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Marble bust, 37—41 AD
Roman emperor
Reign16 March 37 – 24 January 41
BornGaius Julius Caesar
31 August AD 12
Antium, Italy
Died24 January AD 41 (aged 28)
Palatine Hill, Rome, Italy
Regnal name
Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus[1]

Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (31 August 12 – 24 January 41), better known by his nickname Caligula (/kəˈlɪɡjʊlə/), was Roman emperor from AD 37 until his assassination in AD 41. He was the son of the Roman general Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, Augustus' granddaughter, members of the first ruling family of the Roman Empire. He was born two years before Tiberius was made emperor. Gaius accompanied his father, mother and siblings on campaign in Germania, at little more than four or five years old. He had been named after Gaius Julius Caesar, but his father's soldiers affectionately nicknamed him "Caligula" ('little boot').[a]

Germanicus died at Antioch in 19, and Agrippina returned with her six children to Rome, where she became entangled in a bitter feud with emperor Tiberius, who was Germanicus' biological uncle and adoptive father. The conflict eventually led to the destruction of her family, with Caligula as the sole male survivor. In 26, Tiberius withdrew from public life to the island of Capri, and in 31, Caligula joined him there. Tiberius died in 37 and Caligula succeeded him as emperor, at the age of 24.

Of the few surviving sources about Caligula and his four-year reign, most were written by members of the nobility and senate, long after the events they purport to describe. They portray Caligula as a noble and moderate emperor during the first six months of his rule, but increasingly self-indulgent, cruel, sadistic, extravagant and sexually perverted thereafter, an insane tyrant who demanded and received worship as a living god, and planned to make his horse a consul. Most modern commentaries seek to explain Caligula's position, personality and historical context. Many of the allegations against him are dismissed as misunderstandings, exaggeration, mockery or malicious fantasy.

During his brief reign, Caligula worked to increase the unconstrained personal power of the emperor, as opposed to countervailing powers within the principate. He directed much of his attention to ambitious construction projects and luxurious dwellings for himself. He began the construction of two aqueducts in Rome: the Aqua Claudia and the Anio Novus. During his reign, the empire annexed the client kingdom of Mauretania as a province. He had to abandon an attempted invasion of Britain, and the installation of his statue in the Temple of Jerusalem. In early 41, Caligula was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy by officers of the Praetorian Guard, senators, and courtiers. At least some of the conspirators might have planned this as an opportunity to restore the Roman Republic and aristocratic privileges; but if so, their plan was thwarted by the Praetorians, who seem to have spontaneously chosen Caligula's uncle Claudius as the next emperor. Caligula's death marked the official end of the Julii Caesares in the male line, though the Julio-Claudian dynasty continued to rule until the demise of Caligula's nephew, the emperor Nero.

Early life

Left: Marble portrait of Agrippina, Caligula's mother
Right: Marble portrait of Germanicus, Caligula's father

Caligula was born in Antium on 31 August AD 12, the third of six surviving children of Germanicus and his wife and second cousin, Agrippina the Elder. Germanicus was a grandson of Mark Antony, and Agrippina was the daughter of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Julia the Elder, making her the granddaughter of Augustus.[2] The future emperor Claudius was Caligula's paternal uncle.[3] Caligula had two older brothers, Nero and Drusus, and three younger sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla.[2][4] At the age of two or three, he accompanied his father, Germanicus, on campaigns in the north of Germania.[5] He wore a miniature soldier's outfit devised by his mother to please the troops, including army boots (caligae) and armour.[5] The soldiers nicknamed him Caligula ("little boot"). Winterling believes he would have enjoyed the attention of the soldiers, to whom he was something of a mascot, though he later grew to dislike the nickname.[6][7]

Germanicus was a respected, immensely popular figure among his troops and Roman civilians of every class. He died after a lingering illness at Antioch, Syria, in AD 19, aged only 33, convinced that he had been poisoned by an enemy.[8][b]. Many believed that he had been killed at the behest of his uncle, the reigning emperor Tiberius, who saw him as a potential rival.[9][10]

After the death of his father, Caligula lived with his mother, Agrippina. She made no secret of her imperial ambitions for herself and her sons, and in consequence, her relations with Tiberius rapidly deteriorated.[11] Tiberius believed himself under constant threat from treason, conspiracy and political rivalry. He forbade Agrippina to remarry, for fear that a remarriage would serve her personal ambition, and introduce yet another threat to himself.[12][13] Agrippina and Caligula's brother, Nero, were banished in the year 29 on charges of treason.[14][15] The adolescent Caligula was sent to live with his great-grandmother (Tiberius' mother), Livia. After her death, he was sent to live with his grandmother Antonia Minor.[11] In the year 30, Tiberius had Caligula's brothers, Drusus and Nero, declared public enemies by the Senate. Drusus was imprisoned and Nero was exiled.[15][16] Caligula and his three sisters remained in Italy as hostages of Tiberius, kept under close watch.[17]

In the year 31, at the age of 19, Caligula was remanded to the personal care of Tiberius at Villa Jovis on Capri. He lived there for six years.[11] Roman historians describe Caligula at this time as a first-rate orator, well-informed, cultured and intelligent, an excellent natural actor who recognized the danger he was in, and hid his resentment of Tiberius' maltreatment of himself and his family behind such an obsequious manner that it was said of him that there had never been "a better slave or a worse master."[11][18][19]

A Roman caliga, after which the name Caligula derived. This piece was excavated near Xanten, where Caligula was stationed with his parents during military campaigns in Germania
Reconstruction drawing of the Villa Jovis on Capri, where Caligula grew up at the court of Tiberius

Caligula was befriended by Tiberius' Praetorian prefect, Naevius Sutorius Macro. Macro had been active in the downfall of Sejanus, his ambitious and manipulative predecessor in office, and was a trusted communicant between the emperor, and his senate in Rome.[20][13] Macro spoke well of Caligula to Tiberius, attempting to quell any ill will or suspicion the Emperor held towards the youth; Macro also saved Caligula's life on several occasions. [21] In 33, Tiberius gave the 20 year old Caligula an honorary quaestorship, the lowest ranking office in the cursus honorum (course of offices); Caligula held this very junior post as a member of the Senate until his rise to emperor.[22] Meanwhile, both Caligula's mother and his brother Drusus died in prison; Nero died in exile.[23] In the same year, Tiberius arranged Caligula's marriage to Junia Claudilla, daughter of one of Tiberius' most influential allies in the Senate, Marcus Junius Silanus. Claudilla died in childbirth the following year, along with her baby.[20] In the year 35, Caligula was named joint heir to Tiberius' estate along with Tiberius Gemellus, Tiberius' grandson.[24] Gemellus was Caligula's junior by seven years, not yet an adult, but was otherwise a viable candidate for the throne; Tiberius seemed in good health, and likely to survive to Gemellus' majority.

