Caligula (kah-LEEG-yew-lah), the youthful emperor of Rome. Caligula responds to the death of his sister Drusilla by launching a reign of terror against the Roman patricians. This oppression has no political end and lacks any clear pattern. Caligula’s goal is to demonstrate the meaninglessness or absurdity of life and therefore the impossibility of human happiness. Caligula strikes at random, at times punishing the innocent and sparing the guilty. He aims merely to humiliate and outrage the patricians. Finally, after three years of mounting atrocities against them, the patricians rise up, and Caligula is assassinated.
Cherea, a philosopher and writer. Cherea is criticized by Caligula for being a man of letters and, as such, promoting the fiction that life is meaningful. Cherea sees the radical implications of Caligula’s campaign from the start and organizes the insurrection that ultimately leads to Caligula’s death. Caligula learns of Cherea’s conspiracy but allows him to live.
Scipio (SIHP-ee-oh), a poet and close friend of Caligula. Scipio’s father is put to death by Caligula, but the poet’s bond with the emperor is so powerful that even this act does not fully alienate him. Scipio’s artistic sensitivity puts him in touch with Caligula’s suffering soul, and Caligula, in turn, names Scipio the victor in a poetry competition. Refusing throughout the play to conspire against Caligula, Scipio, in an abrupt reversal, is among Caligula’s assassins in the final scene.
Helicon, Caligula’s chief assistant. Neither a sycophant nor a conniver, Helicon remains loyal to Caligula. It is he, for example, who first alerts Caligula that there is a conspiracy afoot. Helicon is curiously detached from the events of the play. He is well aware of Caligula’s private anguish but does not share it. For Helicon, questions regarding the meaning of life are too airy to be taken seriously. Eminently practical, Helicon maintains a studied obliviousness to the ambiguities of human existence that have driven Caligula to his radical course of action.
Caesonia (seh-SOH-nee-ah), Caligula’s mistress. Caesonia is unswerving in her loyalty to Caligula, assisting him in his often theatrical machinations and attempting to assuage his personal agonies with love. Unlike Helicon, who understands the futility of Caligula’s quest and remains detached from it, Caesonia seems to believe that her passion for Caligula can ease his pain and perhaps moderate his course. Incorrect in her assumption, Caesonia is strangled by Caligula shortly before the play ends.
The old patrician
The old patrician, one of the patricians terrorized by Caligula. The old patrician is conspicuously timid and cowardly. He also seeks to betray his fellow conspirators in return for Caligula’s favor, a deal Caligula refuses. The old patrician is Caligula’s polar opposite, clinging to life with such desperation as to be an even less attractive figure than Caligula, who wantonly destroys life whenever he has the urge.
Mucius, a victim of Caligula’s campaign of outrage and humiliation against the patricians. Mucius is forced to listen as Caligula makes love to Mucius’ wife in the next room. Although clearly angered, he offers no resistance. This passivity is typical of the patricians throughout most of the play.