This painting, by Eustache Le Sueur (1616–1655), re-creates a somber event from the early reign of Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41). The emperor in question had an incredibly traumatic childhood. His father died suspiciously, and his mother and brothers met similar ends that were highly suspect. After the massacre of his family, Caligula lived on the Isle of Capri, where he was raised by his shadowy great-uncle, Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37)—the man who was responsible for at least a few of Caligula’s loved ones’ deaths. The young orphan managed to survive the remainder of Tiberius’ reign, and when the old emperor died, Caligula succeeded in seizing the throne. In his first months of rule, Caligula was a promising, well-liked ruler, and even his greatest critics had few bad words to say about him regarding the early phase of his reign. One such event that occurred during this benevolent period of Caligula’s time as emperor was the scene shown above. In a move that was much supported by the Roman people, Caligula had the remains of his family members who had died in exile and prison ceremoniously conveyed back to Rome for re-entombment in their family mausoleum. The Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), described the scene:
“He sailed for Pandataria and the Pontian Islands to fetch back the remains of his mother and brother Nero—and during rough weather too, in proof of devotion. He approached the ashes with the utmost reverence, and transferred them to the urns with his own hands…He had arranged that the most distinguished equites available should carry them to the Mausoleum about noon, when the streets were at their busiest, and also appointed an annual day for commemorative rites, marked by chariot races in the Circus, at which [his mother] Agrippina’s image would be paraded in a covered carriage” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Gaius Claudius, chapter 15).
Suetonius’ words are brought to life in the painting by Eustache Le Sueur. It shows the urns, holding the remains of Caligula’s family members, being reverently placed in the family tomb, as the emperor and other bystanders look on over the ceremony.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.