The Madness of Caligula

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The story of Caligula is a legacy that goes back thousands of years. In his short life of only 29 years he experienced horrific tragedy, a deep hatred for the man who killed his family, great power as the Emperor of Rome, and eventually, a brutal death. While his reign as Emperor lasted only a few short years, the stories of Caligula have lived on for millennia, his name becoming synonymous with murder and debauchery. In the latter years of his life, his behavior became same outlandish and extreme that many believe he was suffering from insanity. Some say he was driven to madness by the events in his life, while others say he may have been mentally ill or suffering the effects of a disease.

Caligula was the third Emperor of the Roman Empire. He was born on August 31, 12 AD in Antium, Italy (now known as Anzio, Italy).  His parents were Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, and he was one of six children, with siblings named Nero, Drusus, Agrippina the Younger, Julia Drusilla, and Julia Livilla. His given name was Gaius Caesar Germanicus, but at the age of three he was given the nickname Caligula, meaning “little boot,” when accompanying his father on campaigns – the soldiers were amused at his tiny soldier outfit.

Germanicus and Agrippina

Germanicus and Agrippina, the parents of Caligula. Image source .

His father, Germanicus was the nephew and adopted son of Emperor Tiberius. Germanicus’ death in 19 AD was accompanied by rumors that Tiberius had ordered him poisoned because they were political rivals. Agrippina the Elder believed Tiberius to be responsible her husband’s death, publicly declaring that she would seek revenge for her deceased husband. In response, Tiberius imprisoned Agrippina the Elder, Nero, and Drusus, and the three of them perished while imprisoned. Because of Caligula’s young age, he was spared from imprisonment, and sent to live with Livia – Tiberius’ mother.

The death of Germanicus by Nicolas Poussin

The death of Germanicus by Nicolas Poussin (1628). Image source: Wikipedia

In 31 AD, Caligula was summoned to the island of Capri to live with Tiberius. Caligula was adopted by Tiberius, his father’s supposed killer, and Caligula was forced to hide his hatred from Tiberius.  Soon, Caligula and his cousin Gemellus were made equal heirs to the throne. However, Upon Tiberius’ death in 37 AD, Caligula’s ally Marco arranged for Caligula to be named the sole emperor. Shortly thereafter, Caligula had Gemellus and Marco put to death. 

Caligula was only 25 years old when he became the Emperor of Rome in 37 AD.  Finally freed from being the “pampered prisoner” of his father’s murderer, Caligula was a loved and welcomed Emperor. He granted bonuses to those in the military, eliminated unfair taxes, and freed those who had been unjustly imprisoned. He hosted lavish chariot races, gladiator shows, and plays. He ordered the bones of his mother and brothers retrieved, and placed them in the tomb of Augustus. Caligula was very tall and pale. While his head was bald, his body was extremely hairy, and as a result, he was often the subject of jokes. Caligula subsequently made it a crime for anyone to mention a goat in his presence, punishable by death.  

Caligula Depositing the Ashes of his Mother and Brother

Caligula Depositing the Ashes of his Mother and Brother in the Tomb of his Ancestors by Eustache Le Sueur (1647). Image source: Wikiart

A few short months after Caligula became Emperor, he became seriously ill. It was believed that he may have been poisoned. Although he recovered from his illness, it is said that at this point Caligula went mad. He began killing those close to him, or sending them to exile. He had Tiberius Gemellus, his cousin and adopted son, executed. Caligula’s grandmother was outraged by this, and died soon thereafter. There is disagreement as to how she died, with some saying she committed suicide, and others insisting she was poisoned by Caligula.

One of Caligula’s most egregious acts was in declaring that he was a living God. He ordered the construction of a bridge between his palace and the Temple of Jupiter, so that he could meet with the deity.  He began appearing in public dressed as various gods and demigods such as Hercules, Mercury, Venus and Apollo. Reportedly, he began referring to himself as a god when meeting with politicians and he was referred to as Jupiter on occasion in public documents. Caligula had the heads removed from various statues of gods and replaced with his own in various temples.

As Caligula’s actions became more outrageous, the people of Rome began to hate him, and wished to rid him as their leader. At one point, Caligula declared to the Senate that he would be leaving Rome and moving to Egypt, where he would be worshipped as a living God. Cassius Chaerea of the Praetorian Guards began to plot towards Caligula’s demise. On January 24, 41 AD, a group of guards attacked Caligula after a sporting event. He was stabbed more than 30 times, and upon his death, he was buried in a shallow grave. Chaerea was said to have been the first to stab Caligula, with others joining in afterwards. His wife and daughter were also stabbed and killed. After his death, the Senate pushed to have him erased from Roman history, ordering destruction of his statues, and moving quickly to restore the Republic. The people of Rome were angry, and demanded revenge against those who murdered their Emperor. Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, became the next Emperor, and ordered the deaths of Chaerea and anyone who was involved in Caligula’s death.


Good article.

Suetonius stated that he was having dinner, while his grandmother burned in pyre, in front of him.

BTW, the statement 'people loved him', it is not totally true, his relationship with his sister, 'Julia' publicly known. He biased Roman economy, he had his troops to collect sea shells, he closed granaries.

he went down on charges of insanity ... yet uncle claudius survived to be emperor on charges of dimwittedness to the point of retardation or insanity .. no? cal knew he was toast ... had some fun nd hoped the mobs could protect him. and 1800 years later we still write his name . not bad for a nut. in time hitler and stalin will be remembered more than churchill and who was that american again ?

Roberto Peron's picture

Atop everything else can you imagine what he lived with as a child?  Knowing that you were living with the man who killed your parents.  That alone would drive most people towards insanity.  The Senate grew to hate him.  The people loved him right up to the end.  Insane?  Perhaps but most likely poisoned by his enemies.  Rome was a hornets nest in the halls of government.  Hmmm sounds familiar.....


In the 8th paragraph, the beginning states that the people of Rome began to hate him and toward the end the people were angered by his death and wanted revenge.  If  you look you will find that it was the Senate, not the people who hated and feared Caligula.  Caligula was actually loved by the people because of all he gave them, including cash thrown from the roof tops.

Steven W


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