Caligula (12 - 41 AD)
Emperor: 37 - 41 AD
Gaius Caesar, son of the popular general and dynastic heir, Germanicus, and great grand-son of Augustus through his mother, was born AD 12 shortly before the death of Augustus. Evidence for the life of the 3rd Roman emperor is sparse, as the work of Tacitus for this period is lost. What does exist, primarily Suetonius, Seneca, Cassius Dio, Josephus and Philo, is completely negative and openly hostile for a variety of reasons. While these accounts are certainly somewhat tainted by the personal and political agendas of the authors, there is a basis for truth in each. The life of Gaius is clouded in 'madness' and 'megalomania', and there is enough evidence to back up claims of adverse behavior whether caused by mental illness, personal ego, or even historical embellishment. Despite his youth, his short reign of less than 4 years, and the slanderous history that followed, certainly indicates a widespread dislike. Had some of the rumors of depravity, indiscretion and megalomania not been true, and thus his assassination purely the result of political maneuvering, than at least some small contrary record might be expected to be found. All ancient sources, however, paint Gaius with a fairly similar brush.
Caligula, as Gaius is commonly known, received the nickname while on campaign with his father in Germania. As a baby and young boy he was often dressed in a mock legionary uniform, including the sandals called caligae, much to the delight of the soldiers. The men soon began to refer to their new mascot as Caligula, or little sandals. Despite this early pleasantry, however, Caligula lived a harsh youth, where instability within the imperial family caused paranoia and open suspicion. After the death of his father in AD 19, a rift formed between members of the Julio-Claudian house pitting his surviving family members against the reigning emperor Tiberius. His mother and 2 brothers eventually suffered horrible fates under the terror of Sejanus, but Caligula managed to avoid their fates. First placed under the care of his great-grandmother Livia, then grandmother Antonia, Caligula and his sisters survived, likely developing a bond that would later lead to accusations of all sort of incest and perversity. Shortly prior to the fall of Sejanus in 31 AD, and amidst fear for the continuation of the dynastic line, Caligula was brought to live with Tiberius on the island of Capri. Here he remained, holding only an honorary Quaestorship in AD 33, likely learning little to nothing of how to rule an empire, until Tiberius death in AD 37. There has been some speculation that Caligula was involved in the death of Tiberius, having him smothered to allow his own ascension, but the theory seems implausible. Tiberius was 77 years old at the time and likely in poor health anyway, but the story added fuel to the ancient fire regarding Caligula's madness.
'Gaius' was initially welcomed with great joy by both the masses and the Senate. Macro, the Praetorian Prefect, immediately propped Caligula up as the new princpeps, and with their support there would be little challenge to his authority. Being the son of the once revered Germanicus also brought the support of the Legions, an all important factor to consider in imperial politics. Despite the fact that Tiberius' will had named him joint heir with his cousin, 18 year old Tiberius Gemellus, the Senate revoked this provision (certainly by Caligula's intervention), paving the way for single rule by Caligula. To be sure to avoid future questions regarding the principate and succession, Tiberius Gemellus 'died' within a few months of Caligula's accession to power.
Initially, the young Emperor's rule was very promising. A speech before the Senate assured them of co-operative governing with the new 'administration'. He took it upon himself to destroy many records from the Tiberius treason trials. In this he not only cleared his mother and other relatives but certainly allowed many of Rome's elite to breathe a huge sigh of relief. The treason trials had come to an end and the dark rule of Tiberius was followed with a new hope. Generous bequests were paid to the people of Rome and especially to the Praetorians. Exiled citizens were recalled and others who had had properties confiscated were reimbursed. He did propose the deification of Tiberius, but this act was widely opposed. Rather than push through the unpopular act, Caligula let it drop, but the laws and deeds of Tiberius were allowed to stand for posterity purposes. He made another wildly popular gesture of piety by sailing to the islands where his mother Agrippina and brother Nero were killed, retrieving their ashes for the mausoleum of Augustus.
His popularity, along with the now defined tradition of Imperial rule, granted him freedom of governing not known by either of his predecessors. While Augustus certainly held ultimate power, his political career was one of cunning and systematic creation of a new system. Tiberius, following in the footsteps of Augustus, enjoyed his own freedom to rule, but had to deal with legionary revolts resulting from successions and was generally despised. Caligula, on the other hand, had the deepest admiration of the Roman world, and faced little political adversity. Perhaps this coddled political part of his life, coupled with a terribly tragic youth filled with murder and family intrigue, would lead the promising young man down a much darker path.
