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Modern explanations of why Caligula ordered his soldiers to collect seashells on the Gallic seashore range from the unlikely to the absurd. Scholars who redefine the terms used by ancient historians for the shells (i.e., conchae, κογχύλια, umbilici) produce imaginative theories such as that the seashells were huts, boats, or vaginas. Symbolic meanings are dredged up by others, according to whom the collecting of the shells was meant to humiliate the troops for their cowardice and the expedition’s overall failure. Still others, taking a more literal approach, suggest that any pearls discovered in the seashells could have been a source of profit for the expedition, or that shells were for use as artillery projectiles.The contemporary fashion of offering continuously novel interpretations of Caligula’s seashells has led scholars to overlook a crucial component in one of the three ancient accounts of the episode: Sextus Aurelius Victor’s description (De Caes. 3.11–12) that the emperor dressed up as the goddess Venus and encouraged his soldiers in person while they collected the shells. (Victor’s trustworthiness as a historian is, however, a matter of some controversy. The paper argues that Victor’s main source, the so-called Kaisergeschichte, contains many unique but nevertheless entirely plausible details.) Caligula’s well-documented fondness for cross-dressing and his assumption of divinity have long been taken as evidence for decreased mental capacity and sexual degeneracy, and so Victor’s portrayal was simply set aside by those seeking to explain the collection of the seashells.Yet Victor’s description of Caligula’s mode of dress offers a perfect context in which to understand his seemingly bizarre command because seashells were sacred to Venus and very often appear together with her in Roman iconography. What is more, the goddess had been a central divinity for both the Julio-Claudians and the ruling Roman elite for well over a century. A recent handbook on Roman religion describes that throughout the first century B.C.E. there took place in Rome a pattern of “competitive display of ever closer connections with the goddess” (Beard, North, and Price, Religions of Rome, 1998: 1.144). In this context, Suetonius’ report (Calig. 46) that Caligula called the seashells Capitolio Palatioque debita, and Cassius Dio’s description (59.25.2) that the seashells were πρὸς τá½´ν τῶν ἐπινικίων πομπá½´ν, take on obvious significance. These phrases signal that Caligula intended for the seashells to be exhibited in the course of a triumph, and then probably somehow installed in buildings on the Capitoline and Palatine Hills (the recently-discovered grotto under the Domus Livia on the Palatine Hill features a vault encrusted with seashells, illustrating how shells were incorporated in first-century C.E. architecture). What scholars have missed about this episode is the aesthetic and political significance seashells together with the goddess Venus held for the emperor in the context of his Julio-Claudian ancestry as well as for a wider Roman audience.Caligula’s seashells broadcast a carefully articulated dual significance. Their first and immediate meaning was for the imperial troops, who would think of the success of previous generals such as Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Augustus and the projection of Roman power through their ties to Venus. The second, delayed significance of the seashells was a message for the Roman people: Caligula was a descendant of Venus, who as patroness of the Roman people, must be honored with suitable dedications. Caligula’s behavior on and off the battlefield is an extension of the intersection of imperial politics and the worship of Venus which had taken place in Rome for almost a century and a half. Caligula’s haul of seashells then must be part of the nexus of political propaganda, projections of power, and illustrations of humanity becoming divinity—not the folly of a madman.

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