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I sort of miss Caligula

January 24, 2014

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On this date in AD 41 (complicated of course by the mismatch between Julian and Gregorian Calendars) the emperor Caligula was stabbed.  A great deal.  Thus was initiated the great Roman tradition of murdering emperors.  By the end of the Third Century AD – “stabbed to death by the Praetorian Guard” pretty much counted as “death by natural causes” on coroner’s reports that be-tagged the big toes of Rome’s supreme magistrates.

But I sort of miss Caligula.  Or rather, I miss a peculiar late 1970s fascination with Caligula – a strange concentration of interest in Gaius Little-Boots that led to him displacing Nero as the paradigmatic “bad emperor” in the popular imagination.  There are three iconic visions of Caligula that come quick succession.

Firstly and most importantly, there is the great John Hurt being deliciously camp and degenerate in I Claudius (1976).   In my favourite John Hurt scene, Caligula is chatting with Claudius and suddenly interrupts the thread of the conversation to ask

“Do you think I’m going crazy… no, be honest…”

Then there was the bizarre and notorious movie with Malcolm McDowell.  A bizarre mixture of ambitious historical epic and soft porn fantasy, co-starring John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren, Caligula was the subject of protracted legal dispute when its financial backers – Penthouse Magazine – filmed a bunch of gratuitous extra nudie bits behind the director Tinto Brass’s back  – scenes which in all honesty do not materially advance the story.

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Then there was the strange storyline concerning Judge Dredd in 2000AD (a wonderfully futuristic comic book title in the 1970s) involving Judge Cal – a tyrannical Chief Judge who murders his predecessor, makes his pet goldfish a judge and who eventually sentences the entire population of Megacity One to death.  Alphabetically.  The first pathetic victim of this systematic genocide is an unfortunate fellow who changed his name by deed-poll just to be the first name in the telephone book.

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The more interesting question of course, is why the late 1970s became fixated by Caligula?  World leaders in the 1970s could not have been less Caligulated.  From Jimmy Carter, to Jimmy Callaghan, to the increasingly mummified Brezhnev – they were a decidedly unspectacular bunch.  Only Idi Amin  looked the part and horrific as his regime was, it represented less than a clear and present danger to the wider world and would be swiftly swept aside by Tanzanian tanks within a few years.

Perhaps the answer to the fascination with Caligula lies with the same energies which both provoked and repressed punk.   The cult of Caligula was a cognate with punk’s love of the dominatrix (one can hear “Submission” playing in the background at this point).  The cult of Caligula typifies a contemporary fascination with anarchy with a simultaneous yearning for the “smack of firm government”.  In other word, with Caligula, a safe historically remote emblem of comingled anarchy and tyranny was evoked that the late 1970s found rather compelling.  The concept of absolute freedom for one person entailing absolute tyranny for everyone else provoked questions about the limits of human empathy that seemed rather timely as well.  Ultimately of course, the story of Caligula told a story of egomania as ego-weakness.  If every appetite is indulged, then the self dissolves into a sea of appetites and there is no Caligula left.

So I don’t really miss Caligula, that would just be silly.  I just miss the peculiarly intense creative fascination with extreme behaviour that flourished in the late 1970s that found Caligula a congenial and restagable figure.

Perhaps future generations will need different bad emperors to restage.  Commodus was given his chance by Ridley Scott in 2000 (though I preferred Christopher Plummer’s Commodus from the mid 1960s – look it up) – but he did not provoke a decade of Commodus obsession.  We must wait to see if Commodus, Domitian, Elagabalus, Honorius etc. etc. etc. ever return from the grave to help us tell exciting and disgusting stories about ourselves in future.

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