The Emperors of Rome had notoriously short lives. While there were a few exceptions, most emperors were doing well to last five years in the job. Perhaps it was job stress or perhaps just a natural proclivity for cruelty and excess that led Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus better known as Caligula to commit the outrageous acts that have solidified his place in history.
Caligula began his reign uneventfully. He he granted bonuses, declared that treason trials were a thing of the past and recalled exiles. He banished sex offenders from the empire and put on lavish gladiator battles. All went well in Caligula’s administration until a strange illness befell him. Philo an historian from Caligula’s time claims that the emperor’s increased bath-taking, drinking, and sex after coming to power caused him to catch a virus.
Whatever the cause the sickness provoked a pronounced change in Caligula’s personality. Shortly after recovery, he killed everyone who was close to him. Who wouldn’t after all? Anyone could have slipped a little poison into the ailing Emperor’s wine just to gain higher status. He even banished his wife and caused her father to commit suicide- just in case. In no time at all Caligula’s behavior went from a little eccentric to legendary.
Pretty woman, his own sisters included, and occasionally attractive men, proved an irresistible temptation for Caligula. Whenever he wished he would order the object of his desire to his bedchamber. Always the great orator, Caligula openly discussed his sexual escapades in detail, much to the dismay of the women’s husbands.
Caligula was an extremely excitable fellow who was prone to fits of temper. He was tall spindly and prematurely bald. So sensitive was he about the state of his hair, that he sometimes ordered a head shaving when he saw fellows with better heads of hair. He also made it a capital crime to look down on his bald spot from a balcony. Although the hair on top of Caligula’s head was sparse he made up for it with copious amounts of body hair. This too was a source of sensitivity. With the emperor’s fierce temper mentioning “hairy goats” in conversation could be dangerous.
Caligula believed himself to be a god. He once asked an actor whether he or Jupiter was greater. When the actor hesitated, Caligula had him whipped. Caligula praised the timbre of the actor’s voice as he plead for mercy. He remarked on the melodiousness of his groans. Caligula justified himself by saying: “Remember that I have the power to do anything to anyone.” His ego grew so large that he roamed the the halls of his palace at night and ordered the sun to rise.
Romans hated Caligula for needlessly spending money and making Rome the object of ridicule. Caligula was indifferent to the opinions of others. On one occasion he garnered a large army and marched them North to Britain. The soldiers endured great hardship and the march was costly. Upon reaching their destination Caligula had the soldiers gather seashells. These were, Caligula claimed, the “spoils of war” from the Emperor’s battle with Neptune. Another time, Caligula went to great lengths to prove his old adversary Thrasyllus the Roman astrologer, wrong. Thrasyllus had predicted that Caligula had no more chance of becoming Emperor than of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baiae.(bey-yee) In response to this Caligula rounded up ships from all over and sailed them in to the Gulf between Baiae and the neighboring port of Puteoli. This interrupted normal use of the bay for many months. Caligula anchored the ships in the harbor and had his men place wooden planks between them. He then covered everything with sand. Dressed in jewel encrusted robes he road his horse Incitatus across the bay. He showed that astrologer.
Caligula was a gifted speaker and an excellent mimic. He didn’t hesitate to speak his mind freely and humiliate people no matter their rank. Perhaps more than anything else this talent was, in the end, his undoing. Cassius Chaerea ended Caligula’s four year career as emperor with a dagger to the chest. Cassius a member of the Praetorian Guard hated the emperor because he had remorselessly imitated his high, effeminate voice. The murderer met with no resistance. Caligula was universally hated by the upper classes of Rome. Even though Cassius’ first well placed strike to Caligula’s heart did the job. He plunged in his blade twenty-nine more times. Caligula tended to have that effect on people. Cassius was heard to say Death’s too good for someone who calls me “darling” in public!
The Senate cheered.
Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.
Nursery Rhymes are frequently based on unspeakable historical horrors. Children, I fear, may be essentially evil. They regularly and gleefully recite little rhymes filled with subject matter that would give pause to even the most graphic horror writer.
“Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” the familiar English rhyme is a choice example. The Mary alluded to in the rhyme, is Mary Tudor, or Bloody Mary. The daughter of Henry the VIII, Mary, was a staunch Catholic responsible for a repressive policy against practitioners of Protestant faith.
The ‘garden’ is a euphemism for the graveyards which, under her harsh supervision, filled up quickly with Protestant martyrs.
The silver bells and cockle shells are colloquialisms for instruments of torture. The ‘silver bells’ were thumbscrews. This simple vice with protruding studs or spikes on the interior surfaces was placed on the victim’s thumbs and slowly tightened until the victim gave a confession. The ‘cockleshells’ were supposedly instruments which were attached to the genitals and worked much the same way.
Beheading in Bloody Mary’s time was problematic. The one who was to be beheaded was often uncooperative and had to be chased around the scaffold. Often multiple blows were needed to sever the head. Simple executions turned into drawn out and complicated public spectacles. The guillotine solved these problems. The nickname for the the guillotine was the maiden. The pretty maids all in a row refers to the collection of guillotines used to get rid of troublesome Protestants.
Mary was indeed contrary. In spite of that, down through the ages children have embraced her and sung her praises. Doesn’t this seem suspicious? I suspect those cute little cherubs are actually monsters waiting for us to drop our vigilance for just one second.
You’ve been warned.
Thank you to Amanda Spaid for the use of her artwork. You can see more of her wonderful art here.
Catherine Deshayes, also known as La Voisin, began her career as a palm reader and midwife/abortionist to supplement the meager income her husband earned as a jeweler. By 1860 when she was burned at the stake for witchcraft she had become one of the most notorious poisoners in history.
To improve her business, La Voisin added spells and potions to the fortune telling and midwife services she offered her clients. She sprinkled her concoctions with liberal helpings of toad bones, mole teeth, spanish flies, iron filings, human blood, and mummy dust (human ashes) along with more potent and often lethal secret ingredients. Aided by Étienne Guibourg a priest who performed black masses and the magician Lesage, her highly theatrical business thrived. High ranking members of the French aristocracy relied on her when they wanted to secure powerful lovers or eliminate their rivals.
Throughout the decade of the 1670’s several suspicious deaths heightened the aristocracy’s already considerable fear of poison. In response to the growing panic, Louis XIV ordered the investigation and arrest of fortune tellers, alchemists, and anyone else who sold potions.
La Voisin’s career came to an abrupt end when she was arrested in a raid. The French court accused her of being a witch and a poisoner and she was sentenced to burn at the stake. Before she was executed, however, she named the many members of the aristocracy who had used her services. Among the clients she implicated included the king’s mistress and the Duke of Luxembourg. Although she presented no evidence, her testimony ruined numerous reputations.
Found guilty of witchcraft, La Voisin was burned. Two full years after her death the scandal raged on. So many people had been implicated in the that the King rescinded his order to rid France of poison and put an end to The Poison Affair.
Vera Renczi was born in 1903 to an aristocratic Romanian family. When she was a young woman, her friends and family thought her spoiled rich-girl attitude caused her relationship troubles. Her problem, however, had much deeper roots and more serious consequences. Unlike most female serial killers who kill for financial gain, Vera killed because she believed men could not be trusted. She was obsessed by the need for total loyalty and devotion from her lovers. Before she was caught, she poisoned 2 husbands, one son, and as many as 35 lovers. When the authorities searched her home they found 32 corpses in her wine cellar each stored in their own personalized coffin.
To learn more about Vera Renczi
BBC Infamous Poisoners
The Discovery Channel Deadly Women
Wikipedia Vera Renczi