The Historical Caligula

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman emperor (r. 37-41 c.e.). The third ruler of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, Caligula did much during his short reign to transform the position of Roman emperor into an institution of absolute monarchy.

Early Life

Gaius Caesar was born in the resort town of Antium (modern Anzio) on August 31, 12 c.e., the third son of Germanicus Caesar, nephew of the future emperor Tiberius, and his wife Agrippina the Elder, granddaughter of the contemporary emperor Augustus. As a toddler, Gaius spent time in northern Europe and Syria, accompanying his father during his various military and diplomatic assignments. In fact, it was during a stay at a military installation near the Rhine River that Gaius received the nickname Caligula from his father’s soldiers. Agrippina often dressed up her young son as a legionnaire, and the nickname came from the small version of soldiers’ hob-nailed boots (caliga) that he wore. “Caligula” means “little boots.”

Imperial politics at this time were unsettled and volatile. Augustus, after his victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 b.c.e., had emerged as the undisputed master of Rome, but he accepted only the title of princeps (which implied that he was the first official among equals) and preferred to exercise power in an indirect fashion by exploiting existing republican offices and institutions. He employed this cautious method of governing because he feared that too blatant a disregard for Roman republican traditions might offend the sensibilities of his subjects and thereby jeopardize the stability of the Empire.

In keeping with this fiction, Augustus hesitated to set up a clear-cut succession system that would pass on power in a hereditary fashion. Therefore, when Augustus died in 14 c.e., his designated successor, his stepson Tiberius, had to accept the position from the senate and secure the support of the army and Praetorian Guard (the ruler’s personal bodyguard) before he could assume power. For a long time, Tiberius hesitated to designate his choice as successor. Caligula’s father, Germanicus, was the most likely candidate because of his general popularity and the fact that he was the grandson of Augustus. Tiberius, however, appears to have been jealous of his nephew’s fame and kept him out of Rome on various military and diplomatic missions. It was on one such mission to the Middle East that Germanicus died in 19 c.e., under suspicious circumstances. His widow, Agrippina, was convinced that her husband had been poisoned by the governor of Syria on the orders of Tiberius. While no hard evidence has ever appeared to link Tiberius with the death of Germanicus, from that point forward Agrippina became the emperor’s bitter enemy.

With the death of Germanicus, Tiberius began to groom the latter’s two eldest sons, Nero and Drusus, for power. However, both young men, as well as their mother, fell victim to the plots of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, Tiberius’s evil prefect of the Praetorian Guard, who wanted to eliminate the family of Germanicus in order to strengthen his power over the emperor. He fabricated evidence that charged both Nero and Agrippina with involvement in plots against the emperor’s life, and both were banished to remote islands where they subsequently died. Sejanus then accused Drusus of various sexual crimes and, as a result, Drusus was imprisoned in a cell below the palace (where he also would die in 33 c.e.).

After the banishment of his mother in 27 c.e., Caligula lived first with Livia Drusilla, his great-grandmother and the widow of Augustus; after her death in 29 c.e., he lived with Antonia, the sister of Augustus, Caligula’s paternal grandmother. Although he had originally been too young to warrant the attention of Sejanus, the elimination of his two older brothers made Caligula the next target for the prefect’s machinations. Fortunately for the young man, Sejanus fell from power and was executed in 31 c.e. Tiberius then took Caligula into his household (the emperor now lived on the island of Capri) and began to groom him as his successor.

Life’s Work

The Roman historian Suetonius argues that Tiberius took Caligula under his wing because the boy’s interests, which were already depraved, coincided with his own. Other historians, however, have offered less sensationalistic explanations for the decision. Tiberius had promised Augustus to promote the interests of the children of Germanicus and, if possible, to name one as his successor, and Tiberius, despite his other possible faults, was a man who kept his word. In addition, the new prefect of the Praetorian Guard, Naevius Cordus Sutorius Macro, saw a brilliant future for himself with the ascension of Caligula and actively campaigned for his official designation as heir. As the engineer of the fall of Sejanus, Macro already had the emperor’s ear. He strengthened his relationship with Caligula by flattering the young man and even encouraging him to have an affair with his...

(The entire section is 2046 words.)