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Remembering Caligula's Life Story

a theoretical application, a personal exercise, and a methodological reflection
Predictable sequences are easier to reconstruct and correlation is sometimes as good as causation for remembering storylines. In a nutshell, that’s the theory I’ll attempt to describe in my next post. For today, here’s a personal exercise in remembering, and an immediate reflection on my own mnemonic sequencing methods. [Note: remembering an entire life story can be compressed into the memory of an outline or storyline, to which other details may be attached for a more completely reconstructed life story. Today's post, as in all my recent discussion, I will mention lots of details, but the theory and method here will remain focused on emphasizing the construction of a sequencable timeline.]

I will now actively remember the basic outline from one biographical storyline: Caligula grew up in the Roman imperial household, became a favorite nephew of the emperor Tiberius, succeeded to power with Tiberius’ chief advisor Macro, oversaw one year of stable government and then ruled maniacally for another two years, before finally being assassinated by his own elite bodyguards.

As I’ve just reconstructed it, from beginning to end, this sequence proceeds on the conditioning powers of probability. Other mnemonics could have been employed, but I wanted to start in early childhood and build forward through time. The six points in the finished outline had each been preserved somewhere in my brain, but I was able to sequence them all together (through “constructive remembering”) by paying attention to content itself.

Summing up what I remember about the early childhood “Little Boot”/Gaius Caesar is what gets me the first point, which allows but does not require the second point. Other children grew up in Augustus’ household, but searching my memory for the particular outcome of Caligula’s family situation reminds me (whether directly or indirectly) that he did somehow worm his way into favor. Next, remembering him from that vantage point on the Isle of Capri reminds me that Tiberius died there. Caligula’s life story content is divided neatly in two by Tiberius’ death. That passing, however, did not require Caligula’s succession. In fact, other heirs were passed over (Claudius) or killed off (Agrippa) so that Gaius Caligula could become Emperor. Nevertheless, I do not have to remember those details to recall the sequence “death, then succession”. Like everything else in this chain of events, the links aren’t forged by causality but probability. The death of a ruler doesn’t always result in an immediate succession. This is simply the most frequent outcome.

Next, it’s obvious that I remember Caligula did become emperor - it’s the only reason we’re talking about him - but how do I remember WHEN Caligula became Emperor? And more importantly, why does that mnemonic content rise to the surface at this point? My argument is, because it was specifically evoked at this point in the chain of conditioning - not by causality but by correlation. Even if it’s only because I was holding this key point in reserve until I had constructively re-collected and re-sequenced all the “early life” material I could muster, this is the same process repeating, as it did before. What else do I remember, and how best does it fit? I cycle through things I remember until finding something that fits a familiar pattern - not necessarily a logical or reasonable or necessary progression, but a progression that feels like a recognizable sequence.

Of all the content I can manage to remember from his life story, which bit happened next?

I remember all the anecdotes where he seems like a crazy tyrant, and I remember he obviously died at the end. But do I remember anything else? Do I remember anything before that?

As it so happens, personally, I remember Sutorius* Macro, Tiberius’ chief advisor who took over the reigns of empire after deposing the infamous prefect Sejanus in AD 31. From my personal studies of history, I remember Macro as a part of the smooth transition of power before Caligula got rid of him about a year later. (*His first name is the only thing I looked up, while writing this post.)

Was Macro’s influence causative? Does his removal explain the brevity of Caligula’s good year? I’ve never heard anyone say so, but to be honest, I do remember thinking this during my reconstruction. I’ll even admit I re-typed the italicized storyline (at top) to avoid giving the impression that causality was responsible for this sequence in my own mnemonic reconstruction. I have therefore admitted that causality did at least enter my thinking. However, I do not believe causality was responsible for my reconstruction of sequence, and after much reflection tonight I believe I can prove it.

Years ago, I was working on the background to Paul’s letter to Galatia, and trying to debunk a gerrymandered chronology which depended on supposing that Caligula gave Damascus to Aretas shortly after Tiberius died (AD 37). Of the many arguments I mounted against this, my most original point was the continuity of Macro. Since Macro had been running the empire for Tiberius, and Macro continued under Caligula initially, there was no cause for supposing that Rome suddenly reversed its position on Aretas just because the figurehead ruler was no longer enjoying his extravagantly debauched retirement on the Isle of Capri. That was my argument, and that’s undoubtedly why Macro still exists as a significant part of my memories about Caligula. Macro also happens to correspond with related research on Caligula’s gifting of Trachonitis to Herod Agrippa in that same time period. (For more about all that, see the bottom part of this very old, very long blogpost:

Now, I have also heard some claim that Caligula’s worst years might be explained by an illness that caused brain damage. I don’t remember (and for the purposes of today’s exercise, I am purposely not looking it up) in what month and year that illness was supposed to have been, but I think I remember hearing it was early in AD 38. Thus, even though I have always doubted the illness/insanity narrative, I did remember it and it did preserve the idea of a good year followed by two bad years. Next, I suspect due to a bit of unrelated borrowing, I also drew on some narratives about Nero that claim his horrible phase begins with his mother’s and Seneca’s deaths - good advisers, good ruler; dead advisers, horrifying ruler. It was into this paradigm, tonight, that I believe I attached Macro. Altogether, then, I may have conflated my memory of the illness timeline with the Nero narrative, and succinctly narrated Macro as the dividing line between good and bad years of Caligula’s rule.