Caligula the Mad
Though the reign of Gaius 'Caligula' Caesar began with much promise, some early actions foretold of more uncommon behavior to come. Soon after his ascension Caligula showed signs of future 'madness' and Suetonius gives evidence even through a certainly embellished story:
'He (Caligula) devised a novel and unheard of kind of pageant; for he bridged the gap between Baiae and the mole at Puteoli, a distance of about thirty-six hundred paces, by bringing together merchant ships from all sides and anchoring them in a double line, after which a mound of earth was heaped upon them and fashioned in the manner of the Appian Way. Over this bridge he rode back and forth for two successive days. attended by the entire praetorian guard and a company of his friends in Gallic chariots.'
According to Suetonius the entire reason for this grand display was that an astrologer once said, "Gaius (Caligula) had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding about over the gulf of Baiae with horses."
Within 6 months of his rise to the highest power in Rome, Caligula fell very ill. The entire empire fretted over his well being, but the cause for concern was to prove to be misplaced. When Caligula recovered he returned as a changed man. The ancient sources blame the illness, which has been suggested in possible relation to epilepsy (perhaps passed down from Caesar) or even a genetic disorder from intensive familial inbreeding. However, while Caligula certainly could've been 'deranged' it's far more likely that his later behavior was a symptom of his environment than an actual disorder. He was simply the first 'emperor' to understand the absoluteness of his rule and the freedom to do with it as he pleased. A child reared in a world of violence, corruption and intrigue, one could hardly expect much more from the grown man.
Regardless of the reasoning, whether mental instability or true viciousness, after the illness all sources attest to a change in Caligula's behavior. An initial act upon recovery from his illness demanded that any person who had offered their life to the gods in sacrifice if, 'Gaius' would recover, should fulfill that obligation. He killed the former Praetorian Prefect Macro, his father in law and Tiberius Gemellus, his supposed heir. In a strange twist, during his illness, Caligula had named his sister Drusilla as heir, not only indicating the great affection he held for his sisters, but fueling rumors of wild incest. In AD 38 the oath of loyalty to the emperor also required the same oath be said to his sisters.
Tyrannical behavior continued and became increasingly cruel. Comments that he could easily order the death of magistrates, or slit the throats of lovers were common. The treason trials of Tiberius were re-instituted and one never knew what reason Caligula would find to confiscate their properties or lives. Caligula is attested to having said 'Would that the Roman people had but one neck!' Though this reeks of propaganda, it can certainly show an environment of fear that must have existed. Sexual depravity and escapades of all sorts were reportedly taking place. In addition to rumored incestual affairs with his sisters and stealing men's wives for his own pleasure, Caligula had been married 4 times, 3 of which took place during his short reign.
The strange and lewd behavior continued into the form of megalomania. An altar was built to honor himself as a living god. His favorite sister Drusilla, who died suddenly in AD 38, was deified as a member of the slowly growing imperial cult. Statues of the emperor were ordered to be erected all over the empire and in Jewish synagogues, with clear ramifications of civil disorder.
It was suggested that he opened a brothel right inside the imperial palace and that his favorite horse was kept in an ivory carved stable within the palace walls as well. Dinner parties were arranged in the horse's honor, and though of doubtful truth, it was even recorded that Caligula considered making it a Consul. Expenditures were out of control, and the entire imperial treasury, carefully built up by Tiberius, was squandered in Caligula's excessiveness. Gem laden ships and monumental villas were built for no other reason than to satisfy the whims of the Emperor.
Not only was the aristocracy of Rome at danger by virtue of close association to their 'leading citizen' but his spending threatened the security of the empire itself. To offset it, he introduced new heavy taxation, including taxes on prostitution that simply burdened the population as a whole. In just a few short years, Caligula went from being the people's great savior to another despised despot. What was worse, thanks to his laughable military campaigns to come, he was in danger of losing the loyalty of the legions.
The Assassination of Emperor Caligula
Towards the end of Caligula's reign, he seemingly set his sites on military glory. Having never been involved in military achievement of any kind, such a step was another grandiose way to show his godliness to the people of Rome. Following in the steps of his father, Germanicus, Caligula launched a strange campaign into Germania. However, this campaign seems to have been interrupted by a conspiracy against him.
