See J. P. V. D. Balsdon, The Emperor Gaius (1934), and A. A. Barrett, Caligula: The Corruption of Power (1996).
Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (August 31, AD 12 – January 24, AD 41), more commonly known by his nickname Caligula was a Roman Emperor who reigned from 16 March 37 until his assassination on 24 January 41. Caligula was the third emperor of the Roman Empire, and a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which descended from Augustus.
Caligula's father, Germanicus, was the adopted son of emperor Tiberius and one of Rome's most beloved generals. The young Gaius earned his nickname, meaning "little [soldier's] boots", while travelling with his father on military campaigns in Germania. When Germanicus died in Antioch in 19, his mother Agrippina the Elder returned to Rome with her six children, where she became entangled in an increasingly bitter feud with Tiberius. During the course of the 20s and 30s, many of Caligula's relatives, including Agrippina and two elder brothers, died in mysterious circumstances. Caligula withdrew to the island of Capri in 31, where Tiberius himself had retired since 26, and eventually succeeded his adoptive grandfather upon his death on 16 March 37.
There are few surviving sources on Caligula's reign, and although he is described as a noble and moderate ruler during the first two years of his rule, after this the sources focus upon his cruelty, extravagance, and sexual perversity, presenting him as an insane tyrant. While the reliability of these sources has been difficult to assess, what is known is that during his brief reign, Caligula worked to increase the authority of the Principate, but struggled to maintain his position in the face of several conspiracies to overthrow him. He focused much of his attention on ambitious construction projects, annexed Mauretania, and campaigned against Britain, but was unable to conquer it.
On 24 January 41, Caligula was assassinated as the result of a conspiracy involving members of his own bodyguard and the Roman Senate. The conspirators' attempt to use the opportunity to restore the Roman Republic was thwarted, as the same day the Praetorian Guard declared Caligula's uncle Claudius emperor in his place.
The adolescent Caligula was then sent to live first with his great-grandmother, and Tiberius' mother, Livia. Following Livia's death, he was sent to live with his grandmother Antonia. In 30, his brother, Drusus Caesar, was imprisoned on charges of treason and his brother Nero died in exile from either starvation or suicide. Suetonius writes that after the banishment of his mother and brothers, Caligula and his sisters were nothing more than prisoners of Tiberius under close watch of soldiers.
In 31, Caligula was remanded to the personal care of Tiberius on Capri, where he lived for six years. To the surprise of many, Caligula was spared by Tiberius. According to historians, Caligula was an excellent natural actor and, recognizing danger, hid all his resentment towards Tiberius. An observer said of Caligula, "Never was there a better servant or a worse master!"
In 33, Tiberius gave Caligula an honorary quaestorship, a position he held until his reign. Meanwhile, both Caligula's mother and brother, Drusus, died in prison. Caligula was briefly married to Junia Claudilla in 33, though she died in childbirth the following year. Caligula spent time befriending the Praetorian Prefect, Naevius Sutorius Macro, an important ally. Macro spoke well of Caligula to Tiberius, attempting to quell any ill will or suspicion the Emperor felt towards Caligula.
In 35, Caligula was named joint heir to the throne along with Tiberius Gemellus.
When Tiberius died on March 16, 37, his estate and the titles of the Principate were left to Caligula and Tiberius' own grandson, Gemellus, who were to serve as joint heirs. Despite Tiberius being 77 and on his death bed, some ancient historians still suppose he was murdered. Tacitus writes that the Praetorian Prefect, Macro, smothered Tiberius with a pillow to hasten Caligula's accession, much to the joy of the Roman people, and Suetonius writes that Caligula may have carried out the killing. Philo and Josephus, though, record Tiberius dying a natural death. Backed by Macro, Caligula had Tiberius’ will nullified with regards to Gemellus on grounds of insanity, but otherwise carried out Tiberius' wishes.
Caligula accepted the powers of the Principate as conferred by the Senate and entered Rome on March 28 amid a crowd that hailed him as "our baby" and "our star," among other nicknames. Caligula is described as the first emperor who was admired by everyone in "all the world, from the rising to the setting sun." Caligula was loved by many for being the beloved son of the popular Germanicus, but also because he was not Tiberius. It was also said by Suetonius that over one-hundred and sixty thousand animals were sacrificed during three months of public rejoicing to usher in his reign. Philo describes the first seven months of Caligula's reign as completely blissful.
Caligula's first acts were said to be generous in spirit, though many were political in nature. To gain support, he granted bonuses to those in the military including the Praetorian Guard, city troops and the army outside of Italy. He destroyed Tiberius' treason papers, declared that treason trials were a thing of the past and recalled exiles. He helped those who had been harmed by the Imperial tax system, banished sex offenders from the empire and put on lavish spectacles for the public, such as gladiator battles. Caligula also collected and brought back the bones of his mother and of his brothers and deposited their remains in the tomb of Augustus.
