Caligula: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know

Caligula is not merely one of a litany of deranged wearers of the Imperial Purple he is its most infamous, a man whose name has become a by-word for cruelty, excess, and the corrupting influence of power. But was he mad or merely frightened? A young man so out of his depth that he could be the master of the known world one moment and a distraught supplicant in floods of tears begging forgiveness from the Gods for the remittance of his sins the next.

He had after all lived in fear his entire life. His family were seen as rivals to the Emperor Tiberius and he had witnessed the humiliation and exile of his mother and the execution of his two brothers. He never knew if he would be next and as a result he became very close to his sisters, the only people he thought he could trust, but in the end even they would betray him.

He was a scared, bitter and paranoid young man, and on 16 March AD 37, he would become Emperor of Rome.

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the future Caligula, was born on 31 August AD 12, in Antium on the west coast of Italy. He was the third son of the hugely popular war hero Germanicus and the adopted son of the Emperor Tiberius.

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His mother was the ambitious, willful, and headstrong Agrippina, the daughter of the Divine Augustus’s right-hand-man Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the victor of the Battle of Actium that had foreshadowed the downfall of Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

They sat at the heart of the Imperial Family, and that was a dangerous place to be.

As a young child Gaius would accompany his father on his military campaigns where he would be dressed in a miniature uniform with a sword, armour, and soldier’s boots. Much to the soldiers amusement he would ape their mannerisms and they very quickly took him to their hearts, naming him Caligula, or Little Boots.

His happy childhood was to be brought to a premature end in AD 18 when his father died in mysterious circumstances following a dispute with the Governor of Syria, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso.

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As the granddaughter of Augustus (her mother had been Julia, his only child) she believed her children were in the direct line of succession, something that Tiberius was determined to prevent. Nonetheless, claiming that her husband had been murdered Agrippina returned to Rome with his ashes laying the blame for his death firmly at the feet of Tiberius and going public with her suspicions actively trying to rally the people to her side, and much to the Emperor’s frustration they were to prove broadly sympathetic to her cause.

She demanded that Piso face trial for poisoning her husband and under pressure Tiberius had little option but to agree, even though he knew that if Piso were found guilty then he would likewise be blamed for having ordered him to act as he did.

Tiberius tried to protect Piso but when it became apparent that he would be found guilty he abandoned him, forcing Piso to commit suicide.

Agrippina had won a notable victory, but Tiberius still harbuored desires for revenge.

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The Emperor Tiberius was the son of Augustus’s wife, Livia, a ruthless and scheming woman who would stop at nothing to ensure that her son inherited the throne. He was to do so in AD 14, though some said reluctantly.

Earlier in his life he had been a successful General but had been forced to resign from the military and accept public office which he professed to hate. Twice he had tried to retire but had been called back by Augustus.

A dull, sullen man, surly in his manner who had never been popular he was nevertheless an efficient administrator and under his stewardship Rome prospered.

In his later years he was to become bitter at what he saw as the imposition of power and in AD 26 he again retired from public life withdrawing to the Island of Capri where he indulged his love of pornography and satisfied his sexual desires, though he remained Emperor.

The authority to govern Rome he left in the hands of the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Lucius Aelius Sejanus and the latter years of his reign were marked by the so-called Treason Trials where anyone could fall victim to a charge of treason simply upon the denunciation of Sejanus who had ambitions to become Emperor himself.

Increasingly bitter in his old age Tiberius became ever more vindictive and vengeful, and the most prominent victims of his vengeance were to be the family of his late adopted son, Germanicus.

Following the trial and suicide of Piso, Agrippina continued to live on the Palatine Hill and remain a member of the Imperial Court. She also continued to insist that her sons succeed as Emperor upon Tiberius’s death. She was after all the Divine Augustus’s granddaughter, and they his direct descendants, something that she constantly reminded everyone much to the fury of Tiberius whom she considered to be little more than a usurper and a tyrant.

Over the next ten years the relationship between Agrippina and Tiberius became increasingly estranged and the bickering between them incessant as she sought to undermine him and he tried to humiliate her.

