Some stories need to be told and retold. One of them is the story of the notorious Roman emperor Caligula. This is my try at telling it.
Struck by the resemblances between Caligula and current American politics, I tried to capture them in this poem. I call it Caligula Unbound (‘Caligula niet meer geketend’). It is the story of a ruler unchained and dangerously free from restraining, sane, and ethical influences and considerations.
Early readers of the manuscript were enthusiastic. Their reactions encouraged me to publish it as a paperback or as an e-book.
But what to do? Revise it to tell the story from different viewpoints? Make it longer, shorter? Make the comparisons more obvious by naming the current people who are parallels to the bad actors in Caligula’s Rome?
I hesitated for a long time.
Then the penny fell.
I decided to make my story available for free to more readers. It is now online here.
Long long ago when times were unenlightened
a madman gained much power. Don’t ask how.
His twitches soon had his own Cabinet frightened.
He cajoled, barked, and bullied trying to cow
those doubting that his dubious advent brightened
their troubled world. Oh, were things better now!
The scrolls note that obstruction was his game
and tell us that Caligula was his name.
Caligula’s Privileged Birth
His birth went well enough, robust survival
was heralded with solid silver spoons
and with dinner knives of gold whose glitters rival
the stars. His priests tore entrails out of loons
and dried them to preserve them as archival
evidence that inside twelve score of moons
none could withstand the lies he had unfurled
and he’d take possession of this troubled world.
From tender years, he travelled with his relatives
and with shadowy families his was in cahoots
with. He was from babyhood quite clammily
associated with unpleasant brutes
who tutored him that it was fame he’d see
if he cheated. They nicknamed him ‘little boots’.
He learned from them that family is all
when bolstered by sufficient wherewithal.
Introduction to Killing
When relatives of his were killed, his haughty uncle,
the Emperor Tiberius, put to death
their executioner. That sort of bungle
taught Caligula that, while they can draw breath,
other humans are wild nightmares from the jungle
and he was better off in a tower pushing meth.
He grew unsure, but sure that he impressed
the others if he said he was the best.
Investiture as Priest
Nineteen years old and invested as a priest!
He had coveted a princedom. ‘Stepping stone,’
his uncle told him. Caligula, unappeased
went mad a little more. He slept alone
and dreamed of torturing tenants he had fleeced.
He dreamed he saw his name carved on a curb stone
in towering letters filled in with fool’s gold,
He dreamed of peons in his stranglehold.
Appointed without Training
Aged twenty-one and living in Capri
with his uncle, he was appointed as a quaestor.
Not knowing what one was, he resolved to be
the sort that causes rotten deals to fester
with profits for his favourite person – ‘Me!’
He scammed and scammed and called himself investor,
taking profits from the victims he abhorred
except as scalps to take for keeping score.
Ascension to the Throne
At age twenty-five Caligula was brothered,
with his uncle’s son, as joint heirs to the throne.
Tiberius died; some say he was smothered,
and Caligula conspired to rule alone.
He arranged for his young cousin to be mothered
in a no-doors villa made of thickset stone.
He abolished his uncle’s hated treason trials
and dealt with dissenters using subtle vials.
Early Purchased Popularity
Caligula paid bequests to the Roman people
and a handsome bonus to the praetorian guard.
The crowds acted like they loved him. They would creep all
creepy-like into the tyrant’s yard
and encourage him to emulate a steeple.
They applauded his eccentricities as avant-garde
when he’d ride his horse across a pontoon bridge
dressed up to look like Myra Breckinridge.
Illness Then Full Madness
And then Caligula changed, some blamed an illness,
from delusional to full-out murderous mad.
He could not sleep. He twitched. He showed a shrillness
in badmouthing the media. They were bad
in his view, and real soon, they were a stillness.
He fancied himself a proto-Galahad.
With his wealth and power, he soon had four wives.
He called them Tens, till he broke them down to Fives.
The Roman Senate Abnegates
‘Caligula promised us new dawns. He delivers.
Too late it dawns on us senators that they’re false,
his dawns demoting citizens to givers
of all they held as valuable to the claws
of the beast insatiable, Caligula King.
He who, until his crowning, was a joke
laughs madly as his nightmare dreams come true.
He fires democracy, inhales its smoke.
He fiddles with the rudder, junks the compass,
sets collision courses for the ship of state.’
The somnolent senators, wary of a rumpus,
give him a chance, and from him learn to hate
the things they loved. They let themselves be drawn
in by Newspeak until old horrors dawn.
Beginning Spree Killing
His madness grew. He executed without trial
his principal supporter, a praetorian.
He also offed his cousin. ‘Sharing’s vile,’
Caligula said. ‘I’m feeling terpsichorean.
