March 18, 37 AD Little Boots

Around the year AD 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 the boy dressed in miniature soldier’s uniform, including the boots, the “Caligae”, and the segmented Roman body armor – the “Lorica Segmentata”.

Around the year AD 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 the boy dressed in miniature soldier’s uniform, including the boots, the “Caligae“, and the segmented Roman body armor – the “Lorica Segmentata”.

Soldiers of the Legions called him “Little Boots”, after the tiny soldier’s boots the boy liked to wear in camp.  In Latin, “Caligula“.  He’s said to have hated the name, but it stuck.


The Roman historian Suetonius writes that Germanicus was poisoned on the orders of Emperor Tiberius, who viewed the general as a political rival. Caligula’s mother Agrippina was denied permission to remarry, for the same reason. Agrippina was later exiled, as were her sons Drusus and Nero, while Caligula was remanded to the island of Capri and the personal custody of Tiberius, himself.

One observer spoke well of Caligula during this period, saying “Never was there a better servant or a worse master.” Suetonius believed the boy to be vicious and cruel, a natural actor who suppressed his hatred for the man responsible for the death of his family.  The historian writes that, when Tiberius brought Caligula to Capri, it was to “… 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.”

The Fall of Phaeton, by Sebastiano Ricci

Phaethon, according to Greek mythology, was the child of the sun God Helios. As a boy, Phaethon was permitted to drive the sun chariot for a day, but couldn’t control the horses. With the earth in danger of being burned by the runaway sun, the God Zeus was forced to strike the chariot with a thunderbolt, killing the boy in the process.

Suetonius appears not to have been a fan.

When Tiberius died on March 16 AD 37, many believed his passing to have been hastened by a pillow, in the hands of the Praetorian Guard Commander Naevius Sutorius Macro.  Tiberius’ estate and titles were left to Caligula and Tiberius’ own grandson, Tiberius Gemellus.

Busts of Caligulas Parents, Germanicus (left) and Agrippina the Elder

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 ascension to the throne was a welcome breath of fresh air.  The son of the war hero Germanicus was in charge.  What could go wrong.  All of Rome erupted in paroxysms of joy, proclaiming Caligula to be the first emperor Ever, admired by “all the world, from the rising to the setting sun”.

160,000 animals were sacrificed in three months of public jubilation.  The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria described the first seven months as “completely blissful”.

Map of the Roman Empire and neighboring states during the reign of Gaius Caligula (37-41 AD).

Caligula’s first two years were relatively peaceful and prosperous.  The Emperor provided lavish gladiatorial games for the entertainment of the people, and abolished the sales tax.  He granted bonuses to the military and destroyed Tiberius’ papers, declaring the treason trials of his hated predecessor a thing of the past.  Too late for his own family, Caligula recalled those who had been sent into exile.  The bones of  his mother and brothers, were deposited in the tomb of Augustus.

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

Piazza San Pietro Obelisk

In AD39, Caligula suffered a severe and prolonged illness, in which he hovered between life and death for over a month. It may or may not have had anything to do with his subsequent behavior, but the man who emerged from that illness was widely believed to be insane.

The Emperor performed a spectacular stunt by ordering a temporary floating bridge to be built, using ships as pontoons, stretching for over two miles from the resort of Baiae (pronounced BAY-eye) to the neighboring port of Puteoli. Though Caligula could not swim, he rode his favorite horse, Incitatus, across the bridge, wearing the breastplate of Alexander the Great.  Tiberius’ soothsayer Thrasyllus of Mendes predicted that Caligula had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae”.  Little Boots, had proven otherwise.


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

In time, what seemed like mere eccentricities became terrifying and erratic. Caligula regularly made senators run alongside his chariot.  He’d order executions on a whim – common man or foreign dignitary – it didn’t matter.  At the Roman games, he once had an entire crowd section 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 and demigods:  Hercules, Mercury, Venus and Apollo.  He wished to be worshipped as “Neos Helios” – the New Sun.  He’d refer to himself as a God when meeting with politicians. He built temples for the worship of himself, where the heads of statues were replaced by his own likeness.

images (32)
Death of Caligula at the hands of his own Praetorian Guard

Later stories of wanton hedonism, cruelty, and sexual depravity may be exaggerated, but none seem to be without a grain of truth.  Roman politics often associated poor government policy, with insanity and sexual perversity.

