What would you do if you were given absolute power? Would you use it to fix the world’s ills? Or would you use it to satisfy your own darkest desires? It’s a question we’ve seen answered again and again in history, but never so conclusively as in the reign of Rome’s third emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus. Or, as you know him: Caligula.
Born into a powerful military family, Caligula rose up to become the most infamous emperor in Roman history. During his four year reign, he indulged in so much excess that 2,000 years later his name is still a byword for cruelty and perversion. You probably know the tales about Caligula seducing his sister and making his horse a consul. You may not know that the rest of his life was, if anything, even wilder. Today, we take you inside the twisted world of Rome’s maddest emperor.
A Game of (Imperial) Thrones
When Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus was born, on August 31, 12 AD, it was into a world of privilege that would’ve made the average Roman’s head spin.
Gaius’s father was the general Germanicus, a military hero of the empire. His mother, Agrippina the elder, came from a family that had once been next in line to the imperial throne.
To call the family elite would be to undersell it. They were like if the Kennedys, Rothschilds, Rockefellers, and the Queen of England had all joined into a single family unit.
Still, Germanicus was a working general, and for little Gaius that meant a childhood growing up in military camps on the Western frontier along the Rhine.
While stationed in these camps, Gaius was given a little soldier’s uniform to wear. The sight of this toddler parading around tickled the soldiers serving under Germanicus so much that they gave him the nickname “Little Boot”. Or, to render it in Latin: Caligula.
But while life may have seemed sweet for little Caligula on the frontier, back in Rome, an almighty storm was brewing.
For nearly four decades, the imperial throne had been in the hands of Augustus. But with the First Citizen now nearing the end of his life, dark political forces were stirring.
Augustus’s plan had been for one of Agrippina’s two brothers to inherit his throne, but both had died young. After falling out with a third successor, Augustus was forced to turn to a sullen general called Tiberius.
Tiberius was technically a hero of the empire, but he was also something of a colossal dick. Nobody liked him, not even Augustus.
The only way the dying emperor could get Tiberius on the throne without a riot was to force Tiberius to adopt Caligula’s dad, the beloved Germanicus. That way, everyone could sleep soundly, knowing that however terrible Tiberius was, Germanicus would soon be in charge.
You know that phrase ‘the best laid plans of mice and men’? Well, Tiberius was about to do to Augustus’s plans exactly what Jerry does to Tom with a stick of dynamite.
On August 19, 14 AD, Augustus finally shuffled off this mortal coil. No sooner was he gone than Tiberius began moving against Germanicus.
Caligula’s family was taken from the Rhine and transplanted to Syria. There, on October 10, 19 AD, Germanicus died in mysterious circumstances. Convinced Tiberius had poisoned her husband, Agrippina agitated for justice.
It was at this point that Tiberius brought the other boot crashing down.
Tiberius forbid Agrippina to remarry, and exiled her to a remote island. Her eldest two sons were imprisoned. One of them committed suicide. The other starved to death.
For Caligula, it was a life-changing upheaval. Although his grandmother shielded him from Tiberius’s wrath, he was suddenly left without parents, without brothers, without hope.
His only consolation may have been that his three sisters were also allowed to live. Certainly, the experience made them close. So close, that it was often rumored Caligula was sleeping with the youngest, Julia Drusilla.
But Tiberius wasn’t just cunning. He was also cruel. In AD 31 or 32, the nineteen year old Caligula was suddenly summoned to Tiberius’s villa on the island of Capri. From now on, the emperor informed him, he would have to live alongside the man who’d destroyed his family.
It was a bizarre, perverted thing for Tiberius to do. It would also be a catastrophe for the entire empire.
Making a Monster
So, here’s a couple of things you should know about Tiberius.
The first is that Tiberius was basically Roman Stalin. He ruled through fear, instigating a wave of treason trials in which people were convicted by kangaroo courts, executed, and their bodies dumped in the River Tiber.
The second is that he did all this while staying away from Rome itself. In AD 26, the old despot retreated to a villa on Capri where he had a good time while a flunky did all the actual repressing.
