Happy 2000th birthday, Caligula!

It’s the day before the Kalends of September and you know what that means: it’s the birthday of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, aka the emperor Caligula. This one is a special birthday even under a numerical system without a zero because if Caligula really had been the immortal deity he hallucinated himself to be, he’d have turned MM years old today.

Gaius was born in Anzio to military hero Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus and Vipsania Agrippina, Caesar Augustus’ grand-daughter. Gaius was just two years old when the family moved with Germanicus when he was appointed commander of the army in Germany. His father dressed little Gaius in a miniature army outfit, including child-sized versions of caligae, the hobnailed sandal boots worn by common soldiers. That’s how he got his nickname, Caligula, meaning little caliga. He became a much-beloved mascot. Suetonius says the army loved him so much that his mere presence stopped a mutiny after the death of Augustus.

Roman caliga, Munich Archaeological MuseumWhen he was around six years old, Little Boot and his family were dispatched to Asia where Germanicus made Roman provinces out of Cappadocia and Commagene and was poisoned in Antioch probably by Piso, the governor of Syria. Emperor Tiberius was thought to have ordered the murder of his nephew and adoptive son. Gaius lived with his mother until Tiberius had her exiled in 29 A.D., then he moved in with his redoubtable grandmother Livia. She died that same year, so he moved in with his other grandmother Antonia, daughter of Augustus’ sister Octavia and Mark Anthony.

By 31 A.D., Tiberius had exiled/killed everyone in his family except for himself and his sisters. They were theoretically free, but in reality under constant guard and in constant danger of falling afoul of the emperor and suffering the same fate as their brothers, mother and father. Tiberius brought Caligula to live with him in his villa of debauchery in Capri, and Little Boot made himself an able collaborator. His ability to ingratiate himself with the emperor saved his life, although it may have severely twisted his morals at the same time. Suetonius seems to think he was a bad seed all along.

Villa Jovis, Tiberius' largest palace on CapriYet even at that time he could not control his natural cruelty and viciousness, but he was a most eager witness of the tortures and executions of those who suffered punishment, revelling at night in gluttony and adultery, disguised in a wig and a long robe, passionately devoted besides to the theatrical arts of dancing and singing, in which Tiberius very willingly indulged him, in the hope that through these his savage nature might be softened. This last was so clearly evident to the shrewd old man, that he used to say now and then that to allow Gaius to live would prove the ruin of himself and of all men, and that he was rearing a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the world.

(Phaeton was the son of the sun god Helios and Clymene who asked to be allowed to drive his father’s chariot for a day to prove his paternity. He was horrible at it, alternately freezing and burning the earth so badly that he turned half of Africa into a desert. Zeus had to kill him with a thunderbolt to prevent him from burning the globe to a cinder.)

When Tiberius died in 37 A.D., Caligula took the throne. Tiberius was old and sick, but Caligula might have had a hand in his final disposition. He is said to have poisoned the old man first, and then smothered him when he wasn’t quite dead enough to give up the imperial ring.

Murderous or not, there was an auspicious beginning to his reign. The first few months were pure honeymoon. The army still loved him as Little Boot, son of the great general Germanicus, and everyone else was just so thrilled to be rid of the blood-thirsty, treason-happy degenerate Tiberius that they gloried in the dawn of a new day. He recalled the unjustly banished, stopped the censorship of certain authors, allowed magistrates to take independent action, called new elections and restored the vote, threw lavish games, cut taxes and finished public works that stingy Tiberius had defunded.

All this largesse was costly. By 39 A.D., the treasury was broke and Caligula had to resort to increasingly desperate means of fundraising, from levying new taxes to auctioning off the lives of gladiators to starting a brothel staffed by senators’ wives and daughters to executing rich men for treason and confiscating their wealth. The last two years of his reign were characterized by increasing insanity, sadism and perversion. Of course that makes for the best reading, which is why you should definitely not quit halfway through Suetonius’ Life of Caligula. He even gives you the perfect starting point. Chapter 22 begins: “So much for Caligula as emperor; we must now tell of his career as a monster.”

