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Emperor Caligula

The Madness of Caligula: Rome’s Cruelest Emperor?

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Caligula was Rome’s most tyrannical emperor. His reign from 37-41 AD is filled with murder and debauchery, to levels even his infamous nephew Nero could not reach. The great-great grandson of Julius Caesar certainly left his mark by his possible madness and definitely horrific acts.

The story of Caligula is a legacy that goes back thousands of years. In his short life of only 29 years, he experienced terrible tragedy, a deep hatred for the man who killed his family, great power as the emperor of Rome, and eventually, a brutal death. In the latter years of his life, his behavior became so 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.

Painting of a broken statue of Roman Emperor Caligula. (Aaron Rutten / Adobe)

Caligula’s Family

Caligula was the third emperor of the Roman empire. He was born on August 31, 12 AD in Antium, Italy (known now 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. (Public Domain)

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 incarcerated. 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). (Public Domain)

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 the young man was forced to hide his hatred from his adopted parent. 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.

The Emperor Who was Loved and Sometimes Mocked

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 also 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 – the punishment for poking fun?  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). (Public Domain)

Signs of Caligula’s Madness Emerge

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. Either scenario makes sense, especially when you read that Caligula liked to remind people of his power by repeating the phrase, “Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody.”

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 also 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.

Another famous example of Caligula’s eccentricity is the story of his horse, Incitatus. It is said that the emperor had such a fondness for the animal that he gave it its own house, complete with a marble stall and ivory manger. The oddest part of the tale is that Caligula apparently had plans to make Incitatus a consul.

Hatred and Erasing His Existence

As Caligula’s actions became more outrageous, the people of Rome began to hate him, and wished to remove him from power. 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. That’s probably when Cassius Chaerea of the Praetorian Guards began to plot for 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. The emperor’s wife and daughter were also stabbed and killed.

After his death, the Senate pushed to have Caligula erased from Roman history, ordering destruction of his statues, and moving quickly to restore the Republic. In an unexpected turn of events, the people of Rome were angry, and demanded revenge against those who murdered their emperor. Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, became the next Roman emperor and ordered the deaths of Chaerea and anyone else who was involved in Caligula’s death.

The assassination of Caligula

The assassination of Caligula. (akgimages)

What Could Explain Caligula’s Personality?

Some say that Caligula was insane, but historians have also theorized that Caligula may have suffered from epilepsy and lived with a constant fear of having seizures. This theory was supported by the fact that Caligula was known to speak to the moon (it was once believed that epilepsy was caused by the effects of the moon). Other historians theorize that Caligula may have suffered from hyperthyroidism and shown it with his irritability and the way he would stare into the distance. Headaches were also said to be another common issue for the emperor.

While Caligula’s reign as emperor was short-lived, it is clear that he had a huge impact on the Roman empire. Whether he was driven to insanity by the horrific deaths of his family members at the hands of the man who later took him in, driven mad through poisoning, or was suffering from an undiagnosed medical condition or mental illness, we may never know. However, one thing remains clear - Caligula and his mad actions made him one of the most infamous Roman emperors of all time.

Caligula Hits Netflix

On Friday April 5, Caligula’s story will be retold on the popular streaming site Netflix. Five or six episodes will follow the infamous Roman leader’s tale from the beginning of his reign until his assassination, with historians narrating parts of the story and exciting events from Caligula’s life acted out in dramatic detail.

This is the third documentary in the Roman empire series on Netflix and it appears after the stories of the emperors Commodus and Julius Caesar. The series may appeal to fans of similar historical-based dramas like Rome, Vikings, The Last Kingdom, and Medici.

Top Image: Roman emperor Caligula. Source: Bobbex/Adobe

By M R Reese


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Elagabalus (218-222 a.d.) was even worse.

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.....



mrreese's picture

M R Reese

M R Reese is a writer and researcher with a passion for unlocking the mysteries of ancient civilizations. She believes that only by understanding where we come from, can we truly understand our life path and purpose. She has earned... Read More

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