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An historical commentary on Cassius Dio’s Roman history, Book 59 (Gaius Caligula) Humphrey, John William


The reign of the Emperor Gaius was a period of considerable significance in the history of the Roman world. The Augustan Principate had endured virtually unchanged for three generations, and for most of that time the myth of a regenerated Republic was maintained, despite the widespread suspicion and even fear that had clouded the last years of Tiberius' reign. Gaius' accession was greeted as the beginning of a new age, a return to the glory of the reign of Augustus. Yet by the time of his violent murder only four years later, the mood of the people had, according to our sources, changed completely: Gaius in the meantime had become an oriental monarch who delighted in debauchery, murder, and wasteful extravagance. The purpose of this study of Gaius' reign is to test the validity of those traditional charges levelled against the Emperor by hostile sources. Any examination of this period of Roman history is hampered by the loss of the relevant books of Tacitus' "Annals", a loss that makes even more important a critical analysis of the surviving accounts, particularly the chronological narrative of Cassius Dio. Augmented by the contemporary treatises of Seneca and Philo, and by the later works of Josephus and Suetonius, Dio's version of the events from A.D. 37 to 41 has been responsible for the perpetuation of the common tradition concerning Gaius. In this commentary on Book 59 of Dio's history--including a study of its similarity to and divergence from other accounts, its generalizations and anachronisms, and its indebtedness to Dio's own experiences as a senator in the later Empire--I have attempted a rational reconstruction of Gaius' Principate free from the prejudices that have coloured its interpretation until recent years. The resulting picture of the Emperor is far different from that painted by our sources, whose own evidence can frequently be used to disprove their own interpretations. Such topics as his administration of the provinces, his campaigns in Germany and Gaul, his fiscal policy, and his behaviour in private and public are shown to be not immoderate but rather balanced and sensible, if subject to a certain immature rashness. Yet by seeing the Principate for what it really was--a monarchy based on military power, in the tradition of the eastern kingdoms of Alexander and his successors — and (after A.D. 39) by openly displaying his contempt for outmoded republican institutions, Gaius damned himself in the eyes of his biographers. His claim to divinity, prompted by the obsequiousness of his courtiers, was to revolt those Romans who still believed the violent propaganda used by Octavian against Antony; and his disregard of the Senate, however justified it may have been, was to prompt our aristocratic sources to consider him in the same light as Nero, Domitian, and Commodus.

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