In Philo's account, Tiberius was genuinely fond of Gemellus, and feared for his safety should Caligula come to power. He also doubted Gemellus' personal capacity to rule. Suetonius claims that Tiberius, ever mistrustful but still shrewd in his mid 70's, saw through Caligula's apparent self-possession to an underlying "erratic and unreliable" temperament, not one to be trusted in government. Suetonius claims that Caligula was by this time already cruel and vicious, and that Tiberius deliberately indulged the young man's taste for theatre, dance and singing, in the hope that this would help soften his otherwise savage nature; "he used to say now and then that to allow Gaius to live would prove the ruin of himself and of all men, and that he was rearing a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the world."[25] Winterling points out that this judgment draws on later, not particularly accurate accounts of Caligula's rule, and credits Tiberius with a knowledge of human nature which in reality was not only foreign to him, but famously unsound. At Capri, Caligula learned to dissimulate. He probably owed his life to that and, as all the ancient sources agree, to Macro. [26][c] Many believed that given a little more time, Tiberius would have eliminated Caligula as a possible successor but died before this could be done. Caligula, who was virtually unknown to most, inexperienced in government and the day-to-day exercise of political power, was made emperor.[27][28]


Early reign

Caligula Depositing the Ashes of his Mother and Brother in the Tomb of his Ancestors, by Eustache Le Sueur, 1647.

Tiberius died on 16 March AD 37, a day before the Liberalia festival. Suetonius and Tacitus repeat rumours that Caligula, possibly assisted by Macro, smothered Tiberius with a pillow.[29][20][30] Philo, who wrote during Tiberius' reign, and Josephus, who served Nero a generation later, describe Tiberius' death as natural.[31][32] On the same day, Caligula was hailed by members of the Praetorian guard at Misenum. His leadership of the domus Caesaris ("Caesar's household") as its sole heir and pater familias was ratified by the senate, who acclaimed him imperator two days later. When he arrived in Rome, on 28 March, the Senate conferred on him the "right and power to decide on all affairs".[33][34] Tiberius' will, naming two heirs, was annulled with the standard justification that he had been insane, incapable of good judgment.[29][35] Caligula continued to benefit from Macro's advice and savoir faire concerning the behaviour and manners appropriate to a princeps at banquets, games, law courts, debates and receptions of foreign dignitaries. Caligula took up a first consulship some months after succession. He refused the title pater patriae ("father of the fatherland") on the grounds of his youth, until the year 37.[36]

To legalise Caligula's succession, the Senate was compelled to constitutionally describe and define his role, but the rites and sacrifices to the living genius of the emperor already acknowledged his constitutionally unlimited powers over his "friends" and opponents alike. Each princeps was, in reality, a monarch who played the challenging role of primus inter pares ("first among equals") not through the exercise of policy but through self-restraint, decorum, persuasion and above all, tact; personal qualities in increasingly short supply to Caligula during his brief reign,[37] Caligula's father, Germanicus, had been a superb diplomat, and a skilled orator. Caligula showed the beginnings of a considerable talent for oratory and diplomacy but once he became emperor, he tended to speak his mind, something Barrett describes as being of little value in politics[38][39][40]

Philo describes Caligula as the first emperor admired by "all the world, from the rising to the setting sun."[41] Suetonius writes that Caligula was loved by many, for being the beloved son of the popular Germanicus[42] and for not being Tiberius.[43] Three months of public rejoicing ushered in the new reign.[44] Philo describes the first seven months of Caligula's reign as a "Golden Age" of happiness and prosperity.[45]

Although Tiberius' will had been set aside, Caligula honoured many of its terms. Tiberius had provided each praetorian guardsman with a generous gratitude payment of 500 sesterces. Caligula doubled this, and took credit for its payment as an act of personal generosity;[35][46] he also paid bonuses to the city troops and the army outside Italy.[35][d] Every citizen in Rome was given 150 sesterces, and heads of households twice that amount. Building projects on the Palatine hill and elsewhere were also announced, which would have been the largest of these expenditures.[46]

Caligula made a public show of burning Tiberius' secret papers, which outlined many of the senate's various acts of villainy, betrayal and treason against itself and the previous emperor. Caligula claimed - falsely, as it later turned out - that he had read none of these documents before burning them. He used coinage issues to advertise his restoration of the rule of law and reduced a backlog of court cases in Rome by adding more jurors and suspending the requirement that sentences be confirmed by imperial office.[47] Stressing his descent from Augustus, he went in person to retrieve the remains of his mother and brothers for interment in the Mausoleum of Augustus.[48][49] He granted his sisters and other family members, including Claudius – who had not been recognised as a member of the imperial household during Tiberius' reign – political and priestly honours. He began work on a temple to Livia, widow of Augustus; she held the honorific title of Augusta while still living, and was eventually made a diva (goddess) of the Roman state under Claudius. The temple had been vowed in her lifetime, but not constructed.[48] Claudius was made Caligula's consular colleague in the new emperor's first consulship.

Those whom Tiberius alone had supported lost out; most were purged, though not immediately. Philo reports that in late 37, Caligula suffered a serious illness, and hovered between life and death for some time. He was still a very popular emperor, and Rome's public places were filled by citizens who implored the gods for his recovery, some even offering themselves and their lives in return. When Caligula's health seemed restored, he embarked on what seems to have been a purge of suspected opponents. Gemellus, having been happily adopted into the Imperial dynasty as Caligula's son, and given the adult toga virilis, was charged with having taken an antidote, "implicitly accusing Caligula of wanting to poison him"; he was forced to kill himself. Tiberius' political associate Silanus, senior senator, ex-consul, once Caligula's father-in-law, criticised by the historian Tacitus for his servile attitude, was executed as a supporter of Gemellus; in early 38, Caligula forced suicide on his Praetorian Prefect, Macro, without whose help and protection he would not have survived, let alone gained the throne as sole ruler.[50][51] These purges suggest to Weidemann that "the new emperor had learnt a great deal from Tiberius" and "that attempts to divide his reign into a 'good' beginning followed by unremitting atrocities... are misplaced".[48] This division into good and bad phases has variously been attributed to the death of Antonia in summer 37, Caligula's illness in autumn that year, or the death of Caligula's beloved sister Drusilla on 10 June AD 38.[52]

During his illness in AD 37, after Gemellus' death, Caligula named his brother-in-law, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus as heir, marrying him to his sister Drusilla. Ancient sources allege that he and Lepidus were homosexual lovers. After Drusilla's death in June AD 38, she was deified in September the same year.[53]

Public profile

Caligula shared many of the popular passions and enthusiasms of the lower classes and young aristocrats: public spectacles, particularly gladiator contests, chariot and horse racing, the theatre and gambling. He trained with professional gladiators and staged exceptionally lavish gladiator games, being granted exemption by the senate from the sumptuary laws that limited the number of gladiators to be kept in Rome. He largely ignored Macro's advice concerning imperial etiquette. Unlike his imperial predecessors, he was openly and vocally partisan in his uninhibited support or disapproval of particular charioteers, racing teams, gladiators and actors, shouting encouragement or scorn, sometimes singing along with paid performers or declaiming the actors' lines, and generally behaving as "one of the crowd". In chariot races, he supported the Greens, and raced as a member of the Green faction. Most of Rome's upper class would have thought this an unacceptable indignity for any of the elite, let alone their emperor. [54][55]

