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Scholars discover evidence of Caligula's excessive behavior

Archaeologists from Stanford, Oxford and the American Institute for Roman Culture have unearthed evidence that Caligula, in an act of astonishing hubris, extended his palace to the podium of a sacrosanct temple.

The discovery, made during the final weeks of a month-and-a-half-long dig this summer in the Roman Forum, appears to support accounts by some ancient historians that the profligate but short-lived emperor was a megalomaniac.

"It's the equivalent of Queen Elizabeth taking over St. Paul's Cathedral as an anteroom," said Jennifer Trimble, an assistant professor of classics. "It's outrageous."

In early June, Trimble led a team of three graduate and nine undergraduate students to Rome. They were joined by Darius Arya, executive director of the American Institute for Roman Culture (AIRC), and a team of British students headed by Andrew Wilson, the project's field director and a senior lecturer in Roman archaeology at Oxford.

The goal of the dig was to explore the interaction of ancient commercial, religious and monumental space around the edge of the Forum. While excavating an area immediately to the south of the Temple of Castor and Pollux (a shrine dedicated to the mythological twin sons of Jupiter), the archaeologists say they discovered the remains of walls and a floor foundation that almost certainly belonged to Caligula's palace. What's more, the walls appear to have at one time connected with the temple, they say.

Caligula was the nickname (it means "little boots") of Gaius Caesar, who ruled from 37 to 41. According to Suetonius, a Roman biographer and antiquarian born in 69, the emperor transformed the temple into his vestibule. Dio Cassius, a historian born about 150, wrote that Caligula made the temple the entrance to his palace.

But modern historians have been hard-pressed to believe this and other accounts of the tyrant's despotic excesses, sexual perversity and sadism.

"It's very hard to evaluate all these scurrilous stories," Trimble said. "He's been condemned in memory as a lunatic and a really bad emperor."

Scholars also point to more tangible evidence for their incredulity: Remains dating to the last centuries B.C. and early second century indicate that a street once divided the palace from the temple. Excavations of the street have turned up no evidence of Caligulan walls or foundations. Hence, most historians have assumed that the street remained intact throughout the first two centuries.

The Stanford, Oxford and AIRC archaeologists found compelling evidence that Suetonius and Dio Cassius were right.


Telltale drains

Trimble gives Wilson, an authority on Roman hydraulics, much of the credit for having understood the significance of a drain that runs northward from the site of Caligula's palace and cuts across the street just south of the Temple of Castor. Because the street already had a drain that ran to the west, Trimble and her colleagues wondered why it would have been necessary to construct another one along a different alignment. Their theory: Caligula destroyed the street to connect his palace with the temple and, as a result, had to build a new drainage system. To Trimble, such an act points to someone with no sense of constraints. "Caligula associated himself with the gods," she said. "He played fast and free with the public streets of Rome."

However, she cautioned that even though evidence points to Caligula's divine pretensions, it does not necessarily mean he was insane. Rather, he may have taken a cue from Eastern Mediterranean notions of royalty. "In what is now Turkey and Egypt, there was a tradition of rulers setting themselves up as apart from mortals," she said. "But in Rome, this didn't work at all. Power there was articulated in mortal terms."

In any case, "clearly something is very, very wrong" with the way Caligula conceived of his authority, she added. His contemporaries, it seems, felt the same way. A group of conspirators, including members of his own guard, murdered him just four years after he had assumed power.

Trimble, Wilson and Arya believe that Claudius, Caligula's successor, demolished the palace extension to the temple and restored the street. The scholars said they hope to return to the site, possibly next year, to continue the excavation. Their success in doing so depends on securing the necessary permits and funding, according to Trimble.


Puzzle within a puzzle

In addition, the three scholars assert that what they found during the dig may complicate efforts to interpret the third-century marble map of Rome -- the Forma Urbis Romae -- which now exists only in incomplete fragments. (The fragments have been scanned and cataloged into a computer database by a Stanford team led by Trimble and Marc Levoy, an associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering. The URL for the Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project is

The map portrays the ancient city in astounding detail. However, as Trimble and her colleagues, who were digging in the area of fragment 18a, have discovered, it may not actually portray the city at one uniform time period. Rather, different aspects of the map appear to correspond to different periods.

The scholars suggest that the map may have been compiled using archive records and surveys from different dates. These records were perhaps updated from time to time, but the changes may not have been very complete.

The map is one of the most important sources of information about the ancient city's layout, and its apparent lack of temporal uniformity likely will compel historians to re-examine key assumptions about third-century Rome.


Dog days of summer

The archaeologists labored outdoors during some of the hottest days Europe has experienced in decades. Outfitted with hats, sunscreen and large supplies of water, they would begin at 7:30 a.m. and work until 4 p.m. "The students were great," Trimble said. "They worked heroically in unbearable conditions."

Matthew Shulman, a classics and anthropological sciences major who plans to graduate in 2005, said it was a "fantastic team." "We had great supervisors on site whose expertise helped those, like myself, with no archaeological experience to learn the necessary skills like troweling and cleaning a context, taking measurements on a grid, and cleaning and sorting pottery," Shulman said.

Danielle Steen, a graduate student in classics who has participated in digs in Israel and the Eastern Mediterranean, said she was thrilled to be working "in what was the heart of the [Roman] Empire."

"The heat was difficult, and I believe that some of the students were not so enthusiastic about answering the questions of tourists all day," Steen said. "But generally I have to say that this was one of the smoothest, most friendly excavations I have ever participated in or heard about."


By John Sanford

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