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Caligula: Crazed or Cruel Roman Emperor?

Some characters in history make the adage "truth is stranger than fiction" correct. Frighteningly so.

The emblem of the Roman Empire.

The emblem of the Roman Empire.

Gaius/Caligula

Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known as Caligula, was surely one of the most volatile and crazed rulers that history has produced. His twenty-eight years of life were so remarkable that his story has survived the centuries to be presented in literature and film for modern audiences to gasp at. Caligula, the 3rd Roman Emperor, reigned between 37 and 41 A.D. and this time was peppered with events that caused consternation, revulsion or outright terror.

A member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Gaius was born on the 31st August 12 A.D. in Antium, now in Italy, to Germanicus Caesar and Agrippina (the Elder.) Caligula meant Little Boots, this was the name that his father’s soldiers referred to him by when he accompanied Germanicus onto the battlefield as a toddler, in a miniature soldier’s uniform. The name remained for posterity although Caligula grew to loathe it.

Great Uncle Roman Emperor Tiberius

He knew grief at an early age. His father died whilst on a military campaign in 19A.D. and there were rumours that he was poisoned on the orders of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, Caligula’s great uncle. Tiberius reigned between 14-37 A.D. and he ordered the imprisonment and subsequent death of Agrippina (the Elder) in 33 A.D.; he had refused her requests to remarry because the husband would be a rival to his own power. Her eldest sons were slain after false accusations of treason, Drusus Caesar died in 23 A.D. and Julius Caesar Nero in 31 A.D. Caligula and his sisters, Agrippina (the Younger,) Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla were allowed to live. Caligula took his father’s name of Germanicus.

Tiberius invited Caligula to the island of Capri in 31 A.D. For six years he lived with the man he thought of as his adopted grandfather. Tiberius enjoyed Caligula's callous character, claiming that he was "nursing a viper in Rome's bosom." There is a tale that Caligula plotted to kill Tiberius to avenge his immediate family member’s deaths, but he could not bring himself to kill and threw his dagger to the ground. Tiberius was said to know of the incident but he took no action.

Caligula married four times. His first wife died in childbirth, Caligula divorced his next wife after one day, wife number three committed suicide and his fourth wife was assassinated with him after two years of marriage.

Roman Emperor Tiberius (42 B.C. - 37 A.D.)

Roman Emperor Tiberius (42 B.C. - 37 A.D.)

A.D. 37: A Defining Year For Rome

In March 37 A.D. Caligula succeeded Tiberius as Roman Emperor and, at first, he seemed to rule well. He repealed the treason laws that Tiberius had exercised, welcomed back exiles and had his mother and elder brothers' bodies reburied in the Mausoleum of Augustus.

In the October of 37A.D. Caligula fell seriously ill. Poison was suspected. He recovered but this signalled a change in his style of rule. Fear and dread embraced Rome as Caligula sought to secure every drop of power for himself. He was determined to be an absolute ruler, answering to and consulting with no one.

Scenes of barbarity played out as every one of his potential or perceived rivals were executed or banished; he even sent his sisters away. The man who succeeded Caligula, his uncle Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus [10 B.C. - 54 A.D.]) was spared because cruelly the emperor liked to mock his uncle for his limp and impaired hearing caused by a childhood illness. Unsurprisingly, his popularity largely evaporated.

The Roman Empire during Caligula's reign.

The Roman Empire during Caligula's reign.

Caligula's Outrageous Behaviour

Charges made against him by Roman historians such as Seneca, Philo, Suetonius and Dio included the following:

  • Caligula restored the practice of elections but he also allegedly planned to appoint his faithful horse Incitatus to the senate as a symbol of the horse’s power. Incitatus lived in a marble palace-stable. He may have intended it as a joke but any sense of mirth was long ago lost.
  • He executed people without fair trials. This included Ptolemy, ruler of Mauretania, who he invited for a visit only to kill him. Caligula decided that several members of the senate were disloyal so he either had them executed or made them his servants, demeaning them.
  • He spent lavishly on entertainment and on building splendid homes for himself. He was also strategically generous, paying leading Romans to support his decisions. His extravagance led to a financial crisis in 39 A.D. There was no clear division between private and state money so the emperor spent without ever checking the accounts. Rome never declared bankruptcy but the coffers were considerably emptier after one year of Caligula’s reign.
  • To help raise funds he placed a tax on weddings and prostitution and demanded that the people with money, including his centurions, donate their riches for his benefit. He auctioned gladiators to the highest bidders, effectively removing their free will for life.
A bust of Roman Emperor Caligula.

A bust of Roman Emperor Caligula.

  • According to scribes of the time, he happily had sex with other men’s wives because he, Emperor of Rome, could not be refused. The worst story about his sexual depravity alleges that he raped his sister, she fell pregnant and he was delighted at first, sure that this foetus would one day be the most powerful ruler ever known on earth as it had two members of the imperial family as parents. Days passed and he grew scared of the foetus so he impaled his sister with a sword and ate the foetus to absorb its immense power for himself. It was claimed she died from a fever. Whether the episode is truth or fable, it’s chilling.
  • Caligula began to appear in public in the robes of a god, alluding that he was better than other men. There were official documents drawn up that called him Jupiter. He also had the heads removed from statues so that his own image could be placed on the sculptures. Senators were expected to worship him as the “new sun.” It's claimed that he threatened to leave Rome to live in Egypt where he would be worshipped as a god without question.
  • Although his building projects saw harbours improved and temples restored, his plans for a two-mile-long floating bridge apparently caused a famine because Caligula seized scores of vehicles for building which made transportation of food slower.

Assassins

Assassins succeeded in removing him from power on the 24th January 41 A.D. at the palace on the Palantine Hill in Rome. Numerous officers from the Praetorian Guard led by Cassius Chaerea stabbed him repeatedly, taking turns. His fourth wife, Milonia Caesonia and daughter Julia Drusilla were also killed.

Uncle Claudius secured the favour of the Praetorian Guard and claimed the throne. He only executed the leaders, including Chaerea, for the assassination. He reigned for the next thirteen years.

Was Caligula insane, a megalomaniac, deluded, paranoid, cruel or the subject of historians wrath?

I, Claudius Film Trailer

Sources

© 2021 Joanne Hayle

Comments

MG Singh emge from Singapore on September 28, 2021:

Wonderful article; I have read a lot about Caligula, yes he was cruel and sadistic. I remember reading he even made one of his horses a senator.

Joanne Hayle (author) from Wiltshire, U.K. on September 28, 2021:

Thanks for reading and your comments. Yes, I Claudius was excellent. I watched the series twice. :-)

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on September 28, 2021:

Joanne, what a great article. I didn't know much about him, but he was a chilling ruler obsessed with himself. Thanks for enlightening me.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 27, 2021:

As soon as I saw your title, I thought of the "I, Claudius" series. It was certainly memorable, as Rupert said. I've never forgotten some of the scenes. Thank you for sharing the very interesting facts.

Rupert Taylor from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 27, 2021:

Thanks for this Joanne. I'm glad you included the trailer from I Claudius. John Hurt brilliantly captured the deranged madman that Caligula was. The TV series was one of the most memorable in my lifetime. Well worth a watch - strong stomach needed.

I think you hit all the low points of this twisted man's life. Without naming names and absent the gross violence I do see parallels in a certain megalomaniac former leader who walks among us today.

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