SFF: Publications : Essays
I, Cartagia: a mad emperor in Babylon 5 and his historical antecedents
Caligula is probably the most obvious comparison, hence why I had that name reflect that sound a little bit. I wanted someone who you would be very much in fear of, not because he was rampaging around screaming all the time, but because he was completely and totally arbitrary.
J. Michael Straczynski, quoted in Jane Killick, Babylon 5: No Surrender, No Retreat (New York 1998), p. 36
The science-fiction TV series Babylon 5, created and overseen by J. Michael Straczynski, ran from 1992 to 1998. It has been much praised for its multi-themed story. One of these themes is, to be pretentious for a moment, the decline and fall of the Centauri Republic, an interstellar state that, whilst still one of the five major players in the galaxy (the others being the Earth Alliance, the Vorlon Empire, the Minbari Federation and the Narn Regime) is far past its better days when first encountered in the initial pilot movie ('The Gathering'). Over the five years of the series, the Centauri briefly regain their ascendancy, and reconquer their traditional enemies, the Narn - but the actions taken to achieve this in the end lead to the Centauri homeworld's own occupation and near-destruction. (Frustratingly, the final conclusion of the Centauri story line is never shown on screen. In the fifth season, the planet is overrun by the Drakh, and this is still the case in the flash forward some seventeen years into the future seen in the third season episode 'War Without End', where Londo Mollari, the chief Centauri character in the series, and by this point emperor, appeals for help from Captain Sheridan. Presumably from the peaceful appearance of Londo's successor as emperor, his former assistant Vir, in the final episode, 'Sleeping in Light', the viewer can deduce that the situation has been resolved, but how this happens is not revealed onscreen. Three novels by Peter David, in the Babylon 5: Legions of Fire, The Long Night of Centauri Prime (1999), Armies of Light and Dark (2000) and Out of the Darkness (2000), all of which are considered canonical, tell the whole story.)
The Centauri Republic borrows much of its political machinery from ancient Rome, as others have noted (Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, 'Rewriting the Past in the Future in Straczynski's Babylon 5', in Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (eds.), The Parliament of Dreams: Conferring on Babylon 5 (1998), p. 8). So it proclaims itself as a Republic, with all the implications of democracy and anti-monarchism that term carries, yet is presided over by an emperor (compare the Vorlon 'empire', which appears to be a much more communal state, with decisions based on consensus and a lack of individuality amongst the Vorlons). The Centauri emperor, in theory, is responsible to the Centarum, the equivalent of the Roman Senate. Important families in the Republic compete to place their own favoured candidate upon the imperial throne. This is possibly derived from the machinations of the Late Roman Republic, where important families competed for influence, and eventually for monarchic dominance. James and Mendlesohn's example is that "suicide is the favoured option for those accused of treason". What the Centauri empire does not have, however, is the sort of powerful women who feature in popular depictions of the first century ad Roman empire, like Livia, Messalina and Agrippina - and now Atia in the television series Rome. The most important female seen is the Emperor Turhan's third wife, in the third season episode 'Point of No Return'. She is a quasi-religious figure and prophetess, who speaks for he deceased husband, but seems to wield no actual power herself - one is reminded of imperial women in the later Christian period, such as Constantine the Great's mother Helena or Theodosius II's sister Pulcheria, both of whom devoted themselves to the Church. Other than that, high-status Centauri women seem to be pawns in dynastic marriages.
I would not, in any case, mean to suggest that Rome is the only model for the Centauri Republic. Other influences that can be seen include the later years of the Ottoman empire (the first emperor seen, Turhan, in the second-season episode 'The Coming of Shadows', is actually played by an actor of Turkish descent). Eighteenth-century Tsarist Russia seems to be another, especially for costumes. In this latter context the Austro-Hungarian empire has also been mentioned (James and Mendlesohn, loc. cit.), whilst it has been suggested to me that the extravagant hairstyles, which have similarities to the display plumage of birds, are derived from the elaborate oriental coiffures seen in The Mikado.
At the beginning of the fourth season (1996), in the episode 'The Hour of the Wolf', the emperor Cartagia, the nephew of previous emperor Turhan, is introduced, and appears in the next four episodes. As noted in the quote from Straczynski above, Cartagia's name is deliberately reminiscent of that of the Roman emperor popularly known as Caligula (though strictly speaking he should be called the emperor Gaius), and the use of such a name, again as Straczynski admits, hints at his character. Certainly, the historical Caligula saw no need to cloak his autocratic power in the forms of constitutional government, as his predecessors Augustus and Tiberius had; and this is a trait also found in Cartagia.
