The Italian Almanac

Gaius Caligula

Caligula by Svetonius


Gaius Caligula (12 - 41)

Caligula (12-41) was the third emperor of Rome. At best, he was one of the most autocratic of Rome's early emperors; at worst, one of the most deranged.

Caligula was born Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus in Antium (modern Anzio) on Aug. 31, A.D. 12. His mother, Agrippina, was Emperor Augustus's granddaughter, and his father, Germanicus, was Emperor Tiberius's nephew, adopted son, and heir. Gaius was brought up among the soldiers his father commanded on the Rhine. His mother dressed him in the uniform of a Roman legionnaire, and for this reason the soldiers called him Caligula ("Little Boots"), the name by which he is commonly known. In A.D. 19 Germanicus died. His death was mourned throughout the empire because he was, by all accounts, an honorable and courageous man. After his father's death Caligula lived in Rome, first with his mother, then with Livia (Augustus's wife), and then with his grandmother. Finally, in 32, he joined Tiberius in his retirement on Capri. By 33 those people with prior claims to the imperial position, including Caligula's brother Drusus, had died, and Caligula was next in line to succeed Tiberius.

All classical accounts of Gaius "Caligula" agree that he possessed elements of madness, cruelty, viciousness, extravagance and megalomania. He is described as a coarse and cruel despot with an extraordinary passion for sadism and a fierce energy. He could get extremely excited and angry. Caligula was tall, spindly, pale and prematurely bald. He was so sensitive about his lack of hair that it was a capital crime for anyone to look down from a high place as Caligula passed by. Sometimes he ordered those with a fine head of hair to be shaved. He made up for lack of hair on his head by an abundance of body-hair. About this too he could be equally sensitive; even the mention of "hairy goats" in conversation was dangerous. He used to grimace, which he practised in front of a mirror, and he was an impressive orator. An interesting detail is that his real nature was only gradually revealed. His great-uncle, the Emperor Tiberius (42 BC -37 AD), once said: "There was never a better slave nor a worse master than Caligula."

In the first months Caligula's reign was mild and his policies showed some political judgement. Even then, Caligula took much pleasure in attending punishments and executions and he preferred to have them prolonged. In May his grandmother Antonia, who might have been a good influence, died. In October Caligula fell seriously ill, and after his recovering Caligula seems to have changed for the worse. In a few months he entirely exhausted the treasury, which Tiberius had filled by years of economizing. In 38, while having an affair with Macro's wife, he accused Macro of being her pimp and ordered him to commit suicide. Tiberius' grandson and heir, Tiberius Gemellus, once drank a cough medicine that Caligula mistook for an antidote to poison. When accused, the youth replied: "Antidote - how can one take an antidote against Caesar?" Soon afterwards Tiberius Gemellus was murdered. It became a capital crime not to bequeath the Emperor everything. In 39 Caligula revived Tiberius' treason trials. People suspected of disloyalty were executed or driven to suicide. A supervisor of games and beast-fights was flogged with chains before Caligula for days on end, and was not put to dead until Caligula was offended by the smell of the gangrene in his brain. On one occasion, when there weren't enough condemned criminals to fight the tigers and lions in the arena, Caligula ordered some spectators to be dragged from the benches into the arena. Another time, Caligula decided to proclaim his mastery of the sea by building a three mile long bridge of boats across the Bay of Naples. He crossed them on horseback, wearing the breastplate of Alexander the Great. Thus he claimed that, like the god Neptune, he had ridden across the waters. He gave his horse, Incitatus, jewelled necklaces, a marble stable with furniture and a staff of servants to itself and made it a priest of his temple and even proposed to make it a senator. Caligula loved dressing up and used to dress in rich silk, ornamented with precious stones and he wore jewels on his shoes. Pearls were dissolved in vinegar, which he then drank, and he liked to roll on heaps of gold. Like his nephew, Nero (37 AD-68 AD), Caligula appeared as athlete, charioteer, singer and dancer. To increase his revenues Caligula introduced all possible forms of taxation and rich people who had involuntary willed him their estates were murdered. Once, when a supposedly rich man had finally died, but turned out to have left no money, Caligula commented: "Oh dear, he died in vain." Caligula even opened a brothel in his palace where Roman matrons, their daughters and freeborn youths could be hired for money.