Shortly after recovering from his illness, Caligula had several loyal individuals killed who had promised their lives for his in the event of a recovery. Caligula had his wife banished and his father-in-law, Marcus Silanus, and his cousin, Tiberius Gemellus, were forced to commit suicide.
Philo states Gemellus, in line to become emperor, plotted against Caligula while he was ill. Silanus, prior to killing himself, was formally put on trial by Caligula. Julius Graecinus was ordered to prosecute Silanus, but refused and was executed as well. It is unknown if the plans of Gemellus and Silanus were related or separate. Suetonius considers these plots nothing more than Caligula's imagination.
In 38, Caligula focused his attention on political and public reform. He published the accounts of public funds, which had not been made public during the reign of Tiberius. He aided those who lost property in fires, abolished certain taxes and gave out prizes to the public and gymnastic events. He also allowed new members into the equestrian and senatorial orders.
Perhaps most significantly, he restored the practice of democratic elections. Cassius Dio said that this act "though delighting the rabble, grieved the sensible, who stopped to reflect, that if the offices should fall once more into the hands of the many ... many disasters would result".
During the same year, though, Caligula also was criticized for executing people without full trials. The most significant execution was that of Macro, to whom, in many ways, Caligula owed his status as emperor.
A brief famine of an unknown size occurred, perhaps caused by this financial crisis, according to Suetonius due to public carriages being seized by Caligula., according to Seneca because grain imports were disturbed by Caligula using boats for a pontoon bridge.
Josephus describes as Caligula's greatest contribution to have improved the harbours at Rhegium and Sicily, thereby allowing grain imports from Egypt to increase. These improvements may have been made in response to the famine.
Caligula completed the temple of Augustus and the theatre of Pompey and began an amphitheatre beside the Saepta. He also had the imperial palace expanded. He began the aqueducts Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus, which Pliny the Elder considered engineering marvels. He built a large racetrack known as the circus of Gaius and Nero and had an Egyptian obelisk (now known as the Vatican Obelisk) transported to Rome by sea and erected in the middle of it. At Syracuse, he repaired the city walls and the temples of the gods. He had new roads built and pushed to keep roads in good condition. He had planned to rebuild the palace of Polycrates at Samos, to finish the temple of Didymaean Apollo at Ephesus and to found a city high up in the Alps. He also planned to dig a canal through the Isthmus in Greece and sent a chief centurion to survey the work.
In 39, Caligula performed a spectacular stunt by ordering a temporary floating bridge to be built using ships as pontoons, stretching for over two miles from the resort of Baiae to the neighboring port of Puteoli. It was said that the bridge was to rival that of Persian King Xerxes' crossing of the Hellespont. Caligula, a man who could not swim, then proceeded to ride his favorite horse, Incitatus, across, wearing the breastplate of Alexander the Great. This act was in defiance of Tiberius' soothsayer Thrasyllus of Mendes prediction that he had "no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae".
Caligula also had two large ships constructed for himself. These two sunken ships were found at the bottom of Lake Nemi. The ships are among the largest vessels in the ancient world. The smaller of the ships was designed as a temple dedicated to Diana. The larger ship was essentially an elaborate floating palace that counted marble floors and plumbing among its amenities. Fifteen years after being raised, the ships were burned and almost nothing remains of the hulls, though many archeological treasures remain intact in the museum at lake Nemi
Caligula reviewed Tiberius' records of treason trials and decided that numerous senators, based on their actions during these trials, were not trustworthy. He ordered a new set of investigations and trials. He replaced the consul and had several senators put to death. Suetonius reports that other senators were degraded by being forced to wait on him and run beside his chariot.
Soon after his break with the Senate, Caligula was met with a number of additional conspiracies against him. A conspiracy involving his brother-in-law, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, was foiled in late 39. Soon after, the governor of Germany, Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, was executed for connections to a conspiracy.
Mauretania was a client kingdom of Rome ruled by Ptolemy of Mauretania. Caligula invited Ptolemy to Rome and then had him suddenly executed. Mauretania was annexed by Caligula and divided into two provinces. This annexation of Mauretania led to a rebellion of some magnitude that was put down under Claudius. Details on these events are unclear. Cassius Dio had written an entire chapter on the annexation of Mauretania by Caligula, but it is now lost.
