Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, Napoleon overcame his height problems to conquer Europe, and Julius Caesar was murdered for inventing a controversial salad. These summaries aren’t 100 percent accurate, but they’re enough to help us get through a remedial history test … unless they’re based on propaganda and misinformation that’s been spread over many centuries, in which case large parts of your worldview are entirely worthless.
Caligula is synonymous with the height of Roman depravity. Ancient Roman sources accused him of sleeping with his sisters, having men murdered on a whim while their families were forced to watch, talking to the moon, declaring himself a god, and planning to make his horse a consul. He’s generally regarded as one of the cruelest, maddest, and most decadent leaders in human history. Pop culture took that reputation and rolled with it. In 1979, Penthouse produced a big-budget movie about him, which turned out to be not so much a historical epic as a porno with an unusually elaborate plot. Caligula also appeared in I, Claudius, wherein he removes a fetus from his pregnant sister and eats it — every actor’s dream role.
Shockingly, there is no record that Caligula ate a fetus. His reputation was acquired through a combination of propaganda, rumors, misunderstood anecdotes, and a lack of proper sources. Caligula was assassinated after a four-year reign, and his murder needed to be justified by making him seem like a monster. All those depraved tales we just mentioned don’t appear in the historical record until about eight decades after his demise, in the writings of Suetonius, who was merely reporting rumors and hearsay. And rumors and hearsay are about all we have to go on.
The horse story, for example, was most likely a case of Caligula expressing exasperation with what he saw as the uselessness of his political opponents, not a serious plan. Caligula was by no means a nice guy; he was a vicious man in a vicious time. But he wasn’t a fetus-eating maniac.
King George III was infamously mad. There was even a movie about him called The Madness Of King George (not to be confused with The Melancholy Of King George II). And that reputation dovetails nicely with what you learned in school, that he was a psychotic tyrant hellbent on destroying freedom.
In reality, he was neither mad nor tyrannical — at least, not by the standards of the era. No British monarch has wielded more authority than their parliament since 1688, but it’s a lot easier to burn an effigy of a king than it is to sit down and have a learned debate on the intricacies of parliamentary democracy. The American colonies actually had the same representation that much of England did, like Manchester and Birmingham. And while it was reasonable to object to that, it doesn’t mean America was some hellish dystopia ruled by a cruel madman.
Revolutions are complicated, but George’s “madness” is touted as the singular reason Britain lost its American colonies. In reality, he was a diligent leader who showed an incredible attention to detail. There is some evidence that he had bipolar disorder, but that doesn’t inherently make someone intolerably unstable and unable to lead. George would retire from public and political life whenever he felt ill. And when he was on his game, he was an accomplished agriculturalist, military mind, historian, and astronomer. He did try hard to hang onto the colonies (and what ruler would simply let a big chunk of their territory go without a fight?), but he was also willing to work with America once it became clear that the war was lost. That’s a far cry from this image of the king: