Archaeologists in Rome find spot where Caligula met ill-fated Jewish embassy (2024)

Roadworks in Rome have uncovered the remains of a portico and garden from the time of the emperor Caligula, which archaeologists believe was the site of a key moment in Jewish history.

It was here, under the porch of a scenic garden overlooking the River Tiber that the notoriously unstable emperor first met delegates from Alexandria in Egypt seeking protection for the city's large Jewish community following a series of mob attacks.

The embassy, which took place in 39-40 C.E., did not end well for the Jews, as perhaps could have been expected in dealing with an emperor who became infamous for his cruelty and megalomania, as well as for trying to make his horse a consul.

Over the last months, workers and archaeologists building an underpass along the Tiber near the Vatican ran into a rich layer of remains from Rome's imperial heyday, Italy's culture ministry said in a statement last week.

This is hardly surprising as the future underpass lies just next to Castel Sant'Angelo – the 2nd century mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian, later transformed into a papal fortress – and the whole area was known to have housed gardens and villas of ancient Rome's rich and powerful.

The works uncovered a large wall made of bricks and travertine marble that formed a terrace on the banks of the Tiber, according to the statement by the archaeological superintendency of the culture ministry. Behind this embankment, archaeologists located the foundations of a colonnaded portico and a vast area that was used as a garden, the statement says.

While roadbuilding: Remains of the embankment on the Tiber that once supported Caligula's monumental portico and gardenCredit: Fabio Caricchia

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Little Boot wuz here

There is good reason to attribute the site to Caligula, whose brief and violent reign lasted from 37 to 41 C.E., say lead archaeologist Dora Cirone and scientific director Alessio De Cristofaro.

It was known that the area housed the Gardens of Agrippina the Elder, Caligula's mother (not to be confused with his sister, Agrippina the Younger, who birthed another infamous emperor: Nero)..

But the real clincher was the unearthing of a lead water pipe stamped with the name of the site's owner, one Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Gaius was in fact the real name of the emperor we know as Caligula, an affectionate nickname given to him in youth and which means "little boot" – in reference to the caligae, the boots worn by Roman legionnaires.

The lead water pipe bearing Caligula's full name: C(ai) Caesaris Aug(usti) GermaniciCredit: Fabio Caricchia

The inscribed pipe confirms that archaeologists have found the remains of Agrippina's gardens, mentioned in the works of Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who lived in the first half of the first century, De Cristofaro says.

It was Philo who led a failed embassy to Rome, after a series of anti-Jewish riots, considered by some scholars the first pogrom in history, erupted in Alexandria, his home town. Since its founding by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C.E. the Hellenistic city had been a melting pot of cultures, with Jews making up almost a third of the population.

But religious and political tensions were brewing with the Greek community, which saw the Jews as favoring the Roman occupation of Egypt.

In the riots that exploded in 38 C.E. thousands were killed, synagogues were razed or desecrated and the Jews were driven from most of the city, Philo relates. The timing was ripe as Rome was led by Caligula, who insisted on being worshipped as a living god, a demand the Greeks had no trouble acceding to, but which was anathema for the Jews and put them at the disadvantage in any dealings with the emperor.

Caligula, New Carlsberg Glyptotek, CopenhagenCredit: Sergey Sosnovskiy

Nevertheless, in 39 B.C.E., a delegation led by Philo made its way to Rome, to plead for Caligula's protection. In his text, Legatio ad Gaium (The Embassy to Gaius), Philo recounts that they were first granted audience with the emperor "in the plains on the banks of the Tiber, for he happened to be walking about in his mother's garden." That is, most likely, the site uncovered recently in Rome.

Locating a spot mentioned in a 2,000-year-old history is a thrilling discovery, and even more so from the reign of Caligula. After his assassination in 41 C.E., this emperor suffered a damnatio memoriae, his name being effaced from monuments, statues and coins. But all that was still in the future.

On that day in 39 C.E., ambling around the gardens he had inherited from his mother, Gaius Caligula was in fact quite gracious with the Jewish ambassadors. "He conversed with us formally, and waved his right hand to us in a protecting manner, giving us significant tokens of his good will," Philo recounts. "He said, 'I myself will listen to what you have to say at the first favorable opportunity'."

The 2nd-3rd century laundry built atop Caligula's garden. See the washing tubsCredit: Fabio Caricchia

The god turns querulous

The delegates had to wait for months to see the emperor again. Meanwhile they got grim news. Greeks in Yavne, a coastal town in Judea, had built a small shrine to the emperor, which had been promptly destroyed by local Jews.

Informed of this affront, the ever-volatile Caligula had ordered his legate in Syria to build and erect a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem, a sacrilegious act that was widely expected to bring the restive province into open revolt.

Philo and his fellow delegates found themselves having to plead also the case of their fellow Jews in Judea. Finally they met Caligula again.

This second meeting did not take place in the gardens along the Tiber but in the emperor's palace on the Esquiline hill, remains of which were uncovered a few years ago, also during construction work. That audience was a disaster.

A detail of the brick and marble embankment that supported the porticoCredit: Fabio Caricchia

Caligula was clearly not interested in hearing the ambassador's pleas, and instead darted through the rooms and gardens of his palace, ordering new and lavish improvements, Philo relates. In between his home design projects he amused himself by launching barbed accusations at the delegates, telling them "you are haters of God, inasmuch as you do not think that I am a god," and questioning them on their faith by asking why they did not partake of pork.

Philo and friends were ultimately unable to even plead their case, with the emperor dismissing them by saying: "These men do not appear to me to be wicked so much as unfortunate and foolish, in not believing that I have been endowed with the nature of God."

Caligula's plans to erect a statue of himself in the Temple were only put off by a combination of delays concocted, at great personal risk, by his legate in Syria, who understood the explosive nature of the affront to Jews, and a personal request by Herod Agrippa, a member of the Herodian dynasty and a friend of the emperor.

Ultimately, the scheme was finally shelved when Caligula was assassinated by his own guards in 41 C.E.

His successor, the more level-headed Claudius, took a more conciliatory approach with the Jews. Judea would be spared major conflict for a few more decades – until tensions would be reignited under another infamous emperor, Nero, leading to the breakout of the First Jewish Revolt in 66 C.E. and the subsequent destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Pottery shards found in the laundry facility overlying Caligula's gardenCredit: Fabio Caricchia

Rest in piss

Caligula's monumental garden on the Tiber did not fare much better and was largely razed and replaced by other structures. Most notably, in the 2nd or 3rd century, the site was covered with a fullonica, a Roman laundry, according to the culture ministry statement.

The archaeologists have unearthed large washing basins from this phase, in which the water from the Tiber was mixed with a detergent, usually urine, to wipe off stains from clothes, the statement says.

Archaeologists are currently working to remove the remains of the laundry and the earlier finds from Caligula's garden to make way for the planned underpass. The antiquities will be placed in the gardens of Castel Sant'Angelo, just next door, where they will be accessible to the public, the ministry says.

The washing basins in the 2nd-3rd century laundry built above Caligula's gardenCredit: Fabio Caricchia

In fact, the ruins from Caligula's time were only found once archaeologists began removing the remains of the laundry, which lay above them.

It is not known whether the foul-smelling, urine-using laundry was purposely placed upon the remains of the gardens owned by one of Rome's most despised emperors, but there is certainly some poetic justice in knowing that Caligula's dreams of being worshipped as a god ended up being drowned in pee.

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Archaeologists in Rome find spot where Caligula met ill-fated Jewish embassy (2024)
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