Little Boots was murdered by his own Praetorian Guard in AD 41, like his predecessor Julius Caesar, stabbed thirty times in a conspiracy led by a man named Cassius. Stricken with grief and outraged by the murder, Caligula’s Germanic guard turned the scene into a bloodbath in a raging assault against conspirators, Senators and innocent bystanders, alike.

Most historians dismiss the floating bridge story as a myth.  No archaeological evidence has ever surfaced, to prove the story true.  Caligula’s two “pleasure barges”, extracted from the bottom of Lake Nemi, are a different story.

The Pleasure Barges of Caligula (inset, Bronze Medusa)

Locals had long known of the presence of a wreck at around 60-ft. deep in the extinct volcano-turned Lake, some twenty-five miles from Rome.  Occasionally, fishermen and treasure hunters would use grappling hooks, to bring up souvenirs.

The Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini had heard of the legend, and ordered the lake drained.  One wreck turned out to be two in 1927 when, for the first time in 2,000 years, the “pleasure barges” of Emperor Caligula saw the light of day.

Italians viewing antique Emperor Caligula's Nemi ships, 1932 (5)
Benito Mussolini attends the inauguration “Il Museo delle Navi Romane” – the Museum of Nemi.

Dubbed Prima nave (the 1st ship) and Seconda nave, the former measured 230-ft., the latter 240.  The lavish furnishings included hot and cold running water, cedar planking with jewel encrusted prows, vessels of gold and silver and bathrooms of alabaster and bronze.  There were hand-operated bilge pumps and a platform rotating on ball bearings:  perhaps to rotate a great statue, or maybe it was a deck crane, for loading supplies.  There were glass mosaics in the floors and marble décor, stone statuary and gilded copper roofs.  One wreck bore a lead pipe, bearing the inscription “Property of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus”.

Brass rings recovered in 1895, were fitted to the ends of cantilevered beams that supported each rowing position on the seconda nave. H/T Wikimedia for this image,

On the night of May 31, 1944, US army shells hit the museum, causing little apparent damage but forcing a German artillery unit, to move.  Two hours later, smoke was seen coming from the windows.  The concrete shell of the Nemi Museum was spared by the fire.  The two priceless archaeological artifacts housed inside, were destroyed.  Official reports blamed German sabotage.  German newspaper editorials blamed Allied bombing.

During the retreat through Italy, German soldiers burned some 80,000 books and manuscripts of the Royal Society of Naples, out of spite. It’s easy to believe they torched the two Nemi Ships, as well.  Like Emperor Caligula himself 2,000 years before, the Italian dictator Mussolini died by violence, at the hands of his own countrymen.

“The remains of the hull of one of Caligula’s two “pleasure barges” recovered from Lake Nemi. Workers in the foreground give an indication of scale”. H/T, Wikipedia for this image
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March 7, AD321 The Unconquered Sun

On March 7, AD321, Constantine I “The Great” decreed Dies Solis – Day of the Sun or “Sun-day”:  “On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed”.

The cithara or kithara (Greek: κιθάρα, kithāra, Latin: cithara) was an ancient Greek musical instrument in the lyra family of instruments

For two thousand years, a popular story has told the tale of Emperor Nero, playing the fiddle while Rome burned. Far be it for me to leap to the defense of a man who ordered the murder of his own wife and mother, except in the name of historical accuracy. The viol class of musical instruments, to which the fiddle belongs, didn’t come along until the 11th century. If Nero played anything it was probably a Cithara, a heavy wooden instrument with four to seven strings.

At least five versions come down to us about the Great Fire of 64AD, and the Emperor’s role in it. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that Nero sang about the fall of Troy while the city burned, but admits there were no witnesses.

Cassius Dio and Suetonius ask us to believe, in their turn, that Nero a) secretly sent guys out to burn the city, b) openly did so and watched from the tower of Maecenas while singing and playing the lyre, c) the fire was started by an obscure religious sect called “Christians”, d) Nero sent his guys out after all, but sang and played his lyre from a private stage and e) the fire started by accident while Nero was thirty-five miles away at Antium, and the emperor rushed back to help the now-homeless people of Rome.

images (26)Be that as it may, three things are certain. First, The fire burned for six days, utterly destroying three of the 14 districts of Rome, and severely damaging seven others.  Next, Nero used the excuse of the fire to go after the Christians, having many of them arrested and executed. Last, the Domus Aurea (“Golden Palace”) and surrounding “Pleasure Gardens” which the emperor built on the ruins, would be the death of Emperor Nero.

