In these insane times in our country and the world, one searches in the past desperately to make sense of the unfolding madness of the present. No wonder people have recalled Muhammad bin Tughlaq in the face of what has been described (rather misleadingly) by the neutral word ‘demonetisation’ – but as many have already pointed out in considerable detail, what we face is much more than a foolishly, irresponsibly-conceived act of monetary governance gone horribly wrong. Caligula is back, and neocaligulaism is the flavor of the season, across the world, one might say.
When Caligula came to power in Rome, the crowd loved him. His first acts were wildly popular because they sought to undo and erase legacies associated with the earlier ruler, who had become very unpopular – like in present times familiar to us, his predecessor was popularly seen to be dull, unassertive, and disconnected with the masses.
Caligula was a master of public stunts and a talented natural actor, according to the historians of the day. He worked very hard to undo prophecies that he would not last. According to the historian Suetonius, for his accession to the throne, Caligula had a pontoon bridge built across the sea some two and a half miles long which was then covered with earth. He donned the costume of a Thracian gladiator and wearing the breast-plate of Alexander the Great, rode his horse across it. He then returned in a chariot, and continued the drama for two days, just to prove wrong an astrologer’s prediction.
He was also known to be suspicious, cruel, and prone to violence at the slightest sign of dissent. Tamed animals, especially his favourite horse, however, received kingly honors, and lived inside the royal palace dressed in purple robes, and the horse was apparently even made a priest, and Caligula even mulled about making it a consul. Caligula’s megalomania was such that he conducted all kinds of imaginary military campaigns, made soldiers collect seashells as trophies and proof of his ‘victories’ and bullied the Roman Senate into covering him with congratulations and honors for his fake conquests! He had a strange fixed stare (some say that many tyrants have it – Margaret Thatcher, too, apparently, according to some of her French critics), and his moods changed instantly and unpredictably. He had a crazy passion for shoes (many tyrants are fixated thus, some on shoes, like Imelda Marcos, and others, on suits worth crores and snazzy accessories), and so convinced was he of his powers that he insisted that his statues be installed in synagogues all over the Roman Empire!
And despite all this, as a historian of his time, Josephus, notes, he was an Emperor who “foolish people loved and honoured.” Rather reminiscent of our times too?
Caligula, it is rumoured had a taste for sexual cruelty, and a sadistic inclination to debase women sexually, especially his own sisters. However, the historian Mary Beard says that this may be an exaggeration. We have seen it in our own times, with many depictions of Indira Gandhi after the Emergency. Maybe they reveal less about the tyrant himself/herself, and more the incredible discontent of those who suffer under him/her. In any case, Beard reminds, even if those stories were indeed exaggerated, that does not make Caligula any less qualified for being a tyrant of the worst sort.
But interestingly – and thought-provokingly, for our times, Caligula’s madness was most evident in his entirely mindless despoiling of the financial stability of the Roman Empire. He brought the Empire to the brink of utter financial ruin, and his personality was such that he auctioned the very possessions of the imperial house, after first acquiring expensive possessions (I am not sure if any historian mentions monogrammed suits ). He imposed new taxes on Romans and set up the military to collect them. He even caused a minor famine by having seized public carriages and apparently even blocked granaries when he wanted to generate famine-like conditions! Caligula and his minions threw unbelievably lavish parties, at marriages, or pre-marriages, for daughters or nieces (like the minions of our modern-day tyrants) or whoever they pleased, with plates of gold and silver and cups of onyx, amber, and other such precious material even as a very large section of the Roman population subsisted on miserly handouts of grain and meat – which was funded by taxes on those in professions, employment, and industry.
Caligula entered the scene of power enjoying huge support from the ‘masses’, and that remained the case, apparently, till his bloody end, but when the people of Rome protested against his unjust imposition of taxes, he had them rounded up and murdered savagely. The historians Seutonius and Dio say that Caligula restored to the people the right to control elections, but it was just symbolic because he still controlled totally the selection of candidates – and in any case, this move failed in the end, and the older, elitist practice was restored. Dio notes, particularly, that Caligula’s control was total because the people of Rome had long forgotten and become unused ‘to performing the duties of free men’. That is indeed an eye-opener for us, citizens of new millennium India, who have been nicely corralled into consumption and self-help by economic neoliberalism, and tamed by the security state.
