Has a grave robber uncovered the lost tomb of Rome's most depraved emperor?

Illustration for article titled Has a grave robber uncovered the lost tomb of Rome's most depraved emperor?

A man was recently arrested while trying to steal a statue of the emperor Caligula. The would-be thief led the Italian police to a previously unknown tomb that might just be the final resting place of Rome's craziest emperor.

Experts are fairly certain that the statue depicted Caligula because of its distinctive "caligae" boots, a type of military footwear that the emperor had a fondness for. Indeed, the nickname Caligula comes from these boots, as his father took him with him on campaigns in Germany when the future emperor was a boy. The child was dressed in a miniature soldier's uniform, and he gained the nickname Caligula, or "little boot."

That's about the only Caligula story that doesn't end with illicit sex or someone getting stabbed. In four short years on the imperial throne, Caligula left a trail of hedonism and possible insanity that made him plenty of enemies. (To be fair, you try becoming the emperor of Rome at 24 and see what it does to your sense of right and wrong.) In any event, Caligula was eventually assassinated and his monuments largely destroyed by the popular groundswell against him.


That's left archaeologists precious little material evidence to work with, which is why the possible discovery of Caligula's lost tomb is such a big deal. The archaeological squad of the Italian tax police arrested the suspect as he was trying to load an eight-foot statue into a truck near the shores of Lake Nemi, a small body of water about twenty miles from Rome. Caligula was known to have built extensively in the area, including an imperial villa and, just because he could, a floating temple and floating palace.

It's important to stress that we don't have any hard evidence yet that this newly discovered tomb is connected to Caligula, but there's a decent amount of circumstantial evidence that suggests a link. Excavations are due to start immediately, so we should learn the truth in the near future.

Now, the popular conception that all the Roman emperors were completely debauched and hedonistic isn't really true - Rome itself was a generally conservative society, and many of the emperors reflected that ethic, or else were killed off before they could really get stuck into some good debauchery. But Caligula was pretty much just as crazy and depraved as everyone thinks he is. He was emperor for just four years from 37 to 41 CE, but he made every second count. In four short years, he more than earned the title of Rome's most depraved emperor. (Well...I'm willing to hear arguments for Elagabalus.)

Here's a short list of his imperial antics: he openly had sex with other men's wives and then boasted about it to anyone who would listen, he killed people on the slightest of whims and seemingly just for his pleasure, he purposely caused starvation just to mess with the poor, and he intentionally wasted money on a bridge...just because. And that's just what his contemporaries had to say - later sources offered even more salacious stories. He supposedly carried on incestuous relationships with his sisters and pimped them out to other men, effectively turning the imperial palace into a brothel.


Perhaps most notoriously, Caligula tried to make his favorite horse Incitatus a consul. That story was spread by the later historian Suetonius, who openly hated Caligula, and even he said it was just a rumor. Modern historians have suggested that, if Caligula really did pull this stunt, it might not be because of insanity, but simply an incredibly dickish way to telling the senate how little he thought of them. Either way, that's not the sign of a well-balanced individual. And even if he never became consul, Incitatus did all right - he supposedly had a stable of pure marble, eighteen personal servants, and had gold flake mixed into his oats.

As you might imagine, Caligula rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and there were several attempts on his life before three members of the elite Praetorian Guard managed to assassinate him. While only three men were directly involved in the conspiracy, the plot was apparently an open secret that everyone in the senate, army, and aristocracy knew about...everyone except Caligula, basically.

Illustration for article titled Has a grave robber uncovered the lost tomb of Rome's most depraved emperor?

So what happened next to Caligula's body? Suetonius wrote that the body was briefly hidden under turf before it was burned and entombed in the Mausoleum of Augustus. His ashes would then have been lost in the sack of Rome in 410. It's a plausible story, although Suetonius can't necessarily be completely trusted - he did spread a lot of the more ridiculous Caligula rumors, after all.


Indeed, the discovery of this tomb opens up another possibility. Romans were generally cremated, so there's not much chance his body is still in there, but if this was the actual location of his final resting place, it could provide some of the best archaeological material yet from the reign of Caligula. Indeed, this doesn't have to be his actual tomb for it to be important - it could just be a repository of Caligula artifacts that escaped destruction at the hands of the mob, which would still be a hugely important discovery.

Either way, let us celebrate the life of Caligula, which was most memorably captured in the 1979 film Caligula, which is easily one of the best works of historical fiction made by a hardcore porn magazine:

[via The Guardian]


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I love this all so damn much. My day has been made exponentially better by this. I've always been fascinated with crazy royals and emperors (as much bizarre mix of history books could tell you. You mean the history of the Borgia's doesn't go well with the ONE history book I could find on Heliogabalus?) so this news is like CRACK to me.

God, I swear, I love this more than I love costumed BBC dramas and I love the HELL out of those. This is so awesome!

I hope it really is his tomb. Imagine what we could learn from it! Imagine what might be in there, if it's still partially intact! I would pay GREAT sums of monies to see this as an exhibit. I don't care where I have to go. New York? California? Great Britain? Rome itself? I AM THERE.

Eeeee I am SO EXCITED by this news!!!

/history geek