Mar 24, 2014

Caligula: Drag as Pure Evil

Everybody's heard of Caligula, the Roman Emperor who ascended to the throne in 37 AD and pursued an aggressive program of reforms, granting pardons to political prisoners, requiring corrupt highway commissioners to pay back taxes, restoring democratic elections, and admitting new members into the elite nobility and equestrian orders of the Senate.  These acts caused him to make many enemies in the Senate, and he was assassinated in 41 AD.







Oh, you haven't heard about his reforms?  Maybe you heard about his insanity, his cruelty, and his sexual appetite: wild orgies, multiple partners, sex with goats, sex with his sisters.

Most scholars think that these stories were invented by his enemies to discredit him.


The original Roman sources don't say a lot about crossdressing or gay sex, since they were not particularly scandalous in Roman times, but modern films have tended to portray a flamboyantly feminine Caligula who demonstrates the depths of his sexual perversion by wearing women's clothes and casting lecherous eyes on men.

He's usually played by actors who specialize in gender ambiguity: Ralph Bates (The Caesars, 1968), John Hurt (in the tv adaption of Robert Graves' I Claudius, 1976), Malcolm McDowell (Caligula, 1979), John McEnery (A.D., 1985), 


Malcolm McDowell's Caligula is probably the most famous, in the one of the first movies to involve  both mainstream actors and hardcore porn (what do you expect when Bob Guccione of Penthouse magazine is the producer?).  Most of the sex acts are heterosexual or human-animal, but same-sex acts and eye shadow are thrown in as indicators of just how depraved Caligula's orgies had become.




The play Caligula, by existentialist philosopher Albert Camus (1944), has the Emperor torn with grief over the death of his sister-lover Drusilla, so he vows to engage in every form of cruelty and sexual perversion imaginable.  He exclaims: "I want ugliness to become beauty; I want to make suffering funny."  So he engages in lots of murders and lots of heterosexual rapes, but just one same-sex act (except in this all-male version at the Teatro Cubana).

But the rapes and murders don't symbolize the depth of his decadence.  What does?  Crossdressing: he dons feminine attire to impersonate the Goddess Venus.

Apparently drag is the epitome of pure evil.