulge his dangerous whims and murderous eccentricities, but it also meant that the only remedy for those he terrorized was assassination. This reviewer cannot help but feel that Seneca, who had to live under Caligula, got it just about right; the emperor was somebody who showed how "far supreme vice could go, when combined with supreme power" (142).

Arthur Keaveney

University of Kent

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Author:Keaveney, Arthur
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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