Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known by his childhood nickname — Caligula (“little boot”) — was the third emperor of the Roman Empire. He was also, if we are to believe the sources, one of most depraved, debauched, and decadent Romans who ever lived. According to ancient historians, Emperor Caligula was a madman, a sadist, a murderer, a pervert, and a man who declared himself a living god.
In four years of his short reign, from 37 to 41 CE, the boy emperor transformed Rome into a degenerate and dreadful place. Appropriately, Caligula’s rule of terror came to a violent end after the emperor was murdered at the hand of his own bodyguard. While it is tempting to think of Caligula as a mad autocrat, a different image emerges upon closer scrutiny; a young and flawed ruler, scarred by a tragic childhood, who tried to challenge the traditional authority — the Roman Senate — and failed horribly.
1. Emperor Caligula and the Scandalous Relationship with His Sisters
One of the most famous and scandalous stories about Emperor Caligula is about the close (perhaps too close) relationship with his sisters. According to Suetonius, our primary source for Caligula’s reign, the young emperor broke all social norms by engaging in intimacies during imperial banquets, shocking his guests. Caligula slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men’s wives and publicly boasting about it.
However, turning the imperial palace into a brothel was only the beginning of Caligula’s many transgressions. The young ruler engaged in an incestuous relationship with all three of his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla. Drusilla was the emperor’s favorite. Apparently, Caligula loved his sister so much that he named her his heir and proclaimed Drusilla a goddess upon her death. Although scandalized and disgusted by Caligula’s bad behavior, the Roman elites were powerless to do anything to prevent it. After all, one could hardly say no to the emperor.
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However, there is no evidence that such a transgression ever took place. Suetonius wrote his gossipy biography of Caligula eighty years after the emperor’s death. In addition, Suetonius was writing for the emperors who had it in their best interest to tarnish the name of Caligula and his Julio-Claudian dynasty, to strengthen their claim to the throne. The historian Tacitus, born fifteen years after Caligula’s death, reports this incestuous relationship as nothing more than an allegation. And Philo of Alexandria, who was present at one of those “controversial” banquets as a high-ranking ambassador, fails to mention any scandalous incidents.
Thus, those salacious rumors of incest seem to be nothing more than hearsay, originating from the close relationship between the boy emperor and his sisters, established during their difficult childhood, following the tragic death of their father, Germanicus. A bond strengthened during the reign of Augustus’ successor Tiberius, a highly paranoid man who eliminated Caligula’s mother and his elder brothers, but spared the young boy, keeping him as a hostage at his lavish villa at Capri.
If it really had happened, Caligula’s intimate relationship with his sisters could have been a part of Caligula’s growing fascination with the East. Like the Hellenistic kings, the Ptolemies in particular, Caligula’s alleged relationship with his sisters could have been motivated by his desire to keep the Julio-Claudian lineage pure. But, of course, “going eastern” was perceived as offensive by the Roman elites, who were still unaccustomed to absolutist rule in those early days of the Empire.
2. The Horse That Was (Not) Made a Consul
Once again, Suetonius, our favorite gossiper, tells us this controversial story: the tale of Incitatus — the horse that became a consul. Reportedly, Caligula 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 this is not the end of the story. The young emperor went further, breaking all the social norms and proclaiming his horse a consul (!). Bestowing one of the highest public offices in the Empire upon an animal is a clear sign of insanity, isn’t it? Perhaps, but only if such a controversial thing ever had happened.
Unsurprisingly, Suetonius happens to be our only source for this scandalous story. And while it is tempting to believe that there was an equine consul in ancient Rome, the reality behind this tale is more complex. The first decades of the Roman Empire were a period of struggle between the emperor and the traditional power holder — the Senate. While both Emperor Augustus, and his successor, the reclusive Tiberius, had refused most imperial honors, pretending that some of the Republican traditions were still alive, young Caligula readily embraced the role of an all-powerful Roman emperor.
To Caligula, the senators were an obstacle to his absolute rule and a potential threat to his life. His feelings were reciprocated, as the senators equally disliked their young and headstrong emperor. Thus, the story of Rome’s first equine official could be just one of Caligula’s many stunts designed to humiliate the hated elites. A prank intended to show the senators how meaningless their job was, since even a horse could do it better. But, above all else, it was a threat and a demonstration of the emperor’s power, providing clear evidence of who was really in charge.
Caligula never made Incitatus a senator, nor a consul. But, like any other young Roman aristocrat, the emperor shared a passion for horses and horse racing. Thus, Cassius Dio’s account of Caligula’s excessive pampering of his prized steed, feeding him the animal oats mixed with gold flakes, could be another rumor, but it also could contain a grain of truth. After all, for a Roman emperor known for launching two luxurious pleasure barges on Lake Nemi, nothing was impossible.