At an especially arranged dinner party Tiberius made great play of offering Agrippina an apple, suggesting that she take a bite from it to prove her loyalty and show to the others present that she trusted him. Believing the apple to be poisoned and that to do so would result in her certain death she refused and Tiberius mocked her for her cowardice as the granddaughter of the Divine Augustus.

Always an excitable woman with a loose tongue and prone to intemperate language Agrippina stormed out of the room declaring that Tiberius had tried to poison her. Her loose tongue would seal her fate as over the following days she told anyone who would listen how the Emperor had tried to murder her, the granddaughter of the Divine Augustus, and that he was cursed by the Gods.

By this time their relationship had broken down completely and on the advice of Sejanus in the summer of AD 29, Agrippina and her sons Drusus and Nero were arrested and charged with treason.

In his lust for vengeance Tiberius ordered that Agrippina be flogged and it was a beating so severe that by the end of it she was barely able to walk and had lost the sight in one eye. She was then exiled to the tiny Island of Pandataria where malnourished and neglected she committed suicide on 18 October, AD 33.

Her son Nero had been executed much earlier and Drusus had been locked in an underground cell and left to starve to death.

Agrippina’s last remaining son Caligula had been spared the fate of his mother and siblings.

It remains open to question why Tiberius did not also order the execution of Caligula but perhaps he realised the need to have an heir other than his own grandson Gemellus who was still only a child, and he also feared the increasing influence of Aelius Sejanus.

Caligula had also learned the art of survival, he knew the right things to say, how to flatter and he ruffled few feathers. Even so, from AD 31 on he was forced to live on the Island of Capri where Tiberius could keep a close eye on him.

In daily fear of his life Caligula made a point of befriending Naevius Seutonius Macro, Second-in-Command to Aelius Sejanus.

In AD 26, Sejanus tried to marry into the Imperial Family but his request to wed Julia Livilla was declined by Tiberius who told him that he was trying to marry beyond his rank. Frightened that he may have revealed his intentions to the Emperor he adopted a low-profile but his ambitions had not dimmed and in the late summer of AD 31 he hatched a plan to take the throne by force.

Tiberius was warned of the conspiracy by the Lady Antonia, daughter of Mark Antony and mother of Julia Livilla. She dispatched to Capri some pornography, Tiberius’s preferred choice of reading material inside which she hid the details of the plot.

It was delivered into the hands of Caligula who presented it to the Emperor. Tiberius was shocked to learn of it and at first did not know what to do or who he could trust. It was Caligula who suggested he turn to Naevius Seutonius Macro and together they hatched a plan.

It was decided to send dispatches to Rome suggesting that the Emperor was dying and was to appoint a successor.

On 18 October, Sejanus was summoned to the Senate. He expected to be named as the new Emperor. Instead he was denounced as a traitor, arrested by Macro, and executed on the spot. At the same time his children were also murdered. His body was then thrown unceremoniously down the Germonian Stairs for all to see and as a warning to others.

Caligula’s, role in revealing the conspiracy, minor though it was, and their mutual love of pornography endeared him to Tiberius and he slowly began to win over the always suspicious and vindictive Emperor.

Caligula was always happy to indulge the old man’s sexual depravities and in AD 35 he named him along with his grandson Gemellus, joint heirs.

On 16 March AD 37, the 77 year old Tiberius died.

It was rumoured that he had been murdered and that Caligula who had been alone with him in his room at the time of his death was responsible, that he had smothered the old man with a pillow.

The people of Rome however could not have cared less, they were glad to be rid of the tyrant.

The elite of Rome were also delighted they now had a son of Germanicus as their Emperor – the man to restore Rome to what it had been in the time of Augustus.

Rome still retained the trappings of a Republic and Caligula’s appointment as Emperor still had to be sanctioned and endorsed by the Senate. But there was to be no dissent and Caligula addressed the Senators pledging to uphold the laws and customs of Rome and vowing to be nothing more than their devoted servant. He was their son, he said, and he would be as obedient as any son would be to his father.