The stories of brutal murders, incest, going to war against the sea, declaring himself a god greater than all the deities in the pantheon, declaring his sisters goddesses first and then eventually killing them all, planning to make his horse Incitatus a senator and ever so much more crazy are Caligula’s primary legacy. I, Claudius draws liberally on Suetonius as does the hilariously atrocious quasi-porn movie Caligula, which started off as a legitimate film with a script by Gore Vidal starring Malcolm McDowell as Caligula and Helen Mirren as his favorite wife Caesonia, but ended up as a Bob Guccione Penthouse special.

The Senate was a favorite target of Caligula’s and over the years several senators hatched conspiracies to assassinate him. They all failed. It was officers in the Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s bodyguards, who finally did the deed in 41 A.D., apparently instigated by one too many gay jokes.

When they had decided to attempt his life at the exhibition of the Palatine games, as he went out at noon, Cassius Chaerea, tribune of a cohort of the praetorian guard, claimed for himself the principal part; for Gaius used to taunt him, a man already well on in years, with voluptuousness and effeminacy by every form of insult. When he asked for the watchword Gaius would give him “Priapus” or “Venus,” and when Chaerea had occasion to thank him for anything, he would hold out his hand to kiss, forming and moving it in an obscene fashion.

Cryptoporticus (underground passage) where Caligula may have been assassinatedSome senators were also in on the plot. On January 24th, 41 A.D., Cassius Chaerea and some other guards approached Caligula in a passageway under his palace on the Palatine and stabbed him. Chaerea struck first, then the others took their turns, but still he lived. It took dozens of blows to kill him. Once he was dead, the guards killed his wife and their daughter.

After his death, all the statues of Caligula (and there were lots of them because at one point Caligula had insisted that every statue be of him, going so far as to replace the heads of ancient statues of gods and heroes with portraits of him) were destroyed. The few statues that have been found of him are often in pieces.

This is how Suetonius describes him:

He was very tall and extremely pale, with an unshapely body, but very thin neck and legs. His eyes and temples were hollow, his forehead broad and grim, his hair thin and entirely gone on the top of his head, though his body was hairy. Because of this to look upon him from a higher place as he passed by, or for any reason whatever to mention a goat, was treated as a capital offence. While his face was naturally forbidding and ugly, he purposely made it even more savage, practising all kinds of terrible and fearsome expressions before a mirror.

He didn’t seem to have practiced them before a sculptor. The heads of Caligula that have been found are rather mild and sweet-faced, as befits a man who died six months before his 30th birthday. One of the best preserved ones is in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Denmark. There are still traces of the original polychrome paint (a lot of the weathering on the white marble is actually paint remnants) on the head, which allowed experts to create a reconstruction of the original colored version.

They examined the portrait using raking light (light held at an angle almost parallel to the surface which reveals the effects of painting that impressed itself onto the marble over the centuries even though it’s gone now), ultraviolet and infrared to get as much information as possible about how the original was painted. A second head was computer-carved into marble to be an exact copy of the original, then it was painted according to the scheme determined by analysis.

I’m not seeing the goat, but he’s definitely got sunken temples and a broad forehead.

But it’s his birthday, so let’s not just wallow in Little Boot’s bad reputation. As much as the ancient sources uniformly depict Caligula as a depraved madman, they have their own agendas. It was common practice to depict notable figures fallen out of favor as hopelessly insane and sexually perverse. There’s also an echo chamber effect as the ancients borrow from each other and from original works that are now lost to us.

Some modern historians have tried, as much as possible, to sift through the limited information to reassess Caligula’s character and reign in a more objective light. For a less lurid look at this most lurid of emperors, check out the work of Sam Wilkinson, Aloys Winterling and Anthony A. Barrett.

WWII-era bomb detonated in downtown Munich

Another unexploded Allied bomb from World War II was discovered in Germany on Monday, but unlike some of the earlier examples which were removed and defused without difficulty, this one was destined to play a more dramatic role.

