Caligula’s tomb discovered? Probably not

caligula, CaligulaThe newswires are on fire with a remarkable discovery–the tomb of the infamous Roman emperor Caligula has been discovered near Rome.

The Guardian reports that Italian police caught a man loading a Roman statue onto the back of a truck at Lake Nemi, where Caligula had a palace. They arrested him and when they examined the statue were amazed to see that the man it depicted wore caligae, a type of half boot popular with Roman soldiers. When Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was a boy, he used to tag along on his father’s military expeditions dressed in a miniature uniform. The soldiers thought this was cute and nicknamed him Caligula, which means “little boots”. The tomb robber led the officers back to the tomb where he found the statue. The police triumphantly announced that they had discovered Caligula’s tomb and the press went wild.

Not so fast, says Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard. In a post for The Times she points out that lots of statues show men wearing caligae. It was the normal footwear for soldiers, after all. She also states that since Caligula was so hated by the powers-that-be and was assassinated, it’s highly unlikely that he was given a fine tomb. More likely he was quietly buried in some unobtrusive spot like many other unpopular emperors.

Yet the story doesn’t end there. Dr. Beard admits she hasn’t seen photos of the statue or the tombs (at time of press they hadn’t been released) and until there’s a full archaeological excavation it’s impossible to say for sure whether the tomb contains the mortal remains of one of Rome’s most notorious emperors.

Caligula has always been the subject of inaccurate reporting. While there’s no doubt that his reign from AD 37 to 41 included many abuses, especially insults against the Senate, many of the charges laid against him are unsubstantiated. Some Roman writers said he slept with his sisters, but there’s no proof of this. Modern writers often say say he appointed his favorite horse as consul, but that’s a misreading of Seutonius, who wrote, “it is also said that he planned to make him [the horse] consul.” That sounds like he’s repeating a rumor.

[Photo of the statue of Caligula courtesy Louis le Grand. It is not the statue the police recently discovered.]