There is an often quoted fact that Roman Emperor Caligula once went to war with Poseidon, ordering his troops to throw spears into the sea. While crazy Roman Emperors appear not to be that rare, Caligula has gone down, along with Nero, as one of the most nutty among them. As if he had lost his brain. So what makes us, Unreal Facts, say that Caligula didn’t go to war with Poseidon when so many references say he did?
Firstly, and most obviously, Poseidon was a Greek god, not a Roman one. While Poseidon and Neptune were both gods of the sea, and for all intents and purposes the same, their names are somewhat different. Most people would have noticed this irregularity immediately. But we understand that there can be little in a name, and many will say we are just nitpicking. So lets delve a little further into this myth.
There’s no doubt Caligula was as mad as a hatter, but how mad would Caligula have to be to go to war with Poseidon? By all accounts he may have been crazy enough, after all his own body guards assassinated him due to his deranged demeanor. This was a man who apparently cross dressed in public, impregnated his own sister and declared himself a god. But as mad as all of that sounds, Caligula didn’t go to war with Poseidon. He did however do something with his army that would be described a weird, if it was true that is.
During one of his attempts to conquer Britannia, Caligula apparently ordered his army to collect sea shells from the beach. This is where the myth of Caligula declaring war on Poseidon (or Neptune if you prefer) came from. The Roman historian Suetonius, who was actually born 28 years after the death of Caligula, is source of which the acts of this deranged emperor come from. It was part of his book, “The Twelve Caesars.” But even this can be proven to be incorrect and a possible fabrication, or at least a misunderstanding by Suetonius. After all, Suetonius was well known for not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.
The final part to unraveling this myth comes from the slang language used in the Roman army at the time. The word for seashells, musculi was also solders slang for the engineers’ huts. So when Caligula, who was on campaign with the soldiers and had spent nearly his entire life with them, and thus would have picked up soldiers slang, said pick up the musculi, he most likely meant pick up the huts, not seashells.
So if Caligula never went to war with Poseidon, where did this myth begin?
It actually began in more modern times, and we have entertainment, well literature as a matter of fact, to thank for it. The first reference of this war came from the book I, Claudius, published in 1934 and written by Robert Graves. In the book, which was later adapted to stage, radio and film, he took the writings of Suetonius and embellished them to make Caligula seem just that little bit more crazy. It was I, Claudius that first saw emperor Caligula go to war with the god of the sea Poseidon.
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