12 A.D. - 41 A.D. 3rd Emperor of Rome (31 A.D. - 41 A.D.). Acted by John Hurt in the BBC miniseries of Robert Graves' I, Claudius, and by Malcolm McDowell in the Bob Guccione-directed film of Gore Vidal's screenplay, Caligula. The name "Caligula" translates as "Little Boots" - in his childhood he often accompanied his father, the general Germanicus, on military manueuvers, wearing boots like any other soldier. He maintained the military's goodwill toward his family (on account of Germanicus's popularity) by awarding them extravagant bonuses upon his Imperial succession. Thereafter, his capriciousness, cruelty, and decadence grew ever more pronounced.

The film Caligula highlights his incestuous affair with his sister Drusilla and his sexual depravity in general, and his complete disregard for human life and Imperial dignity in his position as temporal and spiritual leader of Rome. The most telling scene is probably where he goes to the Senate and bullies them into declaring him a living god. Tag line (Matthew 16:26): "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

Roman Emperors enumerated

Insane or not, Caligula did do some interesting stuff:

The historian Suetonius, writing two generations later, is our main source for the life of Gaius (Caligula) Caesar. His contemporary Tacitus wrote about the same period but the sections relating to Caligula are no longer extant.

Caligula was born on 31 August 12, probably at Antium. Suetonius discusses a number of theories and analyses the evidence, and concludes that Antium is most likely. His care suggests that, however fantastic his stories about Caligula sound, there is likely to be a solid grounding in fact for most of them.

Gaius was the son of the immensely popular Germanicus, who died before he could be accepted as the successor of the tyrant Tiberius. Such was the popularity of all Germanicus' children, by association, that Tiberius ordered the deaths of Nero and Drusus, brothers of Gaius. The young Gaius Caligula meekly accepted these deaths and his life in his adoptive imperial family. He and another Tiberius were eventually decided on as joint heirs of the Emperor Tiberius, but with his death the acclamation in favour of Caligula was so great that he became emperor alone. That was on 16 March 37 (not 31 as stated in an earlier write-up). It is said that, with Tiberius rousing himself from his apparent death, Caligula ordered him smothered with a pillow. (Later he had the other Tiberius killed too, of course.)

Caligula was a good ruler at first, just and capable in many of his reforms, but destroyed by his increasing private vices: his vanity, cowardice, depravity, pride, etc etc. His public spectacles were lavish. He committed incest with all three of his sisters but loved Drusilla by far the most, and banished the others. He was assassinated by two guards on 24 January 41.

There are many many anecdotes I could take out of Suetonius, but let's take those that make him sound like someone invented by Monty Python.

  • When Drusilla died he made it a capital offence to laugh, bathe, or dine with one's family.
  • He liked to stir up trouble in the Theatre by scattering gift vouchers before the show began, so that commoners would scramble for the seats reserved for knights.
  • He would make his senators run for miles beside his chariot.
  • He would cancel regular gladiatorial shows and replace them with ones between honest but disabled citizens.
  • When pet food for the animals in the shows became too expensive, he ordered all criminals in a row beginning with that bald one over there to be killed for them.
  • Men were sawn in half for failing to swear by his Genius.
  • A writer of farces was burned alive in the amphitheatre because of a witty double entendre.
  • He bathed in hot and cold perfumes.
  • After a theatrical show he auctioned off the props and drove the bidding up so high that respectable people were ruined and committed suicide.
  • When one old senator fell asleep during this, Caligula ordered the auctioneer to count the nods of his head, and the senator woke up to find he had bought thirteen gladiators for 90 000 gold pieces.
  • He opened a brothel in the palace and all the customers had to take out loans, which clerks duly recorded as "contributions to the imperial revenue".
  • Once when playing dice he excused himself, arrested a couple of rich knights who were passing, confiscated all their property, and returned to the gaming table remarking how well his luck was holding up.
  • He developed a taste for rolling around on piles of gold, like Uncle Scrooge.
  • It was a capital offence to mention goats (because of what he looked like: see below).
He did not however make his horse Incitatus a consul, though Suetonius says "it is said that he even planned" to. Incitatus had a marble stable, an ivory stall, purple blankets, and a jewelled collar, as well as a complete staffed establishment of its own.