Though the entire affair is shrouded in uncertainty, a Legate of the Germania Legions, Cn. Lentulus Gaetulicus and Caligula's brother-in-law, M. Aemilius Lepidus, were executed. His surviving sisters, too, were exiled. As a result, the Germania expedition essentially didn't take place, and it only leaves us a few more claims of excessive behavior from the ancient sources. After nothing came of the Germania affair, Caligula apparently shifted his focus to Britain. Again, the results were nothing but laughable. According to Suetonius, rather than actually cross to Britain to achieve his goals of conquest he simply marched the legions to shore in some sort of show of strength.
"Finally, as if he intended to bring the war to an end, he drew up a line of battle on the shore of the Ocean, arranging his ballistas and other artillery; and when no one knew or could imagine what he was going to do, he suddenly bade them gather shells and fill their helmets and the folds of their gowns, calling them "spoils from the Ocean".
Despite this complete waste of time and resources, Caligula demanded a triumph from the Senate, which of course was awarded. Included in the complete mockery were Gauls dressed as Germans and the spoils taken from the shore. Some suggested it was indicative of Caligula's belief of personal divinity, that he actually defeated Neptune on the shores of the English Channel. According to Dio Cassius he even took the names Germanicus and Britannicus as if he had actually conquered those territories.
After his botched military campaigns, Caligula's megalomania apparently intensified dramatically, as well as his paranoia. Executions and torture were prevalent, and Rome's treasury was dangerously depleted. Despite his annexation of Mauretania as an official province (which is largely ignored in the ancient sources) Caligula's short reign had little benefit to the Roman people. His demand that a statue of his own likeness be erected in the temple of Jersusalem caused terrible riots in Judaea. Only the delaying tactics of the Governor Petronius and Herod Agrippa prevented wide-spread revolt.
Caligula's worsening behavior led to several plots against him, only one of which obviously needed to succeed. The plot that ultimately did succeed was developed, according to all ancient sources, within the Praetorian Guard. However, evidence also suggests that several Senators had knowledge and were involved in its undertaking. Apparently already under suspicion by Caligula, his Praetorian Prefects seemingly had little choice but to authorize the deed themselves or face certain execution. On January 24, AD 41, Cassius Chaerea, a Praetorian officer along with two others, brutally stabbed Caligula in a secluded corridor of the imperial palace. At the age of 28 years, and having ruled for just less than 4 years, Rome faced its first potential crisis of the Principate. The Praetorians continued their growth as a political institution since the days of Sejanus by directly executing or removing an emperor for the first of what would eventually be many times.
Though certainly some of Caligula's guard remained loyal, they were terribly outnumbered. The Praetorians swept the palace and butchered the Empress Caesonia and their baby daughter Drusilla had her head smashed against a wall. As the story goes, Claudius, the stammering old fool and uncle of the emperor, was found cowering behind some curtains. Seen as a choice to be easily controlled, the Praetorians swept him up and positioned him as the only surviving member of the Julio-Claudian line with a legitimate claim to the throne.
However, Claudius, by virtue of his survival through the terrible reign of his nephew and his later exemplary rule, seems more likely to have been a part of the plot seeking power of his own, rather than a frightened 'unlikely' heir, cowering behind some curtains. Regardless Caligula was dead and while the Senate perhaps sought a Republican return, Claudius was taken to the safety of the Praetorian camp. Whatever intentions the Senate may have had, without the loyalty of the legions and the Praetorians, their cause was doomed. They had no choice but to hail Claudius as the next 'Caesar'.
Caligula the Movie
Caligula may very well be the most controversial film in history. Only one movie dares to show the perversion behind Imperial Rome, and that movie is "Caligula," the epic story of Rome's mad emperor. All the details of his cruel, bizarre reign are revealed right here: his unholy sexual passion for his sister, his marriage to Rome's most infamous prostitute, his fiendishly inventive means of disposing of those who would oppose him, and more.
The combined talents of cinematic giants Malcolm McDowell, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud and Shakespearean actress Helen Mirren, along with an acclaimed international cast and a bevy of beautiful Penthouse Pets, make this unique historical drama a masterwork of the screen. Not for the squeamish, not for the prudish, "Caligula" will shock and arouse you as it reveals the deviance and decadence beneath the surface of the grandeur that once was Rome.
Did you know...
Germanicus assumed several military commands leading the army in the campaigns in Pannonia and Dalmatia. He is recorded to be an excellent soldier and inspired leader, loved by the legions.
Did you know...
Caligula only ruled for three years, ten months, and eight days. On 24th January AD 41, a conspiracy among the Praetorian Guard ended his life.
Did you know...
Recent sources say that Caligula probably had encephalitis. Ancient sources, like Suetonius and Cassius Dio, describe Caligula having a "brain fever".