In these public appearances, Caligula seems to have shown little respect for distinctions of rank, status or privilege, least of all to the senate, whose members Tiberius had once described as "men ready to be slaves". Among those Caligula recalled from exile were actors and other public performers who had somehow caused Tiberius offence.[46][56] On the whole, Caligula seems to have been most comfortable in the undemanding company of infames, disreputable public performers, and the lower nobility (equestrians) rather than with the senators and nobles, whom he clearly and openly despised and humiliated for their insincere simulations of loyalty.[40]

Roman sources claim that Caligula forced equestrians and senators to fight in the arena as gladiators;[57][58][59] Condemnation to the gladiator arena as a combatant was a standard punishment, doubling as public entertainment, for non-citizens found guilty of certain offences; Laws of AD 19 by Augustus and Tiberius banned voluntary elite participation in any public spectacles. The ban, which was never particularly effective, was broadly ignored in Caligula's reign. To reverse declining membership of the equestrian order, Caligula recruited new, wealthy members empire-wide, and scrupulously vetted the order's membership lists for signs of dishonesty or scandal. He seems to have ignored trivial misdemeanours, and would have anticipated the creation of "new men" (novi homines) in the senate house, who owed him a debt of gratitude for their advancement.[60] During Caligula's illness two citizens, one of whom was an equestrian, offered to fight as gladiators if only the gods would spare the emperor's life. When Caligula recovered, he seems to have called in the debt, in what Winterling (2011) describes as insincere offers taken at face value: "cynical, but not without wit of a kind".[61]

Public reform and finance

Quadrans celebrating the abolition of a tax in AD 38 by Caligula. The obverse of the coin contains a picture of a Pileus which symbolizes the liberation of the people from the tax burden. Caption: c caesar divi avg pron avg / pon m, pp cos des rcc.
The adlocutio cohortium of Caligula on a coin, giving a speech to the army

Caligula was quite capable of recognising decisions as flawed, including his own, or reversing them when faced with implacable opposition.[62] He restored the right of the popular assembly (comitia) to elect magistrates on behalf of the common citizenry, a right that had been taken over by the Senate under Tiberius and Augustus. The aediles who managed public games and festivals, and maintained the fabric of roads and shrines would now have incentive to spend their own money on lavish spectacles, to win the popular vote.[46] When the Senate outright refused to accept this, Caligula restored control of elections to them. Dio writes that restoring control of elections to common citizens "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".[63] In 38, Caligula lifted censorship, and published accounts of public funds and expenditure. Suetonius congratulated this as the first such act by any emperor.[64][e] Caligula abandoned his plan to convert the Temple of Jerusalem to a temple of the Imperial cult, with a statue of himself as Zeus, when told that the plan would arouse extreme protests, and injure the local economy.[f][65] He helped those who lost property in fires, abolished certain taxes, lavished gifts of money on his favourites, especially charioteers; and gave out prizes to the public at gymnastic events. Personal generosity and magnanimity, coupled with discretion and responsibility, were expected of the ruling elite, and the emperor in particular.[66][63]

Dio remarks the beginnings of a financial crisis in 39, and connects it to the cost of Caligula's bridge-building project at Baiae.[50] Suetonius has presumably the same financial crisis starting in 38; he does not mention the bridge but lists a broad range of Caligula's extravagances, said to have exhausted the state treasury.[67] Suetonius claims that Caligula squandered 2.7 billion sesterces in his first year.[67] and addressed the consequent treasury deficit by confiscating the estates of wealthy individuals, after false accusations, fines or outright seizure, even the death penalty. The particular circumstances of each case are not known, and the victims are unnamed.[68] Suetonius ignores or overlooks Caligula's inheritance of various debts and liabilities from the somewhat miserly Tiberius. They included the deceased empress Livia's bequest, which was vast, and was dispersed among public, private and religious beneficiaries. Barrett (2015) asserts that this "massive cash injection would have given the Roman economy a tremendous boost".[69]

To Wilkinson, Caligula's uninterrupted use of precious metals in coin issues does not suggest a bankrupt treasury, though there must have been a blurring of boundaries between Caligula's personal wealth, and his income as head of state. [70] Caligula's immediate successor, Claudius, abolished taxes, embarked on various costly building projects and donated 15,000 sesterces to each Praetorian Guard in 41[71][30] as his own reign began, which suggests that Caligula had left him a solvent treasury.[72][73]

In the long term, the occasional windfall aside, Caligula's spending exceeded his income. Fund-raising through taxation became a major preoccupation. Caligula introduced an unprecedented range of taxes, and made their collection a duty of the notoriously forceful Praetorian Guard. Dio and Suetonius describe these taxes as "shameful": some were remarkably petty, and proved deeply unpopular. Caligula taxed "taverns, artisans, slaves and the hiring of slaves", edibles sold in the city, litigation anywhere in the Empire, weddings or marriages, the wages of porters "or perhaps couriers", and most infamously, a tax on prostitutes (active, retired or married) or their pimps, liable for "a sum equivalent to a single transaction". Individual liabilities for all these were fairly small, but Josephus claims that towards the end of Caligula's reign, taxes were doubled, and even then, the revenue was nowhere near enough.[74][75][20] Much larger sums were yielded through wills or in conflicts. Property or money left to Tiberius but not collected on his death would have passed to Caligula, as the emperor's heir. Roman inheritance law recognised a legator's obligation to provide for his family; Caligula seems to have considered his fatherly duties to the state entitled him to a share of every will from pious subjects. The army was not exempt; centurions who left nothing or too little to the emperor could be judged guilty of ingratitude, and have their wills set aside. Centurions who had acquired property by plunder were forced to turn over their spoils to the state.[76][77]


Caligula did not change the structure of the monetary system established by Augustus and continued by Tiberius, but the contents of his coinage differed from theirs.[78] The location of the imperial mint for the coins of precious metals (gold and silver) is a matter of debate among ancient numismatists. It seems that Caligula initially produced his precious coins from Lugdunum (now Lyon, France), like his predecessors, then moved the mint to Rome in 37–38, although it is possible that this move occurred later, under Nero.[79] His base metal coinage was struck in Rome.[80]

Unlike Tiberius, whose coins remained almost unchanged throughout his reign, Caligula used a variety of types, mostly featuring Divus Augustus, as well as his parents Germanicus and Agrippina, his dead brothers Nero and Drusus, and his three sisters Agrippina, Drusilla, and Livilla. The reason for the extensive emphasis on his relatives was to highlight Caligula's double claim to the Principate, from both the Julian and Claudian sides of the dynasty, and to call for the unity of the family.[81] The sestertius with his three sisters was discontinued after 39, due to Caligula's suspicion regarding their loyalty. He also made a sestertius celebrating the Praetorian cohorts as a mean to give them the bequest of Tiberius at the beginning of his reign. Caligula minted a quadrans, a small bronze coin, to mark the abolition of the ducentesima, a 0.5% tax on sales.[82] The output of the precious metal mints was small, and the sestertius were mostly made in limited quantities, which make their coins now very rare. This rarity cannot be attributed to Caligula's damnatio memoriae reported by Dio, as removing his coins from circulation would have been impossible; besides, Mark Antony's coins continued to circulate for two centuries after his death.[83] Caligula's common coins are base metal types with Vesta, Germanicus, and Agrippina the Elder, and the most common is an as with his grandfather Agrippa.[82] Finally, Caligula kept open the mint at Caesarea in Cappadocia, which had been created by Tiberius, in order to pay military expenses in the province with silver drachmae.[84]