The picture of Caligula as a monster goes back to the Roman biographer Suetonius, writing in the second century ad, about a century after Caligula's life. Together with his contemporary, the historian Tacitus (whose own account of Caligula is lost), Suetonius helped create the tradition of mad and/or evil emperors such as Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, a tradition to which later emperors such as Commodus were accommodated, and which was perpetuated through Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published between 1776 and 1788), Victorian literature and twentieth-century films and television. It is one that has been used before in science fiction; for instance the Judge Cal character in 2000AD's 'Judge Dredd' comic strip, who parallels Caligula's appointing his horse to the senate by making his favourite goldfish a Mega-City Judge. The character of Cartagia as depicted in Babylon 5 appears particularly influenced by more modern interpretations. Two major portrayals are probably most important.
Jay Robinson played Caligula in the 1953 film The Robe and its 1954 sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators. In the first film, Caligula is an antagonist of Richard Burton's central character, but only becomes emperor at the end. Thus it is in Demetrius that the emperor's descent into madness is most firmly established, in particular with regard to Caligula's sense of his own divinity. There is a memorable scene where Caligula wanders the corridors of his palace, pointing out imaginary gods to his uncle Claudius.
The other portrayal of Caligula to take note of is, of course John Hurt's Caligula from the 1976 BBC TV series I, Claudius. Hurt's Caligula is vain, and has the capricious unpredictability that Straczynski has said is the most appealing characteristic of Cartagia for him as a writer (Killick, loc. cit.). This is probably most influential in forming the depiction of Cartagia. Whilst there is no direct evidence that Straczynski had seen the two 1950s epics (though as a culturally well-versed individual, it's entirely possible), there is a clear reference to I, Claudius included in Babylon 5. In 'Falling Towards Apotheosis', Cartagia introduces Mollari to his secret 'council' of the severed heads of senior figures he has had executed. He mentions that one was always coughing, but that he has now cured this (by cutting his head off). This is a clear reference to a scene in I, Claudius, in the episode 'Zeus, by Jove'. Gemellus, co-heir of the previous emperor Tiberius and therefore rival of Caligula, has a persistent cough. Caligula has him executed, and when his severed head is brought into his presence, he tells Claudius "I cured his cough." Straczynski's scene, it should be noted, is a reference to the television adaptation of I, Claudius, as no such parallel appears in Robert Graves' novel (though there is reference made to Gemellus' cough). It is therefore not too fanciful to see in the chaotic and nearly botched assassination of Cartagia in 'The Long Night' an echo of the similar assassination of Caligula at the end of the 'Hail Who?' episode of I, Claudius. (I have to confess that the scene also puts me in mind of the attempted assassination of Julius Caesar in the House of the Vestals in Carry On Cleo - the scene famous for the line "Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me". It is probably fanciful to suggest that Straczynski also had this scene in mind.)
Other screen emperors deserve consideration. The third most famous cinematic Caligula, Malcolm McDowell's portrayal in the 1979 Tinto Brass film Caligula, can perhaps be omitted, as there is no clear sign of influence on Babylon 5 (despite Mollari's remark about the teenaged Cartagia trying to look up women's skirt, the adult appears largely uninterested in sex). However, there may well be some influence from other Hollywood mad emperors. Peter Ustinov's Nero from the 1951 film Quo Vadis deserves mention, as he shares much of the vanity and exasperation with mundanity that Cartagia displays. One might also point to Christopher Plummer's Commodus in Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Another emperor whose name has been suggested to me is the early third-century ruler Elagabalus, who was notorious for his exotic religious practices (he was hereditary priest of the sun god at Emesa in Syria) and bizarre sexual practices. However, there is no iconic cinematic portrayal of Elagabalus.
Of course, part of the reason why one can cite so many precursors is that Hollywood has a tendency to portray one mad emperor in much the same way as the next, with only particular motifs to grant them any individuality - so Caligula has his incest, Nero his lyre, and Commodus his gladiatorial sword. It is therefore not surprising that the Hollywood emperor Cartagia most resembles is one who actually postdates him, Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus in Gladiator (2000), as both are conglomerations of previous imperial depictions.