Between AD65 and 68, Emperor Nero built a vast palace complex over an area of more than 200 acres, linking existing buildings on the Palatine Hill with the Gardens of Maecenas and other imperial properties on the Esquiline hills, and adding a grand colonnaded approach and vestibule surrounding an artificial lake.

Reconstruction of the Domus Aurea, of Nero

One of the Great Wonders of antiquity, Nero’s “Golden house” was ruinously expensive, 300 rooms of dazzling white marble with pools in the floors and fountains splashing in corridors. There were jewel-encrusted walls and ivory clad columns.  An enormous vaulted ceiling lay underneath the dome of the main dining room, with an ingenious mechanism cranked by slaves, making the ceiling revolve like the heavens, as  rose petals dropped and perfume was sprayed on assembled diners.

Suetonius described the complex as “ruinously prodigal”. Nero himself would say nothing further on the palace’ dedication, save to say that he “had at last begun to live like a human being”.

Artist’s rendering of the Colossus of Nero holds a rudder on the globe, symbolizing his dominion over land and sea.

At the center of it all, Nero built his Colossus Neronis, a giant gilded bronze statue – of himself.  Sources place the thing at 98′ to 121′ tall, roughly equal to the statue of liberty, from her feet to her crown.

With all of Italy “thoroughly exhausted by contributions of money” and “the provinces ruined”, the Emperor himself was roundly hated.  In June AD68, Nero learned that he’d been tried in absentia, and condemned to death as an enemy of the Roman people. Preparing himself for suicide, Nero muttered “Qualis artifex pereo” (“What an artist dies in me”).

Nero’s profligacy was a severe embarrassment to his successors.  Within a decade, the palace and its complex was stripped of its marble, jewels, and ivory embellishments.

Within forty years, most of the grounds were filled with earth and built over, replaced by the Baths of Titus, and the Temple of Venus and Rome. Vespasian drained the lake and built the Flavian Amphitheatre, but Nero’s Colossus, lived on.

In 69, Emperor Vespasian added a sun-ray crown and renamed the thing Colossus Solis, a dedication to the Roman sun god Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”), patron of the legions and official Sun God of the later Roman Empire.

Around 128, Emperor Hadrian moved the statue from the Domus Aurea to just outside of the Colosseum, with a little help from the architect Decrianus, and 24 elephants. Emperor Commodus removed the head and replaced it with a likeness of his own, but the head was restored after Commodus’ death, and so it remained.


The Arch of Constantine, the last and largest of the Triumphal Arches of Rome and dedicated in AD315, was carefully positioned to align with Sol Invictus, so that the Colossus formed the dominant backdrop when approaching the Colosseum via the main arch.

Six years later, March 7, AD321, Constantine I “The Great” decreed Dies Solis – Day of the Sun or “Sun-day” – as the Roman day of rest (Codex Justinianus 3.12.2):  “On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost”.\

2000 years later Constantine’s day of rest remains, but the colossus of the Unconquered Sun is gone. The last known reference in antiquity dates back to the Calendar of 354, the earliest illuminated manuscript containing full page illustrations.

Saint Bede of northumbria

It may have been destroyed during the Sack of Rome in 410, or perhaps it toppled in one of a series of 5th century earthquakes, its metal scavenged. There is evidence that Sol Invictus outlived the western Roman Empire and survived into the early middle ages. Bede the Venerable, an English monk from the monastery of St. Peter in Northumbria, wrote sometime circa 672–735: “As long as the Colossus stands, Rome will stand, when the Colossus falls, Rome will also fall, when Rome falls, so falls the world“.

Today, nothing remains of the Colossus of Nero, save for the foundations of its pedestal at the second location, near the ruins of the Colosseum.


September 20, 451 Attila the Hun

Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, described Rome’s Hun problem, succinctly.  “They have become both masters and slaves of the Romans”.

In the 5th century, the migration of warlike Germanic tribes across northern Europe culminated in the destruction of the Roman Empire in the west.  That much is relatively well known, but the “why”, is not.  What would a people so fearsome that they brought down an empire, have been trying to get away from?

The Roman Empire was split in two in the 5th century and ruled by two separate governments.  Ravenna, in northern Italy, became capital to the Western Roman Empire in 402, and would remain so until the final collapse in 476.  Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine empire and destined to become modern day Istanbul, ruled in the East.

