Caligula and the Jews
Last night here in the UK, the BBC broadcast another interesting programme on things Roman, written and “starring” Prof. Mary Beard (whom I respect enormously), this one on Gaius Caesar, better known as Caligula. It was, of course, selective, and as necessary for TV audiences (even BBC audiences) “jazzed up” just a bit and kept light and breezy. But some information did get through on the man and his brief reign (37-41 CE), which was cut short by assassination done by his own guards.
As is now standard procedure, Prof. Beard queried the historic picture of Caligula, as a cruel, paranoid, vain, morally corrupt ruler, observing that there were no contemporary references to him of this nature and that we depend on treatments in writers such as Suetonius (ca. 69-122 CE), who wasn’t even born in Caligula’s lifetime. But we aren’t limited to Suetonius and writers of his ilk or date. There were some curious omissions in the programme. Sure, one has to be selective when working with a time (or word) limit. But I found the omissions very puzzling.
There was a brief passing mention of Seneca, who was certainly a contemporary, and whose characterization of Caligula is pretty damning. Likewise, there was a brief reference to Philo of Alexandria (a prominent Jewish leader there) making a trip to Rome to intercede with Caligula on behalf of Jews in Alexandria.
But Philo (Embassy to Gaius ) has much to say about Gaius than the report of this unsuccessful trip. And there is also the extended treatment of Caligula by Flavius Josephus (ca. 37-100 CE; Jewish Antiquities), written much earlier than Suetonius.
In considering whether in fact Caligula was the megalomaniac portrayed in the historical sources who demanded to be treated as a living god, I was particularly puzzled at the complete lack of reference to Caligula’s order to set up his image in the Jerusalem temple (described at length by Josephus, Antiquities 18.262-309). This isn’t disputed as a historical event, and was clearly intended to force the Jews to acknowledge him as a deity, the image in question clearly a cult-image. I’d have thought this relevant.
Now, certainly, in the first year or two of his rule, Caligula made a number of reforms and won admiration and support from many Romans, especially among the masses. But it’s also rather clear that he didn’t handle power well (to put it kindly), and rather quickly became the sort of ruler who was feared, hated, and generated the plot that did him in.
As I say, one has to be selective. But I would have thought that the incident involving the aborted attempt to set up his own image in the Jerusalem temple would have been a rather important example of Caligula’s readiness to push for himself as a living god. Indeed, we may even have a reference to these events earlier than Josephus, many exegetes thinking it alluded to in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, the events still vivid at the time of 2 Thessalonians (a few decades later) as an archetypal example of blasphemous hubris.