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Caligula: A Study in Roman Imperial Insanity by Ludwig Quidde (1894)

In 1894, the historian, politician, and peace activist Ludwig Quidde (1858-1941) published a pamphlet entitled Caligula: A Study in Roman Imperial Insanity. It was ostensibly a study of the Roman emperor Caligula and the dire consequences of his psychological imbalances on the Roman Empire. Contemporary readers, however, would have recognized the real subject of Quidde’s study – Kaiser Wilhelm II. His “historical” account of an erratic emperor whose reign was marked by decline and decadence constitutes a thinly veiled critique of political life in Wilhelmine Germany.

Quidde narrowly escaped conviction for lèse majesté by denying the charges and thereby forcing the prosecution into the awkward position of insisting upon the similarities between Caligula and Wilhelm II. The incident nonetheless effectively ended his scholarly career. (Professors in Germany, it is important to note, were all members of the German civil service and, as such, government employees.)

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Gaius Caesar, known by his epithet Caligula (“Bootikin”), was still very young, not yet matured into manhood, when he was unexpectedly called to rule. Murky and eerie were the events surrounding his accession, wondrous were the previous fortunes of his house. His father [Germanicus] had succumbed to a treacherous fate far from home in the prime of his life, and among the people there was much talk about the mysterious circumstances of his death; people did not shrink from the most terrible accusations, and suspicion reached even those close to the old emperor [Tiberius] (1). The people had lost a beloved figure in him; he had enjoyed a popularity like no other member of the imperial house (2). He was familiar to the soldier from the many campaigns in which he had shared the hardships of war with the common man; the German land, the regions along the Rhine, resounded with his name. But it was not only as a war hero that he had appeared to the people; he had been popular in the best meaning of the word. His family life, his band of children (3), his simple bourgeois nature (4), his friendliness and equanimity in all situations, and the winning witticisms on his lips (5) had won him the affection of citizens and soldiers alike. Of course, as long as the old emperor was alive, he [Germanicus] was, regardless of the high offices that were bestowed on him, condemned to inactivity when it came to the most important questions of domestic politics, regardless of his creative power and desire. But if he had come to power, one would have had reason to expect freer, happier days from him, and the removal of the stifling pressure that weighed on the empire. Thus, the hopes of an entire generation had been buried along with Germanicus.

From this favorite of the people a glimmer of popularity also radiated upon his son (6), who otherwise, need it be said, grew up very unlike his father, perhaps resembling more closely his proud and passionate mother [Agrippina the Elder] (7), who, undoubtedly, often made her husband’s already difficult position even more so. At the same time, he was favored by the old emperor, who pursued Germanicus’ wife and children with hatred and suspicion, but who seems to have harbored a certain affection for Gaius, perhaps only because he saw in him the exact opposite of the father he so disliked.

(1) See Dio Cassius 57.18 (Zonaras XI.5). Tacitus, Annales II.72 and III.16. Suetonius, Caligula 1 and 2. Pliny, Naturalis historia XI.71.
(2) Tacitus, Annales I.7; 33. II.13. Suetonius, Caligula 3 and 4. Dio Cassius 57.18.
(3) There had been a total of nine children; two died very young, a third child, an especially promising and charming boy, was also torn from his parents at a tender age, while six children survived their father (see Suetonius 7).
(4) Suetonius 3, also Tacitus 1.c.
(5) Patientiam, comitatem, per seria per jocos eundem animum. Tacitus, Annales II.13.
(6) Suetonius 9.13. Josephus, Antiquitates XVIII, 6.8.
(7) Tacitus, Annales II.72. IV.52; 53.

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