Thursday, July 18, 2013

Monarch Profile: Emperor Caligula

The young Caesar known as Caligula has the reputation of being the most infamous, twisted and depraved Emperor of Rome; which is quite a statement. There are one or two others that might provide some stiff competition but, there is no doubt that Caligula, in his short reign, would be grossly excessive and set a standard for depravity that few, if any, could hope to match. He became so notorious that despite the fact that he lived 2,000 years ago, reigned for only a few years and despite the fact that the Romans themselves tried to obliterate his memory the name of Caligula is synonymous with insanity, sadism and debauchery to this very day. How many of all the lurid tales are true is open to speculation. That makes any coverage of Caligula rather difficult. There are really only around a couple of sources historians have to go on concerning Caligula and these may well be biased against him. However, the fact alone that so little information about him survived is at least some proof that not all the tales of his wickedness were invented or exaggerated. Still, it is important to keep in mind that we have very little to go on concerning Caligula, what we do have was written by political enemies and may well have been embellished. Everyone should also keep in mind that this was a real man, not a caricature and very little that we know about him can be verified.

Caligula was born on August 31, in the year 12 and his real name was Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus. His father was the very popular Germanicus, who was the adopted grandson of Augustus Caesar and a potential heir to the throne. Caligula was, unlike his predecessor Emperor Tiberius, a blood descendant of Augustus and Julius Caesar as well as Mark Antony and his uncle was the future Emperor Claudius. He earned his nickname while accompanying his parents on military campaigns in Germany where he was adopted as the mascot of the army. His mother would often dress him in a little military uniform which, of course, included the sandals or boots that the soldiers wore and he was soon dubbed Caligula or Little Boots and the name stuck. It should also be pointed out that Caligula always hated that nickname and in later life would inflict the severest punishment on anyone who called him that. To make things more complicated he was not particularly fond of his real name, Gaius, either. Anyway, from an early age he was exposed to the violent intrigues that had long been a part of Roman political life.

It was believed that Germanicus was the heir to the throne that Augustus preferred though, since he was too young, Augustus adopted Tiberius with the understanding that Tiberius would adopt Germanicus as his heir. Not long after becoming emperor, however, Germanicus died and Tiberius took care to keep Caligula isolated and under his control. He spent many years in what can be described as rather comfortable imprisonment and isolation with only the company of his sisters Agrippina the Younger, Julia Livilla and Drusilla. In time, Caligula would have incestuous relations with all three of them but mostly a long standing affair with his most beloved sister Drusilla. In fact, many believe that his sister Drusilla was the only person Caligula ever truly loved in his life. With this background, Emperor Tiberius summoned Caligula to the island of Capri where Tiberius spent the last ten years of his life and where he was rumored to have become quite nasty and certainly very paranoid. His condition may be explained by the absence of those who had previously moderated him such as his best friend Nerva and his brother Drusus. He wanted Caligula near him both because he feared him desiring to assume the purple early and to prevent anyone else from influencing his adopted grandson and heir.

Caligula was flattering and submissive to his adopted grandfather though he later admitted nearly killing Tiberius himself but kept up his charade of being the loyal grandson because it was in his interest to do so. Tiberius, it seems, was not so totally fooled by this as Caligula might have believed. Some have suggested that he made Caligula his heir specifically because he expected him to prove such a monster that his own reputation would shine in comparison and he is alleged to have once referred to Caligula as a python he was nursing in the bosom of Rome. Certainly many believed that Tiberius would have preferred his heir to be his young natural grandson Gemellus. However, as the son of Germanicus, many believed that Caligula had a legitimate right to the throne and were anxious to see the purple return to the bloodline of Augustus and Julius Caesar, especially as Tiberius had become so unpopular for having so many senators executed. However, in private, the personal sadism of Caligula could be seen by his role in helping Tiberius carry out his duties on Capri. He was known to show great enjoyment at having slaves tortured and executed and gloried in the bloody gladiatorial games that were popular at that time.

