On Caligula's Time

Caligula ruled as Roman emperor from 37 to 41, following the reign of his adopted grandfather Tiberius. The Roman people, remembering their fondness for Caligula’s father Germanica, initially revered their new ruler, and Caligula, as Suetonius writes in The Lives of Twelve Caesars, ‘inflamed this devotion, by practising all the arts of popularity.’ He made a great show of pomp: ‘Grecian games at Syracuse, and Attic plays at Lyons in Gaul,’ while serving ‘loaves and other victuals modeled in gold’ at his banquets. He spent recklessly, which later left Rome in debt. A rise in taxes soon followed. He wished a change in governmental system from imperial to regal, and later sought for himself divine recognition. Soon Caligula’s popularity was undone by his reputation for cruelty and barbarity, particularly toward the senate.

“Your Time Is Going to Come.“ - laphamsquarterly.org/deja-vu/your-time-going-come. Interesting juxtaposition of historical figures outlined here. Nicholas Kristof made a similar connection last year. In a course on World Religions, I teach a week on Philo of Alexandria, as part of the introduction to early Jewish thought and practice. Philo is thought to be the progenitor of the term Judaism (Ioudiasmos) in his explication of Jewish custom for a hellenistic context. His ideas also impacted early Jewish Christian relations. Philo’s “On the Embassy to Gaius” is a page turner from the first century. He actually met Gaius Caligula to plead the case to restore the citizenship rights of the Jewish people in Alexandria. They had been given such rights by the Ptolomies after Alexander the Great founded the city, which were later affirmed by Augustus Caesar in 1 BCE. They were then stricken by the city’s prefect Flaccus, who sought to curry favor with Caligula who wished to be worshiped as a god. Severe persecution followed, as it usually does when human beings lose their legal standing. Things did not go well for Philo’s delegation. There is a haunting line toward the end of his essay, which has always stayed with me.

“And when a judge invested with such mighty power begins to reproach the person who is on his trial before him it is necessary to be silent; for it is possible even to defend one's self in silence, and especially for people who are able to make no reply on any of the subjects which he was not investigating and desiring to understand, inasmuch as our laws and our customs restrained our tongues, and shut and sewed up our mouths” (360).

Nonetheless, in the next sentences Philo tries to respond to Caligula’s “very solemn and important question ‘why do you abstain from eating pig’s flesh?’” Yes, Philo is being ironic. As he sought a serious consultation about Jewish citizenship rights, Caligula wanted to debate the merits of eating pork. Philo narrates his best attempt to draw attention to the broader issue of justice, which was not about the specifics of pork’s tastiness, but the right to eat according to one’s customs. A rather fraught issue we struggle with to this day, as Will Kymlicka outlines helpfully in his Multicultural Citizenship. As it happens, Caligula admitted he was not a fan of lamb saying, “it is not nice,” before bursting into another room to order that glass pebbles be placed in open windows (an early glass making technique). Mireille Hades-Lebel, in her excellent treatise Philo of Alexandria: A Thinker in the Jewish Diaspora, questions whether Philo’s hellenism amounted to a monologue rather than dialogue with his Graeco-Roman interlocutors (p. 68). When reading Philo’s account of the specific case of Caligula, one wonders whether dialogue is possible with narcissists.