The first rule of appreciating the “Xenaverse” established by Hercules: The Legendary Journey and Xena: Warrior Princess is to just go with the flow. This is especially important if, like me, history is your bag and/or you’re a bit of a mythology buff. Oh boy, is it important. Honestly, not that long ago, I had to have a chip installed in my brain to keep my head from exploding because of cognitive dissonance watching Xena‘s take on Greek and Roman history.
I write a lot, maybe too much, in this space about the significant changes in the entertainment of my youth and the entertainment of today and how these seismic shifts in the culture can be both good and bad. I really do think (with, of course, huge exceptions) that television and movies geared toward kids in the last decade or so are smarter and more well-crafted on a basic storytelling level than what I usually had when I was still a pre-teen. I mean, I love old-school Transformers, but compare that to, say, Gravity Falls or Steven Universe. By the same token, in our hyper-referential, irony-driven culture, I’m not entirely sure you could do a show like Xena. Yes, it did have its postmodern-y, self-referential episodes (including one where Xena and Gabrielle and the entire cast are bothered by a modern-day tabloid reporter interviewing everyone in character and in-universe), but there was also an earnestness about it in the midst of the camp that I don’t think could survive for long today. In a sense, it was both ahead of its time but also could only exist in that brief magical era in the mid-late ’90s when ironic referential culture was beginning to form but was far from its global conquest.
Hence we get a show where Xena faces off against one of the infamous rulers in history that also ends in a somber reflection on whether the means justify the ends. And still has lots of fan service for people of all sexualities.
Now your first question if you’re not familiar with the show is, “How could Xena fight Caligula? Isn’t she in pre-classical Greece or something? Did she time travel or what?” Don’t be ridiculous. In reality, it’s just that in the Xenaverse Ulysses, Hercules, Julius Caesar, Helen of Troy, and Homer all co-exist in roughly the same time period. But at the very least the show did have an almost three-decade time skip where Xena and Gabrielle pull a Rip Van Wrinkle in an icy cavern. Please bear with me and turn on your own anti-cognitive dissonance chips, if you have them.
It’s also important to note that Christianity also exists in the Xenaverse, but only sort of. They’re the Elijans, followers of an Indian magician named Eli who became a faith healer and preached a message of love and peace (and was unjustly killed, just not by Romans, but by Xena’s great frenemy, the god Ares) and who worship a “God of Love” who has angels and archangels working for it. “Wait”, you interrupt again. “How does this cosmology with what’s heavily implied to be the Christian monotheistic god but also all the various pantheons of gods who are explicitly referred to as gods work exactly?” To which I say, “If you want to spend your whole afternoon researching this stuff on the Hercules and Xena fan wiki, have at it. I’ve got better things to do like making my ramen and Rice-a-Roni meals for the week eventually.” The rest of the Cliff Notes version is that Xena has an adult daughter as a result of the aforementioned time skip who was named Eve but became Livia of I, Claudius and “being the real-life wife of the first emperor of Rome, Augustus” fame (!) and who is now basically the St. Peter to Eli’s Jesus (?!?) and is also the reincarnation of Xena’s archenemy Callisto who was also an angel for a while (?!?!?!). Oy, writing up a last season episode of continuity-heavy shows like this definitely is a job.