3. Caligula’s War on the Sea
Among Caligula’s litany of misdeeds, there is one particularly puzzling episode: the emperor’s declaration of war on and victory over, the sea. Suetonius tells us that Caligula, son of the war hero Germanicus, planned the conquest of an area still untouched by Rome. However, the invasion of Britain failed before it even started. After declaring war on Neptune, the god of the sea, the enraged emperor had the waves whipped. He also ordered the legionaries to collect the shells on the beach, calling them “the spoils of the conquered ocean.” Finally, to commemorate his victory, the emperor erected a lighthouse inspired by Pharos of Alexandria. All this clearly points to a deranged mind. Or does it?
The “act of insanity” could be nothing more than a punishment for disobedience. While they were professional soldiers, the Roman legionaries could and did challenge their commander. In fact, the soldiers mutinied against Caligula’s more experienced father during the campaign in Germania. It is not hard to imagine them doing so again against his inexperienced son, who wanted to take them on a dangerous campaign into unknown territory at the end of the world. Collecting seashells was degrading, but it was more lenient than the usual practice of decimation (killing one in every ten men).
However, even the story about the shells has a more mundane explanation. It is possible that the soldiers never had to collect shells but were ordered to build tents instead. The Latin term for shells muscula also describes engineering tents utilized by the military. Suetonius could easily have misinterpreted the incident or deliberately chosen to embellish the story and exploit it for his agenda. After all, being a senator, he had no love for the long-deceased emperor.
In addition, the tents could point to the construction of a military camp on the French side of the Channel, while a lighthouse could have been used to provide navigation aid for the Roman navy, critical for the naval crossing. Although Emperor Caligula got no further than the shores of Gaul, his preparations for the invasion would allow his successor Claudius to begin the successful conquest of Britain in 43 CE.
4. Emperor Caligula as a Living God
Caligula’s plans to invade Britain failed. Nonetheless, he celebrated a triumph in Rome. By tradition, the Senate had to approve the triumphal procession. Unsurprisingly, the Senate refused. However, Caligula was not a man who would take no for an answer. As in the case of Incitatus, the emperor decided to show the senators how powerless they were. He ordered a pontoon bridge to be built across the bay of Naples, going as far as to pave the bridge with stones. Incidentally, the bridge was constructed in the same area where the senators had their vacation homes and countryside estates. To humiliate the Senate even more, Caligula and his soldiers engaged in drunken debauchery following the triumph.
To no one’s surprise, Caligula’s petty acts only deepened the rift between the emperor and the elites. However, one specific act made the Senate livid — the emperor’s declaration of his godhood. Caligula even ordered the construction of a bridge between his palace and the Temple of Jupiter. In such a way, the emperor could have a private meeting with the deity. Many interpreted this as the final sign of the emperor losing his mind. But again, Caligula’s fascination with the Hellenistic world holds the answer.
Unlike the Roman Empire, in which rulers were only deified after their deaths, Hellenistic kings were almost routinely deified. Caligula awarding himself the same status was only insane because it was a political gambit destined to fail. While “Caligula the God” had the support of the people and the army, “Caligula the man” was a political novice. Thus, his fight with the Senate and its network of clients and connections was destined to fail. When the emperor declared his intention to move the capital to Alexandria in Egypt, where he would be worshipped as a deity, the writing was on the wall. The young, problematic monarch had to go.
5. The Controversial Death of Emperor Caligula
It would not be the first time that Caligula was a target of a conspiracy. Numerous assassination plots, real or alleged, were hatched or planned during Caligula’s reign. However, they always failed, resulting in bloody purges and treason trials. However, after Caligula managed to insult one of his bodyguards, a Praetorian officer named Cassius Chaerea, the senators got an unexpected ally. On the 24th of January 41 CE, just four years into his reign, at the age of just 29, emperor Caligula fell victim to a bloody palace coup.
The Senate’s plan to abolish the Roman monarchy spectacularly failed after the Praetorian Guard installed Caligula’s uncle Claudius as the next emperor. Yet, the Senate had the final say in their conflict with the young, brash monarch. As in the case of Caligula’s nephew, Emperor Nero, the senators were the ones who wrote history and who used their power to tarnish the reputation of ill-fated rulers to justify their removal and to strengthen the legitimacy of later imperial dynasties. Thus Gaius Caesar, an average and misunderstood autocrat, became an epic villain, a lunatic, a monster, and one of the worst, if not the worst, of Roman emperors.