Today In Pop Culture: Caligula Takes Power And Rome Goes To Hell

Published on March 18th, 2016 in: Movies, Retrovirus, Today In Pop Culture |

By Jeffery X Martin


We made it through the Ides of March, which saw the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. But before Julius Caesar began his dictatorship, there was another leader of the Roman Empire who was as infamous as Caesar was famous. His full name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. That’s a mouthful, so he was most often referred to by his nickname, Caligula. That very word still brings up images of debauchery and madness today. He came to power on this day in 37 BC.

It was Alexander Pope who said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. He was right, and Caligula is a perfect example of that. Well, let’s dial that back a bit. There’s a good chance that Caligula was a little bit nuts before he became the emperor, so giving him total control of the Roman Empire just exacerbated that situation.

Things seemed fine in the Empire for the first six months. Caligula banned trials for treason, recalled all the exiles, and raised the pay of the military. There is even evidence that he began laying out plans for the invasion of Britain.

In October 37 AD, things changed. Caligula fell ill. Maybe he was poisoned. My personal vote is for syphilis. Whatever it was, after his illness, Caligula turned mean. He began eliminating any person that he viewed as a threat. With his paranoia ramped up to 11, that was a lot of people.

He had his own adopted son murdered. He may have poisoned his grandmother. He whacked his father-in-law and brother-in-law. When his favorite sister died, he exiled his other two sisters.

Caligula was also given to banging other men’s wives, including the wives of members of the Senate. This did nothing to endear him to the hearts of the senators. There is one recorded instance of Caligula ordering an entire section of the crowd at the gladiatorial games to be thrown to the lions. It was intermission. There were no more criminals. He was bored. It happens.

The Emperor insisted a two-mile-long floating bridge be constructed across the Bay of Bauli. This required hundreds of Roman merchant ships and builders. And he only wanted to spend a couple of days on his horse, riding across it.

Oh, the horse. Caligula loved his horse, Incitatus. He had a stall built for it made of marble. In an inspired bit of lunacy, Caligula had Incitatus ordained as a priest.

It was when Caligula decided that he was a living representation of the gods that the Senate decided to take action. Two temples were set up for Caligula worship, and he began calling himself the “New Sun.” Even for the Romans, that was quite enough, thank you very much.

Caligula’s role as emperor came to an end when he was forced to abdicate his position by a lot of people killing him. He was stabbed 30 times by a group of conspirators. So much for that whole being a god thing.

It’s not so much the real Caligula we remember as it is Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of him in the 1979 Tinto Brass film called, shockingly enough, Caligula. This movie was controversial because it had big stars, like Sir John Gielgud and Peter O’Toole, but it had also had scenes of hardcore pornography which, thankfully, did not include Sir John Gielgud or Peter O’Toole. The movie did feature Helen Mirren in an early role, if you’re into that sort of thing, and you are.

Caligula is still banned in Canada and Iceland. However, to the best of my knowledge, Caligula Reincarnated As Hitler is not. This Naziploitation movie, also known as Last Orgy of the Third Reich, is a horrible piece of film, filled with cannibalism, sodomy, and rape. These are all things Caligula was also into, but beyond that, he has nothing to do with the movie.

Matthew Sweet used one of Malcolm McDowell’s speeches from Caligula as the intro to his song, “Ugly Truth Rock.” The Smiths sang about being asked to do things at the end of the day that would have made Caligula blush.

He’s still the gold standard for terrible behavior and self-aggrandization. He’s what every Seventies rock star dreamed of being. Caligula really was a golden god, except that he wasn’t, because gods can’t be stabbed. Is that true? Mel Gibson says no. I’m going to have to rethink my entire belief system now.

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