Historical Figures: Caligula

Caligula is arguably the most notorious Roman Emperor in history. Renowned as a sexual deviant and a murderous lunatic rumours have persisted for centuries that he made his horse a member of the senate and slept with or killed every member of his own family.

Julius Caesar

Of course, truth and myth have become intertwined so what do we know about Rome’s third Emperor. Was he deranged or is this merely another case of people not wanting a good story ruined by facts?

The Myths

  • He either had sex with, or murdered, his entire family.
  • He promoted his horse to the Senate.
  • He declared himself a god.

The Trouble with Caligula…

The problem with truly understanding the character of Caligula is that only two contemporary sources have survived: that of Hellenic Jewish historian Philo and roman writer Seneca. As the former’s works mainly focus on events surrounding the Jewish population in Judea and Egypt, his mentioning of Caligula tends to be merely in passing.

Seneca’s various references are similarly anecdotal and matters are made more complicated by the fact that Seneca was almost put to death by Caligula in 39 AD most likely because of his affiliation with conspirators, so anything he wrote will almost certainly have a strong anti Caligula bias.

Most of what we know about Caligula comes from the writings of Suetonius and Cassius Dio but the former was writing some eighty years after Caligula’s death and the latter a century after that! We learn about his assassination from Jewish writer Josephus but most of the ancient writings about Caligula have either been lost to history or have a political agenda. So, bearing that in mind, here’s what we DO know!

Blue Blood

Born as Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus on August 31, he was the third of six children born to a truly noble family headed by Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder. He was also nephew to the future emperor Claudius.

Gaius’ father was a beloved and respected general of the Roman Empire and from age two to four he lived on the Rhine with his father's legions. It was here that he earned his more famous alter ego when the soldiers gave him the affectionate nickname 'Caligula', which roughly translated means 'Bootikins'!

When Caligula’s brother died in AD 33 he became next in succession to be emperor along with Gemellus, the grandson of Tiberius. When Tiberius died in 37 AD, a Praetorian Prefect by the name of Macro made sure that Caligula became emperor not Gemellus and in March of that year Caligula was named Rome's third emperor at the age of 25.

Initially Caligula’s reign was met with a positive response from the people, particularly because he declared an amnesty for all Romans imprisoned or exiled under Tiberius. He also organised lavish games for the people and abolished the sales tax.

Generally speaking, the arrival of this viral, charismatic young ruler with the blood of Augustus in his veins was a welcome change from the dour, absent Tiberius, who was also notoriously frugal. As you can imagine, the introduction of citywide public entertainment was also received with open arms.

The Tipping Point

Seven months into his reign, in October to be exact, Caligula fell ill. The only contemporary historical account of his illness comes from the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a Hellenic Jew, who claims Philo claims that Caligula’s increased bath-taking, drinking, and sex after becoming emperor caused him to catch a virus or ‘brain fever’ that nearly killed him.

It was recorded that throughout his illness the entire Empire was crippled with sadness and sympathy over Caligula’s affliction. Little did they know that although he completely recovered, Caligula emerged a changed man.

It was no coincidence that it was shortly after recovering from his illness, Caligula began exhibiting signs of paranoia. As already stated, in 38 AD he had Gemellus killed as he did with Macro, even though it was to the latter he owed his ascension to emperor. He also had his wife banished and forced his father-in-law Marcus Silanus to commit suicide.

Although there is some evidence from the writings of Philo that the deaths of Silanus and Gemellus were prompted by plots to overthrow Caligula, but roman historian Suetonius claims that the plots never existed outside Caligula’s fevered imagination.

One of the more notorious rumours surrounding Caligula was that he committed incest with his favourite sister Drucilla. Rumours were abound even at the time of improper behaviour between the two but of course, we will never know for sure.

She died late in 38 AD and true enough they were very close. We do know that just as in the manner of the eastern monarchs, Caligula had Drusilla deified, becoming the first Roman woman ever officially declared a deity. He also minted coins in Drucilla’s honour.

