A Perfect Storm Of Madness And Power: The Reign Of Emperor Caligula

Reigning from 37 to 41 AD, Caligula was the third emperor of Rome. He was born to general Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, making him a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. While he appeared to be a promising leader at first, the remaining period of his reign was marked by episodes of madness, depravity, and extravagance. Eventually, in 41 AD, he was assassinated by conspirators, including members of the Praetorian Guard. Take a look into the twisted reign of Caligula.

Caligula Wasn’t His Real Name

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Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Caligula, as history knows him, was born Gaius Caesar Germanicus after the famous Roman general and leader, whom he was also descended from. As a baby, his father, the respected Germanicus, brought his son to a social gathering.

The baby Gaius was dressed up as a soldier, wearing a small replica of the standard-issue boots. Soon after, the soldiers began calling him “Caligula,” meaning “little boots.” The nickname stuck and was popular enough that it became the name history remembers him by.

His Mother Was A Force To Be Reckoned With

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Bildagentur-online/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Agrippina the Elder was Caligula’s mother. She was not like other women, as she went against tradition after marrying Germanicus, accompanying him in his military campaigns, and even working as an advisor.

She was so fierce that when Germanicus died unexpectedly, she openly accused one of his rivals of slaying him with poison. Not known to stay quiet, over the years she spoke out against Emperor Tiberius, for which she was flogged. In the end, she starved in prison, just four years before Caligula became emperor. It’s not clear whether the starvation was self-imposed.

Caligula May Have Had A Physical Illness

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

While many of Caligula’s actions may have been exaggerated over the years, such as talking to the moon or trying give his horse a position of power, there is no denying that there was something wrong with the emperor.

Today, some scholars persist that Caligula wasn’t just mad with power, but actually suffered from an illness. Some of the theorized diagnoses over the years have included temporal lobe epilepsy or hyperthyroidism, also known as Wilson’s disease, which he could have inherited.

He Had Pleasure Barges Constructed

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Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images

Although some ancient historians claim that Caligula had a floating bridge constructed so that he could cross from the town of Baiae to the port of Puteoli in extravagance, no evidence of such a bridge has ever been found. Nevertheless, evidence of Caligula’s proclivity for flair is apparent in the two massive pleasure barges discovered at Lake Nemi.

Found in the 1920s and early 1930s, the elaborate barges had marble decorations, mosaic floors, and even statues. One of the ships bore the inscription “Property of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.” Unfortunately, the ships were nearly destroyed by Allied bombs during World War II.

His “Garden Of Delights” Was Recently Discovered

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Bettmann/Getty Images

During Caligula’s four-year reign, one of his favorite places to spend time was the imperial pleasure garden known as Horti Lamiani. It was a culmination of several residential complexes that were built on the Esquiline Hill, in the area around what is now the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. It was also here that Caligula’s body was cremated and originally buried.

Although historians believed that the remains of Horti Lamiani would never be uncovered, in recent years, a section of the imperial garden was found beneath a condemned apartment building. The artifacts unearthed can now be seen at the Nymphaeum Museum of Piazza Vittorio.

His Adopted Uncle Tried To Eliminate His Family

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DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini via Getty Images

Following the death of Caligula’s great-grandfather, Emperor Augustus, in 14 AD, his adopted son Tiberius became Rome’s emperor. Because Caligula’s father Germanicus, was a well-liked general and part of the Julio Claudian family lineage, Tiberius saw him and his family as a threat to his reign.

Thus, it’s unsurprising that some ancient historians claim that Tiberius had a hand in the sudden death of Germanicus in Syria. Furthermore, after Caligula’s mother accused Tiberius of Germanicus’ murder, Tiberius had her imprisoned until her death, exiled Caligula’s brother Nero, and imprisoned his other brother Drusus Caesar on charges of treason.

He May Have Intended To Invade Britain

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although history remembers Caligula as a sadistic, depraved, and unfit ruler who did more harm than good to the Roman Empire during his four-year reign, some scholars argue that Caligula may have had grand plans for the empire.

Caligula managed to acquire new territories and expand westward, with the intention of invading Britain. Although he may have only reached the English Channel before being assassinated, it’s believed that he laid the groundwork for Claudius to begin his successful takeover of Britain in 43 AD.

He Had A Successful First Few Months As Emperor

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Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In 37 AD, Caligula was named the third emperor when he was just 25 years old. After the terrible reign of Tiberius, the people of Rome were thrilled to have Caligula in power and welcomed him with open arms. It also helped that Caligula’s father was the beloved general Germanicus, leading people to call him “our baby” or “our star.”

Upon ascending to power, Caligula won the hearts of the public by giving extra wages to soldiers, freeing those unjustly imprisoned by Tiberius, and eliminating some taxes. Historian Philo called Caligula’s first few months as emperor “completely blissful.”

He Wanted To Be Worshipped As A God

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Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Caligula was a lot of things while the emperor of Rome, but a god certainly wasn’t one of them. Regardless, in his madness and lust for power, he demanded that he be worshipped as “Neos Helios,” the New Sun.

His insistence upon being seen as a god went so far that in Egypt, coins would depict him as the God of Sun. At one point, the emperor intended to build a statue of himself as a god in the Temple of Jerusalem but was prevented from doing so by the Senate, for fear of an uprising.

