Rome, city of marble, capital of the ancient world, the obvious choice for holidays. Also capital of gossips. Especially for the Roman emperors. And few, maybe except Tiberius and Nero, ranked as high as Caligula on the league table of bad emperors. Caligula’s horrible histories of his cruelty, combined with the appointment of his horse as consul, turned him into an endless source of hearsay. But was he really as bad as the sources say?
#1 The Roman emperors
Under the supervision of Caesar’s adoptive son, Augustus (majestic, venerable), the old Roman republic was given a mortal blow, and transformed into something else, a manifestation of Augustus’ power if you will. After defeating Mark Antony on the Battle of Actium in 31BC, Augustus (then Octavian) was left as the dominant figure in Roman politics. And very clever too, gradually the Senate, the traditional repository of power, was gradually and discreetly stripped of its powers. By 27BC they were but completely loyal to Augustus, who was granted the title Princeps (first citizen), amongst others, and given extraordinary powers. It was the beginning of the Principate, the first stage of the Roman Empire.
Cunning like few other in the history of politics, he made the people believe that the Senate was still in charge, and both the people and nobility (senatorial class and equestrian orders) respected him in exchange. But his immediate successors weren’t as good at keeping up the charade.
Lacking sons to pass them his office and titles, Augustus bequeathed them instead to his adoptive son, Tiberius, the son of his third wife, Livia. And Tiberius in turn, was to be succeeded in turn by Germanicus, his nephew and Caligula’s father.
#2 The name of Caligula
The future emperor Caligula was born under the name of Gaius Julius Caesar was born in Antium, 31st August, 12 AD. His mother was Agrippina the Elder, a granddaughter of Augustus through his daughter Julia. His father Germanicus was a sort of a celebrity general, his father’s and his own military exploits against the german tribes had given them the nickname Germanicus, and turned them into a hero in the eyes of the Roman people.
As a result of his father’s military appointments, Gaius was brought up in military camps. Someone there dressed the boy with a tiny legionary dress, with his tiny Caligae (military boots), thus becoming sort of a pet for the men. Gaius was nicknamed Caligula (little boots). A name that would stick forevermore and which his future detractors would use against him.
When Germanicus died, allegedly poisoned (every important person in Rome was allegedly poisoned), Caligula remained with his mother Julia, and his brother, Nero, but shortly after, both were accused of treason by the Emperor Tiberius, and imprisoned. Livia, Augustus’s widow and Caligula’s great-grandmother, took Caligula under her wing and when she passed away, Caligula moved in with his grandmother, Antonia. Then it was Drusus, another of Caligula’s older brothers who got accused of treason and imprisoned.
People still revered the name of Germanicus, and Tiberius might have feared he would be deposed by his popular sons. As the last one, Caligula must had rightly feared he was next to go down. But Tiberius not only spared him, but he also adopted him. Why Tiberius spared him? The Roman sources, always so informative on the conversations the emperors had in private, said of Tiberius words:
“Gaius (Caligula) is destined to be the ruin of himself and mankind. I’m rearing a hydra for the Roman people”.
Whatever it was Tiberius saw in the young boy, he took him to live on the island of Capri, far from Rome’s deplorable public transport and intrigues. Living with his family’s jailer and constantly fearing for his own safety, surely must have been traumatic for Caligula. He might have even had attempted to kill Tiberius once, but overwhelmed by compassion, he dropped the dagger.
Tiberius appointed Caligula and Gemellus, his own grandson, as his co-heirs. Two years later Tiberius died. Guess how? Allegedly poisoned. Caligula, the son of the beloved Germanicus, had the Legions and people’s full support, so he wasn’t willing to share all of this with Gemellus. That’s why he decided to politely convince him to commit suicide. A polite euphemism for assassination that was.
#3 Caligula the Emperor
With Gemellus removed, the titles of Princeps, Augustus, Imperator, coolest man in Rome, etc; all passed to Caligula. And the people couldn’t be more elated about it. They loved him more than they would a puppy. In a clever public demonstration, he burned for everyone to see, the papers regarding his mother and brothers’ mock trials (all had died in imprisonment), swearing to the gods not to punish those implicated. He restored full jurisdiction to the magistrates, allowing them to prosecute him (not that any would be foolish enough to try) and paid 80.000 sesterces to a freed woman, who under torture, remained silent about her former master’s crimes.
All in all, it seems his first months on office, Rome’s future looked bright under the protection of Germanicus’ brood. But passing laws and making justice was half the job of the Roman emperors. Entertaining the people was as important, and Caligula knew. Panem et circenses (bread and circuses). To keep the people happy he needed to keept them fed, and amused. For that reason he had boats moored across the Gulf of Pozzuoli, tying them together and laying earth on top, thus creating an artificial three mile long path. Then, according to the king of the gossips, Suetonius, Caligula rode the boat-bridge on horseback, brazenly wearing Alexander the Great’s breastplate.
