I, Caligula

by Rudston Steward

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t’s not every day you get to meet a direct descendant of a Roman Emperor. He did not introduce himself as such, naturally, but something about the way he held court, the glint in his eyes, the rambling discourses on the innate decadence of empires, gave it away. We were in the presence of a bona fide heir to the legacy of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, that redoubtable quintuple of strongman-generals and murderer-lunatics running from Augustus through Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius to, with pyrotechnical finality, Nero. A paranoid imperial pedigree, awesome and hideous—floating amongst us on the island of Ischia, in the flesh.

The setting was appropriate; the Bay of Naples and its islands were the playground and pleasure shores of the Imperial Roman world at the peak of its powers. As my Cadogan guidebook put it: “In the 1st century BC, everyone who was anyone in Rome had a villa on the bay.” To the south-east we could see Capri, where Tiberius spent the last ten years of his reign, devoted entirely to demented orgies and devising elaborate new forms of torture for his guests, before tossing them off the cliff below his palace (you can visit the spot, known as the “Tiberius Hop”). He was succeeded by his fiendish great-nephew and adoptive son Caligula, the only eligible relative left alive after Tiberius had killed off everyone else .

We walked down the steep stairs to Sorgeto, a rocky beach flanked on both sides by sheer volcanic escarpments forming a perfectly secluded bay. At the bottom a piping hot thermal spring flows from a grotto into the sea, trickling over the rocks on the shore and spouting from underwater fissures. Boulders are arranged in lines as a buffer against the waves, creating pools where cool sea water mingles with the hot volcanic juices seeping out of the earth. The effect is bewitching: you float, ebbing and flowing, suspended between briskly invigorating marine wavelets and spurts of scorching acquatic magma.


We’d come to Ischia seeking respite from the tide of dark tidings that had reached us from the wider world, depressing news deflating the high of our travellers’ buzz. November 9: the election of a strongman-idiot as the President of the USA. November 11: news of the death of Leonard Cohen—twilight of my poetic gods and idols. In the short space of two days our world had become a meaner, more violent, unbearably less poetic place. Did it signal the apocalyptic return of paranoid imperial legacies, of hideously murderous generals?

A single boat was anchored in Sorgeto’s bay; a man dove off the back and swam in slowly to shore. He clambered over the rocks and plopped himself down in the pool closest to the grotto, where the water is hottest. The rest of us adjusted, making room for one more, a brief entropic reshuffling of positions resolving into a new thermal order.

He was big-boned and fleshy, moving with a low center of gravity, as if hiding a discreet cache of weapons in the flaps of his belly, careful not to drop them in public. His hair was short, his cranium a globe of fuzzy velvet. He had a broad mouth and terse, purple lips. For a long while he sat with eyes closed, soaking it up, and then he said, to no-one in particular, “Caligula era perfettissimo.” Caligula was supremely perfect.

It struck me as an odd description of an emperor generally regarded as an insane tyrant, who in the first extravagant year of his reign squandered 3 billion sesterces—the vast fortune stockpiled by Tiberius— instigating financial crisis and famine. I replied that some of Caligula’s traits were, in my opinion, less-than-imperfect.


The man was unfazed by my retort, no doubt used to speaking over the protestations of the plebs. Droplets of moisture dribbled down his cheeks, teetered on his puckered chin and plummeted onto his chest. He made fanning gestures with his hands beneath the surface, spreading the hot water around to avoid getting burnt. “Devi ventilare,” he said. You have to ventilate. “Last year a friend of mine got second degree burns. I had to drag him to my boat and rush to the hospital in Pozzuoli.”

He was clearly a regular. It occurred to me that he had been coming to Sorgeto for ages—perhaps ever since the hey-dey of the Roman Empire.

“Caligula was a great architect. It was no big deal back then to execute people for no reason. And anyways, Tiberius was to blame.” He turned to face me, smiling. “ You know what Tiberius said of Caligula to the Roman Senate?” I shook my head. He closed his eyes again, as if reciting a favourite poem, “I am rearing a viper for the Roman people, he will be the ruin of all men.” He was lowering himself into the steam. “And so it came to be. Perfettissimo.”

Later I asked what he thought of the strongman-idiot recently elected to the White House.

“He is small-fry, he is nothing. Sooner or later we’ll have our own empire back, a proper empire. Like our Roman forebears.” He made a sweeping gesture with his arm, “Right here in the Bay of Naples.” He was no longer smiling. “C’e l’abbiamo nel sangue.”

We have it in our blood.


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