Dezső Kosztolányi’s short story ‘Caligula’ was published in 1934. Written after the rise of Hitler and Mussolini to power, the work is as much about events then contemporary in Europe as it is about the mad Roman emperor who reigned AD 37–41.
The statue of Jupiter, when the workers wanted to break it up into pieces, began to laugh. The conspirators took this as a good sign. At that moment Caligula turned toward the oracle of Antium and received from Fortune’s temple this warning:
‘Beware of Cassius.’
Cassius Charea, the captain of the bodyguards and the leader of the revolutionaries, palely stood up among his followers. Every eye fell on him. They felt that Caligula’s glance too rested on the old centurion without seeing him, and suspicion burned in their hearts and minds.
News soon reached them that Caligula had executed Cassius Longinus instead, the governor of Asia.
Is he crazy? Cassius thought.
Or is he joking with some of us? It seems to me like he has lost control of himself.
Caligua hadn’t lost control of himself. The next morning he called Cassius to an audience at six o’clock in the morning.
Cassius said goodbye to his wife and children. He hastened to the palace as one who is about to die would, whether by the sword, by the dagger, by poison.
Caligula was already awake by three o’clock. He could never sleep any later. Nightmares and terrible dreams tormented him. After a few hours of troubled sleep he got up and ordered that he be borne to the halls of the palace by torch and lamplight. He dismissed his servants and wandered around alone here and there with a hunched back, as if a monster in a terrible nightmare, supported by spindly legs. He waited for dawn.
He rested his elbow on the windowsill. In the frosty leaden-grey January sky was his glorious love, whom he always longed to hold in his arms, the Moon, but it wasn’t visible, for it rose above Rome among filthy green clouds. He spoke to it, soundlessly, in a constantly stammering tone.
In the meantime day broke.
Cassius, he greeted his guest, throwing open his hairy, bare arms to him.
Come to me, he shouted and embraced Cassius.
Cassius obeyed, horrified.
Cassius was prepared for all sorts of things. He had heard that years before Caligua had invited the conspirators and, putting his swordpoint against his breast, offered like a sappy bad actor to die if they wished.
He heard that Caligula ordered an aristocrat to the palace at night and danced before him. He heard that Caligula had not punished a cobbler who called him a cheat. But this was a suprise.
Help me, Cassius, he continued.
I trust you. I am surrounded by dangers. The Palatine games begin today. I am assigning you Cassius, you, to be the commander of my bodyguard.
He nervously glanced with fiery eyes, and then he laughed heartily. Cassius bowed, hestitating. He fell into a chair, because he could no longer stand on his weak, scrawny legs. His legs soon collapsed, as if his boots were empty.
Sit down, he reassured him.
How old are you?
I am twenty-nine, he jabbered.
Still young. What, are you an old skirt-chaser? But how I suffer, Cassius. Indeed, a lot. My uncle Tiberius looked after me, that old, bloodthirsty tiger. He wiped out my entire family. He exiled my mother and forced her to commit suicide. He locked my brother Brutus away in prison and let him starve to death. He wanted to kill me too. I was still a little boy, and he constantly kept watch over me with spies and moles so that I wouldn’t turn against him or denounce him. When I slept, they bent over me and waited for what I would say in my sleep. They could have put poison into my food at any time. But I kept silent both awake and sleeping. I lied. I held a mask over my face. I played my part even better than a sombre, taciturn old man. I won. I saved my life. After than everything immediately opened up. I tried to live. I couldn’t manage. I wanted to tear off my mask. I couldn’t manage this either. Drusilla, my little sister, a goddess, died from a high fever. I was left all alone. In mourning I grew a beard and looked around me at the world. At first I laughed about how I could kill whoever I wanted. I adored gold. When I wasn’t content with what I had, I stripped off my clothes and had a roll in bed, so that I could feel blood flowing through my skin. I made faces at the mirror to scare myself. I made some great jokes too. I ripped out people’s tongues or cut them in half. I threw hundreds of foreigners into the sea and delighted how they floundered until they died. I starved the Romans, though my barns and storehouses were full. I destroyed the manuscripts of famous authors. Every day I dressed the statue of the god in Mars Field with the same as I was wearing, and then I struck off their heads and set my own portrait there. I had a marble stable built for my horse, with an ivory trough, and dined together with him in the stable, and I almost succeeded in making him a consul. I was loved once. The soldiers nicknamed me ‘little chick’ or ‘star’. In the joy of ascending the Roman throne I killed 160,000 beasts in three months. Now it all bores me. I can’t sleep. My eyelids droop. They say the problem is here. He tapped his forehead with a golden rod.
