Emperor Caligula: Madman Or Misunderstood?

Caligula is considered one of the worst Roman emperors. But how much of his notoriety is a fact, and how much is propaganda?

Apr 9, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
A Roman Emperor (Claudius): 41 AD, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1871, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore; Cuirass bust of the emperor Caligula, 37-41 CE, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, via Wikimedia Commons


Historians describe emperor Caligula’s reign in unsettling terms. This was a man who made his horse a consul, who emptied the imperial treasury, imposed a reign of terror, and promoted all kinds of depravity. On top of that, Caligula believed himself to be a living god. Four short years of his reign culminated in a violent and brutal assassination at the hands of his own men. A fitting end for a mad, bad, and dreadful man. Or is it? Upon a closer examination of the sources, a different picture emerges. Haunted by his tragic past, Caligula ascended the throne as a young, brash, and stubborn boy. His determination to reign as an absolutist oriental ruler brought him into collision with the Roman Senate and ultimately resulted in the emperor’s violent demise. Although his successor, pressed by popular will and the influence of the army, had to punish the perpetrators, Caligula’s name was damned for posterity. 


“Little Boot”: Caligula’s Childhood

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Cuirass bust of the emperor Caligula, 37-41 CE, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, via Wikimedia Commons


The future ruler of the Roman Empire, Gaius Caesar, was born in 12 CE into the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He was the youngest son of Germanicus, a prominent general and designated heir to his uncle, the emperor Tiberius. His mother was Agrippina, granddaughter of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Young Gaius spent his childhood far from the luxury of the court. Instead, the little boy followed his father on his campaigns in Northern Germania and in the East. It was there, in the army camp, where the future emperor got his nickname: Caligula. Germanicus was beloved by his troops, and the same attitude extended to his son and successor. As an army mascot, the boy received a miniature uniform, including a pair of hob-nailed sandals, called caliga. (“Caligula” means “little (soldier) boot” (caliga) in Latin). Uncomfortable with the moniker, the emperor later adopted the name shared with a famous ancestor, Gaius Julius Caesar.


Caligula’s youth was cut short by the death of his father in 19 CE. Germanicus died believing he was poisoned by his relative, the emperor Tiberius. If not involved in the murder of his father, Tiberius played a role in the violent end of Caligula’s mother and his brothers. Too young to present a challenge to the increasingly paranoid emperor, Caligula avoided the grim fate of his relatives. Shortly after the death of his family, Caligula was brought to Tiberius’ villa in Capri as a hostage. According to Suetonius, those years spent on Capri were stressful for Caligula. The boy was under constant observation, and the smallest hint of disloyalty could spell his doom. But the aging Tiberius was in need of an heir, and Caligula was one of the few surviving dynastic members. 


Caligula, The Emperor Beloved By The People

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Coin commemorating Caligula’s abolition of tax, 38 CE, private collection, via CataWiki


Following the death of Tiberius on 17th March 37 CE, Caligula became the emperor. He was only 24 years old. It might come as a surprise, but the beginning of Caligula’s reign was auspicious. The citizens of Rome gave the young monarch a wonderful reception. Philo of Alexandria described Caligula as the first emperor who was admired by everyone in “all the world, from the rising to the setting sun.” The incredible popularity could be explained by Caligula being the son of beloved Germanicus. Further, the young, ambitious emperor stood in stark contrast to the loathed old reclusive Tiberius. Caligula recognized the importance of strong popular support. The emperor ended treason trials instituted by Tiberius, offered amnesty to the exiled, and abolished unfair taxes. To solidify his good reputation among the populus, Caligula organized lavish gladiatorial games and chariot races. 

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During his short reign, Caligula tried to reform Roman society. First and foremost, he restored the process of democratic elections abolished by Tiberius. Furthermore, the number of Roman citizenships for non-Italian provincials increased significantly, cementing the Emperor’s popularity. Besides administrative affairs, Caligula embarked on ambitious construction projects. The emperor completed several buildings started under his predecessor, rebuilt the temples, began the construction of new aqueducts, and even built a new amphitheater in Pompeii. He also improved port infrastructure, allowing for increased imports of grain from Egypt. This was particularly important since famine struck early in his reign. Paying attention to the needs of the states, Caligula also conceived personal lavish construction projects. He expanded the imperial palace and had two giant ships constructed for his personal use at the lake Nemi. 


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Italians viewing emperor Caligula’s Nemi ships in 1932 (the ships were destroyed in the Allied bombing in 1944), via Rare Historical Photos


While those projects created additional employment opportunities for many craftsmen and workers, and Caligula’s great games made the populus happy and content, the Roman upper classes saw Caligula’s efforts as a disgraceful waste of their resources (not to mention their taxes). Unlike his predecessor, however, Caligula was determined to show the senatorial elites who was truly in control.


