National Geographic : 1946 Nov
An Embassy to Caligula DURING the first two centuries of the Christian Era Rome was beyond all challenge the center of the world's civilization. Only China in the remote Orient deserved to be mentioned in the same breath. The older cultural lands around the shores of the Medi terranean had long ago lost their importance. Egypt and Greece were minor Roman provinces; Assyria had vanished utterly; Phoenicia, Judaea, and part of Arabia had been absorbed in the Empire. Babylonia and Persia had yielded to a hybrid culture in which Iranian, Scythian, and Greek were confused. Athens was a provincial university town. Resurrected from utter destruction, Carthage was no longer Punic. Alexandria and Antioch were turbulent and dissolute, and, however rich and culture-loving, not the arbiters of the Empire's fashions. But Rome was a city of perennial splendor, the center of the world's interest. To Rome came missions and embassies from all the earth. Augustus had received delegations from India, Claudius emissaries from Ceylon. In A. D. 99 Indian ambassadors sought audience with Trajan, but Trajan, a military man of plain speech and direct bearing, had no flair for pomp. Not so had been Caligula, though the nickname Caligula, meaning "little boot," referred to the soldier footgear he had worn as the boy idol of Roman troops in the Rhineland. He loved to dress, not as a magistrate but as a triumphing field commander, and, enthroned godlike, to accept the adora tion of his gorgeous visitors from beyond the eastern bound aries of his domain. In contrast, the sedate togas of his councilors bore witness that thestrength ofRome still lay in simplicity and dignity. The Roman toga was based onthedraping ofasingle piece of cloth about the body, so wrapped astoleave theright arm free at need, but theleft usually concealed. Although, when spread out, it was readily distinguishable incut from the rectangular Greek himation, thedress ofthetwo nations was essentially similar. The style survives intherobes of Arabs and North AfricanBerbers. The European sewn and fitted costume, with divided trousers and sleeved jacket,though not classical, was familiar to antiquity and common in northern Europe. Britons and Gauls wore sleeved coatsand loose trousers; theScythian horsemen of the Russian steppes, precursors oftheCossacks, wore tight breeches with straps under theinstep; and there nowned Iranian highlanders wore trousers. The mad Caligula had adizzy bridge constructed tounite the Palatine and Capitolinehilltops. Onthis hemight pass across to commune with his"other self," Jupiter. Nero's insatiate ambition found even thePalatine too confined for him. Whenthe great fire destroyed the lower district, he coveredthis with buildings and gardens utterly extravagant. As soon ashedied, almost allofhis fabulous House of Gold was demolished. Some few decorated chambers inunderground stories sur vived, to serve as inspiration for thearabesques with which Raphael and his pupils adorned thePope's balcony apart ment in the Vatican. Theemperors returned tothePalatine, which they covered with ever more showy constructions.