Today, looking back, we often wonder how anyone could have actually looked forward to the reign of Caligula; but of course, we have the benefit of hindsight. To the general public of the Roman Empire he seemed like a perfectly normal young man. Many saw him in a sympathetic light because of the death of the death of the rest of his family. Tiberius was unpopular (rather unjustly so) and by then was 78 years old and preparing to die. Hoping that his favored grandson Gemellus might succeed him eventually he named him his heir alongside Caligula in his will. Poor, young Gemellus was likely doomed at any rate but this order certainly sealed his fate. The hour of destiny for Caligula came on March 16, 37 AD when the Emperor Tiberius died. Many believed that Caligula had a hand in his passing though the deed was probably done by Naevius Sutorius Macro, the Prefect of Praetorian Guard who allegedly smothered Tiberius to hasten the accession of Caligula. If reports are true and Macro did murder Tiberius, it did nothing to diminish the popularity of Caligula who the people cheered for ending the life of the man they viewed as a tyrant. With the backing of Macro and the Praetorian Guard Caligula was immediately declared heir to Tiberius and Gemellus was cast aside on the grounds that the late Caesar had been insane when he included Gemellus in his will. That may have been true but it was certainly not the legitimate reason Gemellus was cast aside in favor of Caligula.

Even more so than Caligula this was a moment of triumph for Prefect Macro who had been planning this for some time and that in itself adds credence to his murder of Tiberius. Three years earlier he had been putting himself in a position to befriend and possibly dominate Caligula by encouraging his wife, Ennia, into an affair with the young prince. He had been responsible for the downfall of the previous Praetorian Prefect Sejanus who had been the power behind the throne, so to speak, under Tiberius. Macro had supplanted him in that position and using the sexual talents of his wife now planned to hold the same favored status under the new, young, Emperor Caligula. On March 28, 37 AD the Roman Senate officially voted Caligula to the office of Princeps or First Citizen amidst much rejoicing by the public who greeted their new emperor with cheers. Caligula was also quick to put the vast treasury left by Tiberius to good use in winning greater popularity for himself. He gave the Praetorian Guard a hefty bonus, distributed money to the common people and declared a general amnesty to free all of those imprisoned by the paranoia of Tiberius. Celebrations were held constantly with hundreds of thousands of animals sacrificed in thanksgiving of the accession of the young Caesar the people called their star and their baby. They could not have known that amongst the inner circle of imperial power Caligula already had a reputation for being a great servant but a terrible master.

Nonetheless, the reign of Caligula Caesar was off to a glorious start. The empire was wealthy and at peace, their seemed to be a forgive and forget air about the city and a general feeling that the days of fear and repression were over and a new period of prosperity and kindness at the hands of their handsome, young and generous Caesar lay ahead. And, indeed it was so for the first half year more or less of the reign of Caligula. The people loved him wildly and, indeed, he was to remain very popular amongst the common people of Rome throughout all but the very end of his rather short reign. Caligula, it is often forgotten, was very politically astute and he knew that public image was important; at least as important if not more so than the support of the elite senatorial class. He did his best to appear as the ideal ruler, giving generously to those who had been taxed into poverty, expelling sexual criminals, setting aside the air of fear and paranoia that had preceded him and trying to maintain a closeness with the people through imperial pageantry and ceremony. Free elections were revived to give the people more say in government and gladiatorial games were held regularly to keep them entertained. In short, he did everything that a good Roman emperor was expected to do in order to be popular with the people.

However, Caligula could not hide his more egocentric and vindictive side totally, even at this early date. One of the fortune tellers employed by Tiberius had once said that Caligula had no more chance of becoming Emperor of Rome that he did of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae. Caligula never forgot this and upon ascending the purple he had a massive pontoon bridge built across the bay, over two miles long, from Baiae to Puteoli. He then mounted his beloved, and soon to be famous, horse Incitatus and donned the breastplate of Alexander the Great and rode across the temporary bridge in order to show his defiance and triumph over the false prophecy that had been made of him. This should have been something of an alarm bell, but the public reacted to it with applause. They loved their Caesar, gloried in his accession and paid no attention to the rather sinister emotions that were behind this act for Caligula. It was a spectacle after all, something to entertain them, a bit outlandish perhaps, but all was well and it was a nice and rather humorous diversion.

Caligula was certainly enjoying himself as emperor. He had survived, he had beaten the odds, he was popular, his throne was secure and he was enjoying the favors of his sister Drusilla whom he totally adored as well as others such as his ongoing mistress Ennia. He adored Drusilla as he adored no other and would have liked nothing better than to marry her. In his increasingly egocentric way he viewed his sister, a blood relative, as being the only person worthy to be his wife and give him children. Obviously impossible and illegal Drusilla herself tried to discourage him as much as she did love him and there is little dispute that she did. Caligula felt safe with Drusilla and she was possibly the only consistent, moderating influence he ever had on his life. However, the blissful days of his early months on the throne came to an end in October of 37 AD. Most likely as a result of his constant swimming, drunkenness and debauchery Caligula fell extremely ill. It was so severe that he thought he would die and the Roman public was overcome with grief and fear that their beloved, young champion might be taken from them so soon.