Caligula Against The Senators

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Statue of a youth on horseback (probably Caligula), early 1st century CE, The British Museum, London


Six months into his reign, Emperor Caligula fell seriously ill. It is unclear what exactly happened. Was the young emperor poisoned like his father, did he have a mental breakdown, or did he suffer from epilepsy? Whatever the cause, Caligula became a different man after his recovery. The rest of Caligula’s reign was marked by paranoia and unrest. His first victim was Gemellus, Tiberius’ son, and Caligula’s adoptive heir. It is possible that while the emperor was incapacitated, Gemellus plotted to remove Caligula. Aware of the fate of his ancestor and namesake, Julius Caesar, the emperor reintroduced purges and targeted the Roman Senate. Around thirty senators lost their lives: they were either executed or forced to commit suicide. Although this kind of violence was perceived as a young man’s tyranny by the elites, it was, in essence, a bloody struggle for political supremacy. In taking direct control of the Empire, Caligula set a precedent, which would be followed by his successors. 


The infamous story of Incitatus, the emperor’s favorite horse, illustrates the context of this conflict. Suetonius, the source of most gossip about Caligula’s depravity and brutality, said that the emperor had such a fondness for his beloved stallion that he gave Incitatus his own house, complete with a marble stall and an ivory manger. But the story does not stop here. Caligula broke all the social norms, proclaiming his horse a consul. Bestowing one of the highest public offices in the Empire upon an animal is a clear sign of an unstable mind, isn’t it? Caligula loathed the senators, whom he saw as an obstacle to his absolute rule, and a potential threat to his life. The feelings were reciprocal, as the senators equally disliked the headstrong emperor. Thus, the story of Rome’s first equine official could be just another of Caligula’s stunts – a deliberate attempt to humiliate his opponents, a prank intended to show them how meaningless their job was, since an even horse could do it better. Above all else, it was a demonstration of Caligula’s power. 


The Myth Of A Madman

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Statue of Caligula in full armor, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, via Christie’s


The son of a war hero, Caligula was keen on showing his military prowess, planning a daring conquest of an area still untouched by Rome – Britain. However, instead of a splendid victory, Caligula provided his future biographers with another “evidence” of his madness. When his troops, for one reason or another, refused to cross the sea, Caligula fell into a frenzy. Furious, the emperor ordered the soldiers to collect the shells on the beach instead. This “act of insanity” could be nothing more than a punishment for disobedience. Collecting seashells was certainly degrading but more lenient than the usual practice of decimation (killing one in every ten men). However, even the story about the shells has blurred over time. It is possible that the soldiers never had to collect shells but were ordered to build tents instead. A Latin term muscula used for the shells also described engineering tents, utilized by the military. Suetonius could easily misinterpret the incident, or deliberately chose to embellish the story and exploit it for his agenda. 


Upon his return from the unfortunate expedition, Caligula demanded a triumphal procession in Rome. By tradition, this had to be approved by the Senate. The Senate, naturally, refused. Undeterred by the Senate’s opposition, Emperor Caligula went through with his own triumph. To show his power, the emperor ordered for a pontoon bridge to be built across the bay of Naples, going as far as to pave the bridge with stones. The bridge was situated in the same area with vacation homes and countryside estates of many senators. Following the triumph, Caligula and his troops engaged in drunken debauchery to annoy the resting senators. Interpreted as another act of insanity, this kind of behavior was a response of the petty young man to his enemy’s hostility. Further, it was another act to show the senate how worthless they are. 


Despite his failure in Britain, Caligula laid the foundations for the conquest of the island, which would be achieved under his successor. He also began the process of pacifying the Rhine frontier, secured peace with the Parthian Empire, and stabilized Northern Africa, adding the province of Mauretania to the Empire.


Breaking Away From Traditions

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Cameo depicting Caligula and the goddess Roma (Caligula is unshaven; because of the death of his sister Drusilla he wears a “mourning beard”), 38 CE, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien


One of the most famous and salacious stories is Caligula’s incestuous relationship with his sisters. According to Suetonius, Caligula did not shy away from engaging in intimacies during imperial banquets, appalling his guests. His favorite was Drusilla, whom he loved so much that he named her his heir and upon her death, proclaimed her a goddess. Yet, the historian Tacitus, born fifteen years after Caligula’s death, reports this incestual relationship as nothing more than an allegation. Philo of Alexandria, who was present at one of those banquets, as part of the ambassadorial delegation to the emperor, fails to mention any kind of scandalous incidents. If indeed proven, Caligula’s intimate relationship with his sisters could be seen by the Romans as clear evidence of the emperor’s depravity. But it could also be a part of Caligula’s growing obsession with the East. The Hellenistic kingdoms in the East, in particular, the Ptolemaic Egypt ‘preserved’ their bloodlines via incestuous marriages. Caligula’s alleged relationship with Drusilla could be motivated by his desire to keep the Julio-Claudian lineage pure. Of course, “going eastern” was perceived as something offensive by the Roman elites, still unaccustomed to absolutist rule.  


