It turns out that Hollywood’s tendency to benignly “update” things might be causing us all sorts of unexpected problems. Good thing history itself never changes, right? …Right?
For those who missed it, here’s Part 1. Now, let’s find out what your textbooks have been hiding from you.
Part 2: History!
I promised not to turn this into a lecture on the Civil War, so I’m going to let Colonel Ty Seidule, the head of West Point’s history department, have the final word.
When the Army tells you to take your medicine, you goddamn take your medicine.
I’d love to sit in on a German history class for their chapter on World War II, and not because of some weird schadenfreude: I honestly want to know how they approach the subject. Nazis are one of the only universally acceptable bad guys these days, and while that’s super well-earned, consider this: if a modern German kid were to play through any of today’s popular shooters, they would inevitably end up being forced to kill wave after wave of stand-ins for their own grandparents (or re-killing them, depending on the game mode). How does an entire nation cope with being the children of the bad guys?
If you think I’ve changed the subject, I really haven’t. In the video, one of the early points Col. Seidule makes is that many people who identify with the idea of being “Southern” find it difficult to reconcile that part of their identity with the historical reality of what that actually means. Instead, they cling to the (again, factually inaccurate) idea that the Civil War was some kind of noble struggle – then, they can go back to feeling proud of their rich Southern heritage.
I’m not bringing this up to demonize people who slept through U.S. History class in 10th grade, but only because that’s probably where they got their bad information in the first place.
An oft overlooked fact is that stories – all stories – have agendas. The Hollywood movies we discussed earlier have the obvious agenda of making money: therefore, they must offend as few sensibilities as humanly possible.
When Hollywood cries “entertainment” every time it accidentally casts Charlie Sheen as a sane person, the excuse’s validity is based entirely on the idea that history is there with the truth should we be compelled to seek it out. The problem with this is that history has been completely rewritten so many different times (and for so many stupid reasons) that it makes comic book continuity look consistent.
If history was objective, like we’ve been conditioned to believe, we would have heard about how many key historical events were sponsored by Irresponsible Binge Drinking™ (coming soon to a house party near you!). Let nobody say that Dionysus isn’t an agent of progress: there are eleven examples contained within these two links alone, and I highly recommend that you check them out because they’re hilarious.
Those links represent some of the most famous and dramatic examples, like the Boston Tea Party (in reality, a drunken riot), but also some less widely known events. For example: the time that the Princess of Lichtenstein challenged one of her Countesses to a duel because the Countess had criticized her taste in flowers.
They decided to do this topless, because alcohol.
To be fair, there was a legitimate medical reason why taking their shirts off to cross swords was a good idea. My point is just that Princess and the Countess had spent the entire day drinking: regardless of the suggestion’s legitimacy, they probably didn’t need much convincing to go along with it.
These famous examples aren’t exceptions, though: total sobriety is something we’ve only recently rediscovered.
I’m not just being snarky. Reliable access to clean drinking water is such a new development that many parts of the world still don’t have it. For a great deal of human history, alcohol was one of the only safe things to drink – our water was literally filled with shit, and we didn’t feel like risking dysentery every time we got parched.
We did have other beverages, but they, too, were gambles: milk is great when it’s fresh, but don’t pretend that you’d drink it after accidentally leaving it out overnight. Should you have enough surplus fruit to make juice, storing it without refrigeration requires that you either make it into wine (alcohol!) or vinegar (which, regardless of what my friends might tell you, is not a beverage).
For better or worse, alcohol was our only consistently good option. Name any historical event prior to the invention of the fridge, and you can all but guarantee that everyone involved was some level of shitfaced.
So, why didn’t we hear about any of that? It’s exactly the kind of stuff we should be teaching, if only so that high schoolers will stop snapchatting pictures of their genitals to each other for five goddamn minutes while the teacher is trying to tell them how the world works. The truth is that there is a long-running worldwide conspiracy, of which you are yourself a part, to look like we have our shit together.
