Caligula and the weaponization of humiliation

I’m no historian. Call me a history buff with an insatiable liking for what is either vintage or ancient. I love reading anything that reeks of the sands and pyramids of Egypt, the lost city of Atlantis, the ancient Holy Roman Empire, and, more to the point, the lives of the often tyrannical emperors of Rome.

Sunday at the veranda. While catching up on some reading, I was reminded of the life of this one particular Roman emperor called Caligula. It suddenly dawned on me how similar Caligula’s rule was to the presidency of incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte on the matter of humiliating his enemies.

So I wondered: Is there something I can learn from it?

Caligula was the successor of the emperor Tiberius, the third liege from the era of the first emperor, Augustus. The young Gaius Germanicus was the son of an extremely popular general among the Roman legions, one who was murdered under the orders of the emperor.

Tiberius wasn’t doing well on the popularity surveys and, for what it was worth for preserving his reign, ordered the death of the general whose fame among the praetorian guards had reached his ears.

To make matters more disturbing, Tiberius ordered Gaius, the son, then a very young boy, to be dragged to the dungeons together with his mother and older siblings. Tiberius feared retaliation, and made sure all possible opposition was defanged and declawed. His mother and siblings died in prison.

The years spent in the dungeons served as the boy’s first lesson in the brutality of imperial power.

Years later, the tide turned. When Gaius reached his 17th birthday, he was ordered by Tiberius, now a fairly old man, to come to his huge chateau. Named the Villa Jovis, this villa can be found on the island of Capri, standing on one of the cliffs overlooking the sea. Fearing for his life, the teenager obliged still, uncertain of what to expect.

At Villa Jovis, Gaius was met warmly by Tiberius. On that very same day, the aging emperor threw a lavish party in favor of the boy, complete with every dish imaginable sourced from all the four corners of the empire.

On top of the extravagance, the emperor also had flimsily clad little boys and girls running around, bathing and having sex in the pool of the chateau as an erotic feast for the eyes. Invited to join the emperor at the pool, Gaius could only obey.

During the boy’s stay, the praetorians assigned to guard Tiberius developed a fondness for the son of the murdered general, thereby giving him his nickname, Caligula, meaning “little boots”. Little did Caligula know that he had begun his training as a future emperor of Rome.

In next to no time, disaster struck. No sooner had Tiberius fallen ill than Caligula moved in for the kill. With the help of the head of the praetorians, the general Marco, Caligula literally smothered the aging and weak Tiberius and suffocated him. He had finally exacted vengeance for the death of his family.

In full battle gear, Caligula was then escorted by the praetorian guard on his way to Rome via the Appian Way. After arriving in Rome, the 25-year-old would-be emperor lost no time cozying up to the people. He lavished them with money, even going out of his way to hurl gold coins on the streets from atop a tall edifice.

Caligula later wowed the Roman senate with a speech to end all speeches, referring to himself as the senate’s “son,” a humble yet welcome change to the defunct leadership of the unpopular Tiberius. The gesture was clear: Change had come.

Impressed with Caligula’s promises of reforms, the senate gave their nod. Caligula’s first six months as Rome’s newest emperor took him from one applauding crowd to the other, not the least the Roman senate. He heaped on each one riches no other emperor had the generosity to confer. He even doubled the wages of the praetorian guard upon the request of Marco.

To keep the public occupied and swooning at his feet, Caligula took advantage of their fondness for entertainment. Name it, the Romans had it: Horse races, the theater and drama, the brothels, and games at the Coliseum which took each screaming fan from one bloody fight to another.

As for the senators, he threw parties the likes of which would make Aristotle Onassis look like a peasant by comparison. At one point, he had workers build two of the largest five-star barges on a hidden lake watercraft as large as football fields, to serve as party and orgy destinations. There they all feasted on flesh, as never a metaphor could accurately describe.

What was unique with Caligula was his taste for humiliating members of the nobility and aristocracy of his day. After getting wind of a conspiracy being hatched against his throne by dissenting senators, he invited them to a feast with their wives. One story goes that during the party, he went on to describe how good and bad their wives were in bed.

It was after he had humiliated them that Caligula went on with his murder spree. Dissenting senators fell by their own hands as it was prohibited for soldiers to kill nobility. Caligula forced them to commit suicide.

To make his attempt at humiliation complete, during one of his parties, Caligula mentioned in passing how he would like to promote his horse, Incitatus, to the high office of consul. It was every senator’s dream to be raised to the post of consul, and that humiliated them all the more.

Caligula also forced senators to run beside his chariot for miles during conversations about Roman policy. He made a show of their weakness and their inability to wag their wealth in the face of the richest and most powerful liege in all of the empire.

Not long after the humiliation and the attendant punishments for dissent, which included death, those senators left standing paid homage to Caligula in much the same manner as the ancient Egyptian nobility paid homage to the Pharaohs: On their knees.

All throughout his reign, Caligula made sure he would first humiliate his enemies before dispensing with them. He had weaponized humiliation to such an extent as to render the nobles unable to even the score.

Many in the Roman aristocracy were just as debauched as Caligula himself, but only under cover of wealth and popularity. Caligula knew their secrets from his own experience with the emperor Tiberius.

Not quite thirty, Caligula, went on a military campaign to the Rhine and, later, the English Channel, commanding his troops to plunder the sea by collecting seashells. Believing he was a god, he made sure to live up to his idea of godhood: To think and do as he pleased.

After a thousand and three hundred days of excess, murder and debauchery, Caligula finally fell. Nearly draining the Roman treasury on account of his lavish lifestyle, the 29-year-old emperor was stabbed to death, along with his wife and daughter, by officers of the Roman legion via a conspiracy with the Senate.

We see the vagaries of power on display each day. On the one side, the humiliation of religious leaders, politicians, ideologues, even the Filipino aristocracy, whose wives are dragged into the volley of insults; on the other, dissenters, writers, journalists, students and teachers, farmers and indigenous peoples.

How long will this take? Your guess is as good as mine. But if Caligula’s reign were to stand as an archetype for what destiny has in store for debauched and murderous rulers, then I guess history alone can decide.

This reminds me of what my late father said as I grappled with being a writer: “Criticism, yes. Mockery by way of sarcasm and irony, why not? But never straightaway insult anyone unless you’re ready to kill or be killed.” G



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