Perhaps he was trying to imitate Xerxes of Persia, who bridged the Hellespont to invade Ancient Greece. Or was he looking to intimidate Germania and Britannia in 39 AD, before launching military operations there? Suetonius (born 30 years later, it should be noted) claims he knew that an astrologer had reassured the jealous Tiberius (in a conversation out of earshot, again) that Caligula had as much chance of becoming emperor as he did of riding the gulf of Baiae on horseback.
#4 Caligula the monster
Out of the blue however, everything went amiss. The young man who had been considered Rome’s greatest hope, was suddenly changed. A monster was born, at least according to Suetonius, who explains how Caligula, in a master stroke of Roman Photoshop, ordered statues to be beheaded and replaced with his own bust. Smooth.
Artistic taste aside, his rivals accused him of practising incest with his younger sisters, especially Drusilla, all because he ordered a period of public mourning after her death, executing those who laughed, took a bath or dined with family and friends. Again, classic Roman gossip. I still don’t understand the thing against bathing though.
Equally baseless, were rumours accusing him of shagging senators’ wives, and rubbing it on the husbands’ faces. Rumours which constantly failed to provide names. Likewise false, are claims of Caligula murdering sons and forcing their parents to watch, afterwards dining with them and forcing them to adopt a merry disposition. He was also credited for closing public granaries and starving the people, but the truth is, even under Tiberius, and later Claudius (Caligula’s uncle and successor), Rome had serious issues with food supplying.
Caligula was specially renowned for his cruel jokes. He would suddenly burst into laughter at banquets, remarking how he could have senators executed with a nod. Seneca pointed out his inability to deal with people without insulting them, and combined with his dark humour, when taken too seriously, created an image of a tyrant, a sadistic killer, an imperial bully. This is perhaps more expected and credible from someone who had grown up fearing for his life, and who suddenly had all the power he could wish for.
#5 Caligula’s horse and the ships
It’s said that when Caligula had his legions and ships ready to invade the British isles, he commanded his men instead, to collect seashells from the beach, calling them spoils of war from the sea god, Neptune, and parading them through Rome. Another joke? Maybe his legionnaires were refusing to invade the British isles and so he humilliated them this way?
Apart from his sisters, he was said to be specially fond of his horse, Incitatus, for whom he had a marble stable built, and also provided it with a slave retinue. Caligula even had Incitatus inviting guests over, and went as far as to propose him to run for the consulship, one of the highest offices in Rome. Likely another joke to mock the Senators, who would go to have a history of love-hate with most of the Roman emperors.
Caligula was accused of opening an imperial brothel, served by the wives and daughters of noble families. This accusation was suspiciously pinned to later emperors as well, specifically Commodus and Elagabalus. Both murdered too. What a coincidence. Undoubtedly, Caligula spent profusely, like the spoiled bratty heir of some colossal fortune. Which he was. Proof of that, are two massive vessels, found at the bottom of Lake Nemi, which belonged to Caligula, and were said to have been furnished with baths, saloons, galleries and even gardens! Indeed two floating palaces,
Soon the spoiled and erratic emperor alienated factions of the Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s bodyguards), in particular one of the officers called Cassius Chaerea, mocked by Caligula because of his effeminate voice. Still, Caligula probably enjoyed the support of the legions and the people at large, as he claimed, after the successful defeat of the sea and the collection of seashells: “I will be returning with those who want me back, the equestrians and the people, not the senate”
#6 Assassination and facts about Caligula
Chaerea, alongside other conspirators (including senators) killed Caligula in 41 AD, three years and ten months after he had assumed office. He was stabbed more than thirty times, including in his imperial parts. Caligula’s wife, Caesonia, was stabbed to death by a Centurion, and their two year old daughter, Julia-Drusilla, had her brains smashed against a wall. Posterior writers presented Caligula and, later Nero amongst other bad emperors. as madmen. Lashing at them was one effective way of diverting any criticism addressed to the Princeps office. Convenient.
Suetonius’s sensational, yellow-press approach, was that Caligula’s sadistic personality was caused by love potions given to him by Caesonia. But overall, he is described everywhere as ill-mannered and irresponsible. A young man fearing for his own life under Tiberius, then made the world’s most powerful man overnight. From having to supress feelings and emotions about his mother and brothers, to suddenly being able to say and do everything conceivable.
Augustus allowed the Senate to believe they were on charge, treating them like equals, whereas Caligula acted like a despotic monarch. Historical memory might have been harsh and exaggeratedly unjust towards Caligula, but nobody likes a spoiled brat. Specially if that brat holds on his hands more power than anybody else.