I twitch and dance and flash a winner’s smile
to dazzle my darling horse, who’s my historian.’
He used public funds erecting towering walls
and labelled false the senate’s warning calls.
Caligula Makes Himself Sick with Introspection
His finally-found free lunch sticks in his craw.
‘How finally found?’ the madman in him asks.
In his mirror, he sees facial muscles draw
the ghastly rictus he reserves for tasks
of darkness. Leaving rules for what they are,
he expects to rate reprise expectorating.
He clears his throat, and gaping jaw ajar,
he bids free lunch adieu through the storm grating.
Caligula Lawyers up and Goes Licentious
Of age but not mature, the lord Caligula
made madness great. A rumoured palace brothel
was whispered. He gave orders to configure a
loophole or ten to masquerade his awful
undermining of democracy’s curricula.
He hired the silver-tongued as his apostles
then denigrated those who demurred or, worse,
made fun of how he loved his favoured horse.
Silanus Speaks from His Grave
‘We waked not from but into the Caligulan nightmare,
and I, the father of the tyrant’s first wife,
thought that he, though mad, for family would foreswear
his killing sprees. My mistake cost me my life.
He saw my chiding as too doctrinaire
and said, “Silanus, take this paring knife
and make space in your throat where it can hide.
I won’t torture you if you’re a suicide.”’
Caligula Commandeers the Roman Baths
The shot heard round the tub alarmed the senators
or would have, were they not now alarmed out.
The ones that still could paddled, getting nowhere.
The others drifted, togas flared, and spoke
of better times remembered less and less.
Caligula Revives Tiberius’s Treason Trials
‘You are not the emperor,’ he told the people. ‘I am.’
Because he could, he reinstated trials against treason
and used them to remove the troublesome logjam
of senators and seers who sought to reason
against his tirades when he’d body-slam
pundits, pushers, fawners, and estranged
wives. They all could see he was deranged.
Silanus from His Grave Asks Who Will Stop the Tyrant
‘A population shunning reason now that the claims
of democracy too often turned out lies
allows Caligula to take their names
and charm them with his story that defies
not only common sense but their survival.
Give them a circus then! Minorities crucified.
He and his usher in extinctions that will rival
the Permian. Remember all that died?
Of course, you don’t. None of us do, and now
that it’s our turn for extermination, we,
instead of fighting back, well, we allow
our mad Emperor to ensure that our destiny
will be that of the dragons – if we flinch
or ignore the urgent warnings all around;
if we form no resistance that can wrench
power from the mad before we drown;
if we pretend like Pollyanna that the good
will win because it’s nicer; if we act aghast
but do nothing for ourselves or neighbourhoods,
who’ll prevent this tyrant’s election from being our last?’
Caligula’s Dog Whistle
Caligula sends a signal: he kills children.
He sends shafts of burning fire to far off lands
‘Herod was a pussy,’ he exults.
‘Silly man and silly rules, just killing firstborns.’
Most of the kids Caligula kills are brown.
‘Just to let the folks down home know where I stand,’
says the emperor to sickening applause.
Beleaguered Romans Have a Pipe Dream of Space
In the dream that prescient Romans dreamed last night,
an alien spaceship settled on the lawn
of Caligula. Green aliens asked him, all polite
and friendly, to permit them to put on
his imperial leg a Sleeve of Veneration
as worn in other galaxies by top tsars.
It was a sign, they said, of their boundless admiration
for leaders who ruled walls and trade and wars.
Flattered by their attentiveness, he agreed.
The sleeve, like a velour knee pad, graced his leg,
flimsy, furry, comforting like tweed,
until he sat. When his knee bent down, that locked
the sleeve into a pipe no tool can break.
They dream he kneels forever, mute, defrocked.
Caligula Loves and Pampers His Horse
What ‘little boots’ loved most besides himself
was ‘swift’ or ‘at full gallop’ – his pet stallion
Incitatus. No, no simple sheltering shelf
but an ivory stable box for the rapscallion
racehorse rose inside the palace, for itself.
Invitations in its name went to the battalion
of pork-barrel seekers still prepared to jostle
for favour of this horse, Caligula’s ‘consul’.
Caligula Deals with Disloyalty
Caligula dealt with rumours of disloyalty
by ordering retired state governors to commit
suicide. That saw them off flamboyantly.
He said, ‘That’ll teach the buggers not to quit.’
Those who stayed were stoic although royally
pieced together in a counterfeit
mosaic of the craven and the cunning.
They plotted, building walls against the stunning
madness of Caligula. He went off
to Germany accompanied by his sisters
who weren’t, his sisters, blessed with mazel tov,
because he had them banished and their misters
executed. ‘We’re off to Britain,’ was the cough
his troops heard from Caligula. The Channel’s swells
stopped him. He made his soldiers gather seashells.
