On this very day in 44 BC, Julius Caesar got shanked by a bunch of his friends, giving us a ton of filmic and literary references for centuries to come, the best of which is obviously the Weiners-George metaphor.
But just because it’s the Ides doesn’t mean I’m going to talk about good ol’ Julie Caesar. It’s been done. If you want that story, watch the Liz Taylor Cleopatra or the Jeremy Sisto Caesar (especially the Sisto, because ain’t no Sisto like Sisto in a metal breastplate).
I’ve got something better for you. He’s blonde, he’s crazy, and he’s fond of whimsy. He’s EMPEROR CALIGULAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!1
First, though, let’s acknowledge that in the metaphorical “sexually scandalous people that history remembers generation after generation throughout time despite the frailty of human memory” conversation (which occurs at dinner tables across this great nation every night, no doubt), Caligula is like THE first guy you mention. Accordingly, let’s acknowledge how restrained we at For Shame have been in not writing about Caligula at all during this two-year blogsperiment. I mean it’s not like we forgot he existed. We just sort of held him in the Scandal Pantheon (Scantheon, hollaaa) with the likes of Misters Jefferson and Kennedy.
But then JAF was like, “I’m a really smart classicist and we should do an Ides of March theme week about Roman emperors!” And I was like, “I watched I, Claudius in high school Latin class and Caligula did crazy shit on it and that’s all I know.” And then poor JAF got the stomach flu last night.
So here we are.
Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born to second cousins (who were each in turn byproducts of many other cousin-marriages down the ancestral line, so maybe keep the genetics in mind as we go here) in Antium in 12 AD. He got the nickname “Caligula” when he was three and following his dad, Germanicus, on some military campaigns. He’d dress in a tiny replica soldier’s uniform. Caliga were soldiers’ boots. Caligula were little soldiers’ boots. Hence the adorable nickname. I’m just including this because it’s actually the only cute thing about our Cal that ever happened, ever.
I could use this space to talk about how and why Caligula got to be emperor, but who actually cares about that shit? You want the crazy. I want the crazy. Let’s get CRAYZAY.
So during the first six months of his reign, Cal is absolutely beloved by Romans in all corners of the empire. He’s granting bonuses and pardoning people right and left, there are lots of slaves and animals being killed in superfun gladitorial combat, Inspector Javert is inspirationally seeking revenge, you get it. The general mood is pretty high on all seven hills of Rome.
Until 37 AD, that is, when Mr. Cal Ligula (also the name of a Staten Island small claims lawyer?) fell seriously ill. You’d think that maybe recovering from a near-death illness might make one kinder and gentler, but lucky for us that DID NOT happen. Instead, Cal started murdering EVERYBODY! “You get an execution! You get an execution! Even my young cousin/adopted son gets an execution!”
Then he went all 2007-shaven-head-Britney and the next four years were straight up insanity. You know what? There’s a lot of CRAY coming your way, so let’s make a couple lists to facilitate.
GENERALLY CRAZY SHIT CALIGULA DID:
· Built and rode a horse across a custom-built two-mile pontoon bridge from Baiae to Puteoli because this soothsayer one time said he had a better chance of crossing the Bay of Baiae on horseback than becoming emperor. This project cost a massive amount of money, lots of men died during the construction, the project added to the growing discontent in the empire, and he HAD ALREADY BECOME EMPEROR when he set out to prove he COULD BECOME EMPEROR. But he sure showed that unimportant-and-probably-already-dead soothsayer.
· Built a pair of giant ships. One was a floating temple to Diana and the other was what I imagine to be the first-century version of that kickass party yacht in Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin'” video. Except that this one had marble floors and as such weighed 7,400 tons. We all know how that goes.
· Tried to throw Britannia on the pile of Roman-conquered countries, but when his soldiers arrived at the English Channel, he ordered them to stop and collect seashells “as spoils of the sea,” then bring them back to Rome. Some historians think “seashells” was code for ships or something else of the military persuasion, but I think they’re neglecting the innate human desire to make shitty crafts.
· Started dressing as various gods and goddesses at public events, referring to himself as a god, and signing documents of state “Jupiter.” He also had a couple of temples rededicated to himself, which naturally involved removing the heads from sacred statues and replacing them with Caligula heads. And he decided the senators had to worship him as a god. Not the first boss with a god complex though, am I righttttttttttttt?
· Ordered guards to throw a few rows of spectators into an arena full of hungry lions during intermission at a gladitorial event because he was bored. Whereas when I’m bored during an intermission I go to the bathroom and maybe treat myself to a soft pretzel.
· Also enjoyed having prisoners thrown from high towers of the palace during his breakfast. The best part of wakin’ up is DEAD PEOPLE.
· Planned to make his favorite horse, Incitatus (from the aforementioned bridge ride), a consul. But he didn’t end up actually doing it. That’s a myth, you guys.