Numismatists Harold Mattingly and Edward Sydenham consider that the artistic style of Caligula's coins is below those of Tiberius and Claudius; they especially criticize the portraits, which are too hard and lack details.[84]


In the city of Rome, Caligula completed the temple of Augustus and the theatre of Pompey, began an amphitheatre beside the Saepta and enlarged the imperial palace.[85][86] Later, he began the construction of aqueducts Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus, which Pliny the Elder considered to be engineering marvels.[85][87][88] Caligula then built a large racetrack known as the circus of Gaius and Nero and had an Egyptian obelisk (now known as the "Vatican obelisk") transported by sea and erected in the middle of Rome.[89] Construction of the aqueduct Porta Maggiore started under his rule.

At Syracuse, he repaired the city walls and temples.[85] He had new roads built and pushed to keep roads in good condition throughout the empire: to this end, Caligula investigated the financial affairs of current and past highway commissioners. Those guilty of negligence, embezzlement or misuse of funds were forced to repay what they had dishonestly used, or fulfil their commissions at their own expense.[76][90][67] Caligula 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 intended to dig a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece and sent a chief centurion to survey the work.[85]

Among Caligula's various public works, Josephus mentions only the large-scale harbour extension at Rhegium and Sicily as being of benefit.[91] It was probably intended to manage increased grain imports from Egypt. It was too far south to supply the city of Rome, so it might have been meant to supply Southern Italy. It was not finished.[92]

Ships at Nemi

Reconstruction drawing of a palatial Nemi Ship of Caligula, by CM Knight-Smith (c. 1906)[93]

Caligula had two very large ships constructed at Lake Nemi. One was a floating palace, with plumbing and marble floors, and the other, slightly smaller, was a floating temple to Diana.[94][95]

Conflict with the Senate

In the course of 39, Caligula's increasingly tense relationship with his Senate deteriorated into outright hostility and confrontation.[96][97] Dio notes, with approval, that Caligula allowed some equestrians senatorial honours, anticipating their later promotion to senator based on their personal merits;[63] he goes on to write of denunciations and trials for treason, following Caligula's launch of invective at the entire senate, reviewing their current and past behaviour. He accused them of servility, treachery and hypocrisy in voting honours to Tiberius and Sejanus while they lived, and rescinding those honours once they were safely dead. Caligula's diatribes exposed the idealised princeps or First Senator as illusion and imposture. When the senate returned next day, they voted a thanksgiving to Caligula, as to a monarch, expressing gratitude for allowing them to live when others had died. Winterling suggests that Caligula's three subsequent consulships, sworn at the Rostra, were vain attempts to make amends, public statements of respect for the senators as his equals.[98] Barrett perceives these later consulships as symbolic of Caligula's continued intention to dominate the senate and the state.[99][g] He describes the change in Caligula's rule as a gradual unravelling, a "descent into serious mismanagement and impenetrable mistrust" - and latterly, into "arbitrary terror".[100]

Caligula had not, after all, destroyed Tiberius' records of treason trials. He reviewed them and decided that numerous senators discharged from Tiberius' court hearings seemed to have been guilty of conspiracy all along, against emperor and State - the worst form of maiestas (treason). Tiberius' treason trials had encouraged professional delatores (informers), who were loathed by the populace. Many of the accused had testified against each other, and against Caligula's own family. If they had acted against Caligula's family, then why not against Caligula himself? New investigations were launched; five senators, including the ruling consul, were found guilty and executed. [101][96][97] Others were publicly shamed and degraded.[102] In early September, Caligula dismissed the two suffect consuls, citing their inadequate, low key celebration of his birthday (August 31) and excessive attention to the anniversary of Actium (September 2), the last battle in a damaging civil war, which he found no cause for celebration. In response to the dismissal, one of the discharged consuls killed himself: Caligula may have suspected him of conspiracy. [103]


Dio's account of Caligula's favourite racehorse, Incitatus ("Swift") includes Caligula's infamous proposal to make him a consul, and later, a priest of his own cult.[104][105] This has become "a byword for the promotion of incompetents".[106] Barrett describes it as one of Caligula's many oblique, malicious or darkly humorous insults, mostly directed at the senatorial class, but also against himself and his family; in this case, according to Winterling, he insults the consulars themselves; not only is their position a gift from the emperor, but the ability of most consular candidates is equal to that of a horse. Woods believes it unlikely that Caligula meant to insult the post of consul, as he held it himself several times. Suetonius, probably failing to get the joke, repeats it as proof of Caligula's insanity, adding circumstantial details of extreme wealth and indulgence more usually expected of the senatorial class, including palaces, servants and golden goblets, and invitations to banquets. [104][107]

Bridge at Baiae

In 39 or 40, according to Suetonius, Caligula ordered a temporary floating bridge to be built using a double line of ships as pontoons, earth-surfaced and stretching for over two miles from the resort of Baiae, near Naples, to the neighbouring port of Puteoli, with resting places between.[108][109] Some ships were built on site but grain ships were requisitioned, brought to site, secured and temporarily resurfaced. Any practical purpose for the bridge is unclear; Winterling believes that it might have been intended as a ceremonial replacement for triumphal ceremony to mark Caligula's attempted invasion of Britain.[110][111] A two-day ceremony was performed, with offerings to the sea-god Neptune and Invidia (Envy), and a satisfactory result, in that the sea remained completely calm. The bridge was said to rival the Persian king Xerxes' pontoon bridge across the Hellespont.[109] [108][112]

On the first day, Caligula donned the supposed breastplate of Alexander the Great, and rode his favourite horse, Incitatus, across the bridge, [108] perhaps defying a prediction, attributed by Suetonius to Tiberius' soothsayer Thrasyllus of Mendes, that Caligula had "no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae".[108] On the second day, he rode the bridge from end to end several times at full tilt, accompanied by the soldiery, famous nobles and hostages. Seneca and Dio believed that grain imports were dangerously depleted by Caligula's re-purposing of Rome's grain ships as pontoons; for how long is unknown.[113] Barrett finds these accusations absurd; if the bridge was finished in 39, that was far too early to have had any effect on the annual grain supply, and "a genuine grain crisis was simply blamed on the most outlandish episode at hand." Dio places this episode soon after Caligula's furious denunciation of the Senate; Barrett speculates that Caligula may have intended the whole event as an object lesson on how completely he was in charge.[114]