He Left Behind Plenty Of Architectural Relics

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Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As emperor, Caligula heavily taxed Rome’s citizens, and with the money, spent large sums on theaters, harbors, temples, aqueducts, and more, in his name. Although his relentless construction drove Rome into debt, he ensured that his projects were completed.

Today, many of these buildings have significant historical value, which includes the Temple of Augusts, Pompeii’s Theater, parts of the temples of Syracuse, and the Roman city in the Alps. Following his death, the Senate attempted to wipe him from history, destroying the statues and other works dedicated to him. Clearly, they failed at their goal.

He Began Disposing Of His Own Family

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PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

At the end of 37 AD, Caligula fell mysteriously ill, almost losing his life. Upon recovering, it appeared that he had lost his sanity and was unreasonably paranoid and bitter. One possibility for this is that he may have believed that he was poisoned as part of a conspiracy by his political rivals as well as family.

Out of fear, Caligula then put in motion a series of political hits that included his cousin and son of Tiberius, Gemellus, and other family members.

He Was A Known Sadist

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DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/De Agostini via Getty Images

Horrifically, in his place of power, Caligula found enjoyment in inflicting physical pain and humiliation on just about anyone that he felt like. He went so far as to draw up specific instruction on how his executioners should slay prisoners, even presiding over the deaths as a form of entertainment.

He would frequently dine during these events, and it’s even alleged that Caligula forced the families of the prisoners to watch.

Many Of His Misdeeds Are Most Likely Exaggerated

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While there’s no doubt that Caligula was a demented leader driven by lust and violence, who was often at times completely out of touch with reality, many of the stories about him are most likely exaggerated.

Some of his most-discussed alleged misdeeds include slaying a gladiator in a mock battle, making it a capital offense to have a goat in his presence, appointing his horse Incitatus to the position of consul, feeding spectators to wild animals, and worse. While there may be some basis of truth in these claims, history has likely embellished them quite a bit.

He Was The First Roman Emperor To Be Assassinated

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DeAgostini/Getty Images

It didn’t take long for the Roman people, especially the Senate, to become fed up with Caligula’s antics. While there had been conspiracies against him for some time, things came to a head when he announced that he would leave Rome to live in Alexandria. This would have been extremely detrimental to Rome as a whole.

So, when Caligula returned from Gaul in 41 AD, he was assassinated at the Palatine Games by the Praetorian Guards led by Cassius Chaerea, Cornelius Sabinus, among others. He was stabbed to death more than 30 times. His wife, Milonia Caesonia, and their daughter, also died in the process.

Caligula Demonstrated His True Self Early In Age

Statue of Caligula
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Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Long before he became emperor, it was clear to those around him that Caligula was an unhinged individual. In his youth, he particularly enjoyed executions and was known to participate in depraved behavior at night.

During all of this, Tiberius, who had already named Caligula as his heir, saw the kind of man he was becoming. Tiberius even commented on Caligula’s questionable behavior, stating, “I am nursing a viper in Rome’s bosom.” Unfortunately, the future emperor would only get worse as time went on.

He Forced His Best Friend To End His Own Life

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Icas94 / De Agostini via Getty Images

Before becoming emperor, Caligula befriended a Praetorian prefect named Naevius Sutorius Macro, who would become one of Caligula’s most powerful allies, even helping him become Tiberius’ heir. Supposedly, Macro even smothered Tiberius with a pillow to hasten Caligula’s rise to the throne.

Yet, nobody was safe from Caligula. When Caligula fell ill, Macro made an attempt to ally with someone else in case he died. When Caligula discovered this after he recovered, he caused Macro to end his own life for his supposed treason.

He Liked To Play Dress-Up

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Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Fancying himself as a god on Earth and the most powerful man in existence, Caligula also certainly enjoyed his clothing and jewelry. Wearing the finest silks and flashy items, he would dress up as the Roman gods such as Neptune and Jupiter.

It also wasn’t unusual to dress as a woman or the female gods such as Diana and Juno. Of course, nobody could tell him to do otherwise or they might see themselves brutally punished.

He Had A Fascination With Horses

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Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Although there are rumors that Caligula tried to appoint his horse Incitatus a consul, this most likely never happened. However, it is well-known that Caligula did have a deep love for horses, especially his own.

Supposedly, Incitatus had a stable made of marble, a feeder made from ivory, a gemstone collar, and purple-dyed blankets. As a huge fan of chariot and horse racing, Caligula entered Incitatus in the races as well, making sure the horse was always in the best racing condition possible.

The Rumors Of His Family Relationships Are Most Likely False

Statue of Caligula
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ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

According to the ancient historian Suetonius, Caligula became obsessed with preserving the royal bloodline. He even went into detail about supposed public instances in which taboo relations took place.

However, Suetonius’s histories, titled The Lives of the Caesars, were written almost 100 years after Caligula’s death at 28. Other historians who actually lived alongside Caligula and essentially despised the man never mention such family dynamics.

A Film Depiction Of His Life Remains Banned In Several Countries

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Analysis Film Releasing Corporation
Analysis Film Releasing Corporation

Released in 1979, Caligula is a salacious historical drama starring Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Helen Mirren, and Peter O’Toole. It was produced by Bob Guccione, the founder of a popular men’s magazine, and remains the only feature film made by the company.

Guccione made Caligula as a graphic movie with a feature film narrative, using well-known actors. The movie follows the rise and downfall of the emperor. However, the film’s outcome was highly controversial for its intense content, leading it to be banned in several countries.