The 550-pound US bomb was found during construction work at the site of the late, lamented Schwabinger 7, a post-war dive bar known as the “darkest bar in the world” which was demolished last year to howls of protest from people who wished to preserve its grungy charm as characteristic of an increasingly bygone Munich, replaced by gentrified soullessness. Fortunately for last year’s demolition crew, the bomb was buried three feet deep, so they never encountered it. The workers digging the foundations of the new office building going up at the site, on the other hand, found it.

Authorities attempted to defuse the bomb on the spot but had trouble with the chemical delay-action detonator, a mechanism that was used in only 10% of bombs, but because it had a bad habit of not working appears in a disproportionate number of unexploded bombs. Finally they gave up trying to defuse it and decided to explode it inside. Even a controlled explosion is dangerous in the densely populated center of Munich, so 2,500 people in the area around the bomb were evacuated and cars removed. Streets were blocked off, three subway stations closed and people further out were asked not to leave their homes.

Bales of hay and thousands of sandbags were stacked around the bomb to help absorb the explosive shock, and then, just before 10:00 PM on Tuesday night, this happened:


The strength of the explosion shattered surrounding windows. Some of the hay drifted up to rooftops and set them on fire. Firefighters were on alert and were able to put them out promptly with only minor damage. No people were injured.

Experts say that the undiscovered bombs in Germany become more dangerous with each passing year. Last year, a former bomb disposal chief told SPIEGEL ONLINE that “unexploded bombs are becoming more dangerous by the day through material fatigue as a result of ageing and through erosion of safety elements in the trigger mechanisms.”

Bombs are found so often in Germany — thousands a year, an average of 15 a day — that most of the time the removals don’t even make the news. Only the really big ones do, or the rare ones that put on a sound and light show like the above.

Germany isn’t the only country affected. Also on Tuesday, a massive 1.5-ton German mortar bomb from the 1944 bombardment of Warsaw was found by construction workers underground in the Polish capital. Three thousand people were evacuated from the area, and the bomb was defused and removed without incident. On Wednesday a section of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport was closed after a suspected Allied bomb from World War II was found near the main terminal.

Smithsonian buys Benjamin Franklin’s silk suit

A three-piece silk suit Benjamin Franklin wore in 1778 while serving as the United States of America’s first ambassador to France has been purchased by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The iconic garment had been on loan to the museum from the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston since the 1970s for conservation and research, but its fragility only allowed it to go on display three times: in 1974, in 2006 at an exhibit in honor of Benjamin Franklin’s 300th birthday, and in April of this year for the American Stories exhibit. Recognizing the long-term preservation needs of the garment that it could not fulfill, the Boston society has now allowed the Smithsonian to purchase the suit.

Elkanah Watson by John Singleton Copley, 1782It must have been hard for the MHS to let it go after so many years. It was donated to the Massachusetts Historical Society by Elkanah Watson in 1803, just 22 years after he received it as a gift from Benjamin Franklin himself. As a young man, Elkanah Watson was apprenticed to merchant, slave trader and committed Federalist John Brown, co-founder of what would later be named Brown University in honor of him and his brothers. In 1779, Brown and some other Revolutionary leaders asked the 21-year-old Watson to carry some dispatches to Benjamin Franklin in France. Elkanah, dissatisfied with what he’d seen of the merchant gig and yearning to see more of the world, gladly took the assignment.

Patience Wright ca. 1782He continued to act as courier between the nascent United States and its delegation in France for several years. On one of those trips he met Mrs. Patience Lovell Wright, an eccentric widow who supported her family after her husband’s death by turning her hobby of sculpting faces in bread dough and wax into a wildly successful profession. So successful was she that she moved to England and sculpted the likes of the King and Queen — whom she called George and Charlotte — as well as William Pitt and Admiral Richard Howe. She also spied on them all in support of the Revolutionary cause. Legend has it that she would make wax heads of Patriots, then hide them under her apron when a Royalist came to her studio. Legend also has it that she would hide spy notes inside the wax heads, then ship them back to the States. During 1775 and 1776, she was one of Franklin’s best sources of intelligence about what the British were planning.

In 1781 Watson commissioned Mrs. Wright to make a wax sculpture of Benjamin Franklin’s head. When the work was done, Franklin invited them both to dinner at Passy. Here’s the passage describing the events from Elkanah’s memoirs.