His most famous saying was, when enraged with a mob, Utinam populus Romanus unam cervicem haberet!, "I wish the Roman people had only one neck!"

The Emperor Caligula was tall, with spindly legs, a pallid complexion, sunken eyes, hollow temples, a broad and forbidding forehead, a thin neck, a hairy and badly built body, and an almost completely bald head.

< Tiberius - Roman emperors - Claudius >

One of Caligula's favorite sayings was said to be "Oderint dum metuant", which can be translated as "Let them hate, so long as they fear." It was a quote from Lucius Accius' Atreus play.

While this might have been a viable foreign policy, he brushed Cassius Chaerea, an officer in the Praetorian Guard, the wrong way when he called him effeminate before the court. Those conspiring against Caligula used this incident to convince Chaerea to assassinate him. Together with two other officers he murdered the emperor in his palace on January 24, 41 A.D.. The Praetorian Guard then "dispatched" Caligula's relatives.

So you might want to think twice before calling someone a girlyman.

The historian Tacitus probably sums up the reasons why contemporary biographies of the Caesars are always a bit suspicious in so far as the truth (or lack thereof) is concerned:  “Tiberii Gaique et Claudi ac Neronis res florentibus ipsis ob metum falsae, postquam occiderant recentibus odiis compositae sunt.”1  (The things related of  the reigns of Tiberius, Gaius (Caligula), Claudius and Nero while they were alive were fraught with lies, and afterwards what was written was clouded by then raging enmities.) 

In other words, while they were alive, given the absolute power they had over their subjects, nobody had a bad word to say about the reigning Caesar, for fear of his terrible retribution.  After the death of a Caesar, one still had to contend with possible retribution from influential people allied to the dead Caesar, or possibly even from his successor who may (as the spirit moves him) decide that he is the incarnation of the Caesar vilified by your history.  In the result, contemporary accounts are not entirely reliable, and what we know must be seen against the background of historians who were not willing to pay the ultimate price simply to write history as it really happened.  Anyway, publishing was a dangerous business in imperial Rome, and there was little point labouring over a work of perfect historical truth to later see it going up in flames simply because it incurred the wrath of the Caesar, or worse, see yourself the victim of the Caesar’s contempt.

Unfortunately, Tacitus’ narrative breaks off at the death of Tiberius, and only resumes several years into the reign of Gaius’ successor, his uncle Claudius.  Gaius has probably been immortalised in I, Claudius by Robert Graves, a book well worth reading if you like a dramatised version of events, but one which also seems to be factually fairly accurate.  The reality is that there is much in the classical literature that came down to us about this period in history, but interestingly enough the emperor Gaius’ life is surprisingly little documented.  The Romans were so obsessed with their own greatness and their desire to ensure that future generations would know exactly how great they were, that it is strange that about this emperor so little was written.  Much of what we know comes from a source entirely un-Roman: The Jewish historian Josephus has left us a fair account, probably as a result of the emperor Gaius’ instruction that a statue of himself be placed in the temple at Jerusalem in order for the emperor to be worshipped, which incurred the anger of the Jewish people.  Consequently, despite a lack of detail, a fairly accurate picture can be gleaned from the historical sources.  It must be said, though, given Josephus’ background that the version he gives is probably ever so slightly tainted to the point of placing Gaius in a light not entirely good.

Gaius Iulius Caesar Germanicus was born on 31 August 12 CE at Antium (modern Anzio), while his father, Germanicus, was stationed there with his legions.  He was a precocious child, obviously talented and highly intelligent (he famously spoke the funeral oration of Livia, the widow of the divine Augustus from the rostra at the age of seventeen) and soon became a favourite playmate of the soldiers, who made him a small suit of armour (Suetonius tells us he grew up among the soldiers in the dress of the “common soldier”) and particularly a pair of soldier’s boots, caligae, the wearing of which gave rise to his nickname, Caligula, the little boot, caligula being the diminutive form.  After the death of his father in 19, he lived at Rome with his mother, Vipsania Agrippa, until she incurred the displeasure of the emperor Tiberius, and was arrested in 29 after Tiberius complained to the senate of her other son (Nero) behaving in a sexually depraved way, and she herself being guilty of haughty behaviour in respect of himself, the emperor.  Gaius went to live with his grandmother Antonia, and afterwards his great-grandmother Livia, the widow of the late emperor Augustus, mother of Tiberius.  While living with Antonia, this worthy matron caught Gaius (aged 12) committing incest with his sister Drusilla (aged 13).