Incidentally, a “good time” for Tiberius generally meant everyone else having an extremely bad time.
If we believe the surviving sources, Tiberius’s time on Capri was passed satisfying himself with underage boys and girls and then having them hurled off the cliffs to their deaths. Oh, and he also liked to have the odd person publicly tortured because… well, why not?
It was into this world that Caligula was summoned.
It’s impossible to say why Tiberius called Caligula to him. Maybe it was a sick game. Tiberius’s flunkies would often question the boy about his dead family, goading him to lash out.
But Caligula wasn’t stupid. He kept his mouth shut, and deferred to Tiberius more like a servant than an adopted family member.
So Tiberius never got around to killing the boy. Not only that, he seems to have grown to like him.
Before long, Tiberius was allowing Caligula to indulge in orgies of his own. To arrange and watch sadistic tortures at his leisure.
It’s said that, after seeing how much the quiet Caligula enjoyed watching others suffer, Tiberius remarked:
“I am nursing a viper for the Roman people”
If he really believed that, though, Tiberius didn’t show it. At some point in the mid-AD 30s, Tiberius named Caligula and Caligula’s cousin Gemellus joint heirs to the empire.
Maybe if Tiberius knew what the quiet young man had been up to on Capri, he would have been more cautious. Caligula later claimed he liked to get up in the dead of night and creep into Tiberius’s bedroom, where he would hold a dagger over the old man, ready to plunge it in. Only the voice of the dead Augustus stopped him from doing the deed.
Less Looney Tunes, Caligula also worked behind the scenes to forge an alliance with the powerful Pretorian Guard prefect Naevius Sutorius Macro. When the time came, Caligula wanted the guard on his side.
The time came On March 16, 37 AD. That morning, word went out that Tiberius had died in his sleep. Rome’s tyrant emperor was dead!
There are a few theories about how Tiberius died, and one prominent one is that Caligula suffocated the old man with a pillow.
But even if this is just later writers adding narrative spice to the tale, the result was the same.
In Rome, the people went nuts. They demanded Tiberius’s body be dragged through the streets and hurled into the river, as all those executed at his treason trials had been.
While Rome was busy partying, out on Capri, Caligula was putting his plan into motion.
With Tiberius gone, the Praetorian Guard came out for Caligula. Gemellus was placed under house arrest. He’d never taste freedom again.
His rival imprisoned, Caligula rode to Rome and presented himself to the people as their new emperor.
This… actually wasn’t as hard as you might think.
People had hated Tiberius. The whole city was seriously pumped he was gone, and now they were being told that his replacement would be the son of their beloved general Germanicus?
To paraphrase Philip J. Fry, Rome was basically like “just shut up and take our throne!”
Aged only 24, Caligula was elevated to undisputed ruler of the empire. The people were ecstatic. As he rode into the city, they lined up and screamed like he was Roman Elvis or something.
It wouldn’t be long before Caligula was making those same citizens scream for very different reasons.
Bread and Circuses
So… this is it, right? The part where we finally get to all the juicy stories about Caligula promoting his horse and marrying his sister?
Nope! That’s all still down the road. Because here’s the thing about Caligula, the mad emperor. When he first seized power, he was seen as Caligula, the emperor everyone just couldn’t get enough of.
Seriously. Caligula 1.0 was everything Rome had ever dreamed of. He ended Tiberius’s treason trials. Restored confiscated property. Eased up on persecution. Lowered taxes. Gave the army a pay rise.
As if this wasn’t enough, Caligula threw endless gladiator games and feasts to celebrate his rise to power.
Imagine you’re an ordinary Roman. For over twenty years, you’ve been living in a state of fear under a tyrant who could have you killed at any time. And now there’s this new guy in town and he’s giving you bread and circuses and a promise that he’s not gonna randomly kill you? Clearly a massive step up.
As 37 AD rolled on, people dared to hope that maybe this was it. Maybe Tiberius had been a one-off, and all the emperors were gonna be cool from now on.