I employed Mrs. W. to make the head of Franklin, which was often the source of much amusement to me. After it was completed, both being invited to dine with Franklin, I conveyed her to Passy in my carriage, she bearing the head upon her lap. No sooner in presence of the Doctor, than she had placed one head by the side of the other. “There!” she exclaimed, “are twin brothers.” The likeness was truly admirable, and at the suggestion of Mrs. Wright, to give it more effect, Franklin sent me a suit of silk clothes he wore in 1778. Many years afterwards, the head was broken in Albany, and the clothes I presented to the “Historical Society of Massachusetts.”

There’s an inscription inked on the inner lining of the vest that claims Franklin wore this very suit when he signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France on February 6, 1778, but in the letter he wrote to the Massachusetts Historical Society from Albany in 1803 Watson wrote:

This may certify that in the year 1781, being at Paris, in France, the celebrated Mrs. Wright executed for me an excellent likeness in wax of the immortal Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Dining with her at the Doctor’s, in Passy, and on comparing the heads, I suggested that such a head deserved a suit of his own clothes, on which he rang for his servant, directing him to bring the suit he wore…in the year of the signing of the famous Treaty of Alliance between France and America, in February, 1778.

Treaty of Alliance, page oneWatson then wrote a follow-up emphasizing that the clothes were from the year Franklin signed the treaty, not the precise time he signed the treaty. This doesn’t in any way decrease the historical importance of the suit. Franklin’s clothes played a massive role in the ginger diplomatic balancing act he had to do to secure the vital support of France for the baby United States. Treaty of Alliance, last page with signatures and sealsThe Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance, both signed on the same day, ensured that the raggedy new country would have economic and military support from one global superpower in its war against the other. Without France’s contribution of money, weapons and supplies, the American Revolution would have had a very different outcome.

Franklin's Reception at the Court of France, March 1778, by Anton Hohenstein ca. 1823Franklin’s “ditto” suits, so called because they were all designed in the same simple style out of the same silk, projected an image of America as virtuous, plain, hard-working, frugal and sober. Instead of rejecting Franklin for his rustic presentation amidst the embroidered silks, satins and brocades of the court, French high society went completely gaga for him. He was a huge celebrity, so often depicted in portraits that people all over the country would recognize him and flock to him wherever he went. He was the incarnation of the democratic spirit of the new country, and everyone from King Louis XVI to Queen Marie Antoinette on down thought he was the bees knees.

Reproduction at the Massachusetts Historical Society showing the original plum colorThis particular suit looks a very somber brown now, but it was originally a plum or claret color. Still modest and restrained, of course, but not quite as much as his brown homespun he called his “Quaker” suit. The fading of the color is one of the main conservation issues the Smithsonian will have to tackle. Although the structure of the three pieces — breeches, waistcoat and coat — remains sound, as does the linen lining, there are places where the fabric is puckering and flaking. Now that the museum owns the suit outright, it can work on a conservation plan based on their years of research and the latest technologies that will stabilize it to ensure it remains in the American cultural patrimony for centuries to come.

Below is the account in Elkanah Watson’s memoirs of Mrs. Wright’s creation of the wax head of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin’s donation of one of his suits to complete the look, and the later wacky adventures of the suit and the head in France and England. Keep reading for a few pages after the first two because it’s awesome. Watson pulled many a Weekend at Bernie’s with that suit and wax figure, bless his youthful scampery.

230-million-year-old mites found in Dolomite amber

Scientists have found two gall mites and a fly preserved in 230-million-year-old Late Triassic amber from the Dolomite Alps in northeastern Italy. These are the first arthropods (a phylum of invertebrates including insects, arachnids and crustaceans) found in amber from the Triassic. Although arthropods appear in the fossil record starting in the Early Cambrian period around 540 million years ago, these are the oldest arthropods ever discovered trapped in amber, 100 million years older than prior examples.

Amber droplets found in Triassic outcrops of the Dolomite AlpsResearchers gathered thousands of droplets of amber no more than six millimeters long from outcrops on the Dolomites, then spent two years screening each tiny piece for any plant or creature they might contain. If you think this must have been a painfully tedious experience, you think right.

