Portrait of the Emperor Caligula

PROVENANCE: Reputedly found in Cordoba in the early 1900’s during the building of different offices for the Bank of Spain by the construction company Erroz-Sanmartin 1910’s-1940’s. The information from the family say that this piece came from what is now the bank of Spain in Cordoba, avenida gran capitán 7. This building was made during 1936-1939. With Mr Secundino Erroz Lander (1886-1943) until his death in 1943. Thence by decent to Mr Carlos Erroz Urchulutegui (1917-1975) and his wife Maria Teresa Erroz Urchulutegui, born as Esparza Guinea (1919-2008). Thence by descent to Mr Eduardo Erroz Esparza, Isabel Erroz Esparaza, Cristina Erroz Esparza, Enrique Ruiz-Gimenez Erroz, Teresa Ruiz Gimenez Erroz, Jose Carlos Ruiz-Gimenez Erroz and Carlos Erroz Esparza in 2008.

The well preserved, handsome marble portrait and previously unpublished, can be established as an image of Caligula by comparison with coin portraits of him minted when he became emperor in 37 AD on the death of Tiberius. Caligula is shown here wearing the corona civica (“civic crown”), indicating his status as emperor and savior of the citizenry of Rome. The many notorious stories told about him by his detractors, especially that he was insane, are false or greatly exaggerated. Though hated by the Roman aristocracy, who were among those who wrote about him in order to blackened his memory, Caligula was exceedingly popular among the lower classes of Rome and provincials throughout the Empire. Because of his short rule (37-41 AD) and assassination, few new portrait models to celebrate various events in his career were produced after he became emperor.

This sculpture represents him in his principal portrait type, created shortly after he came to power in 37 and best represented by a portrait of him in Schloss Fasanerie bei Fulda (Germany). Our head is one of the best preserved and highest quality portraits of Caligula in private hands. Since his memory was not officially damned by his uncle and successor, the Emperor Claudius, a number of Caligula’s portraits survive in one form or another. Some were mutilated, removed from public view, or carved into images of Claudius or the Deified Augustus. This portrait does not appear to have been intentionally mutilated, but shows the normal sort of damage that is commonly found in sculptures that were accidently damaged. Because no portraits of Caligula were created after his death, this portrait would have been produced during the period he was emperor.

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 pretty bad press. Today his name has become a byword for violence, tyranny, ostentation 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. The majority 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 BC.

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 till this fiscal action, slave sale taxes had only been levied on 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 the every senator’s comfort) Rome’s elite. In the end, after a reign of just four years, it was, of course, members of that elite who very likely engineered his assassination.

From a Roman proletarian perspective, the reality of those four Caligulan years 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. Berlín. 1989.
- POLLINI, J. "Re-immaginando di Caligola: Un’indagine fre l’uomo e il mito”, in Caligol: La trasgressione al potere. Roma. 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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