Of course, Caligula did not die, but any inhibitions he may have had certainly seemed to. When he recovered those in his inner circle especially were to see a different and extremely horrifying Gaius Caligula than they had seen before. The mercy and generosity Caligula had earlier displayed were replaced by extremes of lust and cruelty after he recovered. One of his actions, in 38 AD, was to dismiss and execute his supposed friend Macro who had assured his accession to the throne. He began spending lavishly on wild parties and bizarre expeditions to glorify himself. He built two massive ships; one being a floating temple to the goddess Diana and the other a luxurious palace for himself. In an effort to outshine his deified ancestor Julius Caesar he embarked on an expedition to conquer Britain but got no farther than the English Channel. He then had his troops collect sea shells as spoils of his great victory and demanded a triumph upon his return to Rome. The senate refused on the grounds that he had won no victories and had conquered nothing. Caligula saw this as no excuse and held his own celebration with his subjects dressed as barbarian captives and forcing senators to run alongside his chariot. This was only the beginning of a long list of humiliations he would inflict on the senate as well as every other established institution and tradition in Rome.

His life at court went from bad to worse. He had the boy Gemellus put to death even though he had gone through the formality of adopting him as his heir. In his drive to have an heir Caligula realized he would have to be married and much as he might wish to marry his sister Drusilla, that was simply out of the question. He married and divorced three Roman noblewomen in quick succession before becoming infatuated with Milonia Caesonia, a notorious prostitute and the illegitimate daughter of another prostitute. She was, reputedly, no great beauty and she already had three daughters of her own but her moral laxity and bedroom antics impressed Caligula at several of his notorious parties and orgies and he would have no other. Many Roman nobles were outraged that the Emperor would marry a woman who was not only a commoner, but illegitimate and a prostitute. Caligula had his mind made up though and the marriage went through. Caligula delighted in shocking Rome with his personal whore and would have her parade around naked in front of his soldiers and pick out favorites for herself. He promised that he would make her empress but only if she gave him a son and heir.

Disaster struck Caligula on June 10, 38 AD when his beloved sister Drusilla died of fever that was rampant in the city. Caligula was heartbroken and went mad with grief. He declared a state of mourning for Rome and gave his sister the funeral of an empress with himself standing in the place of widower. Shortly thereafter he had her deified as the Divine Drusilla, a living representation of the goddess Venus. When, a short time later, Caesonia gave birth to a daughter Caligula named her Julia Drusilla in honor of his sister. One thing that is certain is that without the influence of his sister Caligula became even more unhinged. Human life seemed to stop having any meaning for him and he saw and used people as objects for his own amusement and nothing more. The senatorial class suffered most from his insanity. He set up and tore down consuls without consulting them. He flagrantly raped their daughters and sons and would likewise take their own wives for himself while at public parties. After having his fill of the woman in question he would return to the party and tell her husband and the other guests how she had performed in bed.

Caligula also seemed to have a rather unnatural attachment to his favorite horse Incitatus. In another humiliation for the upper class he would order the senators to hail his horse as they would a superior. He built a palace for his horse with a marble stable and a gold manger and lavished all sorts of jewels and fine garments on the animal. Most famously he once threatened to make Incitatus a Consul of Rome, however, this was not actually a serious suggestion but just another way Caligula had to humiliate the senators and denigrate them by suggesting that even his horse could do their job. This was nothing compared to his most degenerate act of defiance toward the senate. Due to his extravagance the rich treasury left behind by Tiberius was soon exhausted and in order to make money Caligula opened an imperial brothel in his palace and forced the wives of the Roman senators to employ themselves there. Were not the upper classes in utter fear for their lives this would never have worked but Caligula made it so and anyone with enough money could come to the palace and enjoy a few minutes with the wife of a Roman senator. He also levied taxes on marriage, prostitution, use of the courts and other things which began to erode his popularity among the common people of Rome.

