Portrait of Emperor Caligula

A marble head of the Roman Emperor Caligula. His identity can be deduced by comparing the work with his portraits on coins minted when he was declared emperor in 37 BCE on the death of Tiberius, and by comparing it with his appearance in other portraits. We can also count on the confirmation given by the John Pollini, Professor of History of Art at the University of Southern Californa, author of numerous publications on Roman sculpture and in particular on portraiture of Caligula and Lucius Caesar.

Until his memory was officially condemned by his uncle and successor, Emperor Claudius, a series of portraits of Caligula survived by one means or another. Some were mutilated and taken from public view or reworked, converting them into images of Claudius or deified Augustus. This example in question, without any doubt, has been intentionally mutilated. And as no further portrait of Caligula was made after his death, we must conclude that this one was created during the period when he was the emperor.

Damnatio memoriae:

We know that Roman emperors were often raised to the status of gods after their deaths. However, just as many were given the opposite treatment—officially erased from memory.

Damnatio memoriae is a term used to describe a Roman phenomenon in which the government condemned the memory of a person who was seen as a tyrant, traitor, or other sort of enemy of the state. The images of such condemned figures would be destroyed, their names erased from inscriptions, and if the doomed person were an emperor or other government official, even his laws could be rescinded. Coins bearing the image of an emperor who had his memory damned would be recalled or cancelled. In some cases, the residence of the condemned could be razed or otherwise destroyed.

This was more than a form of casual, politically-motivated vandalism, carried out by disgruntled individuals, since the condemnation required approval of the Senate and the effects of the official denunciation could be seen far from Rome. There are many examples of damnatio memoriae throughout the history of the Roman Republic and Empire. As many as 26 emperors through the reign of Constantine had their memories condemned; conversely, about 25 emperors were deified after their deaths. The damning of memory phenomenon, however, is not unique to the Roman world. Egyptian pharaohs Hatshepsut and Akhenaten likewise had many of their images, monuments, and inscriptions destroyed by political opponents or religious purists.

Damnatio memoriae were not completely successful in wiping out the memory of an individual. Among the emperors who suffered damnatio memoriae are some of the best-known figures from Roman history, including Gaius (a.k.a. Caligula) and Nero. The notoriety of these men comes to us not only from texts written during their lifetimes and later, but also from images which survived the immediate violence of the damnatio memoriae and then centuries of neglect. For instance, one marble portrait preserves not only the image of Caligula, but also traces of paint, informing us of the existence of this condemned emperor. There is also the polychrome painting on an ancient sculpture (portrait of Emperor Caligula, 37-41 AD., marble, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen). In antiquity, these types of images were considered very powerful and closely linked with the identity of the person they represented.

Caligula was the first emperor to have his images deliberately destroyed after his death. It is impossible to know how many portraits in bronze or other precious metals were melted down, but a number of marble portraits show traces of being re-cut or simply dismantled and disposed of. Workshop procedures for official imperial portraits dictated that many full-length statues in stone were to be created in two pieces. So heads of Caligula could be fairly easily detached from the bodies and tossed aside and a portrait head of the new emperor would swiftly replace the offending one. A one-piece statue of a pontifex maximus (chief state priest, a title held by the emperor) from Velleia, however, apparently underwent a kind of sculptural recycling. The face of Caligula’s successor Claudius appears rather small in comparison to the head and the rest of the body—suggesting to some scholars that it was cut down from a portrait of Caligula.


Is this the face of a tyrant or a hero — or both? The Roman Emperor Gaius (usually known by his nickname, Caligula, meaning ‘little boot’) has always had a rather bad press. Today his name has become a byword for violence, tyranny, ostentatious extravagance and even lunacy. But in his own day, the public’s opinion of him may have been much more divided. The Roman upper classes and perhaps much of the middle class may have taken a very different view. Indeed, when he was murdered in 41 AD, there were public expressions of grief — and substantial crowds even assembled to demand that his assassins should be caught and punished. This particular marble head — potentially deliberately damaged after his death — was not known to the academic world until very recently, having been in a Spanish private collection since the early 20th century.

Of the 50 known portraits of Caligula, most of which are in marble, around half we re-cut as later emperors or former emperors after his assassination. Most of the others were not mutilated. Of those that were, however, the only ones that have been found are in Italy and Spain. Apart from Italy and southern France, Spain was almost certainly the place where the largest number of aristocratic Romans lived. Apart from Italy itself, it was the oldest part of the empire, key parts of it having been conquered back in the late 3rd century BCE.

So, why did well-to-do Romans hate Caligula with a passion — and, conversely, why did many ‘working class’ Romans look more favourably upon him? The upper classes seem to have disliked him for four main political and economic reasons. Firstly, he persecuted Rome’s senatorial and other elites. Often suspected of plotting against the emperor, around 30 of them are known to have been executed or forced to commit suicide. Secondly, he levied a tax on slave sales in Italy, which pushed up the price of slaves and thus infuriated many slave owners. Up until this fiscal action, slave sale taxes had only been levied in the rest of the empire — not in Italy itself. Thirdly, he used the Empire’s wealth (including tax income) to hold extravagant public games and to build substantial numbers of extravagant buildings — all of which was viewed by the upper classes as a disgraceful waste of resources (not to mention their taxes). And lastly, he had a dark sense of humour, the butt of which was all too often (for every senator’s comfort) Rome’s elite. In the end, after a reign of just four years, it was, of course, members of this elite who very likely engineered his assassination.

From a Roman proletarian perspective, the reality of those four years of Caligula’s rule may have been more positive. His extravagant construction projects (and lavish public games) created widespread additional employment opportunities for craftsmen and workers by pumping the modern equivalent of billions of pounds into the economy. This policy may have even caused a redistribution of wealth, although it is highly unlikely that was the reason for it. Added to this, his persecution of some members of the Roman elite may well have been justified. Indeed, many of them had almost certainly been plotting to overthrow him. Caligula also gained favour from non-Italian-originating provincials by increasing the number awarded Roman citizenship.


- BOSCHUNG, D. Die Bildnisse des Caligula. Berlin. 1989.
- POLLINI, J. Re-immaginando l’immagine di Caligola: Un’indagine fra l’uomo e il mito, in Caligola: La trasgressione al potere. Rome. 2013.
“The Image of Caligula: Myth and Reality,” electronically published as part of the Digital Sculpture Project: Caligula: http://www.digitalsculpture.org/papers/pollini/

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