Pfft. Yeah, right.
That October, Caligula suddenly took sick. It’s possible he was poisoned. At any rate, he spent the best part of a month floating on the threshold between life and death.
The people of Rome were appalled. They couldn’t lose their shiny new emperor! There was weeping in the streets. In the Senate, senators took turns to stand up and beseech the Gods to spare Caligula. A handful even begged Jupiter to take them in his place.
Miraculously, these prayers worked. Caligula recovered, dragging his weakened body back to the land of the living.
If this was a horror movie, now would be the point that we said, “However, it seemed he brought some evil spirit back with him…”
Since this is history, though, we’ll simply say Caligula came back changed. The popular emperor was gone. In his place was something much darker.
Not long after recovering, Caligula invited the senators who’d prayed for his life to visit him. There, he thanked them for asking Jupiter to take them in his place. Then he asked when they were going to do it.
No records exist of the conversation that followed, but it likely went something like this:
“Your highness?” Asked the Senators, puzzled.
“You know. It.” Replied Caligula. “You asked the Gods to let you die so I may live. Well, I am alive.
So I repeat. When are you going to die?”
The senators had no choice. One by one, they were all forced to commit suicide. It was the first sign of the madness that was about to consume the empire.
Now, we need to be careful here. Plenty of ancient and contemporary writers like to use Caligula’s sickness as a transformative event, like he was a saint before and a devil after.
But we’ve already seen Caligula getting his rocks off torturing people in Tiberius’s villa. We’ve seen him quietly dispose of his rival to the throne and scheme his way to power.
So, yes, Caligula became a monster after his illness. But it’s not like the signs weren’t already there.
With the senators dead, Caligula returned to public life. From the get-go it was clear something was wrong. He ditched the robes and started dressing in outlandish costumes, sometimes including in women’s clothes. He claimed he was plagued by endless headaches.
You can almost imagine the people of Rome, giving one another sidelong glances and wondering what happened to their fun emperor.
Well, Caligula still wanted to have fun. And Rome was about to discover that Caligula’s definition of “fun” was even more terrifying than Tiberius’s.
“I only have to give the word…”
Before we go any further, there’s something you need to understand about this period in Roman history.
So many sources have been lost over the years that we have barely any contemporary accounts of Caligula.
The information we have on his life generally comes from Suetonius’s book on the emperors, and Cassius Dio’s biography of Caligula. Both aren’t exactly great historians, and both lived long after Caligula had died, with Dio not even being born until 120-odd years after his death.
To put it another way, expecting either of these guys to give a pinpoint accurate account of Caligula’s reign is like expecting someone born this very year to give an eyewitness account of the life of Otto von Bismarck.
That being said, there’s likely a kernel of truth in their otherwise suspect accounts, and even a kernel would be enough to rank Caligula as one of the maddest rulers in history.
It’s said that post-illness Caligula liked to humiliate the Senate. Senators would be made to run along beside his carriage for miles at a time through the streets of Rome.
Those that refused would be humiliated in other ways. Caligula would throw dinner parties for the senators and their wives. Mid-way through the meal, he’d pick a wife he liked the look of, take her into a backroom and force himself on her. He’d then return her to her husband, who’d be forced to act like nothing had happened.
Speaking of women, Caligula’s sexual appetites were both enormous, and enormously cruel.
In AD 37 or 38, for example, he went to the wedding of Gaius Calpurnius Piso and Livia Orestilla. The emperor was so taken with Livia that he ordered her to marry him instead. She did, he had his way with her, then divorced her the next morning. As a final kicker, he forbade her to ever marry Gaius.
Livia wasn’t the only one. Lollia Paulina was also forced to divorce her husband and marry Caligula, only to be ditched after barely six months.
Then there are the other rumors, that Caligula slept with everyone from whores, to young boys, to the male actor Mnester.
But the most famous affair Caligula had was, of course, with his sister.
Remember Julia Drusilla? Back near the start of this video, we mentioned it was rumored Caligula was sleeping with her.