The Senators were seduced, this was after all, a son of Germanicus and Romans believed that sons inherited the character and values of their father. They granted him absolute power, the first time they had ever done so, and at the age of just 25, with no political experience and having spent most of his adult life in isolation on Capri, Caligula had become the most powerful man in the world.

He was proclaimed Emperor on 28 March AD 37, to wild scenes of public rejoicing. The crowds lining the street chanted his name and referred to him as “Our Baby” and “Our Star”. Rome was in ecstasy and it is said that more than 150,000 animals were sacrificed in his honour during the first few months of his reign.

The first thing he did was to declare the Treason Trials over and had the documents relating to them publicly burned. He then reduced taxes for all and put on the extravagant games so beloved of the people. But he also somewhat ominously raised the pay of the army and the Praetorian Guard.

Early in his reign he had a pontoon bridge built across the Bay of Naples from Baiae to Puzuolli, a distance of more than two miles. He had done this to disprove a famous prediction made by Tiberius’s astrologer Tracyllus that Caligula had no more chance of becoming Emperor than of crossing the Bay of Naples on horseback.

Now he would show the world that he could do both and dressed as a gladiator and riding his favourite horse Incitatus he rode more than two miles out to sea on a narrow bridge.

It was an outrageous act of bravado and the people loved him for it, even more so as everyone knew he could not swim and that night he had the bridge lit by torches so that it could be seen for miles around.

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Not long after he travelled to the Island of Pandataria to repatriate his mother’s ashes to Rome. He then carried them through the streets of the city before personally depositing them, along with the remains of his brothers Drusus and Nero, in the mausoleum that had been built in honour of the Divine Augustus.

The Imperial Court, the Senate, the Roman Aristocracy, everyone seemed to be impressed by their new Emperor. He truly was the son of Germanicus and a return to the Golden Age of Rome appeared just around the corner. But all this was to change when six months into his reign he disappeared from sight, apparently afflicted by a mysterious illness.

So concerned were some of those in the Senate for the health of their young Emperor that they professed that they would rather the Gods take their own lives than that of their beloved Caligula whilst others declared they would be willing to fight in the Arena as gladiators if only their Emperor was saved.

When rumours began to circulate that Caligula was dying public prayers were said and sacrifices made for his preservation. Everyone feared that if he died Rome would once again be plunged into civil war.

No one knew what the nature of the Emperor’s illness was, he may have had a nervous breakdown or a near-death experience. He had certainly been a sickly child and suffered from epilepsy just as his great-uncle Julius Caesar had. Whatever it was when he recovered and next appeared in public he was a changed man. He had, he declared, become a God and demanded that he be referred to as such in the future. He then ordered that those who had been willing to take their own lives to preserve his should now do so. Those who had been willing to fight in the Arena as gladiators would be permitted do so.

Seutonius described Caligula around this time:

“He was very tall and extremely pale, with a very thin neck and thin legs. His eyes and temples were hollow, his forehead broad and grim, his hair thin and entirely gone on the top of his head. Because of this to look upon him from a higher height became a capital offence. He was neither sound of body or of mind. He was particularly tormented by sleeplessness; for he never rested more than three hours a night, and even for that length of time he did not sleep quietly but was terrified by strange apparitions. Therefore, weary of lying in bed wide awake during the greater part of the night, he would sit upon his couch and wander through the long colonnades, crying out from time to time for daylight and longing for its coming. In his clothing, his shoes, and the rest of his attire, he did not follow the usage of his country and his fellow citizens, not even that of his sex. He often appeared in public in embroidered cloaks covered with precious stones, and at times in the low shoes worn by women.”

Caligula was also described as being intelligent, articulate and lucid, but he had the habit of speaking very quickly and without pause. He was also an obsessive taker of baths, sometimes three or four a day, and would wash his hands continually. He did not like to touch others and in a physical and tactile society to avoid such was seen as both insincere and lacking in trust.

He was also obsessed by his three sisters, Agrippina, Livilla, and Drusilla, and interfered in every aspect of their lives. He particularly adored Drusilla whom he took as his mistress, though he is believed to have committed incest with all three of them.

