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#1 The Caligula effect

Rome, city of marble, capital of the ancient world, the obvious choice for holidays. And capital of gossips. And Caligula’s horrible histories of his cruelty, combined with the appointment of his horse as consul, turned him into an endless source of hearsay.

The Roman Empire succeeded the 500 years Roman Republic, mistress of the Mediterranean basin. Under the young Augustus (majestic, venerable), the Senate was discreetly stripped of its powers, and the Republic transformed into a Principate in 27 BC. Augustus styled himself as Princeps (first among equals), carefully avoiding to compare himself to a monarch or a dictator, like his adoptive father Julius Caesar did.

“I didn’t want to be stabbed thirty times like step-daddy”


Augustus, 27 BC

He cunningly made the people believe that the Senate was in charge, and both the people and nobility (made of senatorial class and equestrian order) respected him, in exchange. But his immediate successors weren’t as good at keeping up the farce.

Bust of Augustus
Even in old age, Augustus portrayed himself as a 20 year old. Like Madonna

Augustus bequeathed the office to his adoptive son, Tiberius, the son of his third wife, Livia. And Tiberius was succeeded in turn by Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Just imagine trying to fit that name on an envelope.

#2 Caligula’s meaning

Gaius was born in Antium, on 31st of August, 12 AD. He was the son of Agrippina the Elder, a granddaughter of Augustus, and of Germanicus. The latter was a sort of a celebrity general in Germania (modern west-Germany), where his military exploits had turned him into a hero in the eyes of the Romans, who then called him Germanicus.

Gaius was brought up in military camps, and the sight of a three year old boy dressed like a legionary, with his tiny Caligae (military boots) amused the men. Gaius was nicknamed Caligula. A name that, unfortunately for him, would stick forevermore.

When Germanicus died, allegedly poisoned (every important person in Rome was allegedly poisoned), Caligula lived with his mother Julia, and his brother, Nero, but shortly after, both were accused of treason 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. The Princeps Tiberius, took an interest in the young boy and adopted him, taking him to live on the island of Capri, far from Rome’s deplorable public transport and intrigues.

Meanwhile, Drusus, another of Caligula’s siblings, was imprisoned too. Caligula must had feared he would be next on this imprisoning streak. Why Tiberius spare him? Allegedly, he said: “Gaius (Caligula) is destined to be the ruin of himself and mankind. I’m rearing a hydra for the Roman people”.

Living with mummy’s jailer, and constantly fearing for his own safety, surely must have been traumatic for Caligula, who admitted trying to kill Tiberius once, but, overwhelmed by compassion, 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, having the Legions and people’s full support, wasn’t willing to share with Gemellus. And decided to politely convince him to commit suicide.

“I’ll leave this sword on the table and if it runs through your heart, I’m not to blame


Caligula to Gemellus. 37 AD

#3 Caligula the Emperor

Caligula ascended to Princeps on 37 AD, later claiming the rest of the titles: Augustus, Imperator, coolest man in Rome, etc. People loved him more than they would a puppy.

“Awww, he’s so cute”


Anonymous bystander pointing to Caligula. Rome 37 AD

They witnessed him burning the papers regarding his mother and brothers’ trials (all had died in prison), swearing to the gods not to punish those implicated.

He restored full jurisdiction to the magistrates, allowing them to prosecute him (not that anybody was foolish enough to try) and paid 80.000 sesterces to a freed woman, who under torture, remained silent about her former master’s crimes.

Out of concern for the bored citizens of Puteoli and Baiae (modern Naples), he had boats moored across the bay, tying them together and laying earth on top, creating an artificial three mile long path. Then, according to the king of the gossips, Suetonius, Caligula rode the boat-bridge on horseback, wearing Alexander the Great’s breastplate.

Extension of the alleged bridge in a satellite image
Pozzuoli Gulf. In the yellow circle stood Puteoli, now Pozzuoli. In the green circle stood Baiae. In red, the stretch of the bridge

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 told Tiberius (in private conversation, again should be noted) that Caligula had as much chance of becoming emperor as he did of riding the gulf of Baiae on horseback.

#4 Caligula would have blushed, or maybe not

Caligula is described first as a Princeps, later, a monster. Suetonius is especially harsh, narrating how Caligula, in a master stroke of Roman Photoshop, ordered statues to be beheaded and replaced with his own bust.

Caligula photoshopped. He loved it I think
Smooth Caligula. Very smooth

His rivals accused him of practising incest with his sisters, especially Drusilla, because he ordered a period of public mourning after her death, executing those who laughed, took a bath or dined with family and friends. 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 in 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 while forcing them to adopt a merry disposition.

“I’d love to dine with you again. Bring more children next time”


Caligula to a grieved mother before the dessert. 38 AD

He was credited for closing public granaries and starving the people, but even under Tiberius, and later Claudius (Caligula’s uncle and successor), Rome had serious issues with food supplying.

Caligula was 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.

#5 Caligula’s horse and the ships

When Caligula prepared to invade Britannia, he commanded his men instead, to collect seashells from the beach, calling them spoils of war and parading them through Rome. Another joke? Maybe he was mocking the legionnaires for refusing to invade Britannia?

He lavished a marble stable upon his groomed horse, Incitatus, also providing it with a slave retinue. Caligula even had Incitatus inviting guests over, and proposed him to run for the consulship. Likely another joke, mocking the Senators, who were jealous of their despotic equine superior.

Caligula was accused of opening an imperial brothel, served by the wives and daughters of noble families. This accusation was 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. 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!

Skeleton of Caligula's massive vessels after Nemi lake was drained
The ships were over 70 meters long. The remains were destroyed during WW2

The young spoiled Imperator soon alienated factions of the Praetorian Guard (the Princeps’s bodyguards), especially a man called Cassius Chaerea, mocked by Caligula because of his effeminate voice. Still, Caligula probably enjoyed the support of the legions and the people, as he claimed, after the successful collection of seashells: “I will be returning with those who want me back, the equestrians and the people, not the senate”

#6 Caligula’s assassination

Chaerea, alongside other conspirators, 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.

“Uh! Argh! Noooooo! I’m dead”


Caligula. 41 AD

His wife Caesonia, was stabbed 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 as madmen, castigating them, while also diverting any criticism addressed to the Princeps office. Convenient.

#7 The facts about Caligula

Suetonius’s serious, historian-like 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 I also would like to see dead the bloke who laughs at my feminine and angelic voice.

Hope you enjoyed reading as much as Caligula’s enemies enjoyed getting rid of him. Don’t forget to subscribe and comment… especially if you disagree. Thanks for reading and sharing your opinion! 

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