Perhaps most intriguingly, however, I cannot recall ever thinking this about Macro before now.

If that’s true, then causality here was not a memory previously encoded but a brand new distortion, something I generated during tonight’s constructive remembering. Actually, with further research and debate, it could eventually prove a happy accident of historical imagination, but that’s aside from the point. For our purposes tonight, it doesn’t matter whether the recollection is true, and it doesn’t matter how the recollection was distorted. It matters when the recollection was distorted. Instead of using a previously encoded sense of causality to reconstruct temporal content, I took what were simply encoded (and conflated) associations and I inflated that correlation into a narratable causation - and perhaps this itself was partly because I was remembering in real time while typing on a keyboard. But none of this has yet to answer the question at hand: how did I remember the sequence in question?

Causality was neither available nor needed. Thanks to my old research on an ancillary topic, I remembered that Macro advised Tiberius before advising Caligula briefly. Macro was present and then he was absent, and the overlap lasted about one year, as best I recall. [Edit: Make that one year give or take a few months; from Tiberius’ death (March of 37) to Macro’s demotion to prefect of Egypt, which dates either from appointment (as early as January 38) or physical transfer (as early as June 38).]

In the act of constructive remembering, I adjusted my encoding of Macro’s significance. However, before I could do that I first had to recall Macro as having some other significance. And this was due to a simple correlation. When I asked myself, what’s the very next thing to include after Caligula’s succession, the trace memory I selected was Macro. It was not his effect I was originally thinking about, but his origin. Macro served Tiberius, Caligula succeeded Tiberius, and so then Macro served Caligula. That’s a temporal correlation, a mnemonic association of overlapping continuities, a conditioning of probabilities with no sense of causation.

My placement of Macro as the next bit of the storyline was purely because he corresponds in multiple ways with my memory of the regime transition.

Of course causality can serve the same self-sequencing purpose, for remembering chronologies. For instance, different reader could mnemonically reconstruct Caligula’s timeline without Macro, and they might sequence the good and bad years by recalling (however dubiously) a sense of causality they’d encoded from reading about the brain injury. Technically, this same causality did (admittedly) inform my own exercise here, on some deep level. Even though I rejected the causality as non-factual, that memory of rejected causality is what initially reminded me that there was a good year (or so) before the insanity began to run rampant.

Nevertheless, I believe I have shown that remembering causality was not absolutely required. Sometimes sequences depend on probability and/or pure correlation. For part of my process, a collection of memories all coincided with the mnemonic “time period” defined by Macro’s association with Caligula, all of which I summed up in one single point on my remembered storyline. That point, summing up the collective “phase” of the storyline, thereby sequenced itself.

So there’s one biographical storyline I constructively remembered today, and that’s my most honest reflection on my actual reconstructive process.  But whether you believe me or not, this illustrates the ways in which probability and correlation help the mind reconstruct sequences while remembering story content.

Other children grew up in Augustus’ household; Tiberius had other favorites; other heirs were killed off or passed over so Caligula could be chosen; nothing mandated a good start or a slide into horrifying insanity; and the praetorian assassins weren’t absolutely obligated to arrive at that choice. At each “gap” between these remembered “phases” or “turning points”, the storyline could have moved in some alternative direction. The fact of the actual sequence is what the naive refer to as “history”. The way I construct my remembered sequence is by comparing trace memories against recognizable time periods. The important thing isn’t logical necessity. It’s familiar frequencies.

The most rememberable sequences in Caligula’s life story may seem natural or “logical”, but they aren’t “logically necessary” by any stretch of the mind. What they actually are can be explained on a more basic level. The rememberable sequences are rememberable mainly because they’re predictable.

Growing up is necessarily first and assassination is necessarily last. That’s not causality. That’s statistics. That’s a common pattern we observe among life stories.

Succeeding Tiberius comes after earning favor and before ruling. That’s not logical necessity. That’s a pair of correlations. The context of story content either includes Tiberius being Emperor or it doesn’t.

And finally, since the insane years precede the assassination then the good years - by virtue of existing - must precede the bad years. That’s not karma. That’s two distinct data sets. Assassination is more likely to follow a tyrannical rule than a good rule, and in this case (as far as I remember) it did.

Assuming I remember each of these six points, they sequence themselves. More deeply, their self-sequencing property may be what reinforces their preservation as trace memories. The structural value of these six points as an outline is a survival advantage. Having already established that content dictates sequence, we may now observe the converse, that timelines “select” (in a Darwinian sense) their own content.

Our need to remember storylines privileges temporal content.

The more rememberable stories, over time, may by default become the more memorable as well.

This is one reason biography remains a perennially popular and a relatively reliable tool for remembering the past.