There also seemed to be a northern campaign to Britannia that was aborted. This campaign is derided by ancient historians with accounts of Gauls dressed up as Germanic tribesmen at his triumph and Roman troops ordered to collect seashells as "spoils of the sea". Due to the lack of sources, what precisely occurred and why is a matter of debate even among the primary sources for Caligula's reign. Modern historians have put forward numerous theories in an attempt to explain these actions. This trip to the English Channel could have merely been a training and scouting mission. The mission may have been to accept the surrender of the British chieftain Adminius. "Seashells", or conchae in Latin, may be a metaphor for something else such as female genitalia (perhaps the troops visited brothels) or boats (perhaps they captured several small British boats).
Caligula's religious policy was a departure from the policy of his predecessors. According to Cassius Dio, living Emperors could be worshipped as divine in the east and dead Emperors could be worshipped as divine in Rome. Augustus also had the public worship his spirit on occasion, but Dio describes this as an extreme act that emperors generally shied away from. Caligula took things a step further and had those in Rome, including Senators, worship him as a physical living god.
The cause of tensions in the east was complicated, involving the spread of Greek culture, Roman law and the rights of Jews.
Caligula did not trust the prefect of Egypt, Aulus Avilius Flaccus. Flaccus had been loyal to Tiberius, had conspired against Caligula's mother and had connections with Egyptian separatists. In 38, Caligula sent Agrippa to Alexandria unannounced to check on Flaccus. According to Philo, the visit was met with jeers from the Greek population who saw Agrippa as the king of the Jews. Flaccus tried to placate both the Greek population and Caligula by having statues of the emperor placed in Jewish synagogues. As a result, riots broke out in the city. Caligula responded by removing Flaccus from his position and executing him.
In 39, Agrippa accused Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, of planning a rebellion against Roman rule with the help of Parthia. Herod Antipas confessed and Caligula exiled him. Agrippa was awarded with his territories.
Riots again erupted in Alexandria in 40 between Jews and Greeks. Jews were accused of not honoring the emperor. Also, disputes occurred in the city of Jamnia. Jews were angered by the erection of a clay altar and destroyed it. In response, Caligula ordered the erection of a statue of himself in the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem., a demand in conflict with Jewish monotheism. In this context, Philo wrote that Caligula "regarded the Jews with most especial suspicion, as if they were the only persons who cherished wishes opposed to his."
Fearing civil war if the order were carried out, it was delayed for nearly a year by the governor of Syria, Publius Petronius. Agrippa finally convinced Caligula to reverse the order.
Surviving sources present a number of stories about Caligula that illustrate cruelty and insanity.
The contemporaneous sources, Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, describe an insane Emperor who was self-absorbed, angry, killed on a whim, and who indulged in too much spending and sex. He is accused of sleeping with other men's wives and bragging about it, killing for mere amusement, purposely wasting money on his bridge, causing starvation, and wanting a statue of himself erected in the Temple of Jerusalem for his worship.
While repeating the earlier stories, the later sources of Suetonius and Cassius Dio add additional tales of insanity. They accuse Caligula of incest with his sisters, Agrippina, Drusilla and Julia Livilla, and say he prostituted them to other men. They state he sent troops on illogical military exercises. They also allege he made the palace into a literal brothel. Perhaps most famously, they say that Caligula tried to make his horse, Incitatus, a consul and a priest.
The validity of these accounts is debatable. In Roman political culture, insanity and sexual perversity were often presented hand-in-hand with poor government.
Caligula's actions as Emperor were described as being especially harsh to the Senate, the nobility and the equestrian order. According to Josephus, these actions led to several failed conspiracies against Caligula. Eventually, a successful murder was planned by officers within the Praetorian Guard led by Cassius Chaerea. The plot is described as having been planned by three men, but many in the Senate, army and equestrian order were said to have been informed of it and involved in it.
According to Josephus, Chaerea had political motivations for the assassination. Suetonius sees the motive in Caligula calling Chaerea derogatory names. Caligula considered Chaerea effeminate because of a weak voice and for not being firm with tax collection. Caligula would mock Chaerea with watchwords like "Priapus" and "Venus". On January 24, 41, Chaerea and other guardsmen accosted Caligula while he was addressing an acting troupe of young men during a series of games and dramatics held for the Divine Augustus. Details on the events vary somewhat from source to source, but they agree that Chaerea was first to stab Caligula followed by a number of conspirators. Suetonius records that Caligula's death was similar to that of Julius Caesar. He states that both the elder Gaius Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar) and the younger Gaius Julius Caesar (Caligula) were stabbed 30 times by conspirators led by a man named Cassius (Cassius Longinus and Cassius Chaerea). By the time Caligula's loyal Germanic guard responded, the emperor was already dead. The Germanic guard, stricken with grief and rage, responded with a rampaging attack on the assassins, conspirators, innocent senators and bystanders alike.