Caligula was irresistibly attracted by every pretty young woman whom he did not possess. He even committed incest with his own three sisters. He would carefully examine women of rank in Rome and whenever he felt so inclined, he would send for whoever pleased him best. He debauched them and left them like fruit he had tasted and thrown away. Afterwards, he would openly discuss his bedfellow in detail. His first wife, Julia Claudilla, died young. In the first year of his reign Caligula attended a wedding and ran off with the bride, Livia Orestilla, whom he divorced after a few days. He soon tired of his rich third wife, Lollia Paulina, too. He made the older Milonia Caesonia his fourth wife in 38, when she was already pregnant. The sensual and immoral Caesonia was an excellent match for him. Caesonia gave birth to a daughter, Julia Drusilla, whom Caligula considered his own child, because "she was so savage even in childhood that she used to attack with her nails the faces and eyes of the children who played with her". Whenever Caligula kissed the neck of his wife or mistress, he used to say: "This lovely neck will be chopped as soon as I say so". Agrippina the younger In addition, Caligula had sexual relations with men like the pantomime actor Mnester, Valerius Catullus and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Lepidus was married to Caligula's favourite sister Drusilla and also engaged in affairs with Caligula's other sisters. Meanwhile, Caligula forced Drusilla to live with him as his wife, following the practice of the Egyptian pharaohs. It was said that when Drusilla became pregnant, Caligula couldn't wait for the birth of their god-like child and disembowelled her to pluck the unborn baby from her womb. True or not, Drusilla died and Caligula had her deified. The next year Caligula had Marcus Aemilius Lepidus murdered. In addition, he had his sisters Livilla and Agrippina the younger, Nero's mother, exiled to an island and confiscated their possessions.

Caligula's behaviour, a splitting of emotions and thoughts, is nowadays diagnosed as schizophrenia. The absolute power that Caligula enjoyed strengthened and developed the worst features of his character. His grandmother, Antonia, and his favourite sister, Drusilla, who could both have had a restraining influence on him, died during the first year of his reign. In his youth - as a favourite of the soldiers - he must have been thoroughly spoilt. The near-extinction of his family and the subsequent fear for his own life during his adolescent years will surely have marked his personality. However, Caligula's madness could have been organically influenced, because it was said to have become apparent after a serious illness which he had suffered in October 37. Caligula If this disease was encephalitis, then it could very likely have been a contributory factor to the bizarre features of his behaviour, for encephalitis can cause a marked character change and give rise to impulsive, aggressive and intemperate activity, similar in its symptoms to those of schizophrenia. In addition, Caligula had inherited epilepsy. Some forms of epilepsy have symptoms similar to those of both schizophrenia and the post-encephalitic syndrome. At times, because of sudden faintness, Caligula was sometimes hardly able to move his limbs, to stand up, to collect his thoughts or to hold up his head. He suffered severely from sleeplessness, never sleeping for more than three hours a night and even for that length of time he did not sleep quietly; he was terrified by strange manifestations.

It comes as no surprise then that at least three conspiracies were soon launched against Caligula's life. Were some foiled, then alas one succeeded. Caligula's suspicion that his joint praetorian prefects, Marcus Arrecinus Clemens and his unknown colleague, were planning his assassination prompted them, in order to avoid their execution, to join a part of senators in a plot. The conspirators found a willing assassin in the praetorian officer Cassius Chaerea, whom Caligula had openly mocked at court for his effeminacy. In 24 January AD 41 Cassius Chaerea, together with two military colleagues fell upon the emperor in a corridor of his palace. Some of his German personal guards rushed to his aid but came too late. Several praetorians then swept through the palace seeking to kill any surviving relatives. Caligula's fourth wife Caesonia was stabbed to death, her baby daughter's skull smashed against a wall. The scene was truly a gruesome one, but it freed Rome from the insane rule of a tyrant.

Caligula had been emperor for less than four years.