Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, Napoleon overcame his height problems to conquer Europe, and Julius Caesar was murdered for inventing a controversial salad. These summaries aren’t 100 percent accurate, but they’re enough to help us get through a remedial history test … unless they’re based on propaganda and misinformation that’s been spread over many centuries, in which case large parts of your worldview are entirely worthless. For example …
Caligula Wasn’t Nearly As Perverse As You Think
Caligula is synonymous with the height of Roman depravity. Ancient Roman sources accused him of sleeping with his sisters, having men murdered on a whim while their families were forced to watch, talking to the moon, declaring himself a god, and planning to make his horse a consul. He’s generally regarded as one of the cruelest, maddest, and most decadent leaders in human history. Pop culture took that reputation and rolled with it. In 1979, Penthouse produced a big-budget movie about him, which turned out to be not so much a historical epic as a porno with an unusually elaborate plot. Caligula also appeared in I, Claudius, wherein he removes a fetus from his pregnant sister and eats it — every actor’s dream role.
BBC/London FilmsWhich we cant show because the original footage was lost (and frankly, were not super broken up about it).
Shockingly, there is no record that Caligula ate a fetus. His reputation was acquired through a combination of propaganda, rumors, misunderstood anecdotes, and a lack of proper sources. Caligula was assassinated after a four-year reign, and his murder needed to be justified by making him seem like a monster. All those depraved tales we just mentioned don’t appear in the historical record until about eight decades after his demise, in the writings of Suetonius, who was merely reporting rumors and hearsay. And rumors and hearsay are about all we have to go on.
The horse story, for example, was most likely a case of Caligula expressing exasperation with what he saw as the uselessness of his political opponents, not a serious plan. Caligula was by no means a nice guy; he was a vicious man in a vicious time. But he wasn’t a fetus-eating maniac.
King George III Wasn’t (Totally) Insane
King George III was infamously mad. There was even a movie about him called The Madness Of King George (not to be confused with The Melancholy Of King George II). And that reputation dovetails nicely with what you learned in school, that he was a psychotic tyrant hellbent on destroying freedom.
Allan RamsayThough in fairness, he wielded tyranny while looking like an absolute boss.