What Are Most Infamous Tales about Emperor Caligula?

Emperor Caligula is known for many infamous tales during his brief but turbulent reign. Most of those juicy tales, however, were rumors exaggerated by Caligula’s enemies to tarnish the emperor’s reputation after his death.

Nov 29, 2023By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History

most infamous tales about emperor caligula


Emperor Caligula was undoubtedly one of the most controversial (if not most controversial) rulers of the Roman Empire. Caligula’s rise to power was rapid, and the early months of his reign were marked by the cordial relationship with the Senate. However, the honeymoon did not last for long. Following the emperor’s sudden, near-mortal illness in 37 CE, Caligula became increasingly hostile to the Senate, challenging its power and pushing the idea of the Roman monarchy further than any of his predecessors. No wonder Caligula was hated by the senators and historians who came predominantly from the senatorial circle.


Historians like Suetonius are responsible for our distorted image of the young autocrat as a mad, perverted tyrant. They are the ones who tarnished Emperor Caligula’s name after his sudden and violent death. And who left us the fascinating and infamous (but exaggerated) tales of the young emperor’s scandalous reign. Here are five juiciest ones. 


Emperor Caligula And His Close Relationship with His Sisters

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


Even those uninterested in the Roman Empire had heard about one of most salacious tales about Emperor Caligula. According to Suetonius, the young ruler had a particularly close (perhaps too close) relationship with his three sisters – Agrippina the Younger, Livilla, and Drusilla, the latter being the emperor’s favorite. Apparently, Caligula’s love for his younger sister was so great that he named her his heir and proclaimed Drusilla a goddess upon her untimely death. However, for other historians, like Tacitus, or a witness of one of the (scandalous) imperial banquets, Philo of Alexandria, the incestual relationship was nothing more than a rumor. The senators probably exploited Caligula’s close bond with his three sisters against the emperor they despised. 


But if it had indeed happened, Caligula’s intimate relationship with his sisters could have been a part of Caligula’s growing fascination with the East. To emulate the Hellenistic kings such as the Ptolemies and to keep the imperial lineage pure.

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The Emperor and His Horse, the “Consul” Incitatus

corona caligula incitatus
Caligula Appointing His Horse Incitatus to the Consulship, unknown author, 1616–1669. Source: The Art Institute Chicago


Another infamous story comes, once again, from Suetonius. It is the tale of Incitatus – Caligula’s favorite racehorse. Reportedly, Caligula loved Incitatus so much that he wanted to bestow on him one of the highest public offices in the Roman Empire – the consulship. Such an act, unsurprisingly, shocked the senators, serving as another of cases for the emperor’s madness.


The story, however, is more complex. Caligula’ disliked the Senate and did everything in his power to show them their place and to display his autocratic power. Thus, the story of Incitatus seems to be one of many emperor’s pranks, intended to show the senators how meaningless their job was since even a horse could do it better. Above all, it was a clear and present demonstration of the sheer power of the mightiest man in Rome – the emperor.


Caligula and the “War on the Sea”

caligula army coin
Copper alloy coin of emperor Caligula with reverse depiction of the emperor addressing the soldiers, 40-41 CE. Source: The British Museum


Among many controversial tales, the weirdest one is of that time when the emperor declared war on…the sea! The son of a war hero, Germanicus, Caligula planned a magnificent conquest of the still untamed isle of Britain. However, the campaign never took off, and if we are to believe Suetonius, enraged Caligula declared war on Neptune, the god of the sea, having the waves whipped. He also ordered legionaries to collect seashells as prizes of war. While such a behavior points to an act of a madman, collecting seashells could be a lenient punishment, unlike deadly decimation (killing one in every ten men). 


The tale could also refer to the construction of a military camp (the Latin term for shells – muscula – also described engineering tents) on the French side of the Channel, used by Caligula’s successor Claudius as a staging ground for the conquest of Britain in 43 CE.


Caligula and the Bridge over the Bay of Naples

emperor caligula horse statue
Statue of a youth on horseback (probably representing emperor Caligula), early 1st century CE, via the British Museum, London


Young and powerful, Emperor Caligula took great pleasure in mocking the wealthy senators and humiliating them with various pranks. Despite his failed conquest, Caligula demanded a triumph. When the Senate denied it, the emperor ordered the legionaries to build a pontoon bridge over the Bay of Naples, near senatorial estates at Baiae. Once completed, the emperor crossed it with his troops and then engaged in drunken debauchery to annoy the resting senators. Super-wealthy and well-educated, the senators could do little to stop the emperor, who had an entire Roman army as his protector. 


The cold war turned hot when Caligula began imprisoning and exiling the senators as the answer to the assassination plots, both real and imagined. The bloody purges claimed the lives of no less than thirty senators.


Emperor Caligula and the Divine Ruler

caligula cuirass bust roman emperor
Cuirass bust of Emperor Caligula, 37-41 CE.


The conflict between the emperor and the Senate culminated in 40 CE, when Caligula declared himself a living god. This unprecedented act could have resulted from Caligula’s growing fascination with the Hellenistic East, where the rulers, starting with Alexander the Great, were routinely deified. For the Senate, however, this was an affront to the Roman tradition.


Things got worse when Caligula declared his intention to move the imperial capital to Alexandria, the city the senators could not access without the emperor’s permission. For the Senate, this was the moment to act. When Caligula, in one of his typical acts of arrogance, insulted an officer of the Praetorian Guard, the conspirators made their move, assassinating the emperor in 41 CE. Yet, their hopes to restore the Republic fell short after the Praetorians elected Caligula’s uncle Claudius as a new emperor. 


The Senate, however, had the last laugh. Senators like Suetonius were the ones who wrote history and who vilified the reputation of the ill-fated rulers to justify their removal and legitimize later imperial dynasties. Thus, they painted Caligulaan arrogant, narcissistic boy and an average autocrat – as a madman and epic villain.

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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.