What Shall We Call the Emperor?:
Naming in Suetonius's Life of C. Caligula

Lydia R. Haile

Moses Brown School

Modern scholarship on the third Roman emperor refers to him as either 'Gaius' or 'Caligula.'  This practice removes an important part of the way that Suetonius structured the Life.  Suetonius carefully uses four episodes of naming to divide the Life into discrete sections and give strength to the false appearance of chronology.  Replacing the carefully chosen name used in each section with an all-embracing 'Gaius' or 'Caligula' causes this chronological support to be lost.  Unlike modern authors, Suetonius uses many names for his Caesar.  The four important phases of his life: infancy, childhood, princehood, and emperorhood, are all marked by the assumption of names.

            At the beginning of the Life, Suetonius calls Germanicus the father of one C. Caesar.  This son, however, may not even be the titular Caesar; Suetonius discusses a son of Germanicus and Agrippina whom Augustus and Livia both adored, even though he died young, and whose name was also Gaius Caesar (Cal. 7).  Shortly thereafter, Suetonius uses the long discussion of the birthplace of the Gaius Caesar who became emperor to point out how easily the two boys could have been confused, setting up a false connection between the two of them in the reader's mind.

            After this, the soldiers give him the famous name of Caligula because he is being dressed as one of them in miniature (Cal. 9).  Suetonius uses this episode to show how much like the mutinous soldiers this boy is by pointing out that only he could calm the mutiny.  This inauspicious episode of naming leads into the stories of his stay on Capreae, when even Tiberius is impressed by his cruelty and debauchery.  

            When he assumes the purple, the people hail him as pupum and alumnum, among other names (Cal. 13).  These hark back to his childhood, forming a connection between the mild child and sweet young man.  Again in this section, Suetonius tampers with the chronology, putting the death of Antonia and a callous reaction to it into the monster section; for a while, the new emperor seems to be benign. 

            The names in the monster section are different than those in the other three sections.  Whereas as boy, child, and emperor, he had been given the names, the source of the names he takes on as he becomes a monster is concealed in an ablative absolute (Cal. 22).  These names are a jangling, confused mix; he is simultaneously castrorum filius and pater exercituum (Cal. 22). These confused names show the confused mess of madness that Suetonius creates; this section is a fitting repository for the various stories pruned from the good sections of the Life.

            Suetonius avoids naming the emperor outside of these episodes; all other uses of 'Gaius' come as he reports the stories, sayings, or motivations of others.  The name that he gives the subject of this life changes based on what part of the life he is writing, By ignoring this feature of the Life, modern writers remove part of Suetonius's artistry. 

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