Public Good

What is often glossed over by many when retelling the history of Caligula is that although he was clearly a changed man, he still focused his attention on political and public reform. Notably, he published the accounts of public funds, something that had not been made public during Tiberius’ reign.

It has also been recorded that he helped those who lost property in fires, allowed new members into the senatorial class and perhaps most significantly, he restored the practice of democratic elections.

Notable roman public servant Cassius Dio, who lived about a century after Caligula’s reign wrote however that this act "though delighting the rabble, grieved the sensible, who stopped to reflect, that if the offices should fall once more into the hands of the many...many disasters would result". Clearly, Caligula was making even more enemies.

As we already mentioned, Caligula enjoyed putting on games and entertainment for the people. He sometimes even participated in them himself and they often were so ostentatious they verged on the ridiculous.

Records show that in one instance he had hundreds of ships tied together to make a temporary floating bridge so that he could ride across the Bay of Naples on horseback. However, all this money spent on public games and events, by 39 AD the public treasury was near bankruptcy.

In order to rectify this Caligula decided to revive the treason trials that had become so unpopular under Tiberius. Other methods or raising funds was by auctioning of public properties left over from shows.

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A Horse for a Ruler?

In September, 39 AD Caligula travelled to Germany to join his legions for a military campaign. There he discovered a serious conspiracy against his life, engineered by the army commander Gaetulicus. According to historical accounts, Gaetulicus was planning to replace Caligula with the widower of Drusilla, Aemilius Lepidus, who by this point was the lover of one of Caligula's other sisters, Agrippina the Younger.

Taking swift action Caligula had both Gaetulicus and Lepidus executed and banished his two sisters, Agrippina and Julia Livilla. He spent the winter in Germany, but his proposed campaign that ultimately involved the invasion of Britain never materialised. By this time Caligula had become increasingly paranoid and significantly, distrustful of the Senate.

It is in this period of his reign that is associated with the other most famous rumour suggesting Caligula had lost his mind: he names his horse a consul. Evidence of this comes from the writings of Suetonius but on close inspection it is written that he intended to promote his horse.

What’s more if this was the case it was probably less a sign of insanity and more a token of the utter distain he held for the authority of the senate when he returned from Germany. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Caligula had a rather absurdist sense of humour and this seems one of the more amusing examples.

Living God

What is a proven fact is that Caligula deified himself and demanded to be worshipped as such. Statues and temples were erected and in 40 AD he even ordered that a statue of himself should be placed in the Temple of Jerusalem and the Jews be forced to worship him.

Excavations in the Roman forum in the summer of 2003 confirmed that he would go to great lengths to grant himself godlike status when archaeologists discovered that he incorporated the ancient Temple of Castor and Pollux within his palace, which was considered a sacrilege.

As you might expect, it was only a matter of time before Caligula’s blend of self deification and distain for authority signed his own death warrant and on January 21st 41 AD the Praetorian Guard assassinated Gaius, together with his wife Caesonia and his daughter. He was 29.

The Praetorian Guard proclaimed his uncle Claudius the new emperor, a decision endorsed by the Senate. Interestingly, the common people did lament Caligula’s death seeing that they had benefitted from all the public spending and social reforms. Was Caligula clinically insane?

Certainly Caligula's bizarre behaviour demonstrates potential signs of insanity. Philo writes of a man who was self-absorbed, killed on a whim, bragged about his sexual exploits. Suetonius and Cassius Dio are the ones writing of incest with his sisters and the whole horse fiasco, but after a century or two, how reliable is this?

Nevertheless all surviving accounts claim Caligula was insane, but what is interesting is that in Roman times, insanity and sexual perversions were often presented hand-in-hand with poor government, which he no doubt displayed.

Over time, some historians have scoured the scant evidence and concluded that he had epilepsy or hyperthyroidism, but we will never know. Regardless, Caligula has gone down in history as Rome's most tyrannical emperor a charge that, given the times in which he lived, is perhaps a little unfair!