With all that out of the way, what happens is that the archangel Michael (just roll with it) enlists Xena to take out Rome’s new emperor, Caligula (played by the late Alexis Arquette), since 1) he’s not only claiming to be a god, but is becoming a god, 2) he’s persecuting the Elijans, and 3) Xena has to be the one to strike down Caligula since she still has the power to kill gods given to her by the God of Eli so that she could pull a Kratos before there was a Kratos and slaughter the Greek pantheon except for Ares and the goddess of love Aphrodite (definitely just roll with it). Xena, who isn’t exactly on the warmest terms with Michael, only agrees when she learns that her daughter Eve is leading the Elijans at Rome and is intent on confronting Caligula and trying to convert him. (Xena’s also hilariously unimpressed with Caligula’s track record: “He’s a pscyho, a sex addict, and a murderer. Your run-of-the-mill Roman emperor.”) Investigating the root cause of Caligula’s godhood, Xena and Gabrielle find that their friend and goddess of love Aphrodite had gone downhill since her brother Ares lost his divinity. Because their influences on the world balanced each other, with Ares no longer a god, Aphrodite has lost her self-control and Caligula somehow seduced her in her confused, weakened state and is slowly absorbing her divinity (JRWI). Pretending to be a Celtic god of sex, Xena seduces Caligula into allowing her to challenge him to a chariot race (which, due to the show’s budget limitations, ends up taking place on a dirt road through the countryside). Unfortunately, Xena picked this one mission of deicide to threaten to drown Michael when she discovers that he decided to fix the problem by trying to force Xena’s hand by placing Eve in danger and then attempting to murder Aphrodite directly. This provokes the God of Eli into revoking Xena’s deicide abilities. Taking plan B, Xena convinces a now fully divine Caligula to go ahead with the chariot race, with Eve’s life as the prize. She takes her victory as an opportunity to turn the Roman crowd against Caligula (which, because this is Hollywood Caligula, isn’t that hard to do) and convince him that the only way he could become truly immortal and win the respect of future generations is by killing himself. He does so, leaving a depowered Aphrodite and a regretful Xena, who tells Gabrielle that Caligula was never evil, only “broken.”
Honestly, it would take at least 400 pages to cover all the historical inaccuracies here, but I do want to say I kind of wonder if the screenwriter confused Caligula with his nephew and later emperor Nero. There’s references to Caligula “killing his family” but that was more Nero’s thing given that he had his cousin/stepbrother, two cousins/stepsisters, and his own mother killed (Caligula actually had a better track record in this regard; while he did have a cousin of his murdered, even though two of his sisters were involved in a conspiracy to kill him, he only exiled them). Also there’s the Elijans/Christians being persecuted and having to hide out in the catacombs thing. And there’s a scene where Caligula is haunted by the taunting voice of his mother, who implies that he had murdered her. I guess it’s possible the script was written with Nero in mind but it was changed to Caligula for unknown reasons. Whatever they were, I like to think it was because the show’s producer Sam Raimi thought it was too incredulous to have Xena around to meet Julius Caesar and Augustus and then Nero. That’s just silly.
Also, while Rome’s second emperor and Caligula’s predecessor Tiberius is brought up very briefly, the fact that if Livia is Xena’s daughter, Tiberius should be Xena’s grandson is not. I can understand why, but there is a missed opportunity in making Xena not only the inventor of CPR and Santa Claus, but also a direct ancestor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
So does Alexis Arquette measure up to the role? Well, not really, but, after all, she’s up against the likes of John Hurt and Malcolm McDowell. And, really, there isn’t much you can do with Hollywood Caligula on a PG rating, although she is clearly having a great time with the role and at least they give us a pretty blatant suggestion that Xena is trying to win over Caligula with the suggestion of a bisexual four-way. The interesting thing, though, is that Alexis brings out a sympathetic look at Caligula’s madness, which builds up to Xena’s disgust at what she has to do to take the god-emperor down: talk him into suicide. They probably didn’t have all the recent scholarship on how Caligula was probably not literally insane in mind, but seeing the idea that Caligula should be an object of sympathy in this story of all places was a pleasant surprise that made me wish Alexis Arquette’s Caligula got to be a recurring member of Xena’s rogues gallery.
So, while this isn’t the best Caligula story by far nor the best Xena episode, I believe it does give a good look at the heart of the show. Xena is a compassionate and benevolent hero, no doubt, but she also nearly derails her own plans as a result of her rage against Michael, which leads her to rather explicitly torture and nearly kill him. The fact that she’s also able to cause Caligula’s own downfall via his own insecurities while also having sympathy for him despite his crimes says a great deal about why the show, unlike its sibling show Hercules, managed to strike such a powerful chord despite its campiness.
And, yes, indeed, there is a homoerotic scene of Xena and Gabrielle giving each other a bath. Seriously, did people ever doubt that this was intentional?