If your kids (or future kids) found out about all of the dumb things you did as a teenager (or are still doing, repeatedly, as a grown ass adult), they’d never respect a single word you say. That’s totally justifiable on the surface, but our many bad decisions also mean that we learned a whole host of valuable lessons the hard way. The sad truth is that everyone secretly suspects that authority figures only exist to keep them from having fun, so until they catch themselves deciding whether or not to lie about this stuff to their own kids, being completely honest with yours could very well undermine all of your rules and advice. Lying sucks, but pretending that we’re responsible adults (and, more importantly, that we always have been) is usually the best chance most people have at keeping their kids from doing something lethally stupid.
If you don’t plan on having kids, just pretend that the previous paragraph was about hiding your weekend debauchery from potential employers. If you’re too young for either scenario, try to convince your friends to do something they’ve already seen you fail at and see how quickly you obfuscate that particular point. Neither situation is a perfect fit, but the basic premise holds true: we need to look like we know what we’re doing, and that usually means selectively editing the past.
So, yeah: failing to mention how wicked drunk we used to get (both personally and as a species) is, if dishonest, somewhat understandable. We don’t only change history to preserve the illusion of our own competence, though; sometimes things are changed intentionally, and for supremely selfish reasons. Now, I could easily start talking about the upcoming 2016 Presidential race to prove this particular point, but that’s not going to be important until this time next year. Instead, I’m going to go with something a little more timely and tell you about how Caligula got a bad rap.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing a very naked Helen Mirren in the Penthouse-produced film about his life, the Roman Emperor known as Caligula is best known for being absolutely bug-fucking insane. There are so many stories detailing how Disney-villain evil he was that, even today, the accepted historical narrative boils down to “that boy ain’t right”.
While all historical sources agree that his reign started off fairly well, things seem to have devolved into tyrant-flavored chaos inside of a single year. There is a great deal of focus on his cruelty, extravagance, and his paranoid lunacy; in his first year, he squandered the entire fortune left to him by his grand uncle, the late Emperor Tiberius, and set about accusing his political rivals of treason in order to seize their estates. In an attempt to fix the Roman economy, which he spent on his self-aggrandizing public works projects, he levied a prodigious number of taxes on the Roman people and even insisted that soldiers surrender their war spoils to the treasury. He insisted on being worshiped as a living god and otherwise increased the powers of his office in ways that wouldn’t be seen again until Dick Cheney.
I don’t want to get into too much detail on his miscellaneous cruelties because holy shit is that subject just depressing as hell, but there is one account of a gladiatorial match where, after learning that they had run out of criminals to feed to the lions, Caligula ordered his soldiers to push a section of the crowd into the pit to satisfy his bloodlust.
His craziness, which gets lumped in with explanations for his aforementioned cruelty and sexual perversions, is a lot more fun to talk about. There are so many examples that we’d be here all week if I had to detail them all, but here are my three favorites:
- As Emperor, Caligula intended to appoint his favorite horse, Incitatus, as a consul to the senate. He didn’t follow through, but did make Incitatus a priest.
- Caligula ordered that all available boats be used to construct a floating bridge across the Bay of Baiae specifically so that he could ride Incitatus across it.
- Caligula ordered the construction of an entire house for Incitatus, fully furnished with servants, so that Incitatus could invite various dignitaries over for parties. He was fed oats that had been mixed with gold flakes, his stable was made from marble, and he was given a collar studded with precious stones that, and I can’t stress this enough, Incitatus couldn’t appreciate because Incitatus was a goddamned horse.
In case the fact that Penthouse was the only studio willing to make a movie about his life didn’t make it clear, Caligula was widely known to indulge in a variety of sexual fetishes and perversions. To the best of my knowledge, none of these involved Incitatus.
Okay, so are we all caught up? Do we all have at least a basic understanding of who History says Caligula was?
So now that we’re all on the same page, I have a huge problem: the name “Caligula” is now completely connected to the idea of a man who is a total goddamn monster. So, I can’t very well call him that. The problem is that “Caligula” rolls off the tongue a hell of a lot easier than “Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus”. If it’s all the same to you (and who am I kidding; I’m doing it regardless), I’m going to pick a new name for him.
A name that carries no negative associations whatsoever.
A name that I’ve picked completely at random.
Next week, I’ll explain why “Justin Bieber” isn’t the monster that history says he is!