Who actually was… Caligula?

Caligula, whose real name was Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, was the Roman emperor from 37 to 41 AD and Tiberius’ successor. His reign only lasted four years and he went down in history as Rome’s greatest tyrant. It’s no longer possible to determine how much truth is actually contained in the wild stories surrounding him, since only a few authentic descriptions of his short time in office have been preserved.

Gaius was the son of the popular commander Germanicus and a great-grandson of the emperor Augustus; he was related to August both from his mother’s and father’s side. He spent his second, third and fourth year of his life with the legions of his father on the Rhine river, where the soldiers affectionately gave him the nickname “Caligula”, “little soldier’s boot” in English.


Following the death of his father in 19 AD his mother took him and her three daughters to the house of the Roman emperor Tiberius, which was characterized by intrigues and conspiracy. Multiple potential successors of Tiberius were killed and even Tiberius’ mother was deported to the Middle East due to an alleged conspiracy against the emperor. He now grew up isolated from society with his three sisters in Tiberius’ house. His mistrust towards everyone, which manifested itself in his constant fear of conspiracies, most likely stems from that period.

Following the death of his brother in 33 AD, he was second in line to the throne after Gemellus, the grandson of Tiberius. He had lived with Tiberius on Capreae (Capri) since 31 AD and won the favor of the aging emperor. When Tiberius died in 37 AD, the Praetorian prefect Macro made sure that Gaius and not Gemellus would become the new emperor. Rumor has it that him and Gaius sped up Tiberius’ demise with a pillow. Soon after Gaius assumed office, Gemellus was killed in the pretext of a conspiracy and Macro driven to commit suicide.


At the start of his term, the 24 year-old emperor was widely popular, since he was the son of the famous Germanicus, from the great Augustus’ blood line and generally acted in great contrast to the morose Tiberius, who rarely resided in Rome. Generous financial gifts, tax remissions and amnesties in treason trials secured him the support of the senate and the Praetorian guard. He won over the common Romans by rejecting the austere politics of his predecessor and organizing opulent circus games.

These measures were seemingly effective, yet very expensive, indeed they brought Caligula to the edge of bankruptcy. His financial situation wasn’t helped by organizing ever more extensive and more brutal games or large construction projects, which he wanted to use to increase his posthumous reputation, either.

Half a year after he entered office however, he became very ill (from a description of his symptoms, we today believe that he had encephalitis) and following his eventual recovery, he was a changed man. He seemed megalomaniacal, as if his illness drove him out of his mind. It needs to be said though, that the historic reports are uncertain, since they were written later and are biased.

Glory of war

In the years 39 and 40 AD Gaius led a campaign in Germania, just as his father once did, but no lasting results were recorded. Even more arcane was his expedition to the British Isles in 40 AD. He never made it farther than the Channel coast where he reportedly ordered his soldiers to collect sea shells.

His “campaigns” do suggest that he was eager to achieve the same military glory that both Tiberius and Augustus had, but without the cost and effort of a real war. He apparently brought slaves to the victory parade after his return, passing them off as captured Teutons.

His only real territorial gain for Rome resulted from the murder of an allied ruler from Mauritania. He allegedly ordered for his vassal to be killed out of jealousy following his glamorous appearance during a state visit in Rome. His empire was split into two provinces and annexed by the Roman Empire.


In the eyes of posterity, Caligula’s reign was characterized mainly by his exaggerated politics and his brutality and ruthlessness. According to heritage, he did everything he could to humiliate the Roman senate and to demonstrate his self-conception as an absolute ruler.

Supposedly he even tried to make his favorite horse Incitatus consul. He is said to have built stables made from marble for it and served it oat on golden plates. What is documented are random murders of officials and death penalties for the nobility after minor transgressions, such as criticizing the ruler’s style of clothing.

He also insisted on being worshiped as a god. This normally was an oriental tradition, which was opposed to the Roman tradition and its republican values. Excavation finds from 2003 also document that he integrated the ancient temples of Castor and Pollux into his palace – a sacrilege that was reversed by his successor Claudius I.

Gaius had three sisters and reportedly was involved with them incestuously. Their brother granted them public honors like no other women received before in Roman history. They were even included in the oath of allegiance of the soldiers. Drusilla died in 38 AD and in the following year Gaius deported Agrippina and Livilla due to their involvement in a conspiracy.


A number of high treason trials, which he ordered to defend himself against assumed or real conspiracies, most likely sealed his fate. Many of these trials were probably staged so as to allow him to call the riches of the accused his own. He also violated the rule that said that members of the senate could not be tortured.

Gaius, his wife Caesonia and his daughter were murdered by the Praetorian guard in 41 AD. He was only 29 years old. Only ordinary people, who benefited from his extravagances and expenditures, bemoaned his death.

“Gaius Caesar Caligula” by Louis le Grand – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gaius_Caesar_Caligula.jpg#/media/File:Gaius_Caesar_Caligula.jpg

Кто такой… Калигула?

Калигула, настоящее имя которого было Гай Юлий Цезарь Германик, был римским императором с 37 по 41 год нашей эры после смерти императора Тиберия. Его правление длилось всего четыре года, но он вошел в историю Рима как величайший тиран. Сегодня уже невозможно определить, насколько правдивы сохранившиеся ужасающие истории, окружавшие его фигуру, так как лишь несколько оригинальных описаний его краткого правления сохранилось до наших дней. (more…)

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