“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana) It also may be said that people who don’t learn from their mistakes don’t mature. This would help to explain the underlying conundrum surrounding the infantile behavior of our present White House squatter, although I sincerely doubt he’s ever learned anything, ergo: remembering is not a factor in his case.
The history of the United States is young in comparison to those of other countries. I believe, at this precarious moment on our brief time-line, it would be worthwhile to take a quick look at a once great empire, Rome – specifically at one of its more selfish and capricious rulers, Caligula. This exercise could prove to be, for those who see the strong analogy and can connect the dots, a potentially valuable learning opportunity.
Famous Last Words:
The soothsayer Thrasyllus of Mendes, declared that Tiberius’ nephew, Caligula (Little Boots), had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae.”
A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Emperor Caligula:
In 37 AD, when Caligula became Rome’s third emperor, he already was enthralled with real estate. He poured money into building projects, including luxurious dwellings for himself and his beloved horse, lavish pleasure barges, and city walls. Little Boots used his military for theatrical displays including mock battles, gladiatorial games, and parades. He requisitioned hundreds of Roman merchant ships to halt their work in order to construct for him a 2-mile bridge spanning the Bay of Baiae just so he could spend two days galloping back and forth across it – thus disproving old Thrasyllus’ prediction. (A famine occurred as grain exports were disrupted in the repurposing of the merchant grain boats as pontoons for the bridge.)
His personal and fiscal excesses were renown. When he was a boy, he followed his father, Germanicus, around on the job. His older brother, Nero was actually his father’s favorite, but he eventually committed suicide. Their father was a stern presence and Caligula may have become germaphobic at this time in his life, but I digress.
In his first year as the emperor, he managed to blow through the 2.7 billion sesterces his uncle, the Emperor Tiberius had amassed. He wallowed in luxury. His 4-year reign, from 37 AD to 41 AD was a period of waste and carnage in Ancient Rome. The division between the private wealth of the emperor and his income as head of state became blurred and Little Boots drained the Roman treasury faster than he could replenish it through taxes and extortion.
According to his biographer, Suetonious, Caligula’s favorite saying was, “Remember, I have the right to do anything to anybody.” He worked diligently to extend the powers of the ruler over that of the principate and used fear to sublimate those around him, turning them into his personal toadies. Senators were degraded – forced to wait on him and to run in front of his chariot. He relished publicly insulting people, was jealous and distrustful of others in power, called for investigations and trials, and ordered the execution of several senators. He was an adulterer who had affairs with the wives of friends and harbored incestuous thoughts about his sisters and daughter.
In the third year of his reign, Boots began seeing himself as a god; appearing in public dressed as Hercules, Mercury, Venus, and Appollo and in public documents, he was referred to as Jupiter. Two temples were erected in Rome to worship him. He had the heads of statues of the gods removed to be replaced by a replica of his own, and he was represented as the new sun god, Neos Helios, on Egyptian coins.
The Bitter End and a Moral on Which to Reflect:
Contemporaries of Caligula described him as “an insane emperor who was self-absorbed, short-tempered, killed on a whim, and indulged in too much spending and sex.” Apparently, the tipping point for his toadies was when he planned to make his horse, Incitatus, a consul and actually appointed him as priest. Feeling powerless to stop the repression and debauchery, the Senate and Praetorian Guard, under the leadership of Cassius Chaerea who was often mocked by Boots with feminine nicknames like Venus and Priapus (which I think means pussy, but again I digress) plotted against him. On January 22, 41 AD, Caligula met his end. He was stabbed 30 times by the conspirators.
Cassius Dios noted: “Caligula learned by actual experience that he was not a god.”
History’s View of Little Boots:
Most surviving sources characterize Caligula as incompetent and insane. They put forth medical reasons for his abhorrent behavior. Suetonius described him as tall, sickly-looking, and pale. Some scholars have suggested he suffered from Wilson’s Disease, an inherited disorder that can cause mental instability due to copper accumulating in the liver, brain, and other vital organs. Symptoms include unusual skin pigmentation golden-brown eye discoloration, fluid build-up in the legs and abdomen, uncontrolled movements, and speech difficulties particularly in articulating words. These physical symptoms along with psychiatric symptoms often result in decreased cognition and behavioral manifestations such as anxiety disorders, changes in mood, apathy, promiscuity, irritability, aggressiveness, depression, inability to maintain social relationships, impulsivity, impaired judgment, and executive dysfunction with poor planning and decision making.
Crazy Conspiracy Theory or Parallels Too Real for Comfort?
What have we discovered from delving into this short-term, historical period in Ancient Rome? Does any of this resonate with us? Could history be reincarnating its worst errors right here in the USA? Is it giving us yet another teaching moment, this time hoping we can reflect and possibly learn from the mistakes of others? Our American Caligula does not own a horse, so what will our tipping point be? We are a nation sadly being divided by a leader with no ethical boundaries. Can our present chaos eventually be remedied without resorting to violence, even though violence is a solution this narcissist obviously finds palatable when it involves those who disagree with him or thwart his ill-conceived plans? How will this end? And in the end, will we be a better, a greater country because of tough lessons learned?
to be continued
Vote on Tuesday, November 3, 2020