Among the complex of palaces on the Palatine Hill in Rome, archaelogists seem to have discovered the underground passage wherein Caligula was assassinated. I wonder whether places like this—Nero’s Domus Aurea, for instance—will be open for viewers to see when I visit the Eternal City, on the way to Pompeii and Herculaneum, in April?
Archeologists say that they have found the underground passage in which the Emperor Caligula was murdered by his own Praetorian Guard to put an end to his deranged reign of terror.
Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (AD12–AD41), known by his nickname Caligula (Little Boots), was the third emperor of the Roman Empire after Augustus and Tiberius, and like them a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
His assassination was the result of a conspiracy by members of the Senate who hoped to restore the Roman Republic. However the Praetorian Guard declared Caligula’s uncle Claudius emperor instead, thus preserving the monarchy.
Maria Antonietta Tomei, a Rome archeologist, said a cryptoportico or underground corridor discovered beneath the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill matched exactly the description given by the Rome historian Suetonius, who says that the Emperor was stabbed to death after watching an entertainment. He left via the passageway, where the Praetorian Guard led by its commander, Cassius Chaerea, was lying in wait.
Professor Tomei said she was “absolutely convinced” that the cryptportico was the one in which Caligula met his end. Although it bore builders’ stamps from the time of Claudius, it already existed at the time of Caligula, and had only been restructured by his uncle and successor.
“It is clear that it was Claudius and not Nero, as commonly thought, who gave shape to the imperial palace complex on the Palatine Hill,” she said.
According to Suetonius and the Jewish historian Josephus, Caligula’s assassins also stabbed to death his wife, Caesonia, and killed their infant daughter, Julia Drusilla, by smashing her head against a wall. Caligula’s body was burnt and the ashes interred at the Mausoleum of Augustus, which is still standing near the Tiber. Now a ruin, its tombs were ransacked during the Barbarian invasions of the fifth century.
Unlike his father Germanicus, a widely admired and upright Roman general, Caligula became a byword for cruelty, excess, insanity and sexual perversion. His nickname derived from the fact that as a small boy he dressed up in a miniature uniform while accompanying his father on military campaigns.
Some scholars maintain that Caligula murdered Tiberius to ensure the succession, or at least ordered his murder. On becoming emperor Caligula was at first hailed as the son of Germanicus, but his behaviour became increasingly psychopathic after he fell ill in AD37 and nearly died. He had all possible opponents, real and imagined — including members of his own family — banished or killed, and seized their properties.
He also proclaimed himself a living god. According to Suetonius, Caligula had incestuous sex with with his sisters Agrippina, Drusilla and Julia Livilla. He also supposedly tried to confer the title of consul on his favourite horse, Incitatus, who had a stable of marble and a collar of precious stones, and had flakes of gold mixed into his oats. Some historians have suggested, however, that such stories were embellished or even invented by Caligula’s many enemies.
Also, Suetonius’s account Gais Caesar’s madness is substantiated by a team of young British archaelogists:
A BRITISH-LED team of archaeologists has identified the legendary palace of the Emperor Caligula in the Forum, proving that the debauched and demented Emperor went so far as to incorporate one of Ancient Rome’s most sacred temples for his private use as a “living deity”.
Andrew Wilson, Lecturer in Roman archaeology at Oxford University, who led the dig, said the historical reputation of Caligula “may have to be reassessed. He was clearly even madder than we thought”.
Some revisionist scholars have suggested that Caligula was not an insane megalomaniac but the victim of “biased” reporting by Roman historians “prone to exaggeration”, such as Suetonius, and that the Emperor’s boast that he was so powerful he could make his horse a consul was a misunderstood joke.
The excavations, jointly conducted by Oxford University, Stanford University and the American Institute for Roman Culture (IRC), support the contention of classical writers that Caligula extended an imperial palace to include the Temple of Castor and Pollux, on the grounds that he himself was one of the gods and should be worshipped by his subjects.
“Suetonius tells us Caligula made the temple into his ‘vestibule’ and placed himself between the figures of Castor and Pollux to be worshipped, a claim later repeated by other writers such as Dio Cassius,” Dr Wilson said. “Many discount this, since it would have been an act of massive impiety for even Caligula to incorporate the temple into his own home. But he really did. This is a marvellous example of archaeology supporting ancient texts.”
Caligula — real name Gaius Caesar — ruled for only four years, from AD37 to AD41, in succession to Tiberius. His short reign, however, became a byword for despotism, caprice, reckless spending and sexual excess. He was given the nickname Caligula, meaning Little Boots, for his precocious behaviour as a boy when bossing about the troops commanded by his father, Germanicus Caesar, the adopted son of Tiberus.
After becoming Emperor, Caligula instituted “treason trials” and indulged in an incestous affair with his sister, Drusilla, whom he had made a goddess after her death. He considered himself “divine” as well, despite his incompetent rule and growing unpopularity. To the relief of many, he was murdered by one of his own guards and was succeeded by the gentler Claudius.
Many of Caligula’s wild orgies were held at Lake Nemi, south of Rome, where the ornate ships he used both for cult worship and his parties — possibly simultaneously — are being reconstructed from the remains of Roman-era vessels found in the lake in the 1930s and later destroyed by fire. But Dr Wilson said Caligula would have used his palace in Rome for a similar combination of the sacred and profane, since “he thought he could do what he liked”.
The archaeological team, which began work last month exploring “the links between religious, commercial and political activities in the Forum” in the area of the Domitianic Hall, discovered by chance that Caligula had extended an existing imperial palace to the Temple of Castor and Pollux, built in the 4th century BC under republican Rome to honour the mythical twin sons of Zeus (Jupiter).
Dr Wilson said scholars had been misled because a road divided what is now known as the Palace of Domitian from the temple, indicating that they could not have been joined, except perhaps by a bridge. However, the dig proved that Caligula had obliterated the road, using its uprooted paving blocks for the foundations of walls and drains linking the palace and temple. The road was later restored by Claudius to restore the distinction, thus dismantling Caligula’s “blasphemous” legacy.
Darius Arya, of the IRC, said many people did not realise that the Forum was still yielding discoveries. “But there is layer upon layer of history and we are still discovering things that previous generations overlooked or misinterpreted.” Dr Wilson said the discovery of the palace was “a tribute to the 24 students from Oxford and Stanford who have toiled under the sun in ferocious temperatures”.