· Actually made Incitatus a priest. I’m sort of on board with this because I’d like to give a horse my confession. It would be a judgement-free zone and there would be some nice nuzzling at the end.
SEXUALLY CRAZY SHIT CALIGULA DID:
· After spending ALLLL the money left to him by his predecessor (we’re talking hella denarii – like $300+ billion today), opened a brothel in the palace to recoup. But of course he couldn’t have common skanks getting fancy all over the seat of the Roman empire. He needed a classier workforce, so instead he force-hired the wives of senators. But I think they got dental!
· Would inspect guests’ wives at banquets, and if he liked what he saw, have sex with said wives. If he REALLY liked what he saw, he would declare a couple’s divorce without their consent. (Insert “Take my wife” joke here).
· Would, after non-consensually fucking a married woman, discuss her performance with her husband.
· Held orgies, but obviously.
· Attended the marriage of a young officer named Proculus, and, pissed that they didn’t have an open bar, raped both Proculus and his new wife. Let the togae hit the floor.
· Boned a lot of dudes: Romans, prisoners of war, a court fool. He didn’t have a type, ya know?
· Boned all three of his sisters. So maybe actually his type was “similar genetic composition.”
· Maybe impregnated one of them. And according to I, Claudius (which, given the conflicting and crazy stories out there about this guy, is probably not the worst source) (plus Robert Graves was a certified dimepiece) he became obsessed with the idea that his son/nephew would overtake him, so he naturally CUT THE BABY OUT OF HER and ATE IT ohmygoddddddddisturbing.
I think maybe we should end here.
Obviously Cal wasn’t the most popular guy in the world after all of these shenanigans, so there were a lot of murder plots afoot. The one that succeeded — the Praetorian Guard, in an empty passageway, with
the candlestick lots of knives and swords — is notable because even his body guards, who swore a blood oath of loyalty, were over his bullshit.
Cal’s uncle Claudius, who had a stutter and club foot but was a sweet guy in a sour world, was made emperor, and the rest is this 1970s BBC miniseries I keep referencing (and if you aren’t intrigued already, Caligula is played by a young Mr. Ollivander). And there’s another Caligula movie in which you see Dame Helen Mirren’s royal boobs!
So maybe treat yourself on this Ides of March. To a little IDES CANDY. It’s what Caligua would have done (except there would probably be a few more naked corpses and horses around).
[Ed. note: In case you missed our totally hilarious and charming introduction to MAN, I FEEL LIKE A WOMAN: Dude Week that was posted yesterday, this here is our first installment by JAF’s pal PF. Enjoy, buttons! And look forward to THREE MORE dudeposts this week!]
Premised on the notion that the pleasures of the flesh are corrosive and ultimately fatal, the concept of “decadence” imbues sex, drugs and even certain types of violence with an intoxicating gothic aura they would otherwise lack. Puritan scolds, whether Victorian or Leninist, have been unwise to use this most attractive of words as a slur. Indeed, there is no better way to make something irresistible than to insist that it is evil, sinful, or wrong; better yet, that it is in fact the first step on the path of a slow, majestic decline. For when we embrace decadence, we stare death in face and laugh, and who but the most timid does not wish to mock death, and confront that most cosmic of outrages with transcendental ambivalence?
At least Gaius Petronius Arbiter, the subject of this post, seems to have felt this way. He was the most fabulous member of the imperial court of Nero, and the story of how he lived while Rome literally burned makes the Rolling Stones look, in the words of Charlie Sheen, like “droopy eyed armless children.” If there is heroism in indulgence, and for the purposes of this blog post there is, then Petronius is like the Superman of dandies, a man who gleefully celebrated the vanity of an age that was bringing civilization to the brink of collapse. Or no, Superman wouldn’t do that, he is a clean living dork. Petronius is more like Iron Man, or…this is a more difficult metaphor than I expected. He is probably Aquaman because of his (presumable) enthusiasm for skin-tight, sequined outfits.
Not much is known of Petronius’s early life among the writers of his Wikipedia entry. From Tacitus, Plutarch, and Pliny the Elder we learn that Petronius was the elegantiae arbiter, or arbiter of elegance in the court of Nero, the infamous last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Basically, this means that he was Nero’s foremost fashion adviser and party planner. As a lifelong member of the 1%, Petronius lived a life totally devoted to debauched fabulosity, and in this regard he was second to none. Like Dorian Gray, the name of Petronius was known throughout Rome as a synonym for the relentless pursuit of hedonistic excess. Tacitus describes him best:
He spent his days in sleep, his nights in attending to his official duties or in amusement, that by his dissolute life he had become as famous as other men by a life of energy, and that he was regarded as no ordinary profligate, but as an accomplished voluptuary. His reckless freedom of speech, being regarded as frankness, procured him popularity. Yet during his provincial government, and later when he held the office of consul, he had shown vigor and capacity for affairs. Afterwards returning to his life of vicious indulgence, he became one of the chosen circle of Nero’s intimates, and was looked upon as an absolute authority on questions of taste in connection with the science of luxurious living.