“Before preparation, one of the tiny flecks of amber, about 1 millimeter in diameter, wafted onto the floor of my lab,” [David Grimaldi, curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York,] recalled. “Alex Schmidt and my assistant who did the prep, Paul Nascimbene, spent about three hours on their hands and knees with flashlights. I don’t know how, but they found the speck on the floor hidden in the corner between two lab benches. It was a nerve-wracking time.”

Triassic midge fly parts, head upper leftIt’s a good thing they were that dedicated to the task, because out of the 70,000 droplets of amber they analyzed for inclusions, three of them contained the groundbreaking arthropods: one partial midge fly (Diptera) about the size of a head of a pin, and two new species of gall mites. The amber had preserved the head, antenna, four legs and some fragments of the body of the midge fly which taken together were 1.5-2 millimeters in size.

The mites were complete and far tinier. One of them, Triasacarus fedelei, is shaped like a worm and is 210 microns long. Due to its body shape and differences in the structure of the mouth, researchers believe it may be an ancestor of modern gall mites. The second mite, Ampezzoa triassica, is even smaller at 124 microns in length. Its shape is more typical of modern gall mites.

Gall mites in 230-million-year-old amber dropletsThe amber preserved these creatures so well that scientists could examine them in microscopic detail, allowing them to identify minute characteristics like tiny waxy filaments on the surface of Triasacarus fedelei’s body that are thought to have helped protect them from predators, parasites and the elements. Both mites have two pairs of legs like present-day mites.

One way in which they’re different from their modern relatives is that the Triassic mites must have fed on conifers, since it’s conifer resin that hardens into amber. Today 97% of Eriophyoidea, the group gall mites belong to, feed on flowering plants, which means the mites changed their eating and living habits entirely when the new plant species came on the scene about 140 million years ago.

The Dolomite amber study has been published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. You can read it here if you have access to a subscription.

Family receives soldier’s will left on a bus in 1944

In October of last year, employees at the National Express bus depot in Birmingham were clearing out the lost property office so it could be painted when they came across something that had been lost since 1944. When she moved a heavy cardboard box on top of a dusty old metal cabinet, Christine McDaid found an old war office envelope. Inside she found the last will and testament of Private Gordon Albert James Heaton of Handsworth, Birmingham, and a letter from the war office dated November 1944 asking his family about his estate.

The official envelope was still sealed, which means in all likelihood these documents had never reached their destination 67 years ago. They were probably left on the bus by the courier. In attempt to ensure the family finally received this sad and important part of their history, National Express put out a press release about the find. The story was picked up by the BBC at the time.

While they waited for a response, Christine McDaid did some research on Private Heaton and found that he had been killed in France in August of 1944, less than two months after he made the will. He was 21 years old. Heaton was a member of the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment who took part in the River Seine Crossing at Vernon between August 26th and August 28th, 1944. This was the final Allied push chasing retreating German troops out of Normandy. Private Heaton was killed in the advance on Tilly on August 27th and was buried at the Vernonnet Cemetery outside of Vernon along with 15 other members of his regiment.

This month, David Hall was researching his family history when he came across the story about Private Heaton’s will on the BBC website. Hall’s 80-year-old great uncle John Heaton is sick in the hospital and David has been visiting him. He got the idea to look for information about his uncle’s long-lost brother Gordon who they thought had died during the war. When he searched for “Private Gordon Heaton” he found the story about the will. He knew the name alone wasn’t enough information to be certain it was the same person, but he contacted National Express and did further research. War department records confirmed that the will was indeed the last testament of the great uncle he never knew.

In a sad coincidence, the Heatons never received the war office telegram informing them of their son’s death. Then months later, the will, as we know, was left on a bus, so they never received anything official notice that Gordon was dead at all. They just assumed he had died when the war was over and he didn’t come back.

Last week, Christine McDaid returned the documents to David Hall who accepted them gratefully in his great-uncle’s name. John Heaton has not yet been told about this momentous find as the family believes he is too ill at the moment to take it in, but when his health improves they will have his brother’s final testament to show him.