Well, once he became emperor, Caligula seems to have gone out of his way to confirm those rumors.
Drusilla was elevated to the status of emperor’s wife. The army was required to take a loyalty oath to her. The two were never apart.
When Drusilla died in June, 38 AD, the heartbroken Caligula had her declared a Goddess and forced people to worship her.
Even with this weird relationship, though, much of what you may have heard is untrue. That shocking scene in I, Claudius where Caligula eats the fetus torn from Drusilla’s body? We’re extremely pleased to tell you that was fiction.
Still, Caligula’s cruelty and his insanity were becoming hard to ignore. Cassius Dio has it that the emperor practiced pulling terrifying facial expressions purely to put the fear of God into his subjects. At one party, he allegedly burst out laughing. When guests asked him what was funny, Caligula replied:
“I’ve just thought that I’ve only to give the word and you’ll all have your throats cut.”
It was more than just an idle threat.
In AD 38, Caligula finally ordered Gemellus executed. Incredibly, he had Macro, the Praetorian Guard prefect who’d helped him seize power, executed shortly after.
It was Caligula’s first major taste of blood. Evidently, he liked it enough to go back for more.
The Reign of Perversion
Throughout all this, the fun, pre-illness emperor hadn’t completely vanished.
For all his bad rep, Caligula did do some good stuff. He extended Rome’s aqueduct network, bringing clean drinking water to many parts of the city. He had new ports constructed, opening the empire up to more trade.
There’s also reason to believe some of the more infamous stories about him are false.
That whole thing about making his horse a consul? It’s thought Caligula was probably insulting a senator’s intelligence and made a comment to the effect of “you’re so useless, I might as well make my horse consul!” which later writers took literally.
On the other hand, it’s quite possible that the tale of Bay of Bauli is true.
If you’ve not heard it, it’s claimed Caligula discovered an old prophesy by an astrologer that said Caligula had:
“no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Bauli.”
Once he became emperor, Caligula requisitioned boats from across Italy, moored them together, and turned them into a two or three mile bridge across the bay. He then spent two whole days riding up and down along it in triumph. So many boats were put out of action that Rome suffered a grain shortage.
Fun as they are, though, tales like these often conceal Caligula’s truly dark nature.
In AD 39, the treasury was empty. Too much money had been spent funding Caligula’s lavish lifestyle. So Caligula pulled a fast one. He reinstated Tiberius’s treason trials. And now they would be even crueler than before.
People were selected from Roman society at random and had all their property confiscated with no warning. The lucky ones were sent into exile. The unlucky ones were executed.
Executions under Caligula were worse than under any prior emperor. Executioners were instructed to keep people alive as long as possible, slowly torturing them to death over several days.
Relatives were forced to watch these displays. In some cases, parents were summoned to see their children murdered, unable to do anything but smile and cheer lest the mad emperor have them killed too.
Just as he had on Capri, it seemed Caligula still loved to see others suffer.
Yet, gory as this was, it wasn’t quite so bad as you might believe.
While Tiberius arranged to have rivals assassinated as far away as Syria, Caligula basically forgot about anyone he wasn’t face to face with. His treason trials may have left Rome’s streets flowing with blood, but the rest of the empire continued to function as normal.
It was in AD 39, at the height of his terror, that Caligula finally met the woman of his dreams.
Milonia Caesonia was a woman as amoral and lacking in empathy as her husband. Older than Caligula and dedicated to nothing more than self-indulgence, she managed to win the young despot’s heart.
Although few records of Milonia survive, we do know that she bore Caligula a daughter that the emperor named Julia Drusilla, after his dead sister.
We also know that Caligula’s messed up way of showing affection for his wife was to teasingly remind her that he could have her tortured and killed whenever he wanted to.
Overall, then, Caligula reached the second anniversary of his illness in a good place, which is another way of saying everyone else reached it in a terrible place where they feared for their lives.
As October rolled around, the emperor felt secure enough to turn his back on Rome and head to the frontier to do some conquering.
