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24 January

Caligula assassinated, AD41

On this day in AD41, or 41BCE, the Roman emperor Caligula was assassinated.

His name was in fact Gaius Augustus Germanicus and Caligula was his nickname – meaning “soldier’s little boot” – picked up while he was a child accompanying his general father on campaigns.

Caligula arrived as ruler of Rome by a tortuous, intrigue-filled and bloody route and worked hard once in power to increase the autocratic power of the emperor. This did not sit well with those who still saw Rome as a republic. Nor did Caligula’s spending of huge amounts of money on lavish residences for himself.

Caligula became emperor in March AD37 and was initially popular but by October that year he had started on a series of politically motivated murders (first his cousin and adopted son, then his father- and brother-in-law).

The following year he reinstated democratic elections and embarked on a series of tax reductions designed to bolster his popularity. The year after that the money ran out and he was forced into a series of revenue-raising stunts from unorthodox directions – such as auctioning off gladiators at public shows.

A famine broke out, partly due to Caligula’s incompetent handling of Rome’s infrastructure.

He was a contradictory ruler – he built many roads, aqueducts, temples and huge ships and seemed to love audacious civil engineering projects. But it was when he started murdering members of the Senate – who had grown used to ruling alone after Caligula’s predecessor, Tiberius, had retreated from active life – that the conspiracies against the emperor started to flourish.

These only grew in number when Caligula started to dress himself up as a god and claim divinity. He ordered a statue to himself erected in the Temple of Jerusalem (orders wiser heads never carried out). Tales about Caligula increased further – sleeping with sisters, prostituting them, making his horse a consul.

In AD40 Caligula announced he was moving to Alexandria, Egypt, where he would be worshipped as a god. This seems to have provided the spur to the conspirators, who moved quickly to kill the emperor.

Led by Cassius Chaerea they stabbed him to death in an underground corridor while he was addressing an acting troupe. Keen to destroy his line, they also murdered his wife and daughter. They failed to kill his uncle, Claudius, who became emperor.

Caligula (1979, dir: Tinto Brass)

If you have not seen Caligula, I strongly urge you to do so. Not because it is a great film – it really isn’t – but because it offers the sight of illustrious names of film being made a total fool of.

Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and Helen Mirren are among those lining up for a drubbing in a film ostensibly directed by Tinto Brass, and ostensibly giving us a straight version of the life of the infamous Roman emperor.

Malcolm McDowell plays Caligula, and you couldn’t ask for a better actor to play a megalomaniac going off his chump. The script is by Gore Vidal, prolific writer of lightly fictionalised histories of the American republic. The ideal man, you’d have thought, to tackle a story about the ancient empire all modern empires style themselves on.

As for director Brass… well, here’s where the smudging starts. A talented director, Brass operated at that time in the peculiar territory shared by arthouse and pornography – for reasons to do with censorship and economics most towns could afford one non-mainstream cinema, which had to do double duty.

The reason why I use the word “ostensibly” in relation to direction and plot is because the film was bankrolled by Bob Guccione, the owner of the soft-porn title Penthouse. And once Brass’s work was done Guccione took control of the film and hired another director, Giancarlo Lui, to shoot hardcore inserts.

Thanks to constant rewrites, budget over-runs, arguments and walkouts, the film was probably already a mess before Lui and Guccione got to work, but even so what eventually appeared on the screens is through-the-fingers stuff – the continuity is shot away, the film makes no sense and the action keeps pausing so that people who appear to be from another film entirely can disport themselves pornographically.

When they got wind of what Guccione and Lui were up to, both Vidal and Brass sued, as did some of the actors (though it must be said that the sensible ones simply chalked it up to experience).

“Shameful trash” the celebrated critic Roger Ebert called it. He’s being kind. If you want to buy the DVD or Blu-ray (its soft of focus either way), make sure to check out the “making of” interviews made before it debuted and featuring Guccione, Brass, Vidal et al. The gap between their windy guff and the leaden reality is a whole new realm of pleasure.

Update: 2023-05-19
In light of the recent announcement at Cannes this year of Caligula: The Ultimate Cut, it’s clear there’s life in this old dog yet. Art historian/polymath Thomas Negovan has managed to get hold of the original reels from the Penthouse organisation, and claims to have put together an entirely different film, with not one shot from the original making it into his Ultimate Cut. Whether this means more pointless nudity or less remains to be seen. Seizing the day, he’s also written, produced and directed Let Them Hate Me, a documentary about the making of the original Caligula. Watch this space… 

Why Watch?

  • An eye-rolling Malcolm McDowell
  • The high tone cast includes John Gielgud (killing himself)
  • The glory that wasn’t Rome
  • ”Been there, done that” kudos

Caligula – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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