Saturday, 17 September 2016


Caligula, as if in repose

Behold the man
Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, or Caligula as he is more generally known is the epitome of the popular conception of a Roman Emperor: extravagant, capricious, vicious and perhaps a little mad. And indeed popular culture has reinforced this image in such compositions as Robert Grave's novel: 'I CLAUDIUS' and the spin off television series of the same name. But what is the truth and after the interval of 2,000 years is it even possible to uncover what Caligula was really like and how accurate is the common perception of the man as the 'mad tyrant'? 

The Sources
The major problem facing the historian trying to piece together the life of Caligula and the character of the man is that only two contemporary written sources survive, the works of Seneca and Philo. Other contemporaneous histories existed but have subsequently been lost. Other surviving works were composed many years after his death and are wholly scathing with regard to the man and his life. 

The Early Years
Caligula was born into the Imperial family and his father, Germanicus, was a noted general and much loved by the Roman people, or at least this is what we gather from the written material of the time. Whilst very young, Caligula accompanied his father on his German campaigns and it is during this time that he gained his nickname, Caligula. It is said that the young Gaius (for it is he) would parade around the army camp in a little soldier's suit including military sandals which were known as caligae. And it is from this that he obtained the name Caligula, which can be translated as 'little boots'. After the death of his father, under suspicious circumstances, Caligula was entrusted into the care of various female relatives. The relationship between the ruling Emperor, Tiberius and Caligula's mother and siblings deteriorated and many of his immediate family were imprisoned and or killed. Much of the animosity was fuelled by the ambitious Praetorian commander, Sejanus, who had designs on the top job itself but first needed to remove large swathes of the imperial family. In this regard he was very successful.  
In 26 AD Tiberius retreated to the delightful island of Caprae and left the running of the Empire to his trusted, able and supposedly loyal agent, Sejanus. I wrote an article about this remarkable man a while ago and for context you may wish to check it out here. In 31 AD, Caligula joined Tiberius on his island retreat. This was certainly to Caligula's advantage. While in the care of the Emperor he was effectively immune from Sejanus' wiles and treachery. 

When Tiberius died (?murdered) in 37 AD, Caligula was announced joint heir to Tiberius' estates and declared Emperor. In fact Caligula shared the position with Tiberius' grandson, Gemellus. However, it was thought expedient to do away with this ill fated young man as soon as it was prudent to do so. 

Few new rulers could have had an such an auspicious start to their reign. Not only did Caligula inherit a sizeable imperial purse estimated at 2.7 billion sesterces but he was universally loved and feted by the Roman populace. All sources describe the first seven month's of Caligula's reign as blissful. Caligula initiated popular political and public reform, freeing prisoners, recalling exiles and banning treason trials which had been a hated feature of the previous Emperor's reign. It was also a time of grand extravagance and it his said that Caligula spent all of the previously acquired Imperial wealth within a year. Eight months into the reign Caligula fell seriously ill and it is after this time that the sources start to catalogue Caligula's excess and cruelty. Whether the illness changed Caligula or whether this was a pure coincidence is now lost to us. However, it is to be noted that it coincided with a severe financial crisis precipitated by Caligula's extravagant spending. Caligula needed money and he needed it fast. Treason trials were reinstated and estates confiscated, those close to him were executed. He also levied novel taxes in order to increase revenue. 

Caligula's exploits have become legendary and it is recorded that he had sexual relations with his sisters, whether this is true or not, is difficult to decide. In 39 AD, relations between Caligula and the Roman Senate began to disastrously deteriorate. And it about this time that serious murder plots became manifest though all but the last were detected and foiled. But it could only be a matter of time. There is no such thing as total security and paradoxically Roman Emperors were exquisitely vulnerable. Finally a plot consisting of senators and members of the Praetorian Guard coalesced and Caligula was stabbed to death while he was leaving the games on January the 22nd or ?24th, 41 AD. Caligula had ruled Rome and Empire for just under four years. 

It is clear that Caligula was totally ill fitted for administering the Roman Empire. Both by temperament and preparation he was not 'fit to rule'. Although not unintelligent, he had neither the powers of concentration or insight to run the vast enterprise of Empire. The heavy yoke of government was not for him.

His experiences as a young man, especially concerning the fate of his family, could only have had a baleful influence on his emerging character. This must have left a deep scar on his psyche and perhaps made him world weary and cynical to the affairs of man. Could this in some way be responsible for his excesses? Add this to the  mix of becoming Emperor with all that it entailed. With great responsibility came great temptation. With vast resources and total control he could do exactly as whim and mood dictated. Everything and everyone was there for his bidding and pleasure. A heady mix indeed. Who could resist? Certainly not a shallow and psychologically damaged young man.  

Under the circumstance most would have failed. It could only take a man of immense character, intellect and iron self control to fulfil the role of Emperor of the time. The fact that he did so well initially is mainly down to inertia provided by the capable, but not loved, Emperor, Tiberius. Although toward the end even the able Tiberius lost control. Perhaps making Caligula his heir was a symptom of this 'loss of control' or maybe Tiberius had a cruel sense of humour after all and was indeed 'nursing a viper in the bosom of Rome'. As for the more lurid tales of Caligula's behaviour I entreat my readers to consult the ancient sources and to conclude for themselves what sort of 'monster' Caligula actually was, or is today.


  1. The major problem facing the historian trying to piece together the life of Caligula and the character of the man is that only two contemporary written sources survive, the works of Seneca and Philo.

    Doesn't stop the Beeb and other historical drama producers.

    1. Should never let the facts get in the way of a rollicking good story. And lets face it the stuff of Roman Emperors makes the basis of great fiction. If half of what they say is true about Caligula is true......

  2. And the greatest thing about Philo is that he does make excellent pastry...

  3. Sure you are not confusing him with that Kipling fella?

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