By Henri van Nispen
Oderint, dum metuant. “Let them hate, so long as they fear.” It certainly is an adage appropriate for a creature like Wolverine. The saying, attributed to the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula (12-41 CE), would also fit someone like President Trump, even though Nobel laureate Paul Krugman thought Caligula the better of the two.
Did Caligula say something like this? The ancient elite author Suetonius (c. 70-c. 130), of equestrian rank, wrote that the young emperor frequently uttered this line (Life of Caligula 30.1). As with so many of Suetonius’s sayings, tradition attributed the words to Caligula himself. In fact, it was an expression coined by the tragic poet Accius (170-85 BCE) in his play Atreus (TRF no. 203).
Suetonius’s Life of Caligula is a true treasure trove for fustian anecdotes about Caligula. Almost all of them are extremely hostile. Any reader who believes that Suetonius was an historian in the modern sense, who was set to write truthfully in accordance with the facts, is inclined to take his tales literally – with the risk of misreading or misinterpreting them.
This picture shows the result of such a reading: people honestly believe, and are taught at schools and even universities, that Caligula made his favourite horse, Incitatus, a consul (Life of Caligula 55.3).
Caligula’s supposed incest with his sisters, his grandmother and his great-grandmother present another example of the emperor’s bad press (Life of Caligula 36). Mother-son incest was “the sum of crime”, as Seneca has blind Oedipus lament in his drama Phoenissae.
Still, despite his extreme hostility towards Caligula, Seneca makes no mention of the emperor’s incest. Had he known of even the slightest rumour about this, he would certainly have used it against Caligula. But no.
Let us look at another example. This is by someone claiming to possess a PhD.
These sad examples are enough to make a non-specialist wonder why on earth ancient history has any relevance for reflections on contemporary discussions and persons. Why spend money on this? Isn’t it merely intellectual fun to “identify” a contemporary person with some historic counterpart? Does Trump really look like the emperor Nero?
Or like Caligula?
Ancient history can have tremendous relevance in relation to contemporary discussions and problems. On one condition: that one takes the ancient authors’ stories with a shipload of salt. The next blog shall present Caligula as the example par excellence for reflection upon today’s problems.
(to be continued)