Emperor Caligula: 16 Facts About the Cruel Roman Emperor

Cruel and tyrannical Emperor Caligula ruled Ancient Rome through fear and terror. Rampaging through Rome committing murder, adultery and acts of debauchery, his reign came to an abrupt end when he was brutally assassinated after only four years.

May 1, 2020By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
Marble portrait bust of the emperor Gaius, known as Caligula, The Met
Marble portrait bust of the emperor Gaius, known as Caligula, The Met

Stories surrounding the life of Emperor Caligula, Rome’s third Emperor (r. 37 AD – 41 AD), have reached legendary proportions, making it hard to separate fact from fiction. Son of the great military hero Germanicus, the people had high hopes for their new, young Emperor. But after only a few months he turned cruel and tyrannical, gradually changing into the most brutal leader the empire had ever seen. As legend has it, he likened himself to an immortal God who could do anything to anyone, rampaging through Rome on an unstoppable streak of spending, adultery and murder. His behaviour was so erratic that people wondered if he was suffering from some form of madness. Let’s take a look at the most outlandish and unusual escapades surrounding his reign from 37-41 A.D. and how they ultimately led to his downfall.


1. Emperor Caligula Wasn’t His Birth Name

Germanicus, father to Caligula
Marble Portrait of Germanicus, father to Caligula


The real name given to this notorious Emperor was Gaius Caesar Germanicus, from his parents Germanicus and Agrippa the Elder. At the age of three he started to accompany his father on military campaigns and the little soldier outfit he was given included miniature boots. This amused the other soldiers, who mockingly nicknamed him Caligula, meaning “little boot.”


2. His Mother, Agrippa The Elder, Was A Force Of Nature

Bust of Agrippa the Elder
Bust of Agrippa the Elder, mother to Caligula


She was said to enjoy accompanying her military hero husband Germanicus on many of his most brutal and bloody campaigns, and became his closest and most trusted political advisor.


3. Caligula Had A Complicated Relationship With Emperor Tiberius

Sculpture of Tiberius
Sculpture of Emperor Tiberius


Caligula’s father, Germanicus, was the nephew and adopted son of Emperor Tiberius. When Germanicus died, Caligula’s mother Agrippa firmly believed Tiberius was to blame. After publicly declaring her desire for revenge, Tiberius swiftly had Agrippa and her children imprisoned, where they later died. Because Caligula was so young, he was sent to live with Tiberius’ mother, Livia Drusilla. 

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Summoned to live with Tiberius in Capri as a teenager, Caligula became a pampered prisoner to his great uncle and adoptive grandfather, although he secretly despised him. Tiberius bolstered Caligula’s ego by making him an heir to the throne and exposing him to scenes of torture and brutality, venomously claiming he was “nursing a viper in Rome’s bosom.” 


4. His First Few Months As Emperor Went Reasonably Well

The ruins of Tiberius Villa Jovis on the Island of Capri
The ruins of Tiberius Villa Jovis on the Island of Capri, where Caligula lived with Emperor Tiberius


At the very start of his reign, Caligula led a series of political reforms and even recalled all exiles from outside Rome. But something shifted in the next few months, which some have attributed to a serious illness, leading Caligula to become increasingly erratic and deranged. 


5. Large Amounts Of Money Were Spent On Vanity Projects

After raising taxes to pull in more money, Caligula’s spending quickly became out of control. In one famous incident, Caligula arranged for hundreds of merchant ships to form a 3-mile long floating bridge across the Bay of Baiae. He galloped back and forth across the bridge on his horse for two days straight, wearing a dazzling golden cape. 


6. Buildings Were His Greatest Legacy

The Temple of Augustus
The Temple of Augustus


Caligula lavished large sums on aqueducts, harbours, theatres and temples in his name. Although his excessive architectural ambitions ran Rome into debt, he successfully oversaw the completion of important Roman buildings. They include the Temple of Augustus, Pompeii’s Theatre, the rebuilding of the walls in the temples of Syracuse, and the Roman city in the Alps.


7. He Turned A Military Campaign Into Performance Art

From 39 to 40. A.D., Caligula led military campaigns to the Rhine and the English Channel, hoping to follow in the almighty legacy of his fearless father Germanicus. But when all the battles were lost, he reached the brink of madness. Desperate to take home a victory, he waged an imaginary war with his army on the mythological sea-god Neptune, ordering them to whip the waves, and to “plunder the sea” for shells as the spoils of war.


8. He Banned Anyone From Talking About Goats Near Him

Thin, pale, and covered in large amounts of fine hair, Caligula was not blessed with natural good looks. He especially didn’t want any reminders of his resemblance to a goat. 


9. Believing He Had Extraordinary Powers, He Declared Himself An Immortal God

His favourite phrase, which he frequently repeated, was “Remember I have the right to do anything to anybody.” This included adulterous affairs with the wives of his allies and the torment or murder of high-ranking senators who dared to disagree with him. He even turned murder into a sport, attacking people at random, prompting abject fear into everyone around him. Rumour has it he even had statues beheaded, replacing their heads with his own.


10. Caligula Loved His Horse, Incitatus

Caligula with Incitatus
Caligula with his beloved horse Incitatus


He lavished his fine steed with attention, giving him his own house with a marble stall and an ivory manger, and even openly expressed his plans to declare his horse a Roman consulate. Unfortunately he died before he could make this dream a reality.


11. Gladiatorial Games Were Turned Into A Horrific Sport

Caligula turned Roman Gladiatorial games into a demonstration of cruelty and power. As well as having criminals and slaves sacrificed before an audience for entertainment, he was said to have even fed a section of the crowd to the beasts because they were running low on criminals.


12. Married Four Times, Each Was Short Lived

Marble bust of Julia Drusilla
Marble bust of Julia Drusilla


His wives were Junia Claudilla, Livia Orestilla, Lollia Paulina and Milonia Caesonia. His last wife, Milonia, was the only one to have a child with him – their daughter was called Julia Drusilla. 


13. Two “Pleasure Barges” Were Built In Lake Nemi

The wreckage from one of Caligula’s famous “pleasure barges”, discovered in the 1920s
The wreckage from one of Caligula’s famous “pleasure barges”, discovered in the 1920s


Caligula built two lavish barges to be situated on lake Nemi. Sometimes called “pleasure barges”, they were said to have marble décor, mosaic floors, statues and there he held a succession of wild, debaucherous parties. Uncovered during the 1920s and 30s, they had mostly been destroyed during the Second World War, but a lead pipe was found bearing the inscription “Property of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.”


14. Emperor Caligula Reigned For Only Four Years, From 37-41 A.D.

Relief depicting the Elite Roman army
Relief depicting the Elite Roman army of Praetorian Guards

As Caligula’s tyrannical reign flew wildly out of control, a secret plot was hatched to have him killed. In 41 A.D., he was attacked by a cabal of Praetorian Guards following a sporting event, before he was brutally stabbed over 30 times. Both his wife and one-year old daughter were also murdered at the imperial palace.


15. The Roman Senate Tried To Have Him Removed From History

Immediately following his death, the Roman senate set about destroying Caligula’s statues in the hope that he could be forgotten from history. But their attempt was unsuccessful; he remains today one of the most studied and written about Emperors of all time.


16. An Unexpected Successor Followed Him

Portrait of Emperor Claudius
Portrait of Emperor Claudius


Much to everyone’s surprise, Claudius, Caligula’s much older Uncle, was called to take up the throne. But Claudius came to prove a much better leader than his wayward young nephew.


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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.