When I die, I can only hope that someone describes me as an “accomplished voluptuary” or a man of “vicious indulgence,” but I think my tombstone is more likely to read something much less glamorous, like “Guest Blogger.”
Today, Petronius is probably best known for writing the Satyricon, a work that captures the world in which he lived in all its decadent glory. While officially a satire, Satyricon is not a (lame, boring) condemnation of a ‘corrupt’ or ‘fallen’ world but rather a humorous, amoral presentation of a specific time and place that makes no claim to moral authority. In this it is like Seinfeld. If Petronius condemns anything in this sprawling work, it is the bad taste of the nouveau rich. For him, an ugly dress is much less forgivable than, say, his employer’s decision to burn down half of Rome to make way for an enormous palace. The most famous character in Satyricon is a guy named Trimalchio, a self-made millionaire (n.b. I didn’t know this was possible in Ancient Rome) who is famous for throwing dinner parties that feature elaborate, impractical dishes, most of which involve live birds. One chapter finds an impatient Trimalchio hosting the elaborate funeral he planned for himself prematurely — as in, before his death — with his party guests performing all the necessary rites for the purpose of his own entertainment. (Remember what I said earlier about decadence being the ability to laugh in the face of death? No? That’s fine, don’t worry about it. Sorry I brought it up again.)
Trimalchio’s dinner is not the only notable part of Satyricon. Much like college, this book involves SEX in addition to roasted pigs stuffed with live birds. In a memorable section, the protagonist Encolpios and some of his ‘homies’ — to borrow the terminology used in the most recent translation — are kidnapped and sexually ‘tortured’ by a foxy lady named Quartilla and her maidservants after they are caught prying into the secrets of an ancient cult, or something. (n.b. I have never actually read this book.) Anyway, the torture quickly evolves into something more consensual, and the chapter ends with Encolpios making out with Quartilla as both of them spy on Encolpios’s friend through a keyhole as he ‘plows’ a ‘virgin’ ‘field.’ (This is a metaphor)
As with most things, though, the truth about Petronius is even CRAZIER than the fiction he wrote, and the story of the last days of his life is more glamorous than that of any heroin addicted rock star. Like all wealthy, important, and fashionable men, Petronius eventually attracted his share of haters. This problem was magnified by Petronius’s refusal to flatter his superiors, as his penchant for candidness earned him many powerful enemies. One of these, a guy named Tigellinus who served as commander of the emperor’s guard and probably hated fun, was somehow able to successfully accuse Petronius of treason. Rather than sit around waiting to be executed, Petronius decided to take matters into his own hands and, at a lavish party surrounded by his friends, committed the most elegant, non-melodramatic suicide in history. Again I return to Tacitus for an authoritative description of this most fabulous of deaths:
Yet he did not fling away life with precipitate haste, but having made an incision in his veins and then, according to his humour, bound them up, he again opened them, while he conversed with his friends, not in a serious strain or on topics that might win for him the glory of courage. And he listened to them as they repeated, not thoughts on the immortality of the soul or on the theories of philosophers, but light poetry and playful verses. To some of his slaves he gave liberal presents, a flogging to others. He dined, indulged himself in sleep, that death, though forced on him, might have a natural appearance. Even in his will he did not, as did many in their last moments, flatter Nero or Tigellinus or any other of the men in power. On the contrary, he described fully the prince’s shameful excesses, with the names of his male and female companions and their novelties in debauchery, and sent the account under seal to Nero. Then he broke his signet-ring, that it might not be subsequently available for imperiling others.
I don’t quite understand how flogging servants fits into this scene, or why “many” would choose to flatter their bosses “in their last moments” as Tacitus suggests, but otherwise this is an extremely memorable and, dare I say, beautiful passage. Like Steve Irwin, Petronius died as he lived, in his case on a velvet divan engaged in idle and catty gossip about the leaders of Rome. In my personal image of the scene, a naked young man is feeding him grapes. Also, in my mind, Petronius looks exactly like Sir Elton John.
After the death of his arbiter of elegance, Nero was absolutely lost. Try as he did, he was never again able to pick out jewelry that was both seasonally appropriate and flattered his complexion and eye color. This caused him to go mad, and the last three years of his reign were marked by the irrational, self-destructive, and tyrannical behavior he is known for today. Satyricon, on the other hand, has grown in reputation since the author’s death. Now considered one of the most innovative and original works of Latin prose, it continues to be read and studied. In 1969, Federico Fellini made a film version of Satyricon that is supposed to be a classic or whatever.