Germany and the Rhine frontier

In late 39 or early 40, Caligula ordered the concentration of military forces and supplies in upper Germany, and made his way there with a baggage train that supposedly included actors, gladiators, women, and a detachment of Praetorians. He might have meant to follow the paths of his father and grandfather, and attack the Germanic tribes along the upper Rhine; but he was ill-prepared, and retreated in a panic. According to Dio his achievement was negligible. Caligula used the opportunity to seize the wealth of rich allies whom he conveniently suspected of treason, "putting some to death on the grounds that they were 'plotting' or 'rebelling'".[115] Caligula accused the Imperial legate, Gaetulicus, of "nefarious plots" (conspiracy), and had him executed - according to Dio, he was killed for being popular with his troops. [116] Lepidus, along with Caligula's two sisters, Agrippina and Livilla, was accused of being part of this conspiracy; he too was executed and Caligula's two sisters were exiled after being condemned pro forma of adultery. [117][118]

A senatorial embassy was sent from Rome, headed by Caligula's uncle Claudius, congratulating the emperor for escaping this latest conspiracy. It met with a hostile reception, in which Claudius was ducked in the Rhine. Very late in his reign, possibly in its last few days, Caligula sent a communique in preparation for his imminent ovation in Rome, following his military activities in the North and his suppression of Lepidus. He announced that he would only be returning "to those who wanted him back"; to the "Equestrians and the People"; he did not mention the Senate or senators, of whom he had grown increasingly mistrustful.[119]

Caligula's auctions

In late 39, Caligula wintered at Lugdunum (modern Lyon) in Gaul, where he auctioned off his sisters' portable property, including their jewellery, slaves and freedmen. Lugdunum was a wealthy provincial capital, and elite bidders were seemingly prepared to pay far more than items were worth, to show their loyalty. Caligula is said to have auctioned off gladiators to wealthy spectators after matches, using intimidation and various auctioneer's tricks and tactics to boost prices.[120] Caligula's auctions of his surviving gladiators after arena matches are said to have been extremely profitable, but the context and locations are confused. In an event that Suetonius describes as "well known", a Praetorian gentleman, nodding off after a match, woke to find that he had bought 13 gladiators for the vastly over-inflated sum of 9 million sesterces. [121] Caligula's first Lugdunum auction proved such a successful fundraiser that he had many of the furnishings of his palace in Rome carted to Lugdunum and auctioned off; they included many precious family heirlooms. Caligula recited their provenance during the auction, in an attempt to help ensure a fair return on objects intrinsically valuable, and seemingly much sought after by the wealthy for their Imperial associations.[120]

Income from this second auction was relatively lower. Kleijwegt (1996) describes Caligula's performance as vendor and auctioneer at this second auction as "completely out of character with the image of a tyrant". Auctions of Imperial property were acceptable ways to "balance the books", practiced by Augustus and later, by Trajan; they were expected to benefit the bidders as well as the vendor; Roman auctioneers were held in very low esteem, but Kleijwegt claims that Caligula seems to have behaved more like a benevolent princeps in this second auction, without malice, greed or intimidation.[120][122] [68][123]

Western expansion

Map of the Roman Empire and neighboring states during the reign of Gaius Caligula (AD 37–41)
  Italy and Roman provinces
  Independent countries
  Client states (Roman puppets)
  Mauretania seized by Caligula
  Former Roman provinces Thrace and Commagena made client states by Caligula

In 40, Caligula expanded the Roman Empire into Mauretania,[2] a client kingdom of Rome ruled by Ptolemy of Mauretania. Caligula invited Ptolemy to Rome and then suddenly had him executed.[124] Mauretania was annexed by Caligula and subsequently divided into two provinces, Mauretania Tingitana and Mauretania Caesariensis, separated by the river Malua.[125] Pliny claims that division was the work of Caligula, but Dio states that in 42 an uprising took place, which was subdued by Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and Gnaeus Hosidius Geta, and the division only took place after this.[126] This confusion might mean that Caligula decided to divide the province, but the division was postponed because of the rebellion. The first known equestrian governor of the two provinces was Marcus Fadius Celer Flavianus, in office in 44.[127]

Details on the Mauretanian events of 39–44 are unclear. Cassius Dio wrote an entire chapter on the annexation of Mauretania by Caligula, but it is now lost.[128] Caligula's move seemingly had a strictly personal political motive – fear and jealousy of his cousin Ptolemy – and thus the expansion may not have been prompted by pressing military or economic needs.[129] The rebellion of Tacfarinas had shown how exposed Africa Proconsularis was to its west and how the Mauretanian client kings were unable to provide protection to the province, and it is thus possible that Caligula's expansion was a prudent response to potential future threats.[127]

Britannia and the North

Caligula tried to extend Roman rule into Britannia.[2] Two legions had been raised for this purpose, both likely named Primigeniae in honour of Caligula's newborn daughter. Ancient sources depict Caligula as being too cowardly to have attacked or as mad, but stories of his threatening a decimation of his troops indicate mutinies. Broadly, "it is impossible to judge why the army never embarked" on the invasion. Beyond mutinies, it may have simply been that British chieftains acceded to Rome's demands, removing any justification for war.[130][128] Alternatively, it could have been merely a training and scouting mission[131] or a short expedition to accept the surrender of the British chieftain Adminius.[132][133] Suetonius reports that Caligula ordered his men to collect seashells as "spoils of the sea"; this may also be a mistranslation to musculi, meaning siege engines.[130][134] The conquest of Britannia was later achieved during the reign of his successor, Claudius.

Judaea and Egypt

Caligula's reign saw an increase of tensions between Jews native to their homeland of Judea, Jews of the diaspora, and ethnic Greeks. Greeks and Jews had settled throughout the Roman Empire and Judaea was ruled as a Roman client kingdom. Jews and Greeks had settled in Egypt following its conquest by Macedonian Greeks, and remained there after its conquest by Rome. [135] The causes of tensions between these communities were complex, involving the spread of Greek culture, Roman law the rights of Jews in the empire; most evident of all were their differences in religious practices and prohibitions. While the Alexandrian Greeks held citizen status, Alexandrian Jews were classified as mere settlers, with no citizen rights. The Greeks feared that official recognition of Jews as citizens would undermine their own status and privilege.[136]

When Caligula became emperor, he appointed his good friend Herod Agrippa as governor of Batanaea and Trachonitis.[137][138] 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.[139] In 38, Caligula sent Agrippa to Alexandria unannounced to check on Flaccus.[140] According to Philo, the visit was met with jeers from the Greek population who saw Agrippa as the king of the Jews.[141] In Philo's account, a mob of Greeks broke into synagogues to erect statues of Caligula, against Jewish religious law. Flaccus responded by declaring the Jews "foreigners and aliens", and expelled them from all but one of Alexandria's five districts, where they lived under dreadful conditions. Philo gives an account of various atrocities inflicted on Alexandria's Jews within and around this ghetto by the city's Greek population. [142] Caligula held Flaccus responsible for the disturbances, exiled him, and eventually executed him.[143] [144]

In 39, Agrippa accused his uncle 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 rewarded with his territories.[145] Riots again erupted in Alexandria in 40 between Jews and Greeks, when Jews who refused to worship the emperor as a god were accused of not honouring him.[146] In the Judaean city of Jamnia, resident Greeks built an insultingly shoddy altar to the Imperial cult, using the cheapest possible materials. Jews immediately tore it down. [147] In response, Caligula ordered the erection of a statue of himself in the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem,[148] a political, rather than a religious act for Rome, but deeply irreligious for the Jews, and 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".[149]

