The Historical Caligula

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2046

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.

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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 wife.

Tiberius was also intelligent enough to recognize Caligula’s weaknesses. This was the most likely reason for his final decision regarding the succession. He named Caligula as co-heir along with his young grandson, Tiberius Gemellus. Thus when the old emperor finally died in 37 c.e. (Suetonius recorded that Macro and Caligula smothered him with a pillow on his sickbed), the twenty-six-year-old Caligula and his ten-year-old cousin assumed power in Rome.

Caligula never had any intention of sharing power with Gemellus. With the skillful aid of Macro, he moved rapidly to consolidate his position at his cousin’s expense. Two days after the death of Tiberius, the senate hailed Caligula as “Imperator” and granted him, in one block, all the powers that both Augustus and Tiberius had only gradually assumed. Gemellus was left isolated and powerless.

At the time that he assumed power, Caligula was, by most accounts, an unattractive man. He was very tall, with thin legs and a pasty complexion. He had small, deep-set eyes and a broad forehead. His hair was thin, and he already had a large bald spot at the back of his head. Suetonius reports that he was so self-conscious of his baldness that he made it a crime punishable by death to look at him from above. He had married Junia Claudilla in 33 c.e., but he engaged in numerous affairs with other women and with men. It was rumored that he routinely committed incest with his sister Drusilla, and he may have also done so with his other two sisters. An inveterate gambler on chariot races, Caligula developed such a fondness for his favorite horse, Incitatus, that he had the animal attend senate meetings and even wanted to make him a consul.

At the beginning of his reign, however, Caligula made an effort to be a popular ruler. He treated the senate with respect, put on lavish entertainments for the Roman populace, abolished the crime of maiestas, or speaking or acting against the princeps, which Tiberius had used to punish personal enemies, and destroyed incriminating records that Tiberius had kept on many notable Romans. In late September, 37 c.e., however, Caligula fell ill, and when he recovered in late October, his reign took a dramatic turn for the worse.

Caligula emerged from his illness convinced that there was a conspiracy against him. Determined to eliminate it, he ordered the deaths of Gemellus and his father-in-law, Junius Silanus. He then divorced his wife and married Livia Orestilla. This marriage also ended in divorce within a year, whereupon he married Lollia Paulina. His third marriage lasted less than a year. On his divorce from Lollia in 39 c.e., Caligula married Caesonia, who was already pregnant by him. She gave birth to a daughter, Drusilla, a month after the wedding.

Meanwhile, Caligula continued to go after his real and imagined enemies. The emperor forced the devious Macro and his wife to commit suicide in early 38 c.e. He accused his former best friend and lover, Marcus Lepidus, of conspiring against him with the military commander Gaetulicus and had them both executed in 39 c.e. He reintroduced the crime of maiestas that same year, thereby opening the door to many more executions of prominent Romans. He even went as far as to accuse his two surviving sisters, Agrippina and Livilla (Drusilla had died in 38 c.e.), of trying to overthrow him and had them both banished from Rome.

During this same period, Caligula also began to claim that he was a god. He ordered statues erected to him throughout the Empire and even demanded that one be placed in the main Jewish synagogue in Jerusalem (this order does not seem to have been carried out). Once, on a military expedition in northern Europe, Caligula claimed to have been offended by the god Neptune and declared war on him. He reportedly ordered his troops to march into the English Channel and flay the water with their swords. He then declared victory and had his men collect seashells along the shore as tribute from the defeated god.

Caligula was also extravagant in his spending. Even though he inherited a budget surplus from Tiberius of approximately 2,500 million sesterces, he managed to spend it all in less than a year. To gain additional revenue, he forced all rich Romans to name him as their heir and then often found reasons to have them executed. He imposed a number of new direct taxes and, according to several sources, even opened a brothel in his palace staffed by the daughters and wives of noble Romans.

Caligula’s increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior finally did give rise to the conspiracy he so feared. Organized by several prominent senators and an officer in the Praetorian Guard, Cassius Chaerea, the assassins separated Caligula from his German bodyguards as he left the games celebrating the holiday of Ludi Palatini in 41 c.e. Caligula was stabbed at least thirty times, and the assassins killed his wife and daughter shortly thereafter. After a brief period of confusion, the Praetorian Guard named Caligula’s uncle Claudius the new emperor, and the senate ratified the selection the next day.


Augustus, the first princeps, pretended not to be a monarch, even though he was one in reality. Tiberius had more or less continued this tradition. During his short reign, Caligula, through his blatantly excessive and autocratic behavior, destroyed the last remnants of the fiction surrounding the position. Although he was not a good ruler in many important respects, Caligula nevertheless clearly demonstrated to the Roman people that the Republic was over and that a new era of Imperial monarchy had begun.

Further Reading:

Balsdon, V. D. The Emperor Gaius. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1934. Until the 1990 publication of the Anthony Barret book discussed below, this work was the standard treatment in English on Caligula. Although the author uncritically repeats many negative stories from Suetonius and others, he also argues that the Roman senate was as guilty as the emperor himself for many of the abuses committed during Caligula’s reign.

Barrett, Anthony. Agrippina: Sex, Power, and Politics in the Early Empire. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. Although its subject is Caligula’s sister, Agrippina the Younger, this volume provides an excellent examination of Caligula’s reign, his relationship with his family, and the question of whether or not he committed incest with his sisters.

Barrett, Anthony. Caligula: The Corruption of Power. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. A biography of Caligula that argues that although the emperor was morally irresponsible, insufferably arrogant, and emotionally unequipped to rule, he was not the psychotic maniac of popular imagination.

Sandison, A. T. “The Madness of the Emperor Caligula.” Medical History 2 (1958): 202-209. Discusses the various possible causes for Caligula’s illness in 37 c.e. and examines whether the experience caused his mind to snap.

Suetonius. Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. New York: Welcome Rain, 2001. Chapter 5 deals with the life of Caligula and is the source of many of the most bizarre stories about the emperor. Given the biases of the author, however, many of these stories should not be taken at face value.

Wells, Colin. The Roman Empire. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1984. An excellent examination of the institution of Roman emperor as it evolved from Augustus to Diocletian. The author’s treatment of Caligula is balanced and perceptive.

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