Cartagia is first mentioned in the second season of Babylon 5, when a conspiracy by Londo Mollari and Lord Refa puts him on the throne after his uncle's death. He is very much treated as a puppet figure when offstage - but when finally appears he proves to be anything but. Instead he is depicted as vain (he is first seen looking into a mirror), capricious, and convinced in his own absolute power. His first conversation with Mollari includes Cartagia saying "The emperor is always right, is he not, Mollari?", to which Mollari can only reply "That is our tradition, majesty." How Cartagia got this way from the puppet of two years before is unclear. Mollari arranged the murder of his former ally Refa in the third-season episode 'And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place'. It has been suggested to me that, freed from the influence of Refa, and with Mollari absent on the Babylon 5 space station, Cartagia could become his own man. If this were the case, then Cartagia's development might parallel that of the Roman emperor Nero, reputedly a good ruler while he remained under the influence of his advisors Seneca and Burrus, but a tyrant once they were removed from the scene. It should, however, be remembered that though 'And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place' and 'The Hour of the Wolf' are in different seasons, they are only actually three episodes apart.
So Cartagia immediately shows his autocratic nature. There are also clear signs of a sycophantic court, full of young hangers-on. Cartagia's madness is swiftly apparent, as it is with depictions of Caligula. This madness is symbolized by the council of severed heads already mentioned. Cartagia is obsessed with his own godhood (which he is offered by the Shadows); again, this is as per Caligula in Demetrius and I, Claudius, but it is also a theme in Ustinov's Nero. Cartagia's plan to use Centauri Prime as ascension pyre, on the other hand, seems Neronian rather than Caligulan. One should compare the Great Fire of Rome and Nero's plans to exploit that to create a monument to his own greatness, as depicted in Quo Vadis.
As far as his character is concerned, Cartagia is shown with a playful (and rather effeminate) nature; this may well be derived from Hurt's Caligula (which is ultimately drawn from Graves). But this is underlied, as noted, by the same capriciousness seen in Hurt's Caligula. This is best illustrated in a scene from 'The Long Night', where, at a party, a jester is caught imitating Cartagia behind his back. There is a moment of tension when it unclear how Cartagia will react, with everyone concerned that there may be a violent reaction. Instead, Cartagia joins in the joke. But the next time the jester is seen, his corpse is being dragged away by imperial guards, after Cartagia has shot him.
Mollari finds himself in the role of Claudius to Cartagia's Caligula, or of Petronius to Nero in Quo Vadis. But where Claudius and Petronius pursue strategies of survival (which in Petronius' case fails, and he takes his own life). Londo has more purpose than mere survival. From the moment of his first encounter with Cartagia, he realizes that Cartagia is dangerous, and aims to remove the monster.
Ultimately Cartagia not a very cleverly-drawn character, ending up as rather a cardboard cut-out. As noted, he is a conglomeration of many previous depictions of emperors, with the only absent theme being incest. Straczynski has commented that the character was fun to write because he was unpredictable. But to an audience familiar with the tropes and the iconography of imperial Rome, he is unsurprising and too predictable. In the jester scene mentioned above, it is all to obvious that the jester will die by the end of the episode. I believe this illustrates one of the flaws of Straczynski's writing. Though he is certainly historically aware as a writer (James and Mendlesohn, op. cit., pp. 1-10), sometimes he is not very historically sophisticated. This is perhaps shown at its worst in the fifth season episode 'A Tragedy of Telepaths'. In this episode, it is discovered that the Narn Na'Toth, former aide to G'Kar, continues to be imprisoned on Centauri Prime after all other Narns have been freed. This is because her imprisonment was by the specific order of Cartagia, and Mollari explains to G'Kar that 'this sort of thing happens in a monarchy'. It might be the sort of thing that would take place in a mediaeval autocracy, but it seems less likely to occur in a bureaucratic constitutional monarchy such as the Centauri empire is supposed to be.
However, to be fair to Straczynski, the five episodes that feature Cartagia come at a time when the demands on Straczynski were particularly intense. As well as overseeing the series in his Executive Producer and Creator roles, he was in the middle of a sixty-four episode non-stop writing stint, that began with 'Confessions and Lamentations' in the second season, and would end with 'Phoenix Rising' in the fifth season (he also wrote the majority of episodes both before and after this - out of 110 episodes only eighteen were written by other authors). Between the end of the third season and the beginning of the fourth, Straczynski had also had to rethink the structure of his planned five-year arc, as it became unclear whether he would get his fifth season, so he was having to condense the important points of his story into a single year. Under these circumstances, perhaps he needed to use a stereotyped characterization, or didn't have time to put more thought into it. And, though Cartagia's similarities to Caligula were already hinted at in the first use of the name in the second season, perhaps had there been more time to develop this aspect of the Centauri storyline (Cartagia's arc runs at a very fast pace through five episodes, especially considering other storylines are being developed at the same time), Cartagia would have been the sort of original character that Straczynski, at his best, is capable of creating.