Attila BronzeVast populations moved westward from Germania during the early fifth century, and into Roman territories in the west and south. They were Alans and Vandals, Suebi, Goths, and Burgundians. There were others as well, crossing the Rhine and the Danube and entering Roman Gaul. They came not in conquest:  that would come later. These tribes were fleeing the Huns:  a people so terrifying that whole tribes agreed to be disarmed, in exchange for the protection of Rome.

Rome itself had mostly friendly relations with the Hunnic Empire, which stretched from modern day Germany in the west, to Turkey and most of Ukraine in the east. The Huns were nomads, mounted warriors whose main weapons were the bow and javelin. Huns frequently acted as mercenary soldiers, paid to fight on behalf of Rome.

Rome looked at such payments as just compensation for services rendered.  The Huns looked at them as tribute, tokens of Roman submission to the Hunnic Empire.Atilla_fléau_de_dieu

Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, described Rome’s Hun problem, succinctly.  “They have become both masters and slaves of the Romans”.

Relations were strained between the two powers in the time of the Hunnic King Rugila, as his nephew the future King Attila, came of age.

Rugila’s death in 434 left the sons of his brother Mundzuk, Attila and Bleda, in control of the united Hunnic tribes. The brothers negotiated a treaty with Emperor Theodosius of Constantinople the following year, giving him time to strengthen the city’s defenses. This included building the first sea wall, a structure the city would be forced to defend a thousand years later in the Islamic conquest of 1453, but that is a story for another day.Attila

The priest of the Greek church Callinicus wrote what happened next, in his “Life of Saint Hypatius”. “The barbarian nation of the Huns, which was in Thrace, became so great that more than a hundred cities were captured and Constantinople almost came into danger and most men fled from it. … And there were so many murders and blood-lettings that the dead could not be numbered. Ay, for they took captive the churches and monasteries and slew the monks and maidens in great numbers“.

Bleda died sometime in 445, leaving Attila the sole King of the Huns.  Relations with the Western Roman Empire had been relatively friendly, for a time.  That changed in 450 when Justa Grata Honoria, sister of Emperor Valentinian, wanted to escape a forced marriage to the former consul Herculanus.  Honoria sent the eunuch Hyacinthus with a note to King Attila, asking him to intervene on her behalf.  She enclosed her ring in token of the message’s authenticity, which Attila took to be an offer of marriage.

Attila_in_Gaul_451Valentinian was furious with his sister.  Only the influence of their mother Galla Placidia convinced him to exile rather than have her put to death, while he frantically wrote to Attila saying it was all a misunderstanding.

The King of the Huns wasn’t buying it, and sent an emissary to Ravenna, to claim what was his.  Attila demanded delivery of his “bride”, along with half the empire, as dowry.

In 451, Attila gathered his vassals and began a march to the west. The Hunnic force was estimated to be half a million strong, though the number is probably exaggerated. The Romans hurriedly gathered an army to oppose them, while the Huns sacked the cities of Mainz, Worms and Strasbourg. Trier and Metz fell in quick succession, as did Cologne, Cambrai, and Orleans.

The Roman army, allied with the Visigothic King Theodoric I, finally stopped the army of Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Chalons.   Some sources date the Battle of Chalons at June 20, 451, others at September 20.  Even the outcome of the battle is open to interpretation.  Sources may be found to support the conclusion that it was a Roman, a Gothic or a Hunnic victory.

Apparently a Pyrrhic victory, Chalons was one of the last major military operations of the Roman Empire in the west. The Roman alliance had stopped the Hunnic invasion in Gaul, but the military capacity of Roman and Visigoth, both, was destroyed. The Hunnic Empire was dismantled by a coalition of Germanic vassals at the Battle of Nedau, in 454.

“The Huns at the Battle of Chalons” from page 135 of A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times Volume I of VI (en:Project Gutenberg e-text). Illustration by A. De Neuville (1836-1885). img url:

Attila would return to sack much of Italy in 452, this time razing Aquileia so completely that no trace of it was left behind. Legend has it that Venice was founded at this time, when local residents fled the Huns, taking refuge in the marshes and islands of the Venetian Lagoon.

Attila died the following year at a wedding feast, celebrating his marriage to the young Ostrogoth, Ildico.  The King of the Huns died in a drunken stupor, suffering a massive nosebleed or possibly esophageal bleeding.  The Hunnic Empire died along with Attila the Hun, as he choked to death on his own blood.