Blackpool, Caligula and controversial anniversaries
Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 31, 2012
As I explained in my last post, my current research is all about the emperor Augustus, and especially the approaching bimillennium of his death on 19th August 2014. So at the moment I am particularly tuned in to noticing when other similar anniversaries crop up – and today seems to be absolutely groaning under the weight of them. The ones I’ve spotted so far are:
- 15 years since Princess Diana died
- 18 years since the IRA ceasefire
- 590 years since the accession of Henry VI, King of England – at the time only 9 months old
- 2000 years since the birth of the future emperor Gaius (aka Caligula)
The last is of particular interest to me, of course. Not only is it a bimillennium in its own right, but I think it’s also a rather good example of how anniversary commemorations are all about the values of the societies which hold them, and not anything inherent in the anniversary itself or the historical significance of the event in the context of its own time. The bimillennium of Augustus’ birth was marked with multiple events all over the world: not just the Fascist commemorations in Italy, but exhibitions, lectures, publications and more in the rest of Europe, the US and Australasia. By contrast, Caligula’s big anniversary seems to be attracting relatively little attention. Adrian Murdoch (amongst others) has been involved in making a documentary about him, currently screening in Australia and New Zealand, which is clearly timed to coincide with the anniversary. There is a panel about him today at the SF convention Chicon 2012 entitled ‘A Bimillennial Celebration of Caligula’ (see pocket programme, p. 37). And I’ve also found a post about him at The History Blog and an article at History Today. But that seems to be all – and it is definitely pretty low-key by comparison with Augustus (likewise Vespasian, who got a whole exhibition in Rome for his bimillennial birthday in 2009).
And that makes sense. Augustus’ rise to power and overthrow of the Republic may be a little controversial (to say the least!), but thanks to the efforts of Horace, Virgil, Velleius Paterculus, Suetonius and co. he still occupies a place in the public imagination as a well-intentioned bringer of peace and stability, and champion of the arts. Commendable stuff. Caligula, on the other hand, is mainly known for wussing out of the conquest of Britain, demanding that people worship him as a god and eating a child born of his own incestuous relationship with his sister. Most of those sorts of stories are clearly lurid exaggerations if you actually look at the sources – e.g. everyone ‘knows’ that he made his horse a consul, but even the gossip-hungry Suetonius only actually claims that people said he planned to do this. Well, I could say that about David Cameron, and there would then be exactly as much evidence that he planned to make his horse (or perhaps Rebekah Brooks’ horse?) a consul as there is about Caligula. It doesn’t amount to much in either case unless they have actually done it. Still, Caligula clearly did rule badly enough, and in particular execute enough prominent people, to find himself at the sharp end of the first ever assassination of a Roman emperor after only four years in power. So he’s not exactly someone you want to run the risk of appearing to celebrate (unless you are a bunch of SF fans having a bit of fun, apparently!). Safer to just stay away from that particular anniversary altogether.
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Blackpool city council have a history which they are so keen to celebrate that today they seem to have invented a suitable anniversary for it. According to their city council, tonight will mark the centenary of their proud history of Blackpool illuminations. But a man on the Today programme this morning (whose name I didn’t catch) assured us that the illuminations actually date back to 1879 – and indeed Wikipedia confirms this. From the same page, I can see that there is a case for claiming 2012 as the centenary, since 1912 clearly saw a rather more spectacular event than had been attempted in 1879 (though in May, not late August). But even the 1912 event was a one-off, and regular illuminations didn’t start until 1925. In other words, there are multiple dates here which could be claimed as ‘anniversaries’ of one sort or another, and of course what the council is really trying to do is simply take advantage of one of them in order to drum up interest in the lights. (It’s clearly worked, too – this item has been all over the news today.) Given the arbitrary nature of time, none of these dates is really any more closely connected to the first illuminations than any other. But the debate on the Today programme this morning showed that any anniversary does need to have a convincing air of authenticity about it to make it ‘work’ as a mythic point of connection with the past. Rather like Father Christmas – or indeed Christmas itself – these things only exist if we believe in them.