The Senate attempted to use Caligula's death as an opportunity to restore the Republic. Chaerea attempted to convince the military to support the Senate. The military, though, remained loyal to the office of the emperor. The grieving Roman people assembled and demanded that Caligula's murderers be brought to justice. Uncomfortable with lingering imperial support, the assassins sought out and stabbed Caligula's wife, Caesonia, and killed their infant daughter, Julia Drusilla, by smashing her head against a wall. They were unable to reach Caligula's uncle, Claudius, who was spirited out of the city to a nearby Praetorian camp. Claudius became emperor after procuring the support of the Praetorian guard and ordered the execution of Chaerea and any other known conspirators involved in the death of Caligula. According to Suetonius, Caligula's body was placed under turf until it was burned and entombed by his sisters. He was buried within the Mausoleum of Augustus; in AD 410 during the sack of Rome, the tomb's ashes were scattered.
At one time, there were detailed contemporaneous histories on Caligula, but they are now lost. Additionally, the historians who wrote them are described as biased, either overly critical or praising of Caligula. Nonetheless, these lost primary sources, along with the works of Seneca and Philo, were the basis of surviving secondary and tertiary histories on Caligula written by the next generations of historians. A few of the contemporaneous historians are known by name. Fabius Rusticus and Cluvius Rufus both wrote condemning histories on Caligula that are now lost. Fabius Rusticus was a friend of Seneca who was known for historical embellishment and misrepresentation. Cluvius Rufus was a senator involved in the assassination of Caligula. Caligula’s sister, Agrippina the Younger, wrote an autobiography that certainly included a detailed explanation of Caligula’s reign, but it too is lost. Agrippina was banished by Caligula for her connection to Marcus Lepidus, who conspired against Caligula. The inheritance of Nero, Agrippina's son and the future emperor, was seized by Caligula. Gaetulicus, a poet, produced a number of flattering writings about Caligula, but they too are lost.
The bulk of what is known of Caligula comes from Suetonius and Cassius Dio, who were both of the Patrician class. Suetonius wrote his history on Caligula eighty years after his death, while Cassius Dio wrote his history over 180 years after Caligula’s death. Though Cassius Dio’s work is invaluable because it alone gives a loose chronology of Caligula’s reign, his surviving work is only a summary written by John Xiphilinus, an 11th century monk.
A handful of other sources also add a limited perspective on Caligula. Josephus gives a detailed description of Caligula’s assassination. Tacitus provides some information on Caligula’s life under Tiberius. Tacitus, the most objective of ancient historians, did write a detailed history of Caligula, but this portion of his Annals is lost. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History also has a few brief references to Caligula.
There are few surviving sources on Caligula and no surviving source paints Caligula in a favorable light. The paucity and bias of sources has resulted in significant gaps in the reign of Caligula. Little is written on the first two years of Caligula’s reign. Additionally, there are only limited details on later significant events, such as the annexation of Mauretania, Caligula’s military actions in Britannia, and his feud with the Roman Senate.
Philo of Alexandria, Josephus and Seneca also state Caligula was insane, but describe this madness as a personality trait that came through experience. Seneca states that Caligula became arrogant, angry and insulting once becoming emperor and uses his personality flaws as examples his readers can learn from. According to Josephus, power made Caligula incredibly conceited and led him to think he was a god. Philo of Alexandria reports that Caligula became ruthless after nearly dying of his illness in 39. Juvenal reports he was given a magic potion that drove him insane.
Emlyn Williams was cast as Caligula in the never-completed 1937 film I, Claudius, and Courtney Love appeared as Caligula in a fake trailer for Gore Vidal's Caligula, ostensibly a remake of the 1979 film, but actually a parodic short film by conceptual artist Francesco Vezzoli.
The play The Reckoning of Kit and Little Boots by Nat Cassidy, examines the lives of the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe and Caligula, with the fictional conceit that Marlowe was working on a play about Caligula around the time of his own murder. It emphasizes the similarities between the two characters--both stabbed to death at 29, both in part as a result to their controversial perspectives on religion. The play also focuses on Caligula's love for his sister Drusilla, and his deep-rooted loathing for Tiberius. It received its world premiere in New York City in June 2008.
"Caligula" by Albert Camus is a fictional play in which emperor Caligula returns after deserting the palace for three days and three nights following the death of his beloved sister, Drusilla. The young emperor then uses his unfettered power to 'bring the impossible into the realm of the likely'.
The Adult Swim website from the Cartoon network has a game one can play called Viva Caligula. Your task as Caligula is to unite Rome's citizens against you by slaughtering them.
The Experimental/Post-Hardcore band, Glassjaw, Briefly mentions Caligula in the opening Verse of their song "Convectuoso" from the album "Worship and Tribute". "I am Caligula, Glutton of gluttons. Man over Woman. Men over Women. A whore of all men."