March 18, 37 Little Boots

2,000 years ago, the Roman General Germanicus would bring his young son on campaign, the little boy with the not-so-little name Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Soldiers of the legions called the boy “Little Boots”, after the diminutive caligae or soldier’s footwear, the boy liked to wear in camp. The future emperor hated the nickname “Caligula”, but it stuck.

Around the year 14 or 15, the youngest son of the Roman war hero Germanicus found himself growing up around the Legions. As a boy of just two or three, little Gaius Caesar accompanied his father on campaigns in the north of Germania. Centurions were amused to see him dressed in miniature soldier’s uniform, including the boots, the “Caligae”, and the segmented Roman armor – the “lorica segmentata”.

Soldiers of the Legions called him “Little Boots”, “Caligula” in Latin, after the little soldier’s boots the boy liked to wear in camp. The future dictator was said to hate the nickname, but it stuck.


On this day in the year 37, the Roman Senate annulled the will of the Emperor Tiberius, proclaiming 24 year old Caligula, Emperor. After years of purges and treason trials, Caligula’s ascent to the throne was as a welcome breath of fresh air. A period of relative peace and prosperity, the first two years of Caligula’s reign did little to dispel expectations.

The obelisk at St. Peter’s Square was originally erected in Alexandria, in 30-28BC.  Caligula had it brought to Rome and erected in the year 40, where it stands to this day.  The “Piazza San Pietro Obelisk” is the only such obelisk to have survived from Roman times.

In the year 39, Caligula suffered a protracted and severe illness, hovering between life and death for over a month. It may or may not have had anything to do with his subsequent behavior. The man who emerged from that illness was widely believed, insane.

Caligula, Incitatus

The soothsayer Thrasyllus of Mendes had once prophesied that Caligula had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae”. Caligula had the last word on that with a spectacular stunt, ordering a temporary floating bridge to be built over the two miles of open water separating Baiae from the neighboring port of Puteoli. Despite not being able to swim, the young emperor rode his favorite horse Incitatus across the bridge, clad in the breastplate of Alexander the Great, no less.

In case you’re wondering, Incitatus was the same horse which Caligula appointed as priest and planned to make a Consul of Rome, the top official of the Roman government.


Before long, the emperor’s eccentricities became erratic…and terrifying. Caligula regularly made Roman senators run alongside his chariot.  He would order executions on a whim. Caligula once had an entire crowd section at the Roman Games thrown into the arena, to be eaten alive by wild animals. He said he was bored.

Caligula began to appear in public dressed as various gods or demigods:  Hercules, Mercury, Venus and Apollo.  He’d refer to himself as a god when meeting with politicians. He built temples for his own worship, where the heads of statues were replaced by his own likeness.

Later stories of wanton hedonism, cruelty, and sexual depravity are probably exaggerated, but none seem without a grain of truth. Caligula was murdered by his own Praetorian guard in the year 41, after fewer than five years in power.

Caligula, Pleasure Barges

Most historians dismiss the floating bridge story as a myth, since no archaeological evidence has ever surfaced.  Caligula’s two “pleasure barges”, extracted from the bottom of Lake Nemi in the 1920s and 30s, are a different story.   Measuring 23 and 240-feet respectively, their lavish furnishings included marble décor, mosaic floors, statuary and gilded copper roofs.  One wreck carried a lead pipe, bearing the inscription “Property of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus”.   In 1944, Allied bombing resulted in a fire. Archaeological treasures both, these living connections to the ancient world were consumed, in the inferno.

February 14, 269 Valentine’s Day

Legend has it that Valentinus befriended his jailers’ daughter, at one point miraculously restoring the blind girl’s sight. He is said to have penned a farewell note to her shortly before his execution, signing it “From Your Valentine.”

In 269, Roman Emperor Claudius II Gothicus was having trouble recruiting for his legions. To many he was “Claudius the Cruel” which may have had something to do with his problem, but that’s not how he saw it.claudius-gothicus

That Roman men were refusing to join his legions could only mean that they were too devoted to their wives and families, Claudius’ solution was to ban engagements and marriages.

Valentinus was a Roman priest at this time.  He wanted no part of such a silly decree. Valentinus continued to carry out marriages in secret until it was discovered, when he was dragged before the Prefect to answer for his crimes.

This Emperor of barbarian birth came to like his prisoner, for whom things could have gone much better, but for one critical mistake. Valentinus tried to convert the pagan Emperor to Christianity.

owe-marriage-to-saint-valentineHe was condemned to be beaten to death with clubs and beheaded, the sentence carried out on February 14, 269.

Legend has it that Valentinus befriended his jailers’ daughter, at one point miraculously restoring the blind girl’s sight. He is said to have penned a farewell note to her shortly before his execution, signing it “From Your Valentine.”

2,000-year-old history is necessarily clouded by legend, and there are different versions of this tale.  It’s possible that the Valentinus story never happened at all. Little or no evidence exists suggesting romantic celebrations on February 14, until Geoffrey Chaucer’s 1375 “Parliament of Foules,” in which the poet describes February 14 as a day when birds come together to find a mate: “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate”.

Yet, there is concrete archaeological proof that Valentinus lived, and Pope Gelasius decreed February 14th to be a celebration to honor his martyrdom, in 496.
The date is also significant of the pagan festival of Lupercalia, carried out from February lupercalia-large13-15 in honor of the goddess Februata Juno. Greek historian Plutarch described the occasion as follows: “Lupercalia, [when] many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.”

There are, in fact, about a dozen St. Valentines, the most recently beatified being St. Valentine Berrio-Ochoa, a Dominican friar who served as bishop of Vietnam until his beheading in 1861. There was even a Pope Valentine, who served about 40 days, sometime around 827AD.

So, take your pick. With all those St. Valentines, you can celebrate St. Valentine of Viterbost-valentine-the-legend on November 3, or maybe you’d like to get a head start with St. Valentine of Raetia on January 7. Maybe you’d prefer the only female St. Valentine (Valentina), a virgin martyred in Palestine on July 25, A.D. 308.

The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates St. Valentine twice, first as a church elder on July 6, and again as a martyr on the 30th. That would suit the greeting card companies, but don’t tell them. Once a year is more than enough for some of us to remember.

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