Caligula loved flattery, and apparently, the talent for flattery was indeed the talent one needed to rise under him. There are several accounts of how powerful consuls and senators summoned for execution or condemned managed to flatter him by worshiping him as divinity. But his favoured manner of dealing with the Senators was not execution, but constant humiliation and/or silencing.The aristocracy was terrified of him; they crawled in front of him. Senators dressed like Caligula’s personal slaves and waited on him; some of them sat at his feet. As a modern historian remarks, under Caligula, “the senators could not accuse him of murdering arbitrarily.; instead he had simply let them give free rein to their servility and cynically taken it at face value. He had held up a mirror to the Roman aristocracy and showed them the absurdity of their own behavior. In so doing he had made them look ridiculous and let them humiliate themselves as never before. Utterly powerless, they had been forced to tolerate his game and join in it.”These paths towards total power are not unfamiliar to us – mere spectators of course – in present-day India, are they?
Yet he was capable of taking what looked like rational and sensible decisions time to time – and many look remarkable indeed – only to ruin them soon after. Anthony A Barrett, a modern historian who claims that Caligula was capable of being a competent ruler, remarks that this ability remained equally perverted through his reign not because he was insane, as is commonly thought, but only because “he was so obsessed with a sense of his own importance as to be practically devoid of any sense of moral responsibility, a man for whom the tenure of the principiate was little more than an opportunity to exercise power.” Caligula’s obsession with his power was such that when he kissed a lover’s neck, he would also laugh, saying that this neck, he was entitled to chop down any moment! This historian notes, very perceptively, that Caligula was no mad tyrant, but “ … a far more frightening Stalinesque figure, capable of rational decisions, capable of statesmanlike acts (when it suited him) but morally neutral, impervious to any ethical imperatives in the pursuit of his own ends, and ultimately indifferent to the consequences of his actions on others.”
November 8, 2016, marks the rise of what I’d like to call neocaligulaism in the world, and in India. Neocaligulaism is not the wholesale imitation of Caligula – for we do know that some of his measures did challenge the power of the Roman aristocracy. It is, rather, the grotesque replay of the worst aspects of Caligula’s rule. What other term can describe an attitude which tries to build grandiose claims on the unfathomable suffering unleashed of the poorest of the poor in this country while pretending to undo or in the name of undoing, the power of the elite?
The BJP in Kerala practically gloats about the harm their leader’s stunt has done, for instance to Kerala’s thriving cooperative banking sector, claiming that these are the banks in which the CPM, its main political and social rival in Kerala, has parked its ‘illegal’ funds. Of course, the BJP has not much local funds; in the past elections, we know very well that astronomical amounts of liquid cash were brought to Kerala to fund their largely-flop campaigns. And of course, Vellappally Nateshan and others who the BJP in Kerala pandered too cannot be but blemishless and corruption-free angels, right?
Yes, maybe the cooperative sector is used by political parties to park their funds, and actually the BJP and RSS are no exceptions. I personally know of how one of these banks in Thiruvananthapuram extend loans to the poorest and send them completely false threats of revenue recovery when they are unable to repay exorbitant rates of interest! By spreading the canard that cooperative banks in Kerala are essentially patronized by hoarders of ill-gotten wealth, these agents of neocaligulaism have targeted some of the most vulnerable sections of Kerala’s people. The cooperative banks in Kerala offer better interest rates and more human service, and so a very large share of their deposits is held by senior citizens –retirees – and women. In our local cooperative bank, nearly 55 per cent of the deposit-holders are women, and some 50 per cent of the clients are senior citizens! It is these people whose suffering that the neocaligulaists now paper over in their empty boasts. As the Hindu today noted, in the Muslim-majority district of Malappuram, the town has just 17 ATMs out of which just 3 were functioning! And senior leaders of the BJP in Kerala have the gall to claim that Bangladeshis are making a killing there! The silence of many members of Kerala’s fattened upper caste Hindu and Syrian Christian elite – especially professionals like doctors and others – who were so enamoured of Hindutva is also telling. Perhaps the Hindutva fanatics here have taken a leaf from their colleagues in Karnataka and Gujarat and arranged for them to launder their ill-gotten wealth?
Caligula’s popularity with the masses in his times did not save him in history – he continues to be one of the most reviled rulers of all times, all over the world. In Haiti, under the Duvaliers’ terrifying rule, artists used the play that Albert Camus wrote about Caligula (which however, is a much more complex representation) to generate an underground conversation about the dictator. Historians now hasten to remind us that much of what we know of Caligula’s cruelty was made up later on – but then there is the question why people felt the need to make sure that his memory would be forever hated? Let the BJP in Kerala not take us for granted – we have all to live together in Kerala, and that is not something you can ever afford to forget. You will go down in history as the underlings of neocaligulaism, more ridiculous than that horse which Caligula appointed Consul in his power-crazed rule.