Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, or Caligula lived from 12 to 41 AD in Rome. The name Caligula was given to him while serving in the army under his father, and means ‘little soldier’s boot’. Caligula’s father was the adopted son and nephew of emperor Tiberius, and after his tragic death at Antioch in 19 AD, the family returned to Rome to be with Tiberius. A bitter feud struck out between the family and Tiberius, leaving Caligula the only heir. When Tiberius died in 37 AD, Caligula succeeded him.
The nature of his reign has been debated through the years, with descriptions ranging from moderate ruler to extravagant tyrant. In the early years he focused on public works, building aqueducts and restoring the democratic vote- although he was also said to have carried out a number of executions without full trials. A number of problems began after that including the exhaustion of the treasury, taxes being levied on a number of institutions, and the degrading of the Senate’s power. A major source of concern was his increasingly relating himself to deities, and the combining of state and religious power, as Caligula requested to be worshiped as a god on earth.
In response to these problems, Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD by the Praetorian Guard, led by Cassius. Upon his death, his uncle Claudius became the emperor, though the Senate attempted to restore the democratic republic. According to Suetonius, Caligula’s body was placed under turf until it was burned and entombed by his sisters at the Mausoleum of Augustus (Suetonius 1913). In 410 AD, the ashes at the tomb were scattered during a sack of Rome by the Visogoths. While the mausoleum is not open to tourists, it can still be seen at the Piazza Augusto Imperatore.
Last week, an Italian man was arrested attempting to smuggle a rare statue of Caligula out of the country. The statue shows the emperor dressed as a god in the type of soldier’s boot that he received his nickname from. The raider admitted that the statue was found in a tomb outside of Caligula’s Lake Nemi villa. This has led them to believe that his true tomb lies here. Excavations on the site will begin this week. The goal is to find the actual human remains (Kington 2011).
So here are my questions: why are we searching for the tomb still, and what makes them think that they will find human remains? As mentioned previously, it is documented by sources from the 1st century that Caligula was buried at his mausoleum in Rome after being cremated. However, as always, we must beware the information being given in historic accounts as they are often biased and could have been changed in order to preserve power at the capitol or to prevent the true tomb from being robbed.
Regarding the search for the tomb, this came about only because of the finding of the statue. Currently there is no other evidence to support that Caligula was buried somewhere else than the roman mausoleum. Like many other ‘doubters’ online (Beard 2011), I am more apt to think that the statue could either represent some other individual, and even if it is of Caligula it may have been hidden at his villa in order to protect it against the destruction of many of his likenesses following his assassination. More information is needed before we can even speculate the presence of a second hidden tomb.
The search for Caligula’s human remains however is likely futile. In the 1st and 2nd centuries in Rome, cremation was the most common type of burial practice. Given that historical accounts describe him as being cremated, it is likely there are no substantial skeletal elements left regardless of their location. Hopefully the excavations beginning this week will be able to clarify, and hopefully the news will be just as happy to report them.
Suetonius. 1913 Reprint. The Lives of the 12 Caesars. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Caligula*.html
Kington. 2011. Caligula’s tomb found. The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/17/caligula-tomb-found-police-statue
Beard. 2011. This isn’t Caligula’s tomb. The Times Online. http://timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life/2011/01/this-isnt-caligulas-tomb.html