Give me sleep, some sleep-inducing drink.
As Cassius listened he was almost moved. Caligula suddenly stood up held out his hand in farewell. Cassius kissed it. Only then did he realize that the emperor showed him a fig and his lips touched the fingernail of his thumb.
You monkey, Caligula warned him.
Don’t be angry. Be on guard. And he dismissed him.
Cassius returned to his comrades with news of what had happened.
Kill him! Cornelius Sabinus cried.
Strike at him immediately, stab him.
The festival games began that afternoon. Augustus had initiated these as a monument to his eastern campaigns, on an improvised stage near the imperial palace, only for noble citizens, senators, aristocrats. Caligula arrived with an escort of German bodyguards.
When the emperor entered, these lanky young men closed all of the entrances and stood in a row. He signaled his favour of them. He had selected some of them along the Rhine during his German campaign, but since he didn’t capture enough prisoners of war, he enlisted Romans among them as well, who were obliged to dye their hair blond, learn German and speak German.
The emperor came before the altar in a long yellow gown, a green wreath on his head. As he carried out the sacrifice, the flamingo blood sputtered and threw red specks on the bottom of his gown. Cornelius Sabinus exchanged a knowing glance with Cassius.
The first day passed, and then the second, without the conspirators daring to act. Callistus, a rich citizen and once a libertine, foamed with raged that the idiot was still alive. Caligula came and went among them freely, he reassured the wrestlers and the gladiators, and he applauded the singers and equestrians. He led the conspirators into bafflement. They thought that he was mocking them, that he wanted to lead them into a trap.
On the afternoon of the third day, he unexpectedly notified Cassius that he would go to the palace and have a bath. He advanced through the crowd without his German bodyguards. Along the way he greeted people here and there. He facetiously pulled at Cornelius Sabinus’s toga and winked.
Well, what will it be? They didn’t understand. He ordered the bearers of his sedan-chair that they not bring him to the main entrance of the palace, but to the side entrance, a narrow underground corridor, where the young Asian aristocrats were learning their lines for the festival dramas, and being sensitive easterners they hid away from the cold, because it was freezing that day.
He descended here and spoke with some guests, a black Ethiopian and a yellow Egyptian, whose lips were blue from cold. He delayed there for a long time. Finally he heard that they slammed the gate shut, and then from far off at the end of the corridor a few flames lit up and slowly, very slowly approached him. In front, like some old dream shape that comes upon a dreamer, was Cassius.
The password? Cassius asked with soldierly disciple and formality.
Jupiter, Caligula answered at the top of his voice.
Then die in his name, Cassius cried and thrust his sword between Caligula’s outstretched arms.
Caligula dropped completely to the floor. Blood bubbled from his side.
I’m alive, he cried, as if mocking them, or lamenting.
Cornelius Sabinus, Callistus and the others set upon him. Three swords then bathed in his blood.
Caligula was still moving.
I’m alive, he felt one last time.
But then he turned remarkably pale and felt only that the world was without him, the mountains, the rivers and the stars too and he was no more. His head fell back. He opened his eyes and gazed almost adoringly at what he had always and even now searched for: nothing.
He face was white, bloodless and plain. The demented mask had fallen away. Only his face remained.
A soldier studied it for a long time. He was pleased that he recognized him now. He thought to himself: