The Roman Emperor Caligula Declared War on the Sea
Throughout history, inept leaders have repeatedly manufactured enemies to rally their base and deflect attention from the real issues at hand. But the idea that Caligula declared war on the sea really takes the biscuit.
Legend has it that in 40 AD, possibly during a planned invasion of Britain, Caligula ordered his soldiers to collect seashells from the beach. This symbolic act was meant to represent a triumph over the unconquerable sea, while the seashells were supposedly meant to be taken back to Rome as evidence of their victory.
Caligula has historically been depicted as a “crazy” emperor through the telling of these kinds of stories. While his reign lasted for only three years (from 27 to 41 AD), records of his bizarre behavior left a lasting impression, fueling this questionable image of madness.
A cruel and sadistic emperor, reports continue to circulate about Caligula’s outlandish behavior. Examples given include Caligula proclaimed himself a living god and his appointment of his horse, Incitatus, as consul. A hugely unpopular Roman emperor, he was assassinated by a group of the Praetorian Guards in January 41 AD.
Caligula was an unpopular Roman emperor, who has gone down in history as a mad leader who declared war on the sea. He was assassinated in 41 AD. (Public domain)
The Caligula’s seashell legend is oft cited as evidence for his mental illness. But over time the story has been reinterpreted, a task complicated by the lack of contemporary sources for the claim that Caligula waged war on the sea. Historians have even argued that the term for seashells is actually a mistranslation.
The main source was written by Seutonius, a Roman historian who lived from about 69 AD to 122 AD, in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Within this collection of biographies of the first twelve emperors of Rome—often based on rumors or anecdotes—Seutonius describes the incident:
“Finally, as if he intended to bring the war to an end, he drew up a line of battle on the shore of the Ocean, arranging his ballistas and other artillery; and when no one knew or could imagine what he was going to do, he suddenly bade them gather shells and fill their helmets and the folds of their gowns, calling them ‘spoils from the Ocean, due to the Capitol and Palatine.’”
David Woods has argued that seashells is a mistranslation of the word conchae, which was also used to describe British enemy ships captured in the English Channel, transported back to Rome to be included in a triumphal procession to parade the captured treasures, prisoners and other symbols of victory after war. These kinds of stories continue to perpetuate the misreading of Caligula’s memory in the present day.
Top image: Legend has it that in his madness, Caligula declared war on the sea. Source: Iva / Adobe Stock