He also demanded that his sisters prostitute themselves with his friends for his pleasure. He enjoyed watching them have sex and would invite others to enjoy the spectacle with him. Such disregard for public morals also extended to the political establishment and he would have Senators serve him at dinner as if they were slaves.

On 10 June AD 38, Drusilla died of a fever. She had always been his favourite and though he was to marry four times during his short life she was the only woman he ever truly loved and he was torn apart by her death.

He had the Senate name her a Goddess, personally presided at her funeral, and was to name his only daughter Julia Drusilla in her honour.

The rumour soon began to circulate however, that she had been pregnant with his child and that he’d had murdered, removed the foetus from her body, and then swallowed it just as according to myth Zeus had done.

In late AD 38, he had the Commander of the Praetorian Guard Naevius Suetonius Macro put to death but only after he had ordered him to execute his titular co-ruler Gemellus.

He had believed that Gemellus, though still only a child had been plotting against him but by now he was seeing plots and conspiracies everywhere and previous displays of loyalty were no guarantee from arrest, torture, and death.

In the summer of AD 39, he reinstituted the Treason Trials.

Caligula took a deep personal interest in the outcome of the Treason Trials for not only did they root out those seeking to betray him but they were also a valuable source of income.

He had always been generous to those who pleased him and he lavished gifts upon servants, gladiators and prostitutes. He also liked to put on spectacular Games to maintain the support of the people but all this was expensive and so it was necessary to kill a few rich people now and again and take their money to make up for the short-fall in the Treasury.

Many of the victims of the Treason Trials were tortured within the precincts of the Imperial Palace itself so that he could keep an eye on proceedings but he would often order them gagged with sponges because their screams kept him awake at night, though on one occasion he did praise his favourite singer for the melodic quality of his screams before ordering his tongue be cut out and his throat slit.

In September AD 39, he set off to campaign in Germany and to prove himself a great military commander as his father had been and though the campaign itself achieved little the fact that he was willing to lead his army in person made him popular with the troops.

Whilst in Germany he claimed to have uncovered a plot to have him assassinated and the Commander of the Roman Army in Germany, Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus was arrested, tortured, and put to death. Prior to his execution however, he had implicated the Emperor’s sisters, Julia and Agrippina, in the plot.

At first, Caligula was distraught to hear that his own sisters were willing to betray him but he soon recovered his composure and his initial despair did not appease his ire.

His sisters, who had accompanied him on his campaign to Germany, were brought into his presence and forced to strip naked. He then ordered them banished to the tiny Pontine Islands where they would not be sustained. They would be forced to dive for sponges to make ends meet.

He then auctioned off all their property, something he enjoyed doing and believed he had a talent for.

Following his campaign in Germany he announced that he intended to invade the Island of Britannia and achieve what even the mighty Caesar had failed to do and make it a province of Rome, and with this intention in mind he marched his army to the western shores of Gaul, near modern day Boulogne, where they halted.

Britannia to the Romans was a mysterious Island, a dark place at the edge of the world shrouded in fog where demons lay in wait and monsters roamed the land.

There was little enthusiasm among the troops to go there and it is possible they refused to do so because instead of boarding ships they were put to work gathering up sea-shells as booty of war.

This may have been designed as a humiliation to punish them for their cowardice but then on the other hand Caligula may have considered his occupation of the beach a genuine victory, he was after all in dispute with the God Neptune.

Returning to Rome he had all the sea-shells that had been gathered deposited onto the floor of the Senate House and announced to the utter bemusement of the on-looking Senators that he had conquered Neptune.

Caligula’s behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic and bizarre. One moment he could be deceptively charming and emollient and the next a raving lunatic and he was constantly plagued by headaches so powerful that he would sometimes collapse to the ground in pain screaming for them to cease.

In late AD 39 he opened a brothel in a wing of the Imperial Palace and forced the wives of Senators to attend and prostitute themselves. He also employed other members of the Imperial Family to take the money on the door.

His own wife, and the mother of his child, Caesonia, whom he appears to have been genuinely fond of he would force to strip naked so that he could show her off to the soldiers of his Personal Guard.

