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Gaius Caligula - Roman Emperor (12 - 41 AD)

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The Julio-Claudian Emperors
Augustus | Tiberius | Caligula | Claudius | Nero

Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, known to history as Caligula1, gets quite a bad rap. Many people think of him as the worst Roman Emperor of all time. Unfortunately, we don't really know how true that was, because his reign is not very well-documented. Most of the contemporary records do not have a strong factual basis. Instead, they rely on the sensational rumours that circulated about the Emperor — most of them quite shocking. Caligula reigned for only five years, but made a name for himself in that time due to his bizarre actions. He is well-known as the Emperor who married his sister and who made his horse a senator. Historians dispute as to whether Caligula was indeed insane and the truth of the contemporary records of his reign, but they all seem to agree that Caligula took the problems left by Tiberius and multiplied them a hundredfold.

Pre-Imperial Life

Caligula was born in 12 AD, the son of Augustus' adoptive grandson, Germanicus, and his granddaughter, Agrippina. Germanicus was a successful military commander who led many expeditions in the Rhine area to conquer the Germanic tribes and their territory. Caligula often accompanied his father on some of the safer campaigns. Dressed in a miniature version of a Roman legionary's uniform, Caligula became a sort of mascot for the soldiers under Germanicus' command. He earned his nickname at this point, as 'caligula' is Latin for 'little boot': a reference to the military uniform that the little boy often wore.

In 19 AD Caligula's father died while posted to the Rhine area2 and so Caligula and his siblings were shuffled around between various royal relatives who lived in Rome. As Caligula became a teenager and a young adult, he began to gain favour with his great-uncle Tiberius, who was in line to become Emperor upon the death of Augustus. It is suspected that, while Caligula was staying with Tiberius in his villa, the older man instilled in his grand-nephew a considerable fascination with pornography3 — an interest which may have been what affected his debauchery in years to come.

Rise To Power

When Tiberius became ill and died in 37 AD, it was found that his will had named Caligula and one of his cousins joint Emperors. Caligula wasn't interested in sharing power, so he had his cousin killed and lied about the will. He then entered Rome to be confirmed by the Senate, making himself popular immediately due to his wide distribution of money to the inhabitants of the city. He pardoned some people wrongly punished by Tiberius and reimbursed those who had been unfairly taxed. He honoured all the gods and the spirits of his dead relatives in public ceremonies. In short, he generally gave the impression of being a refreshing change after the inept rule of Tiberius.

But then, somehow, everything started to go wrong.

Caligula's Reign

It's really quite difficult to strip away the sensational stories about the reign of Caligula and discover any way in which he benefited the Empire. He reorganised a few Middle Eastern provinces and tried to carry on his father's campaigns in Germany, but these military exploits failed miserably.

Caligula's general failure as Emperor can largely be attributed to his general madness. Though some historians will insist that Caligula's erratic behaviour was due to his lack of experience in power (he had not held any administrative positions prior to becoming Emperor), it's widely believed that Caligula was mentally ill, possibly with schizophrenia. His actions while Emperor are certainly not those of someone of sound mind.

It all started when Caligula decided that he was really the Greek god Zeus in disguise. He demanded that he be worshipped by his family and the rest of the inhabitants of the Empire. He requested that the same honour be paid to his sister Drusilla, whom he decided was Hera and then married, according to the tenets of Greek mythology4. Since the Senate had officially declared Augustus to be a god during Tiberius' reign, Caligula sought to get the same honour accorded to him and Drusilla. He never succeeded, despite ordering that the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem contain a large statue of him. This suggestion, predictably, caused uproar among the Empire's Jews, and only the diplomatic skills of the Syrian governor averted disaster.

The aforementioned campaigns in Germany (and also in Britain) sounded like a good idea to start with, but failed miserably when Caligula/Zeus determined that he was going to have a war with Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. This went somewhat better than when Odysseus tried it in Homer's Odyssey, but that's not to say that it was a brilliant manoeuvre. At the triumphal parade in Rome, instead of displaying the riches and now-enslaved chieftains that were the common evidence of a completed Roman campaign, Caligula filled the treasure chests with seashells and got some Gauls to dress up as captured German chieftains. Of course, all the Romans had to cheer and pretend to be thrilled, or else Caligula might order them executed for treason.

Caligula was famously unjust in his application of the laws against treason. He appeared to be thrilled by the idea of cutting people's heads off: he is reported to have said to the various women with whom he slept5 that he found it quite exciting that he could order any of their heads cut off whenever he pleased. And when visitors to the gladiatorial games that he frequently staged complained about the poor quality of one show, he is quoted as saying, 'I wish all these people had only one neck, that I might cut it off with one blow.'

Equally as famous is the fact that Caligula made his favourite horse, Incitatus, a senator. The Senate objected, naturally, but threatened with execution or enforced suicide they had no choice but to allow Incitatus to be invested in the Senatorial Order. And, in keeping with Augustus' beliefs on the ideal of the Roman family, Incitatus was given a suitable wife in the form of a very nice mare called Penelope6.

Of course, there would be little point in discussing Caligula without giving mention to the debauchery that went on at the palace. Like Tiberius before him, Caligula persisted in the practice of holding orgies — which all the senators' wives had to attend on pain of death. In addition to believing he was Zeus and therefore sleeping with his sisters, Caligula was doubly under the illusion that he was either Venus or Cupid7 and so hosted festivals in that vein. He also held 'entertainments' that tended to feature naked boys, in which he often took part, playing the role of the pretty young heroine.

The End of Caligula's Reign

In 41 AD, the Praetorian Guard (the Emperor's private army) grew fed up with Caligula's rule. With the help of a few key senators and other influential citizens, the Guard hatched a plot to assassinate Caligula. While the Emperor was in attendance at one of the infamous entertainments, the captain of the Guard cornered him and stabbed him to death. In the fracas that followed, Caligula's uncle, the apparently hapless Claudius, was installed as Emperor. Claudius went on to restore many of the wrongs committed by Caligula during his short reign.

So Was He Really Insane?

Contemporary sources all agree that Caligula was completely mad, but the modern historians are divided into separate camps: those who believe in Caligula's insanity and those who don't. If Caligula was insane, schizophrenia sounds the most likely. But those who believe that Caligula was never mentally ill attribute his erratic behaviour to being suddenly presented with immense responsibility, having had no previous experience with holding public office. They suggest that actions such as insisting on his deification and making his horse a senator stem from a wish to test the extent of his power and a petty vendetta against the Senate. But popular opinion still holds that no sane person could have done what Caligula did, and that it was by all accounts a relief when Claudius took over.

1Professional-type historians insist on calling the Emperor 'Gaius', since 'Caligula' was just an unofficial nickname. However, more people seem to be familiar with the name 'Caligula', so that is what this entry will use.2Not due to battle wounds, but more likely due to poison administered by his grandmother, Livia.3Purported to be Tiberius' favourite reading material.4In Greek mythology, Zeus and Hera are both brother and sister and husband and wife.5Everyone from prostitutes to the wives of influential senators.6Who, incidentally, Caligula's uncle Claudius was later to ride during his conquest of Britain.7The Roman goddess and god of love.

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