Was Caligula the Worst Roman Emperor of All Time?

Caligula has gone down in history as one of the worst Roman Emperors of all time. Here are some of his most ludicrous and outlandish stories.

May 23, 2022By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

jmw turner caligula painting with horse sculpture


Caligula has a notorious reputation as one of the worst Roman Emperors of all time. Stories of his malicious, depraved and frankly bizarre behavior have survived throughout history, from naming his horse a consul to building floating orgy palaces with public money. Although some of the worst stories were probably propaganda from his rivals, his name still ranks high as one of Rome’s most destructive and dysfunctional leaders, who left the empire in a pretty poor state. Let’s take a closer look at the most ludicrous stories he has to his name.


1. Caligula Invited His Horse for Supper

caligula incitatus marble statue
Marble statue depicting Caligula and his horse Incitatus, image courtesy of the British Museum


Rumor has it Caligula loved his horse Incitatus so much that he lavished it with excessive attention. He set plans in motion to try and turn his horse into a member of the Roman consulate. In the meantime, gave Incitatus a marble house and a manger built from ivory. Strangely, Caligula even invited Incitatus to dine with him in the evenings. To make his horse feel at home, Caligula even offered him a golden goblet full of wine.


2. He Built Floating Orgy Palaces

roman emperor pleasure barge
Italians viewing the discovery of Caligula’s ‘pleasure barge’ in the 1930s


Caligula built two so-called ‘pleasure barges’ on Lake Nemi using public money. Evidence of these floating palaces bearing Caligula’s inscription were discovered during the 1920s and 1930s. Interiors were decorated with marble and mosaic, while stone statues stood proudly in the center. Although we will never really know what went on in these boats, rumor has it Caligula was quite the party animal, organizing regular parties and even orgies that lasted for days on end. This vanity project is one of many that Caligula has to his name that drained the public economy.


3. Caligula Built a Floating Bridge

turner palace bridge painting
JMW Turner, Caligula’s Palace and Bridge, 1831, image courtesy of Tate

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In a ridiculous act of showmanship, Caligula apparently arranged for rows and rows of merchant ships to line up along the Bay of Baiae, forming a 5km long bridge. After instructing slaves to lay earth on top of the ships, Caligula then proceeded to ride his horse up and down the construct for two days straight, wearing a shining golden cape. Why? Apparently, an astrologer named Thrasyllus had insulted Caligula years earlier. He told him he had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baiae.” All this was just to prove a point.


4. He Told His Army to Whip the Sea

emperor gaius bust met museum
Marble portrait bust of the emperor Gaius, known as Caligula, 37 – 41 CE, image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum, New York


One of the strangest stories about Caligula involves waging a war against Neptune, the god of the sea. As the story goes, during a failed campaign against the Britons, Caligula tried to boost the morale of his army by encouraging them to stage a mock battle with the English Channel. After forcing them to whip the sea with their swords, he then told them they had won, and they could now “plunder the sea” for seashells as the spoils of war.


5. He Thought He Was a God

statue of zeus olympia
Quatremere de Quincy, The Statue of Zeus at Olympia, image courtesy of HubPages


Did Caligula really believe he was a god? According to some historical accounts, he constructed a series of temples containing full-size gold statues of him, where people could go to worship his name. The most devoted fans even sacrificed peacocks and flamingos in honor of their great leader. In some versions of his life story, Caligula even tried to remove the head of Zeus from the colossal statue at Olympia, and replace it with his own likeness. Thankfully he didn’t succeed, and the statue became one of the first Wonders of the World.


6. Caligula Hated Goats

brown goat
Goat image courtesy of Cronkshaw Farm


Bizarrely, Caligula apparently hated goats, and he banned anyone from talking about them in his presence. Why? Written descriptions of Caligula reveal that he was covered in fine hair all over his body, apart from a bald spot on the top of his head. This gave him an uncanny resemblance to a goat, something he was particularly sensitive about. 


7. He had Arguments with Jupiter

roman god jupiter statue
Statue of Roman god Jupiter, image courtesy of Thoughtco.


As if to prove his descent into insanity, Caligula’s worst critics told how the emperor began suffering an ever-increasing number of night-time delusions and hallucinations that kept him up most of the night. Eyewitnesses claim they even saw him picking a fight with Jupiter, the Roman king of all the gods, and threatening to beat him to death. If these stories are true, they paint the picture of a man who had completely lost his grip on reality. But who knows? Maybe it was all just a rumor…

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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.