His horse, Incitatus, for whom he had built a marble stable in the Imperial Palace itself he would have dine with him and invitations to dinner were sent out in his name. Eventually he would make Incitatus a Senator and expressed the wish to have him elected Consul.

In a little over 18 months, Caligula had completely alienated himself from the Roman political elite. He was no longer loved but hated and the rich and powerful would often tremble with fear when brought into his presence. But about this he cared little:

“I do not care if they hate me, as long as they fear me.”

He also knew full-well that he remained popular with the people who rather enjoyed his humiliation of their social betters.

Caligula undoubtedly had a caustic wit and wicked sense of humour. He once said of himself:

“I admire nothing more about me than my shameful impudence.”

And for all his murders, cruelties, and bizarre antics it was to be his shameful impudence that was to lead to his downfall.

People rarely knew when to take Caligula seriously until it was too late. It irritated him when people begged for their lives when he was only teasing them, and he would become angry when they did not laugh at his jokes. But one man always took him seriously and that man was Cassius Chaerea, the Commander of the Praetorian Guard.

Cassius Chaerea was recognised as a brave soldier who had served alongside Caligula’s father Germanicus but he had a weak reedy voice and an effeminate manner. Caligula teased him mercilessly over this and he became the butt of the Emperor’s jokes, but Cassius Chaerea did not see the funny side. When Caligula referred to him as that Big Girl he would become visibly riled and the angrier he became the more Caligula teased him. When he asked for the Watchword of the Day, Caligula would respond with Venus, the impotent God of femininity, or opt for a phrase such as – Give us a kiss!

Cassius Chaerea was thoroughly humiliated and consumed with the desire for revenge.

Throughout Caligula’s short reign there had been numerous plots and conspiracies against him, some imagined, others not. But the man who had been hailed as the Saviour of Rome was now the most detested tyrant in its history. He was feared by everyone who counted and none of them no matter how rich or powerful could sleep soundly in their beds as long as he remained Emperor – It was only a matter of time before one of the plots succeeded.

On the morning of 24 January AD 41, Caligula was attending a series of Games that had been organised in celebration of the Divine Augustus when during a lull in the proceedings he was persuaded to review a troupe of young male dancers. It took little persuasion to convince Caligula to look upon scantily clad semi-naked young boys.

But he never went anywhere without his German Guard.

As he entered a corridor beneath the Arena the doors were quickly closed behind him temporarily separating him from his guards. As he turned around to see what was happening Cassius Chaerea stepped forward and thrust his sword deep into the Emperor’s chest. Caligula screamed in terror and cried out that he could not be killed he was a God!

Numerous humiliated Senators and cuckolded husbands now appeared eager to finish him off. He was stabbed a further 30 times as his screams rent the air and his guards desperately tried to break down the doors.

By the time they did so it was too late – Their Emperor was dead.

Caligula’s German Guards responded to his death by killing just about anyone they came across whether they had been involved in the conspiracy or not. Upon hearing the news of his assassination the people besieged the Forum demanding justice for his killers.

The conspirators meanwhile had embarked upon their own killing spree.

They were determined to eliminate what remained of the Imperial Family and return Rome to a Republic. Caligula’s wife, Caesonia, was raped and then stabbed to death. His baby daughter, Julia Drusilla, was taken by her ankles and had her brains bashed out against a wall.

The conspirators however had failed to find Caligula’s uncle Claudius.

He had been discovered hiding behind a curtain and spirited away to safety by some of the Praetorian Guard who now fearing for their own safety proclaimed him Emperor.

The conspiracy which had hoped to restore the Republic now collapsed as the mob on the street greeted the pronouncement with enthusiasm.

Cassius Chaerea and the other conspirators were taken prisoner and Claudius was to show them no mercy. He ordered their immediate execution.

Cassius Chaerea was decapitated with the same sword he had used to kill Caligula.

The Emperor Caligula had reigned for less than four years and was dead before his 29th birthday. Yet in that short space of time he has gone down in history as one of its most terrible tyrants.

Those who had killed him in the name of liberty, justice, and the republic could not have imagined that by their actions they had guaranteed tyranny for the next 400 years.

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