In 31, Tiberius summoned Gaius to Capri, whence Tiberius had exiled himself in order to engage in his passion for magic and adolescent men.  No doubt Gaius here graduated to perversions he and Drusilla had not taught themselves earlier on.  He nevertheless suffered greatly at the hands of his great uncle Tiberius, and himself indulged in all sorts of illicit pleasures such as fornication and gluttony, and disguising himself as a woman and dancing and singing.  He also indulged in vicious acts of severe cruelty and showed an obvious enjoyment in seeing people brutally tortured and punished.  Suetonius thinks that this was the reason why Tiberius put up with Gaius’ prancing and theatrics – in the hope that it would cool the fever in his blood, so to speak.  Nevertheless, Gaius patiently pretended indifference to the ill-treatment, and in what could only have been a desire to survive, did not even protest the methodical elimination of his family as Tiberius one by one had them removed.

In 35 Tiberius named Gaius and Gemellus (Tiberius Iulius Caesar Nero), one of Gaius’ cousins, his joint heirs.  On 16 March 37, Tiberius was killed by the praetorian prefect, Macro, by all accounts with Gaius directing the entire operation after he had seduced Macro’s wife and wormed his way into Macro’s favour.  Gaius is proclaimed emperor, and two days later on the 18th of March, the senate hails him imperator

The emperor became increasingly despotic in his behaviour as his reign continued.  Where he initially curried favour with the masses, he later took no account of what anyone thought or said.  He proclaimed himself divine, appearing in public dressed as a god or goddess, generally doing exactly as he pleased, living in open incest with his sisters (while married to his third wife).2  When his sister Drusilla died of a wasting disease some time later, he created her a goddess and henceforward whenever it was required for the emperor to take an oath, he did so by the godhead of Drusilla.  His other sisters did not stand in such high favour with him, and he regularly prostituted their services to high paying men, and later used this against them, as proof, he said, of their complicity in conspiring against him.  They were banished, only to return after Gaius’ death.

He married at whim and divorced within days, often simply instructing a man to divorce his wife in order to enable the emperor to marry her, only for the poor woman to be cast off a few days later when the emperor had tired of her.  He eventually married Caesonia, neither young nor beautiful, and even exhibited her to his friends in a state of total nuditySuetonius tells us that Gaius respected neither his own chastity, nor that of anyone else.  He would invite couples to dinner, then inspect the women as though he was buying a slave.  Suddenly during the course of the proceedings he would leave and instruct one or more of the women to attend upon him in the imperial chambers, later returning with obvious signs of what had occurred there.  Then he would proceed loudly to criticise the intercourse publicly while continuing with dinner.

Within less than a year, Gaius had succeeded in emptying the treasury, all of 2,700,000,000 sestertii, which as very rough estimate today would equate to as many pounds sterling, or some US$ 4,050,000,000.  In order to generate more income, he would devise all sorts of tricks, even to the point of taking over the law courts, without more condemning all the men there, setting aside their wills and simply laying claim to their estates.  He started arranging auctions and auctioning off valueless items to rich Romans for enormous amounts.  At one auction, a sleeping Aponius Saturninus woke up to find that his somnolent noddings had bought him thirteen gladiators at 9,000,000 sestertii, all of which went to the emperor’s privy purse.

Even after Gaius had been assassinated by Cassius Chaerea, one of the tribunes of the praetorian guard, people refused to believe that this was not yet another ploy of the emperor’s to find out what people felt about him, and that he had put the rumour of his death about himself.  In this way people thought, if they spoke out and criticised him, Gaius would have their necks, and everything else besides.

Gaius ruled three years, ten months and eight days.  Rome heaved a collective sigh of relief when it was established that he was in fact very dead.


1 Annalium Libri I:i

2   In the sense of really married, not simply married at whim like so many others.

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