But Caligula had misjudged just how cowed by him his opponents were. With the madman out the picture, his victims in the Senate and the Praetorian Guard began to whisper to one another about finding a new emperor.
Caligula didn’t know it, but his short reign was already nearly over.
Death to Tyrants
It’s interesting to wonder how Caligula must have felt, returning to the frontier where he’d been raised, no longer a toy soldier, but a conquering emperor.
At least, that’s one way of looking at it. By some accounts, Caligula spent his time along the Rhine putting down a German revolt and invading Gaul.
On the other hand, different accounts make it sound like the toy soldier hadn’t grown up at all.
One version has it that Caligula paid soldiers to dress up like Germans and stage an attack so he could “defeat” them and appear a hero. When actual Germans attacked shortly after, the emperor ran away.
What’s not in dispute is that, by AD 40, Caligula had decided to invade Britain.
At that time, Britannia was still a strange, damp island not yet under the Roman heel. So conquering it would boost Caligula’s prestige.
Accordingly, Caligula rode north with 200,000 men, up to the cliffs of Gaul facing the English Channel.
Once there, he told his men to prepare for a great victory… and then had them all go down to the beaches and collect seashells. Declaring these were spoils of a great victory over the sea, Caligula turned around and headed back to Rome.
Back in the Eternal City, the conspiracy against the emperor was growing.
It was fed, in part, by Caligula’s belief that he was literally a God. He claimed to communicate with Jupiter, and ordered statues of himself be placed in every temple of the empire.
When the news reached Judea, it very nearly caused an armed uprising. It was only thanks to Herod Agrippa’s diplomatic skills that Caligula waived the rule for Judean temples and averted civil war.
But this last flash of sanity was not enough to save an emperor already so far gone.
On January 24, 41 AD, the anti-Caligula faction made their move.
Outside the Palatine Games, a unit led by Cassius Chaerea waited until Caligula was coming out, then surrounded and stabbed him to death. Before the alarm could be raised, they marched straight to the house where Milonia and the emperor’s baby daughter lived and killed them both.
For a moment on that febrile day, it really looked like Rome’s entire system of emperors was about to collapse, that the Senate might seize the day and restore the Republic.
But no. Cassius Chaerea and his men instead tracked down Caligula’s uncle, the doddering old Claudius, and had him declared emperor. The Guard may have been ready to kill Caligula, but they weren’t ready to kill the system that had created him. Their failure of nerve would result in another Caligula 13 years down the line: Emperor Nero.
That winter day in 41 AD, though, all the carnage Nero would unleash was still a long way away. Instead, the Senate focused on purging the virus of Caligula from the empire.
Statues of the now-dead emperor were smashed. His name was scrubbed from monuments. One, likely fictitious, telling has it that the army even tracked down and killed Caligula’s horse.
Before Claudius had established himself on the throne, Caligula was gone, almost wiped from Roman history. The people wanted no more reminders of their mad tyrant.
So why do we remember him today? Why is Caligula one of the few Roman emperors nearly everyone can name?
Part of it is doubtless entertainment value. Even if the story about making his horse a consul is untrue, it’s still amusing.
But part of it may also be that Caligula serves as a warning from history.
Before he took the throne, Caligula was a quiet nobody. When he was made emperor, all he seemingly wanted was to please people.
The old phrase has it that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In the life of Caligula, we can see this is true. We may like to believe that a good man could rule us all justly and wisely, but Caligula’s biography suggests otherwise. It suggests that almost anyone could become a monster. Perhaps even you or I.
In the end, Caligula may have only ruled Rome for a mere four years. But his deranged actions during that time have ensured his name will live on in infamy.
(Excellent, two part podcast on the Tiberius and Caligula years): https://thehistoryofrome.typepad.com/the_history_of_rome/2009/06/59-to-the-tiber-with-tiberius-the-history-of-rome.html
(Suetonius, ancient Roman source): http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/Caligula*.html
(A dissenting opinion! Is Caligula actually not as bad as we thought?): https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-23455774