Torch: U.S. Volume LXIV Spring 2015 - Page 12


The story of Caligula and his unconventional term as emperor piqued my interest in classics when I was in 6th grade. Since then, I’ve read books which dwell on the success story emperors, but nevertheless, the other end of the sanity spectrum still sticks out.

The average person might know that Nero fiddled while Rome burned but probably doesn’t know that Trajan expanded the empire to its limits. Why? Perhaps it is because the few wrongheaded specimens provide comic relief in our lives. It’s the same logic that’s behind freak shows: after some time, the image of a star general-cum-leader becomes stock and people want to see the anomalies. That could be why the Ridley Scott chose the reign of Commodus to be the setting of Gladiator.

This argument probably influenced the very authors who passed down the imperial history to us. Suetonius, Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and others may have exaggerated the irresponsibility of some rulers in order to make the rest (including, perhaps, their own patrons) seem more worthy.

So how do we know how crazy these emperors really are? Let’s inspect the literary images of such imperatores, highlighting some of the lesser-known stories about each one:







er's to

Timeline of the

Roman Principate



37 AD











By Amol Punjabi, NJCL Editor


—Among the many notorious stories, when his favorite gladiator Columbus let him down, Caligula pretended to heal him and instead poured poison in his wound.


The story of Caligula ordering his men to collect seashells when they arrived in Britain could be a mistranslation, because the Latin word for seashell, musculi, can also mean military huts.

—Making his horse a consul might not have been a sign of insanity. Some argue that Caligula was trying to make a statement about the intelligence of the senate.

180 AD


—In order to kill his half-brother Britannicus, Nero poisoned his wine. To avoid Britannicus's taster, Nero first offered unpoisoned wine that was fine for his taster but too hot for him. After Britannicus asked for his wine to be diluted, Nero added the poisoned wine.


—The story that Nero might have caused Rome's fire in 68 AD is highly unprobable: he was in Antium when the fire started, fiddles weren't invented until the 16th century, and even Nero's harshest critic Tacitus believes it was an accident.


—Criminals were traditionally put into gladiator arenas to fight to the death with stones in their hand. Under Commodus's reign, however, he tied their knees together, gave them sponges, and personally killed each one.


—One non-Senatorial source, Cassius Dio, portrays Commodus as more of a laughable character than an inept emperor. Apparently, he had to chew bitter grass while watching Commodus to keep himself from laughing.


—Among various acts of depravity, Elagabalus's feasts were beyond lavish. He once served 600 ostrich brains, peas mixed with gold, and lentils mixed with precious stones.

—He also was fond of raffling off poisonous snakes and collected cob webs by the ton.


—By all accounts, Elagabalus was debauched, making him difficult to defend. However, his introduction of the Sun God to Rome would later inspire Constantine to embrace the monotheism in Christianity.