The Governor of Syria, Publius Petronius, fearing civil war if the order were carried out, delayed implementing it for nearly a year.[150] Agrippa eventually helped persuade Caligula to cancel the order.[146] Then Caligula changed his mind again, issued a second order to have his statue erected in the Temple of Jerusalem and threatened Petronius with forced suicide if he failed. In Rome, another collosal statue of himself was made of gilt brass, and despatched. According to Josephus, the ship carrying the statue was still underway when news of Caligula's death reached Petronius, so the statue was never installed.[151]

In the year 40, Caligula announced to the Senate that he planned to leave Rome permanently, move to Alexandria, and rule from there as a divine monarch, a Roman pharaoh: wherever the emperor went was the seat of Rome's power. Augustus had made Egypt a so-called "Imperial province", under his direct control, rather than that of the Senate. It was the main source of Italy's grain supply, and was administered by members of the equestrian order who were directly responsible to the ruling emperor. Senators had very little control of its affairs, despite their higher status; Egypt was, more or less, Caligula's property, to dispose of as he wished.[152][153]


Cameo depicting Caligula and Roma, a personification of Rome

When Tiberius died, hated by his subjects, Caligula dutifully asked the Senate to approve his deification but was turned down, in line with senatorial and popular opinion. Caligula did not push the issue. He gave Tiberius a magnificent, long drawn out funeral at public expense, and a tearful eulogy.[154] In the first six months of his reign, he made a good impression, refusing costly honours such as statuary of himself, and apparently promising to share power with his senate, as primus inter pares ("first among equals"); but at some time early in his short reign, possibly following a near-mortal illness of late 37 AD, this changed.

Philo, Caligula's contemporary, claims that Caligula costumed himself as various heroes and deities, starting with demigods such as Dionysos, Herakles and the Dioscuri, and working up to major deities such as Mercury, Venus and Apollo. Philo describes these impersonations in a context of private pantomime or theatrical performances, as evidence that Caligula wanted to be a god himself, and be venerated as such while living. To Philo, as a Jew and a monotheist, this was proof of the emperor's insanity;[155][156] Early in his imperial career, Augustus had thrown a party in which he and his guests dressed up as the Olympian gods; Augustus was made up and dressed as Apollo. No-one was thought insane in consequence, and none claimed to be the god they impersonated; but the event proved "a public relations nightmare", not irreligious but as an example of scandalously bad taste. Augustus did not repeat it.[157][158][159]

Dio claims that Caligula impersonated Jupiter to seduce various women; that he sometimes referred to himself as a divinity in public meetings; and that he was sometimes referred to as "Jupiter" in public documents. Caligula's special interest in Jupiter as Rome's chief deity is confirmed by all surviving sources. Simpson believes that Caligula may have considered Jupiter an equal, perhaps a rival. [160][161][162]

To Gradel, Caligula's performances as various deities prove no more than a penchant for theatrical fancy-dress and a mischievous desire to shock; as emperor, Caligula was also pontifex maximus, one of Rome's most powerful and influential state priests.[163] The promotion of mortals to godlike status, based on their superior standing and perceived merits, was also a well established feature of Roman culture; a client could flatter their living patron as "Jupiter on earth", without reprimand.[164] Cicero could protest at the implications of Caesar's divine honours but address Publius Lentulus as parens ac deus (parent and god) to thank him for his help, as aedile, against the conspirator Cataline. Daily reverence was offered as a matter of course to patrons, heads of household and the powerful by their clients, families and social inferiors. In 30 BC, libation-offerings to the genius of Octavian (later Augustus) became a duty at public and private banquets, and from 12 BC, state oaths were sworn by the genius of Augustus as the living emperor.[165][166] There is abundant evidence of municipal cult to Augustus in Italy and elsewhere, localy organised and financed. As Gradel observes, no Roman was ever prosecuted for sacrificing to his emperor.[167]

Caligula seems to have taken his own religious duties very seriously. He found a replacement for the aged priest of Diana at Lake Nemi, reorganised the Salii (priests of Mars), and pedantically insisted that as it was nefas (religiously improper) for Jupiter's leading priest, the Flamen Dialis, to swear any oath, he could not swear the imperial oath of loyalty.[168][h] Caligula wished to take over or share the half-finished but splendid Temple of Apollo (Didyma) for his own cult. Seemingly, his statue was prepared, but when Pausanias visited the still-unfinished temple, its cult statue was of Apollo.[169]

Contemporary statue portraying Caligula in his capacity as pontifex maximus

A temple to Caligula in the city of Rome is mentioned by Suetonius, Dio and no others. Most modern scholarship agrees that if such a temple existed, it was probably on the Palatine.[170] Augustus had already linked the Temple of Castor and Pollux directly to his imperial residence on the Palatine, and established an official priesthood of lesser magistrates to serve its cults, the seviri Augustales, usually promoted from his own freedmen to serve the genius Augusti (his "family spirit") and Lares (the twin ancestral spirits of his household).[171] Dio claims that Caligula stationed himself to receive veneration, dressed as Jupiter Latiaris, between the images of Castor and Pollux, the twin Dioscuri, to whom he humorously referred as his doorkeepers.[105][172][173] Dio claims that two temples were built for Caligula in Rome:[105] but no confirmation has been found for this. Simpson believes it likely that Caligula, voted a temple on the Palatine by the Senate, funded it himself.[174]

An embassy from Greek states to Rome greeted Caligula as the "new god Augustus". In the Greek city of Cyzicus, a public inscription from the beginning of Caligula's reign gives thanks to him as a "New Sun-god".[175] Egyptian provincial coinage and some state dupondii show Caligula enthroned; the first reigning Roman princeps to be described as the "New Sun", (Neos Helios) with the radiate crown of the Sun-god, or of Caligula's divine antecedent, the divus Augustus. Caligula's image on other state coinage carries no such "trappings of divinity".[176] Compared to the full-blown cults to major deities of state, genius cults were quite modest in scope. Augustus, once deceased, was officially worshipped as a divus - immortal, but somewhat less than a full-blown deity; Tiberius, his successor, forbade his own personal cult outright in Rome itself, probably in consideration of Julius Caesar's assassination following his hubristic promotion as a living divinity.[177]

Caligula sold priesthoods for his unofficial genius cult to the wealthiest nobles, for a per capita fee of 10 million sesterces. His priests supposedly included his wife, Caesonia, and his uncle Claudius, who was bankrupted by the cost.[178] The circumstances mark this out as private cult and personal humiliation, contained among the wealthy elite, and not subsidised by the Roman state. Throughout his reign, Caligula seems to have remained popular with the masses, in Rome and the empire. There is no sound evidence that he caused the removal, replacement or imposition of Roman or other deities, or even that he threatened to do so, outside the hostile anecdotes of his biographers. Barrett (2015) asserts that the "emphatic and unequivocal message of the material evidence is that Caligula had no desire for the world to identify him as a god, even if, like most people, he enjoyed being treated like one."[179] He seems to have taken his own genius cult very seriously. Caligula's fatal offense was to willfully "insult or offend everyone who mattered", including the military officers who assassinated him.[180][181]

