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Caligula's Seashells1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 September 2009


There can be no student of Roman history who has not, at one time or other, pondered the significance of the emperor Caligula's (A.D. 37–41) alleged command to his soldiers to gather seashells for transportation back to Rome as the spoils of war. It is with some trepidation, therefore, that I dare to offer yet another interpretation of an event which, as we shall see, has not lacked commentators.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 2000

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2. Yavetz, Z., ‘Caligula, Imperial Madness and Modern Historiography’, Klio 78 (1996), 105–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar now provides a good review of the treatment which Caligula has received at the hands of various 20th-century scholars.

3. From the Loeb translation by Rolfe, J. C., Suetonius I (Cambridge, Mass., 1913), 477Google Scholar.

4. From the Loeb translation by Cary, E., Dio Cassius, Roman History VII (Cambridge, Mass., 1924), 339Google Scholar.

5. From the translation by Bird, H. W., The Liber de Caesaribus of Sextus Aurelius Victor (Liverpool, 1994), 34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6. See full references in the recent commentaries by Hurley, D. W., An Historical and Historiographical Commentary on Suetonius' Life of C. Caligula (Atlanta, 1993), 166ff.Google Scholar; Lindsay, H., Suetonius: Caligula (London, 1993), 147 ff.Google Scholar; Wardle, D., Suetonius' Life of Caligula: a Commentary (Brussels, 1994), 315 ff.Google Scholar All three agree on the date A.D. 40 and the location near Boulogne.

7. Bicknell, P., “The Emperor Gaius' Military Activities in A.D. 40’, Historia 17 (1968), 496505Google Scholar.

8. Davies, R. W., ‘The “Abortive Invasion” of Britain by Gaius’, Historia 15 (1996), 124–8Google Scholar.

9. Barrett, A. A., Caligula: the Corruption of Power (London, 1989), 136ff.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

10. In this specific context, Ferrill, A., Caligula Emperor of Rome (London, 1991), 128Google Scholar strongly objects to any attempt ‘to find a semblance of order in the acts of a crazy man’.

11. Davies (n. 8), 127.

12. Balsdon, J. P. V. D., The Emperor Gaius (Caligula) (Oxford, 1934), 90–2Google Scholar raises this as one possibility, making the comparison with the soldiers of the emperor Claudius who would initially refuse to embark on their ships to Britain in A.D. 43 (Cassius Dio 60.19). Supporters of this interpretation include, e.g., Phillips, E. J., ‘The Emperor Gaius' Abortive Invasion of Britain’, Historia 19 (1970), 369–74Google Scholar.

13. E.g., Barrett (n. 9), 138 accepts their suitability as the symbols of a serious military victory. In contrast, Flory, M. B., ‘Pearls for Venus’, Historia 37 (1988), 498504, at 501Google Scholar, interprets them as the symbols of military failure to be contrasted with the pearls which Julius Caesar had dedicated to Venus Genetrix in Rome in 46 B.C.

14. See Wardle (n. 6), 313 on Aalders, G. J. D., Caligula zoon van Germanicus (Assen, 1959)Google Scholar.

15. Balsdon (n. 12), 92 presents this as second possible interpretation of the seashell incident, and manages to avoid committing himself to either interpretation.

16. OLD s.v. musculus, 1148.

17. OLD s.v. concha, 386.

18. ThLL s.v. concha, col. 29 provides further examples of its use of the apse of a basilica. The Greek original κ⋯γχη was also used to denote the hollow of the ear and a seal-case.

19. OED (2nd ed.) s.v. cockle, 417.

20. On the wide variety of terms used to denote various types of small craft, see Casson, L., Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World (Baltimore, 1971), 329–43Google Scholar.

21. See, e.g., Woods, D., ‘”On the Standard-Bearers” at Strasbourg: Libanius, Or. 18.58–66’, Mnemosyne 50 (1997), 479–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar on Libanius' misinterpretation of the term vexillarius as used in one particular context.

22. See Courtney, E., A Commentary on the Satires of Juvenal (London, 1980), 316Google Scholar on Juvenal, Satire 6.419.

23. E.g., Balsdon (n. 12), 92. Davies (n. 8), 125 translates the key passage: ‘Finally, as if to bring the war to an end, he … arranged his artillery and other siege equipment in position.’ The Penguin translation by Graves, R., Suetonius: the Twelve Caesars (Harmondsworth, 1957)Google Scholar, better translates it: ‘In the end, he … moved the arrow-casting machines and other artillery into position.…’

24. From the translation by Milner, N. P., Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science (Liverpool, 1996), 149Google Scholar.

25. Translation by Rolfe (n. 3), 477. Barrett (n. 9), 138 fails to note that Caligula sent more than one trireme to Rome which invalidates his attempt to identify the ‘ship’ sent to Rome with the ship on which Caligula ventured into the Channel for a short distance (Cassius Dio 59.25.2), to receive the surrender British chieftain Adminius according to his theory.

26. Hurley (n. 6), 171 draws attention to the fact that they probably followed the same route that the emperor Claudius was to travel on his way to Britain in A.D. 43 (Cassius Dio 60.21.3: ‘advancing partly by land and partly along the rivers’).

27. Josephus, , Bell. Jud. 7.147Google Scholar records that Vespasian and Titus paraded some ships in their triumphal procession at Rome in A.D. 71 when they celebrated their defeat of the Jewish revolt. These were probably used to commemorate a relatively minor naval engagement on Gennesareth, Lake (Bell. Jud. 3.522–31)Google Scholar.

28. On Suetonius' sources, especially the lost Historiae of Cluvius Rufus who was consul before A.D. 41 and governor of Hispania Tarraconensis in A.D. 68, see Wardle (n. 6), 30–54. Despite a great deal of investigation and speculation, we do not know the exact nature of the relationship between the works of Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and Victor, to what extant the later authors used the earlier or had continued access to the same sources. Bird, H. W., Sextus Aurelius Victor: a Historiographical Study (Liverpool, 1984), 22Google Scholar concludes that Victor used Suetonius, Tacitus, and several unidentifiable sources for his account of the early principate and that he hopped from one to other of these throughout this account.

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