Caligula (12-41 CE):
Roman Emperor (37-41 CE)
Roman Emperor (37-41 CE)
I have existed from the dawn of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night sky.
Although I have taken the form of a man, I am no man and every man and therefore a god.
I. Ecce Homo
Although as a rule I'm not interested in sadistic megalomaniacs, I'm prepared to make an exception in the case of the Roman Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar - or, as he is more commonly known, Caligula (a childhood nickname meaning little boots that, not unreasonably, he came to hate).
For not only was he young, good looking and charismatic, but he also had a sense of humour that revealed a profound sense of the Absurd and it's this, arguably, along with his showmanship, that makes him feel more of a contemporary than his illustrious forebears, or even his nephew Nero.
There are very few surviving firsthand accounts about Caligula's short period of rule - which, if we are to believe a recent documentary, consisted of 1400 Days of Terror* - so we don't really know if he was the cruel tyrant and sexually perverse sociopath he's portrayed in the 1934 novel I, Claudius, written by Robert Graves.
But even if he was, I don't believe he was a madman, so much as a nihilist and ironist (though maybe not of the kind compatible with liberalism that Richard Rorty favours). The above quotation - which could've very easily come from Nietzsche's late work - is a good example of this. I don't think Caligula meant this to be taken literally; that he was self-creating and, indeed, self-mocking, rather than self-delusional.**
II. Camus's Caligula
It was undoubtedly the absurdist aspect of his reign and his character that attracted the French philosopher and writer Albert Camus to Caligula and, in 1944, he published a four-act play about him in which, following the death of his beloved sister Drusilla, the young emperor attempts to bring the impossible into the realm of the likely and thereby shatter the complacency of Roman life.
For Caligula - as imagined by Camus - the only point or pleasure of having power is to transgress all rational limits that would restrict its exercise and make the heavens themselves up for grabs (the play opens with Caligula desiring to take possession of the moon).
The play was part of what Camus called his Cycle of the Absurd, which also included the novel L’Étranger (1942) and the long essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942). All three works expand upon the idea that man's existence is meaningless because his life lacks external justification. In other words, the Absurd invariably manifests itself when humanity confronts the unreasonable silence of the void.
Discussing his play in 1957, Camus provided a fascinating outline of its theme:
"Caligula, a relatively kind prince so far, realizes on the death of Drusilla, his sister and his mistress, that 'men die and they are not happy.' Therefore, obsessed by the quest for the Absolute and poisoned by contempt and horror, he tries to exercise, through murder and systematic perversion of all values, a freedom which he discovers in the end is no good. He rejects friendship and love, simple human solidarity, good and evil. He takes the word of those around him, he forces them to logic, he levels all around him by force of his refusal and by the rage of destruction which drives his passion for life.
But if his truth is to rebel against fate, his error is to deny men. One cannot destroy without destroying oneself. This is why Caligula depopulates the world around him and, true to his logic, makes arrangements to arm those who will eventually kill him. Caligula is the story of a superior suicide. It is the story of the most human and the most tragic of errors. Unfaithful to man, loyal to himself, Caligula consents to die for having understood that no one can save himself all alone and that one cannot be free in opposition to other men."
Reading this reminds one of why Sartre was right to suggest that existentialism - at least in the French understanding of this term - is a humanism ...
* Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror (2012), written and directed by Bruce Kennedy: click here to watch in full on YouTube
** In other words, whilst it's true that Caligula liked to refer to himself as a living god and insist his senators acknowledge (and worship) him as such, even this was done with atheistic delight and simply provided him with the opportunity to dress up in public as Apollo, Mercury, and, amusingly, Venus.
See: Albert Camus, Caligula and Other Plays, (Penguin Books, 1984).