mon 22/07/2024

Caligula with Mary Beard, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Caligula with Mary Beard, BBC Two

Caligula with Mary Beard, BBC Two

Horse-promoting sister-impregnating self-appointed god has a makeover

A Roman knows: Caligula profiled

Loving the title. Caligula with Mary Beard. Professor Beard has been mentioned adjacently to some rum types of late. Internet trolls. AA Gill. They pale into nothingness, do they not, next to the emperor who mistook his horse for a consul. And his sister for a lover. You've heard the rumours. Caligula was huge in the Seventies, when such garishness blended with the wallpaper. Hence dyed blond crossdressing John Hurt being well weird in I, Claudius.

Hence also Caligula's very own high-end eponymous porn movie. Those were the days. But are the stories all true?

Well, maybe they are and maybe they aren’t. That thing about the horse – probably a bit of dinner-table banter that solidified down the years into an urban myth. And the sister Drusilla? He did weep immoderately when she died, of natural causes, rather more anyway than when he dispatched those members of his family who hadn’t already been diced by his uncle Tiberius. But it hardly stands up in court. And did he really declare himself a deity? He had a posh elevated walkway built in order more easily to talk to Jupiter in his nearby temple, but that’s not quite the same thing.

If doubt must be cast on the juicier bits of Suetonius, let it be Beard doing the doubting. Her scepticism washes down like an earthy Chianti. The more you watched this tour of Caligula’s brief life – he was assassinated in no time – the more you gave thanks that Beard was not a young fact-checker on I, Claudius, back in the day when the BBC saw imperial Rome as the ideal vehicle for pissing off Mary Whitehouse. She'd have struck a blue pencil through all the fun stuff (see clip overleaf).

This hour wasn’t entirely free from nymphomania and mass murder and other contemporary stylings. From Tiberius’s crows’ nest on top of Capri we were invited to imagine the miscreants being lobbed over the cliff. Some very saucy urns put it to the viewer that Caligula knew what he liked, sex-wise: in essence, anything that moved. But as with all the BBC’s steady stream of recent documentaries about the ancient world, Caligula with Mary Beard mainly went looking for evidence in stones and coins and architectural finds. And interviews with other academics, which yielded the odd sight of Beard asking questions to which she already knew the answer. A bit like Gary Lineker on Match of the Day.

The facts point more to megalomania than psychopathy, with a side order of tyranny. Sorry to disappoint. Wielding power ruthlessly, explained Beard, was the only way for an emperor to survive without a reliable security apparatus. So no wonder emperors made it their business to scare the pants off everyone in sight.

On a point of information the professor traipsed around Italy in gold trainers. Bet she doesn't sport them in Newnham College. Perhaps they were a nod to Caligula himself, whose nickname he hated. It translates as Bootikins.

Overleaf: watch John Hurt losing his rag as Caligula

Jasper Rees on Twitter

Interviews with other academics yield the odd sight of Beard asking questions to which she already knows the answer


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters