This week, Expedictionary’s Quote of the Fortnight returns, this time with a quote from Robert Graves’ classic I, Claudius. The book, a fictionalized autobiography of Emperor Claudius’ life and the story of the first three Roman emperors (Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula), has startling parallels in considering the aims of an unstable leader who goes at great lengths to consolidate his power with increasingly outlandish statements.
In the book (largely based on classical sources from Tacitus and Suetonius), Caligula’s reign starts out relatively peacefully, as he behaved generously to the people and the Senate. Then he ran out of money. And then he got sick. And when he recovered, he proclaimed himself a God, having undergone a ‘metamorphosis.’
This passage concerns the point at which the mad Caligula declares his divinity, highlighting the lack of resistance put up by the Senate:
But—would you believe it?—Caligula’s divinity was accepted by everyone without question. For awhile he was content to let the news of it circulate privately, and to remain officially a mortal still. It would have spoilt his free and easy relations with the Scouts and curtailed most of his pleasure if everyone had had to life face-down on the floor whenever he appeared. But within ten days of his recovery, which was greeted with inexpressible jubilation, he had taken on himself all the mortal honours that Augustus had accepted in a lifetime and one or more two besides. He was Caesar the Good, Caesar the Father of the Armies, and the Most Gracious and Mighty Caesar, and Father of the Country, a title which Tiberius had refused all his life.
(395-396. Vintage International Edition, 1989. Originally published 1934.)
It’s also worth looking at this clip from the 1979 movie Caligula:
If you’re disconcerted by this disturbing “executive order,” well, then, you should be. To thwart a prophecy, Caligula supposedly ordered the construction of a two-mile bridge across a body of water using Roman naval boats–just so that he could cross the bay while riding his favorite horse. It is without much imagination to see that such unnecessary construction projects sound familiar.
George Orwell’s 1984 may be in the news for its anticipation of the rise of “alternate facts,” but for a powerful and resonant description of an impetuous, unhinged leader, I, Claudius is another strong candidate.