How Did Caligula Rise to Power in the Roman Empire?

A scion of a powerful dynasty, Caligula had to survive the political intrigues in early imperial Rome to become the Roman emperor.

Oct 14, 2023By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

how did caligula rise to power in roman empire


Caligula is undoubtedly one of the most notorious Roman emperors. His brief reign was filled with scandals, paranoia, violence and madness. At least if we are to believe the historians. Caligula, however, was a more nuanced character, albeit someone unprepared to rule. But how Caligula came to the throne, and what was his path to power? How did Caligula become the most powerful man in the Roman Empire?


Caligula was a Member of the Imperial Dynasty

Great Cameo of France (depicting the Julio-Claudian dynasty), 23 CE, or 50-54 CE. Source: Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris


Caligula’s journey to the imperial throne started with his illustrious family. We can see that from his very name. Born in 12 CE, Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was the youngest son of Germanicus and Agrippina. Germanicus was a popular general, but he was also the adopted son of his uncle Tiberius, who himself was the adopted stepson and heir of Germanicus’ great-uncle, Emperor Augustus. Gaius’ mother – Agrippina the Elder – was even closely linked to the first Roman emperor. Agrippina’s father was Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ best friend and ally. Her mother was Julia, Augustus’ only biological daughter. Thus, as a member of a revered dynasty, young Gaius was predestined for greatness. 


He Was Not the Sole Child

Copper coin of Caligula’s with reverse depiction of his three sisters (Drusilla in the middle), 37-38 CE. Source: the British Museum, London

Caligula was not the only child and not the first choice for the throne. Germanicus and Agrippina had several children, including older brothers Nero and Drusus, and three sisters, Drusilla, Livilla and Agrippina. The last and the youngest sister, Agrippina, known also as Agrippina the Younger, would later marry Caligula’s successor, Emperor Claudius, and become the most powerful woman in Rome, the true empress. Her son, Nero, would also don the purple and be the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. 


Caligula Was the Emperor’s Nickname

Marble Portrait of Germanicus, father to Caligula, ca. 1st century CE


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Young Gaius spent most of his childhood following his father, general Germanicus, on his military campaigns in Germania. Germanicus’ legionnaires adored the little boy so much that they made him their official mascot. They dressed Gaius in miniature uniform, including the boots – caligae. This is how the future emperor got his nickname – Caligula (little boots). Once he became the emperor, Caligula continued his interest in the Roman army but never used the moniker. In fact, he hated it. 


Caligula Experienced Family Tragedy as a Boy

Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus, Benjamin West, 1776, Yale University Art Gallery


Caligula’s happy years ended suddenly when, in 19 CE, his father died under suspicious circumstances while visiting Syria. Germanicus was only 33, and Agrippina blamed emperor Tiberius for her husband’s sudden death. It is possible that Tiberius was not involved and that Germanicus fell as a victim of Sejanus, a powerful Praetorian prefect who ruled the Empire all but in name. Agrippina’s conflict with Tiberius led to her death, and a purge soon followed, in which Caligula’s elder brothers lost their lives. Caligula, however, was spared and was “invited” to the island of Capri, where he spent the next few years under the watchful gaze of emperor Tiberius.


He Survived the Ancient Game of Thrones

Copper alloy coin of emperor Caligula with reverse depiction of the emperor addressing the soldiers, 40-41 CE, via the British Museum


Caligula’s years on Capri had been a traumatic experience for a young man. Being a hostage, living under constant observation and fearing for his own life was not easy, but Caligula had at least been spared court intrigues and survived the game of thrones unfolding in Rome. Suddenly, at the end of 31 CE, the most powerful man in Rome, Sejanus, was arrested and executed. Tiberius, who just lost his son Drusus, declared Caligula as his successor. In 37 CE, Tiberius passed away. While rumours circulated that Caligula had a hand in Tiberius’ death, it is most probable that the 77-year-old emperor died naturally. Caligula was now the new ruler of Rome.


In the Beginning, Caligula Was a Popular Emperor

Cuirass bust of emperor Caligula, 37-41 CE. Source:


At the onset of his reign, emperor Caligula was wildly popular. Unlike reclusive and paranoid Tiberius, Caligula was a young and charismatic man. He was also the son of the famed Germanicus and had the support of the legions. Immediately after taking power, the new emperor reversed the unpopular laws, abolished oppressive taxes and released all political prisoners. He also organized lavish games, further bolstering his support among the populace. Even the Senate, which still harbored hopes of bringing back the Republic, supported the new ruler. With his youth, charm and family pedigree, Caligula was seen as a new hope for the still-young Roman Empire


Caligula, however, is not remembered as a successful young ruler but as a paranoid, depraved and mad tyrant. The man who appointed Incitatus, his horse, a consul, waged war against the sea, and had sex with his own sisters – one of the worst Roman emperors. The story behind Caligula’s “madness” is complex, with senators like Suetonius tarnishing the emperor’s name for posterity. Caligula was too young, arrogant, and reckless, unwilling to recognize the importance of the Senate in the early days of the Roman Empire. And for that affront, Caligula paid with his life and reputation.

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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.