Having trampled on such institutions as the family, the military and the republic it is no wonder that religion soon became a target of the maniacal Caesar as well. Whereas Julius Caesar and Augustus had been deified by the senate after their deaths (Tiberius specifically stated he did not want the same treatment) Caligula broke all precedent by demanding that the senate declare him a god while he was alive. The cowering senate did so and Caligula went to great lengths to emphasize his new, divine status. He insisted on the most groveling submission to his person and had the heads of the statues of the various gods in the temples replaced with his own likeness. This brought him into particular trouble with his Jewish subjects who refused to worship him and who had earlier been excused from the cult of the emperor because of their belief in monotheism and spurning of graven images. This led to some rebellions which were bloodily suppressed. Caligula was so enraged by this that he ordered a statue of himself erected in the Temple in Jerusalem, which would certainly have caused a revolution but he was eventually dissuaded after the matter was delayed for a time. Eventually, Caligula would claim that he conversed with the other gods and that he was, in fact, greater than them all, even the king of the Roman gods; Jupiter. Caligula also famously roamed the halls of his palace at night commanding the sun to rise.

By this time most people had little doubt that Caligula, the Emperor of Rome, the commander of all the Roman legions and absolute ruler of virtually the entire known world was completely insane. His orgies and debauchery became notorious and his cruelty and executions of so many nobles had the upper echelons of Roman society quaking with fear and close to their breaking point. The reign of Caligula was no longer the open and tolerant style he had started with but he had now surpassed even his feared predecessor with his tortures and the numbers of those executed for treason; real or imagined. Caligula once famously remarked that he wished all the Roman people had one neck so he could cut off all the heads with one blow. When told that he was becoming hated by his own people who had once loved him, Caligula replied, "Let them hate me, so long as they fear me". And, that they certainly did. He enriched himself by confiscating the property of anyone arrested for treason and when in need of funds he might charge any wealthy Roman with treason. He even made it law that all those who died had to leave something for him in their will. Obviously, this situation could not go on forever and many men in high places began plotting against Caligula so that his reign of terror might come to an end.

It was, remember, the Praetorian Guard which had helped ensure his succession and they had protected him from several previous plots against him but finally his erratic behavior became too much and the Praetorian itself determined to end the life of Gaius Caligula. In particular the plot was the work of Cassius Chaerea (appropriately named) who was the leader of the Praetorian Guard. Their only real opposition was the Germanic Guard who were the personal troops of Caligula and fanatically loyal to him. Otherwise, the Emperor had few friends by this time and many of the nobles, generals, equestrians and senators of Rome were well aware of the plot and supported it though of course they were too afraid to be actively involved. The end for Caligula came on January 24, 41 AD while Caligula was berating a group of actors set to perform in a celebration for the Divine Emperor Augustus. Chaerea and the other soldiers fell upon him as he cried for help, stabbing him some thirty times. This was not mere assassination however, the Praetorian intended to wipe the seed of Caligula from the earth forever and troops were dispatched to kill his wife Caesonia and his young daughter Julia Drusilla who allegedly inherited the viciousness of her father and bit and clawed at the soldiers before they smashed her head against a wall. The Germanic Guard arrived too late to save their master though they went on an enraged, murderous rampage after that killing anyone they came across, the guilty and innocent alike. With that last act of savagery, the reign of Caligula Caesar had come to an end.

The Praetorian Guard then elevated Caligula's uncle Claudius as the next Emperor of Rome as he was literally the only male member of the imperial family left alive at this point. He had been overlooked for so long because most everyone considered him a simple idiot, yet, he soon became Claudius Caesar and was a quite successful Roman emperor. As for Caligula, the Romans did their best to eradicate his memory from all public view. His statues were defaced or destroyed completely and many materials from his reign were destroyed. The nightmare was over and everyone wanted to forget as quickly and as completely as possible. Yet, in spite of the concerted effort to erase Caligula from public memory, his story remains infamous to this very day. Try as they might the world has never forgotten the bloody, perverse reign of the Emperor known as Little Boots nor is it very likely to. His misdeeds are world famous, yet he was still popular among some of the common people even at the time of his death. He is known for his madness, excess and insanity yet he was also known to be very persuasive, logical and even quite eloquent at times. More is unknown about him that what is known and that also adds to the interest there has always been concerning Caligula. Was his story a case of absolute power corrupting absolutely or was he driven insane by the deaths of so many of his loved ones? We will never know these answers but if anything is certain it is that the world will never forget the bizarre and depraved life of Gaius Caligula.


  1. Great profile! Very interesting, as usual. I wish there were more sources regarding Caligula to draw upon. It would be fascinating to have a complete, unbiased picture of the man.

  2. Well, you did it! It was never going to be easy, if for no other reason than the lack of original sources, setting aside the fact that it's pretty near impossible to paint a pretty picture of the man. But you did an admirable job under the circumstances, and now nobody can accuse you of "glossing over" a key part of early Roman imperial history.

  3. I saw the movie so many years ago but reading this, make it seem like it was yesterday.


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