India’s Caligula?

The third emperor to rule the Roman Empire was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. But you probably know him as Caligula, an incestuous bloodthirsty psychopath. The Roman Gossip columnist Suetonius describes an incident where he tried to make his horse Consul (similar to the role of a modern Prime Minister). Other notable exploits were included declaring himself to be a living God, opening the grave of Alexander the Great to steal his armor, declaring war on the sea and forcing senators’ wives into prostitution.

The problem with all these accounts is that practically all of them were written by his enemies in the Senate. The Senate was the traditional legislative body of Rome where all political power was supposed to lie. But under the ceasars, they had found themselves reduced to mere figureheads. In their place had come the imperial palace staff, often consisting of slaves and people of obscure birth. Finally it was a senatorial conspiracy which murdered him.

British classicist Mary Beard created a documentary  trying to peel away some of these myths. For instance, consider the story about his horse. What is really believed to have happened is that Caligula was chastising the admittedly rather pathetic Roman Senate by saying something along the lines of “you all are so useless, I could make my horse the Consul and it would do a better job than you.”

To get an extent of how deep the bias runs in our narrative, consider the name Caligula itself. This was taken from the Latin word Caliguli which meant a soldier’s boot. The story goes that as a child he had accompanied his military hero father on campaign in Germany and there he had become something of a mascot for the troops. He had a little legionary outfit with tiny boots and had received the affectionate moniker, Caligula. But the senators kept his childhood name and used it to refer to him after his death as an insult. Akin to calling him Emperor Little Boots or Emperor Bootikins.

The problem of biased sources plagues all histories. In India, one of the most famous examples is the story of Muhammed Bin Tughlaq who ruled Delhi from 1324 to 1351 and came to be known as Muhammed the Mad.

As a prince, the young Tughlaq had campaigned extensively in South and Central India in the region known as the Deccan where he collected a large war treasure and subdued many of the local rulers. He is also believed to have been knowledgeable about medicine, calligraphy, mathematics and could speak Persian and Sanskrit.

He was ambitious about extending his realm and was a constant innovator and here is where things would often go wrong. One of his first schemes was to try and raise a powerful army for which he needed a large sum of money. He massively increased (some say 20 times) agricultural taxes in the fertile Daob region between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in the heart of his kingdom. The problem was that in that year, the rains failed, creating a famine. His officers however continued to extort the exorbitant tax from peasants leading to his widespread unpopularity.

He created a special government department to increase the land under cultivation but that had to be shut within 3 years due to widespread corruption. In a surprisingly modern move, he also tried to replace the existing gold and silver coinage with copper and bronze coins which served as promissory notes for gold and silver coins of much higher value. In modern terms, this would increase money supply and spur the economy. But this was before the era of watermarks and security checks. Counterfeiting became rampant and foreign traders were wary of the new currency.

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Tughlaq coins

His military campaigns also yielded uneven results. He tried to take advantage of political confusion in Iraq, he raised a large army to invade Khorasan only to disband it once the situation changed. He fought the Quarajal in the Hamalyas, forcing them to come to terms, but large parts of his army perished in the cold climate.

Retaining perhaps a lasting desire for conquering the South of India, he made his most infamous mistake. He decided to shift his capital from Delhi in North India to Daulatabad in Central India, 1200 kms away. This is believed to have been a human catastrophe as thousands of people are supposed to have died in the move. Further, Tughlaq found that by moving his capital south, he was left vulnerable in the North. Delhi was threatened by Mongol invasions which Tughlaq failed to repel. Rebellions broke out in Bengal which also required longer travel. The whole project is considered a costly failure.

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Delhi to Daulatabad on a modern map of India

By the time of his death, he was so unpopular that wild rumors circulated about him. He was accused of everything from killing his own father to cannibalism. More recently, like the case of Caligula some people are trying to reassess his role trying to see how many of his schemes were flawed in conception or just poorly implemented by an ineffective administration.

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2 responses to “India’s Caligula?

  1. I think that’s a slightly revisionist view of both the rulers. Of all of Tuglak’s mismanagements, te debasing of the currency and de facto relinquishing of monopoly on minting was the most criminal.
    Debasing currencies to fund wars has always been a problem with Indian princes (all the way back to the Gupta Era)- in none of those instances is it an introduction of a fractional banking system run by banknotes simply because there is no central bank to back the guarantee. It is plain and simple shock devaluation.

  2. The hint of “misunderstood visionary” was not lost on me btw 😉 Incidentally, the name Caligula was not a term of ridicule. When in the position of power, incompetence (or delusions of divinity) is not a forgivable offence.

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