His fascination with the ancient East and the growing conflict with the Senate could explain Emperor Caligula’s most egregious act – the emperor’s declaration of his godhood. He even ordered the construction of the bridge between his palace and the temple of Jupiter so that he could have a private meeting with the deity. Unlike the Roman empire, where the ruler could only be deified after his death, in the Hellenistic East, the living rulers were routinely deified. Caligula may have thought, in his narcissism, that he deserved that status. He may have seen the weakness of his humanity, and further sought to make him untouchable by assassinations that would plague the emperors after him. The act was, certainly, doomed to fail.


The Violent End Of A “Living God”

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Relief depicting the Praetorian Guard (originally part of the Arch of Claudius), ca. 51-52 CE, Louvre-Lens, Lens, via Wikimedia Commons


Emperor Caligula, the “living god”, had the support of both the people and the army but lacked the complex web of connections enjoyed by the senators. Despite being the supreme ruler, Caligula was still a political neophyte – a stubborn and narcissistic boy lacking diplomatic skills. He was a man who could easier make enemies than friends – the emperor who constantly pushed the patience of the wealthy and powerful. In the pursuit of his oriental obsession, Caligula declared to the Senate that he would be leaving Rome and move his capital to Egypt, where he would be worshiped as a living god. Not only could this act insult the Roman traditions, but it could also deprive the Senate of its power. The senators were forbidden from stepping foot in Alexandria. This could not be allowed to happen.


Numerous assassination plots, real or alleged, were hatched or planned during Caligula’s reign. Many yearned to take revenge on the emperor for past affronts but also feared losing his favor or their life. It was not that the emperor was easy to reach. From Augustus onward, the emperor was protected by an elite bodyguard – the Praetorian Guard. For the plot to succeed, the Guard had to be confronted or involved. Caligula was well aware of his bodyguards’ importance. When he came to power, overdue bonuses were paid to the Praetorian Guard. But in one of his many petty acts, Caligula managed to insult one of the Praetorians, Cassius Chearea, providing the senators with a crucial ally. 


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A Roman Emperor (Claudius): 41 AD, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1871, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


On January 24, 41 AD, Caligula was attacked by his guards after his favorite pastime – the games. Chaerea was said to have been the first to stab Caligula, with others following his example. Caligula’s wife and daughter were also murdered to prevent any possibility of a legitimate successor. For a brief period of time, the senators considered the abolition of monarchy and the restoration of the Republic. But then the guard found Caligula’s uncle Claudius cowering behind a curtain and hailed him the new emperor. Instead of the end of the one-man’s rule, the Romans got more of the same.


The Legacy Of Emperor Caligula

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Roman marble portrait of Caligula, 37-41 CE, via Christie’s


The immediate aftermath of Caligula’s death portrays well the Roman sentiment toward the emperor and monarchy. The Senate immediately started a campaign to remove the loathed emperor from Roman history, ordering the destruction of his statues. In an unexpected turn of events, instead of the damnatio memoriae, the conspirators found themselves the victims of the new regime. Caligula was beloved by the people, and those people wanted revenge against those who killed their emperor. The army, too, wanted vengeance. Caligula’s German bodyguard, angered by their failure to protect their emperor, went on a murder spree, killing those involved and those suspected of plotting. Claudius, still insecure in his position, had to comply. The assassination, however, was a terrible affair, and the propaganda machine of his successors had to tarnish Caligula’s name partly to justify his removal.


The story of Caligula and his brief but eventful reign is a story about a young, stubborn, arrogant, and narcissistic man who wanted to break with traditions and achieve supreme rule that he considered his right. Caligula lived and ruled in what was the transitional period of the Roman empire, when the Senate still maintained a firm grip on the power. But the emperor was not ready to play the role and pretend to be just a benevolent “First Citizen.” Instead, he opted for a style fitting to a Ptolemaic or a Hellenistic ruler of the East. In short, Caligula wanted to be – and be seen to be – a monarch. His experiments, however, appeared iconoclastic to the powerful and wealthy Roman aristocrats. His actions, intentional or unintentional, were presented as acts of an insane tyrant. It is quite possible that the young emperor was unsuited to rule and that the encounter with the world of power and politics pushed Caligula over the edge. 


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Great Cameo of France (depicting Julio-Claudian dynasty), 23 CE, or 50-54 CE, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, via Library of Congress


It should not be forgotten that most of the sources about the emperor’s alleged insanity originate almost a century after the emperor Caligula’s death. They were written by the men of senatorial background for the new regime that tried distancing itself from their Julio-Claudian predecessors. Presenting Caligula as an insane tyrant made the current emperors look good by comparison. And in that, they succeeded.  Long after the Roman empire disappeared, Caligula is still considered as a proto-model for power-mad dictators, and the danger of the excess of power. The truth is probably somewhere between. A sane but narcissistic young man who went too far trying to impose his style of rule, and whose attempt badly backfired. Gaius Julius Caesar, an average and misunderstood autocrat, whom propaganda turned into an epic villain, Caligula.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.