Snap Judgements in the Republic’s Baths
The ginger snaps dissolved in the ivory bathtub.
Whatever ate the sinking crumbs stayed hidden
in the steaming cloudy water. Large things stirred.
Caligula, on his horse, imagined great
futures. He placed sycophantic men
in positions of great power; he let them drown.
He laughed until he choked, unplugged the stopper.
The Last Defenders of the Republic
‘We wake not from but into the Caligulan nightmare.
Signs of his madness stayed too long ignored.
His Reich mates share his thousand-year blank stare.
We whimper, “Give him a chance.” Give him a sword?
Wait for what? Now he’s in power. He holds the keys
to plummet us and all the living world
into hatred and disorder. Into death.
Tiberius was different, but how much?
The Praetorian Guard has a duty to our country.’
Caligula Tells His Horse His Fondest Wishes
‘Incitatus, I want to make the World great again!
Make it pure, pristine, and airless like the moon!
Make the continents and the teeming oceans great!
Rid their surfaces and depths of all things living!
Wait. I’ve got the power now. I can!’
Caligula’s Wife Du Jour Weighs the Odds
Caligula’s wife in public stays demure.
She says little, foreseeing years when his grownup children
will be continuously plotting to ensure
that her child will not grow up and supplant them
in the bloodline of the rich decaying empire.
She keeps her own plot silent. She’s demure
and beautiful. She knows there’s time to kill.
Caligula’s daughter stands by her stepmother.
‘Who is more beautiful,’ she wonders, ‘in the mind
of my father the emperor?’ She keeps smiling.
‘No losers here, no blood loss,’ she thinks, ‘yet.’
Caligula Returns to Rome
With his seashell trophies of his conquest of the sea
Caligula returned to Rome. A terrified
senate gave him honours ‘in perpetuity’
which they defined, in secret, as a tried
and true subterfuge whose ingenuity
could buy them time so, that if someone died,
it would not be them, they hoped. ‘Vivat
Caesar,’ they cried, and, anachronistically, ‘Take that!’
Silanus Foretells the Caligulan Nightmare
‘“Good is better than evil because it’s nicer.”
That’s Mammy Yokum’s mantra, from a time
good morals will be seen as important and a goal.
Caligula resembles statesmen in the way
oil stains on a beach are like a statue.
That is, you see, not in any way at all.’
Silanus ponders this until the cows come home
and his warders lock him up behind iron doors.
Caligula Games the Romans
Today’s shortfall of prisoners to kill
so irked Caligula and his beseechers
that he gave the order for his troops to fill
the quota from a section of the bleachers.
When the lions began carnivorously to drill
with teeth and claws, the fans turned into screechers.
They lost enthusiasm with their limbs.
Caligula heard their dying shrieks as hymns.
The Praetorian Guard Takes Stock in the Darkness
‘We estimate we’ve been awake an hour.
In this predawn dark it always is too early.
We’re uncomfortable, no comfort anymore.
With peace collapsing everywhere, we watch
as powerless as before but now it matters.
It is late. Too late. Our jailers turn the lights off.
They leave us to what they call our own vices:
Of the Christian values: peace and dignity,
Of the Jewish values: peace and dignity,
Of the Muslim values: peace and dignity,
Of the atheist values: peace and dignity.
The dark gets even darker. We lie still.
In this new world order, evil is disguised.
Out of boredom and self-loathing, we seek our pyre.
We forsake the frying pan, plunge in the fire.
Are Caligula or banishment our choices?
How did we let ourselves descend so far?
Did we push ourselves? Was some god on some star
offended at how we slid from troops to rabble?’
Caligula’s Insecurity Keeps Him Self-Absorbed
Caligula indulges his paranoia
insisting he’d have won all the senate votes
if democracy weren’t broken in this Rome
that he’s supposed to lead. Instead he twitches.
If it’s broken who will fix it? Not Caligula.
He is too busy peddling alternatives as facts
and pretending – to himself – that he is sane.
The Emperor is Down
Caligula suspected that his joint praetorian prefects
were racing to see who would do the other in,
him or them. His own survival reflex
failed him when he mocked an erstwhile friend
for suffering what Caligula called his defects
of masculinity. The man, assassin
out of honour, lunged and stabbed.
Knives were the last thing that Caligula grabbed.
How will our history end? Diverse historians
tell us that history cycles and repeats
with changes mostly cosmetic and stentorian;
for example, twitches yield the stage to tweets
and plebes at times are less or more uproarian.
They say oligarchical greediness defeats
democracy nine out of ten times in a row
but does Caligula’s tale apply to us? Who knows?