On this day January 24: the famously debauched Caligula


caligula january 24
Image of Marble Bust from Louvre: Anonymous - Clio20, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Officers of the Praetorian Guard assassinated Caligula on January 24 41 CE, stabbing him thirty times, the same number of wounds as his murdered relative Julius Caesar. Caligula achieved renown as the most perverse of Rome’s emperors, whether he deserved it or not.

These days, our knowledge of Caligula is probably most informed by various soft and hardcore porn movies. The best is Bob Guccione’s magnificently debauched Caligula starring Malcolm McDowell, Dame Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole, and Sir John Gielgud. What other movie featuring hardcore, unsimulated sex scenes can boast such a cast? Plus a screenplay by Gore Vidal. Although Vidal later disassociated himself from the production, the film does illustrate his primary theme, that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Caligula

Unlike his predecessors, Caligula possessed no qualification to administer a great empire beyond distinguished lineage. He descended from both branches of the Julio-Claudian imperial family. Surviving the family purges of his great uncle Tiberius was perhaps his greatest recommendation. But, as the son of a much-loved general, he started out well-liked.

Caligula became emperor following the death of Tiberius. The second emperor neglected the empire during the latter part of his reign, living an allegedly debauched life on Capri and leaving administration mainly to his underlings.

He commanded that Caligula join him there and most people assumed that was the last they’d ever see of the young man. But Caligula survived six years on the island with the murderous old tyrant and ended up his heir. (Along with Tiberius’ grandson who basically stayed out of the way until ordered to commit suicide.)

Historians credit Caligula with ruling well for the first seven months of his reign. He granted bonuses to the military, ended treason trials, and mounted lavish entertainments for the general public. Also listed among his popular early accomplishments – exiling ‘spintriae’, young male sex workers from Rome. No one explains why that proved popular so perhaps it’s merely a personal prejudice of Roman historian Suetonius.

Regardless, following an illness possibly caused by poisoning, Caligula turned full-on tyrant, spending up big on vanity projects, murdering at will and allegedly f_cking everything in sight.

Suetonius

Contemporaries of Caligula described him as insane and oversexed. They accused him of sleeping with other men’s wives during dinner parties and then returning to the table and ranking the women’s performances. Apparently very bad form, even for the dissolute Roman aristocracy.

However, contemporary reports focus on heterosexual indiscretions. Later writers, including Suetonius, born almost 30 years after Caligula’s death, seem to have gilded the lily somewhat.

Suetonius alleged that the emperor indulged in incestuous sex with his sisters and pimped them out to other men.

But, the writer also introduced bisexuality into the mix. Bisexuality wasn’t a problem for Roman men, so long as they only had sex with men of inferior social status and never, ever – EVER – bottomed.

According to Suetonius, Caligula was a thirsty, thirsty bottom, whose unquenchable lust for cock drained the young nobleman Valerius Catullus.

“He respected neither his own chastity nor that of anyone else. He is said to have had unnatural relations with Marcus Lepidus, the pantomimic actor Mnester, and certain hostages. Valerius Catullus, a young man of a consular family, publicly proclaimed that he had violated the emperor and worn himself out in commerce with him.”

Whatever the truth of his sexual proclivities, Caligula died violently at the age of 29, after less than four years as emperor. However, a few lines in a prejudiced history written by a bloke born years after his death have inspired many hours of cinematic debauchery.

We will probably never know the real truth of Caligula’s sexual activities. However, the speculation will no doubt continue to titillate for years to cum.

Read more: January 23 <— On this day —> January 25

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