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Statue sparks talk of Caligula's tomb

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The Roman emperor Caligula, shown in this engraving, is one of the most infamous characters in history.

Italian police have reportedly cracked a case that they say may lead them to a tomb meant for the Roman emperor Caligula, celebrated as one of the worst people in the ancient world — but archaeologists have their doubts about the tomb tale.

"Ostensibly, this 'discovery' doesn't concur with the ancient sources," Darius Arya, executive director of the American Institute for Roman Culture, told me in an e-mail. For years, Arya has studied the life and death of the Roman Empire's bad boy, who ruled from the year 37 to 41.

Caligula came to power at the age of 24, and became infamous even in Roman times for his extravagance and egomania. The wildest stories include his claims of divinity, his incestuous affairs with his sisters and his efforts to get his horse Incitatus named as a senator and a consul.

Historians wrote that his own Praetorian Guard assassinated him in an underground corridor beneath the royal palace.  His body was taken to the Lamian Gardens on Rome's Esquiline Hill, partially burned and buried. Eventually, his sisters cremated the remains more thoroughly — and may have slipped the ashes into the royal family crypt, the Mausoleum of Augustus.

At least that's the traditional story. "The source is Suetonius, and he's about as good as they get," Arya said.

Today, The Guardian quotes officers from the archaeological squad of Italy's tax police as saying that they arrested a tomb raider last week in the act of loading an 8-foot-tall (2.5-meter-tall) statue into a truck near Lake Nemi, south of Rome. The police said the marble statue depicted a figure with a throne, divine robes and wearing the "caligae" military boots that earned Caligula his nickname ("little boots").

After a round of questioning, the man showed police a site that they're convinced is the tomb of Caligula, The Guardian reported. Excavations were reportedly to begin today.

Caligula did build a luxurious villa at Lake Nemi, along with ships that are thought to have served as floating palaces or "love boats." But archaeologists say there's no evidence that a tomb was ever built there. In an online commentary for the Times Literary Supplement, classical scholar Mary Beard wonders exactly why the authorities think the statue shows Caligula, and what it is that made them think that the statue marks his tomb.

The way she sees it, the tale of Caligula's lost tomb "makes a good story that gets a load of press coverage for the discovery made by these no doubt brave policemen (the illicit antiquities business is probably second only to drug running in its nastiness)."

Oxford archaeologist Andrew Wilson told me in an e-mail that Beard's assessment is "probably spot-on," and he also pointed to a commentary on the RogueClassicism blog that said it was "pretty much unlikely and impossible that Caligula would have been interred at the villa at Nemi."

Arya is skeptical as well. "Seeing's believing," he told me in a follow-up call. "Let's see the statue."

Update for 7:35 p.m. ET: Discovery News' Rossella Lorenzi puts a different spin on the caper, citing the newspaper Corriere della Sera. The way she puts it, authorities are not looking for a tomb, but instead are looking for evidence of the "long-lost villa" that Caligula built by the lake. The headless statue, valued at $1.6 million, might have been one of the treasures from the villa. This paper by Pia Guldager Bilde takes a detailed look at the archaelogical site at Lake Nemi. 

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