The nineteenth century is a period well known for its historical revisionism and, in particular, its vindications. Not only in academic spheres were Wolf, Mommsen, and Niebuhr putting into practice the principles voiced by Altertumswissenschaft (‘science of antiquity’), in particular Quellenforschung (‘source criticism’), but popular pamphlets circulating the streets of London and Berlin saw Nero (re)presented as the lesser of two evils when compared to George IV, and Caligula excused when judged against Kaiser Wilhelm II. So common were these rehabilitations perceived to be that, in the introduction to his defence of earwigs in the Strand Magazine (a comical piece, which suggests that everything other than earwigs was the subject of vindication), Grant Allan grumbles ‘This is an age of vindications...Tiberius has been described as “a wise and great ruler”; and even poor Caligula has been lamely excused, on the grounds of insanity, for such playful little freaks as making his favourite saddle-horse a Roman consul. Nobody’s reputation is safe nowadays from the vindicator.’ In this paper, I will focus on the vindication of one Rome’s worst emperors as a form of historical revisionism, exploring in particular the hermeneutical implications of deliberate character rehabilitation ‘against the grain’ of historical tradition.
Ludwig Quidde’s pamphlet Caligula: Eine Studie über römischen Caesarenwahnsinn (1894) will be the case study for this paper. Quidde, a German politician and activist, urged his readers to see Caligula as a young man with good intentions, who was overwhelmed by ‘Caesarean madness…a special form of mental illness’. ‘Caesarean madness’ is characterized by the megalomania that, for Quidde, must come with a position of such power, and this explains the young emperor’s behaviour as princeps. Kaiser Wilhelm II, taking power at a similar age to Caligula (29 to the Roman emperor’s 25), is thus implicated in the crazed megalomania of young men with extreme power. While excusing the behaviour in Caligula, Quidde draws attention to it in others. Undoubtedly influenced by the new theories of nineteenth-century criminologists and psychologists such as Lombroso and Krafft-Ebbing, this distinctive approach to the ancient world, fuelled by commentary on contemporary politics, served to challenge and re-cast traditional narratives of memory from and about antiquity according to modern agendas. Moreover, Quidde was not the only writer to adopt this approach: the Swedish Viktor Rydberg’s Roman Days (1877) and the English Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Tragedy of the Caesars (1892) also looked to psychology to explain the more extreme accounts of emperors’ behaviour in ancient Rome. For Baring-Gould, breeding through incest was the answer, whereas Rydberg saw the tumultuous upbringing of young emperors such as Caligula and Nero as ultimately to blame for their crimes. These texts speak to a broader European movement to revise and reimagine the ancient Roman past for a new, social-scientific context.
Thus, this paper will tease out the implications of both pursuing revisionist approaches such as Quidde’s, and their effect on the image of the Roman imperial past remembered in nineteenth-century Europe.
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