Assassination and aftermath

The Assassination of the Emperor Caligula, by Lazzaro Baldi, between 1624 and 1703

Caligula was assassinated on 24 January 41,[183] the day before his due departure for Alexandria, by the Praetorian tribunes Cassius Chaerea and Cornelius Sabinus, helped by a number of centurions. The main, near-contemporary source for the assassination is Josephus, who names many close to Caligula as conspirators. Dio seems to have had access to a senatorial version which purported to name many others. More likely, the conspiracy involved very few, and not all need have been directly in touch with each other. The fewer who knew, the greater the chance of success. Previous attempts had foundered or faded out when faced with the rewards and risks of betrayal by colleagues, whether through torture, fear of torture or promised reward. The Senate was a disunited body of self interested, wealthy and mistrustful aristocrats, unwilling to risk their own prospects, and determined to present a virtuous, selfless front.[184][185] In Josephus' account of Caligula's assassination, Chaerea was a "noble idealist", deeply committed to "Republican liberties"; he was also motivated by resentment of Caligula's routine personal insults and mockery.[186][187] Suetonius and all other sources confirm that Caligula had insulted Chaerea, giving him watchwords like the ribald "Priapus"; or "Venus" the latter said to refer to Chaerea's weak, high voice, and either his soft-hearted attitude when collecting taxes, or his collection of the tax on prostitutes. He was also known to do Caligula's "dirty work" for him, including torture.[188][189] [57][190][191]

Chaerea, Sabinus and others accosted Caligula as he addressed an acting troupe of young men beneath the palace during a series of games and dramatics being held for the Divus Augustus.[192] The source details vary, but all agree that Chaerea was first to stab Caligula.[188][192][193] The narrow space available offered little room for escape or rescue, and by the time Caligula's loyal Germanic guard could come to his defence, their Emperor was already dead. They killed several of Caligula's party, including some innocent senators and bystanders, and only stopped when the Praetorians took control.[194][192][i][195]

Josephus reports that the Senate tried to use Caligula's death as an opportunity to restore the Republic. This would have meant the abolition of the office of emperor, the end of dynastic rule, and restoration of the former social stature and privilege of nobles and senators.[196] At least one senator, Lucius Annius Vinicianus, seems to have thought it an opportunity for a takeover. Some modern scholars believe he was the conspiracy's main instigator.[185] Most ordinary citizens were taken aback by Caligula's murder, and found no cause to celebrate in losing the benefits of his rule. Almost all the named conspirators were from the elite. When Caligula's death was confirmed, the nobles and senators who had prospered through hypocrisy and sycophancy during his reign dared to claim prior knowledge of the plot, and therefore shared the credit for its success with their peers. Others sought to distance themselves from anything to do with the assassination. [197]

The assassins, fearing continued support for Caligula's family and allies, sought out and murdered Caligula's wife, Caesonia, and their young daughter Julia Drusilla.[198] but were unable to reach Caligula's uncle, Claudius. In the traditional account, a soldier, Gratus, found Claudius hiding behind a palace curtain. A sympathetic faction of the Praetorian Guard smuggled him out to their nearby camp,[199] and nominated him as emperor. The Senate, faced with what now seemed inevitable, made Claudius emperor. Caligula's "most powerful and universally feared adviser", the freedman Callistus, may have engineered this succession, having discretely shifted his loyalty from Caligula to Claudius while Caligula lived.[200]

The killing of Caligula had been extralegal, without due process of law, and those who carried it out had broken their oaths of loyalty. It was tantamount to regicide. Claudius, as a prospective replacement for Caligula, could acknowledge his predecessor's failings but could not be seen to condone his murder, or find fault with the principate as an institution. Caligula had been popular with a clear majority of Rome's lesser citizenry, and the Senate could not afford to ignore the fact. Claudius appointed a new Praetorian prefect, and executed Chaerea, a tribune named Lupus, and the centurions involved. He allowed Sabinus to commit suicide.[201][202] Claudius refused the Senate's requests to formally declare Caligula hostis (a public enemy), or condemn his memory (see Damnatio memoriae). He also turned down a proposal to officially condemn all the Caesars and destroy their temples. Caligula's name was removed from the official lists of oaths and dedications; but Certain of Caligula's statues and inscriptions were discretely removed but most of his statues had the heads recut, to resemble Augustus, or Claudius, or in one case, Nero, who would suffer a similar fate.[203][204][205][206] According to Suetonius, Caligula's body was placed under turf until it was burned and entombed by his sisters.[207][208]

Private life

Caligula's first wife was Junia Claudia, daughter of ex-consul Marcus Junius Silanus. Like most marriages in Rome's upper echelons, this was a political alliance. Junia died in childbirth, along with her baby, less than a year later.[209] Soon after, Macro seems to have persuaded his wife, Ennia Thrasylla to take up a sexual affair with Caligula, perhaps to help him through the loss. The sources are somewhat contradictory on the matter of Caligula's sex life. He is said to have had "enormous" appetites, several mistresses and male lovers, but in relation to the alleged "perversions" practised at Corfu by Tiberius and, in some sources, by himself, he appears remarkably prudish in expelling the spintriae from the island on his accession.[210][211][212]

He was briefly married to Livia Orestilla. His marriage to the "Beautiful... very wealthy" and extravagant Lollia Paulina was quickly followed by divorce. His fourth and last marriage, to Caesonia, seems to have been a love-match, in which he was both "uxorious and monogamous", and fathered a daughter. Caligula named her Julia Drusilla, in commemoration of his late sister.[213] Caligula's contemporaries could not understand her appeal to Caligula. Some believed that she must have given him a love potion, which turned his mind and brought on his "madness".[214]

Allegations of incest between Caligula and his sisters, or just his favourite, Drusilla, go back no further than Suetonius, who admits that in his own time, they were hearsay. Seneca and Philo, moralistic contemporaries of Caligula, do not mention these stories even when, after Caligula's death, it would have been safe to do so. Then and now, allegations of incest fit the amoral, "mad Emperor" stereotype, promiscuous with money, sex and the lives of his subjects. Dio repeats, as fact, the allegation that Caligula had "improper relations" with his two older sisters, Agrippina and Livilla.[215][216]

Marble bust of Caligula with traces of original paint beside a plaster replica trying to recreate the polychrome traditions of ancient sculpture
So-called "little bust" of Caligula, found in the River Tiber in Rome

Source opinions

Roman sestertius depicting Caligula, AD 38. The reverse shows Caligula's three sisters, Agrippina, Drusilla and Livilla, with whom Caligula was rumoured to have carried on incestuous relationships. Caption: C. CAESAR AVG. GERMANICVS PON. M. TR. POT. / AGRIPPINA DRVSILLA IVLIA S. C.

There is no real or reliable evidence of Caligula's mental state at any time in his life. In the course of their narratives, all the primary and contemporary sources give reasons to discredit and ultimately condemn him, for offences against proprieties of class or religion or both. They are unreliable guides to Caligula himself, or his motives. "Thus, his acts should be seen from other angles, and the search for 'mad Caligula' abandoned"[217][218]

Philo and Seneca the Younger, contemporaries of Caligula, describe him as insane, self-absorbed and short-tempered, murderous, profligate and sexually voracious.[219][220][221] He is accused of sleeping with other men's wives and bragging about it[222] and killing for mere amusement.[219][220][148] Once, at some games at which he was presiding, he was said to have ordered his guards to throw an entire section of the audience into the arena during the intermission to be eaten by the wild beasts because there were no prisoners to be used and he was bored.[50] Barrett considered Dio’s report to be a garbled version of Suetonius’ account that Caligula resorted to feeding criminals to wild beasts when the cost of using cattle became too excessive.[223]

While repeating these earlier stories, the later sources of Suetonius and Cassius Dio accuse Caligula of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, and say that he prostituted them to other men.[224][118][225] They also mention sexual affairs with various men including his brother-in-law Marcus Lepidus.[226][227] They say he sent troops on illogical military exercises[128][228] and turned the palace into a brothel.[229] Philo, Josephus and Seneca see Caligula's apparent "insanity" as a personality trait accentuated through self-indulgence and the unlimited exercise of power.[145][230][231] Seneca states that Caligula became arrogant, angry and insulting once he became emperor.[232] Philo claims that Caligula became more ruthless after nearly dying of an illness in the eighth month of his reign (in 37).[233] Several modern sources offer medical diagnoses including encephalitis, epilepsy and meningitis.[234] Suetonius claims that Caligula had "falling sickness" (epilepsy in his youth; Benediktson refines this to a diagnosis of Interictal Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, and a consequent fear of seizures that prevented his learning to swim.[235][236][237] In Romano-Greek medical theory, severe epilepsy attacks were associated with the full moon and the moon goddess Selene, with whom Caligula was claimed to converse and enjoy sexual congress.[238]Suetonius' descriptions of Caligula's appearance as repulsive are unreliable and unlikely, considering his ecstatic and enthusiastic reception by the populace.[239][240]

Contemporary historiography

Fanciful Renaissance depiction of Caligula

The facts and circumstances of Caligula's reign are mostly lost to history. Two major literary sources contemporary with Caligula have survived – the works of Philo and Seneca the Younger. Philo's works, On the Embassy to Gaius and Flaccus, give some details on Caligula's early reign, but mostly focus on events surrounding the Jewish population in Judea and Egypt with whom he sympathizes. Seneca's various works give mostly scattered anecdotes on Caligula's personality. Seneca was almost put to death by Caligula in AD 39, probably due to his associations with conspirators.[241] At one time, there were detailed contemporaneous histories on Caligula, but they are now lost. Tacitus describes them as biased, either overly critical or praising Caligula.[242] Nonetheless, these lost primary sources, along with the works of Seneca and Philo, were the basis of subsequent histories. Fabius Rusticus and Cluvius Rufus both wrote histories condemning Caligula. They are now lost, but Tacitus describes Fabius Rusticus as a friend of Seneca, and prone to embellishments and misrepresentations.[243] Cluvius Rufus was a senator involved in Caligula's assassination.[244]

Caligula's sister, Agrippina the Younger, wrote an autobiography that included a detailed account of Caligula's reign, but it too is lost. Agrippina was banished by Caligula for her connection to Marcus Lepidus, who conspired against him.[118] 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 are lost. Suetonius wrote his biography of Caligula 80 years after his assassination, and Cassius Dio over 180 years after. Dio's work offers a loose chronology. Josephus gives a detailed description of Caligula's assassination. Tacitus provides some information on Caligula's life under Tiberius. In a now lost portion of his Annals, Tacitus gave a detailed history of Caligula. Pliny the Elder's Natural History has a few brief references to Caligula. None of the few surviving sources paints Caligula in a favourable light. The paucity of sources has resulted in significant gaps in modern knowledge of the reign of Caligula. Little is written on the first two years of Caligula's reign, and 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, whose class provides, almost without exception, the most blatantly hostile accounts of Caligula the man, his reign and his various infamies.[245]

Modern depictions

In film and series

In literature and theatre

  • Kajus Cezar Caligula, by Polish author Karol Hubert Rostworowski, is a play premiered in Juliusz Słowacki City Theater, Cracow, 31 March 1917. The title character is presented as a weak and unhappy man who became a victim of circumstances that brought him to power that surpassed him.
  • Caligula, by French author Albert Camus, is a play in which 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".[255]
  • In the 1934 novel I, Claudius by English writer Robert Graves, Caligula is presented as a murderous sociopath who became clinically insane early in his reign. In the novel, at the age of only ten, Caligula drove his father Germanicus to a state of despair and death by secretly terrorizing him. Graves' Caligula commits incest with all three of his sisters and is implied to have murdered Drusilla. The novel was adapted for television in the 1976 BBC mini-series of the same name.
  • The life of Incitatus, Caesar's favorite horse, is the subject of Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert's poem Kaligula (in Pan Cogito, 1974), and his political career.[256]
  • A deified Caligula is the antagonist of the 2018 The Trials of Apollo novel The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan. He is presented as an insane tyrant who has returned from the dead - along with Commodus and Emperor Nero - to try to take over the modern world. His horse, Incitatus, also appears.

In opera

  • A young Caligula appears as one of the characters in Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's opera Arminio.
  • Caligula is the main character in Detlev Glanert's opera Caligula, based on the Albert Camus play.
  • Different composers from the Baroque era appear to have composed operatic works about Caligula, but most of these have been lost.

See also


  1. ^ "Caligula" is the diminutive form of caliga, a military boot
  2. ^ Barrett believes his death was probably natural; "Syria was a notoriously unhealthy spot, and almost a century later the emperor Trajan would die from a disease contracted there
  3. ^ Suetonius and others provide what may be an accurate depiction of Tiberius' total and utterly mistaken trust in Sejanus, and his mistrust of all others, until Sejanus' conspiracy was discovered
  4. ^ Various coin issues suggest the payment of regular donations to the praetorians throughout Caligula's reign.
  5. ^ In fact, Tiberius had published the imperial accounts once, and Augustus had done so twice. Caligula's publication was thought a highly creditable act, but he did not repeat it.
  6. ^ Jewish grain producers had threatened to fire their fields if Caligula's plan went ahead. This would have caused a local grain famine during Caligula's planned visit to Alexandria
  7. ^ Caligula stepped down soon after each award of consulship, to allow a suffect consul to replace him. In effect, this made consulships a gift of the emperor
  8. ^ Jupiter was the highest divine witness to oaths. The Flamen Dialis was sworn to his service, and was hedged about with an exhaustive range of prohibitions.
  9. ^ The cryptoporticus (underground corridor) beneath the imperial palaces on the Palatine Hill where this event took place was discovered by archaeologists in 2008.


  1. ^ Cooley, Alison E. (2012). The Cambridge Manual of Latin Epigraphy. Cambridge University Press. p. 489. ISBN 978-0-521-84026-2.
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Born: 31 August AD 12 Died: 24 January AD 41
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