Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know: 5 Things You Should Know About Caligula

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know: 5 Things You Should Know About Caligula

Patrick Lynch - December 22, 2016

Although he reigned as emperor for less than four years, Caligula is one of the most notorious rulers of the Roman Empire and was also the first to be assassinated. He is usually perceived as one of the worst Emperors Rome ever had and also one of the most tyrannical. The deeds of Caligula are carved into legend but how reliable are the sources?

Suetonius and Cassius Dio are the main historians responsible for providing us with the story of Caligula but how much of what they wrote is true and what is gossip? Modern historians have attempted to paint the mad emperor in a slightly more positive light. Is this warranted? Read on to find out.

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know: 5 Things You Should Know About Caligula
Imgur – Incitatus for Consul

1 – He Wasn’t Serious When He Threatened to Nominate His Horse as Consul

According to Suetonius, Caligula had a profound love for his horse, Incitatus which means ‘swift’ in Latin. The emperor ensured his steed enjoyed a life of luxury and gave him baubles such as a jeweled collar, ivory manger, marble stall as well as his own house! Cassius Dio claimed that Caligula ordered his servants to feed Incitatus oats mixed with gold flakes! Given the craziness the emperor is routinely accused of, the above is entirely believable.

Perhaps the most persistent rumor involving the emperor and his horse comes from the writings of Suetonius. The historian suggests that Caligula threatened to make Incitatus a consul and would almost certainly have done so only for his untimely death. The problem is, Suetonius lived decades after the emperor’s demise, so he is reliant on second-hand information. Suetonius is known to be a tremendous gossip who loved a tall tale.

The story of Caligula appointing his horse as consul is supposed to be a sure sign of his insanity. Even if it were true, there is a possibility the emperor had some method in his alleged madness. According to some modern historians, Caligula may have been trying to make a statement by threatening to make Incitatus consul. The emperor could have been attempting to undermine the Senate by saying they were so meaningless that a horse could do their job.

Caligula’s brief reign involved a bitter dispute with the Senate as the emperor tried to increase his personal power within the empire. Given this feud and his utter disdain for senators in general, it is far more likely that Caligula issued the threat about making his horse a consul to humiliate the Senate rather than believing Incitatus would do a good job!

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know: 5 Things You Should Know About Caligula – Drusilla

2 – He Loved Incest

Once again, Suetonius is our primary source for tales about Caligula’s penchant for incest. The historian wrote that the emperor had an incredible high libido which bordered on perversion. Incestuous relationships were quite common in ancient times. For example, the Egyptian Pharaohs regularly married their sisters, and the Ptolemies continued the custom. Therefore, Caligula’s relationship with his sister Drusilla, while undoubtedly perverted in the modern era, was not a big deal 2,000 years ago.

It does appear that stories of Caligula’s incest are exaggerated. Suetonius suggests that the emperor had sex with his three sisters. However, historians that lived during the age of Caligula (such as Seneca and Philo) fail to mention anything about his incestuous behavior. Both chroniclers are extremely critical of Caligula, so they can’t be accused of favoring him.

There seems to be no question that he loved his sister Drusilla and almost certainly committed incest with her. His obsession with her began long before he became emperor and was supposedly caught having sex with her by his grandmother Antonia. Caligula probably viewed her as the only person worthy of being his wife, and she was apparently a calming influence on him. When she died from a fever in June 38 AD, he predictably went wild with grief and had her deified as the Divine Drusilla and proclaimed her as a living descendent of the goddess Venus.

He didn’t show the same level of affection towards his other sisters, so it is hard to say if he committed incest with them. Indeed, he prostituted them to his catamites (young homosexual lovers). Therefore, it seems likely that he ‘only’ committed incest with Drusilla and not the other sisters.

Caligula certainly had an insatiable sexual appetite and would have sex with men or women. He had an intense relationship with an actor called Marcus Lepidus Mnester and another man from a high-class family called Valerius Catullus. When he wasn’t having homosexual relationships, he was committing adultery with various women around Rome. When a woman called Olivia Orestilla was married, he ordered his men to take her to his home. Caligula also married a woman named Lollia Paulina who was already married to a Roman in charge of the army.

The emperor allegedly used his love of debauchery to make some money for the royal coffers. Caligula spent money freely but wasn’t so good at earning it. However, one day, he had the idea to turn the palace into a whorehouse. He sent his pages around Rome to alert wealthy men to the opening of the brothel and encouraged young and old people to come and enjoy themselves.

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know: 5 Things You Should Know About Caligula
CBS News

3 – He Wasn’t Always a Terrible Ruler

Caligula wasn’t some clueless child when he became emperor at the age of 24. He was the son of Germanicus and the future emperor spent his early years on military campaigns with his father. He gained the nickname ‘Caligula’ which means ‘Little Boots’ because of the military regalia he wore as a child. The emperor was born Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus and reportedly hated his nickname.

When he became ruler of Rome, there was rejoicing among the people who were fed up with the rule of Tiberius. The first few months of his reign went relatively well. He wisely used the large treasury left by the previous emperor to curry favor with soldiers and the public. Caligula gave the Praetorian Guard a big bonus and distributed money to the common people. The emperor even issued a general amnesty for people imprisoned due to Tiberius’ growing paranoia.

During the honeymoon period, celebrations were constantly held as thousands of animals were sacrificed. The people cheered their new ruler who they saw as a star that offered hope for the future. With all the gossip and legends that surround Caligula, it is easy to forget that he was a master of presenting the right public image until the last few years of his life. He was politically astute and tried to come across as the ideal ruler in a bid to gain the support of the Senate.

Other examples of good rule include giving money to people who had been taxed into poverty by the previous regime, reviving free elections to give the public more say in elections, holding gladiatorial games to entertain the masses and expelling sexual criminals. It would be a mistake to suggest he didn’t possess a vindictive side before his madness, however. One of Tiberius’ fortune tellers once said Caligula had as much chance of taking the throne as he did of riding his horse across the Bay of Baiae. When he became emperor, he had a large pontoon bridge built across the bay and rode his horse Incitatus across it!

The bright start came to a shuddering end one day in October 37 AD, just a few months into his reign. Caligula was already living a lavish and debauched lifestyle and perhaps this is what caused him to become gravely ill. At the time, his condition was described as a ‘brain fever, ‘ and it is a testament to his early popularity that all of Rome was concerned for his health. There was joy within the empire when he recovered, but he was an entirely different person after that. Suetonius wrote that Caligula suffered epilepsy in childhood and was prone to bouts of irrational behavior. Whatever happened to Caligula, it permanently changed his mental state.

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know: 5 Things You Should Know About Caligula
Forvm Ancient Coins

4 – He Didn’t Just Commit Murder & Incest

Caligula is usually remembered solely for his insanity, and it is often assumed that Rome became weaker under his inept rule. However, the Emperor did at least make an attempt at expanding the empire which goes against the suggestion that he treated the office as a ‘part-time job.’ In 40 AD, he made a move on Mauretania which was one of Rome’s client kingdoms. He invited its leader, Ptolemy, to Rome only to have him executed. Caligula annexed the kingdom and divided it into two provinces; Mauretania Caesariensis and Mauretania Tingitana.

Ancient historians disagree on whether it was the mad emperor who divided the kingdom. Pliny suggests it was the work of Caligula, but Cassius Dio claims a rebellion took place in 42 AD and division occurred after this point. Perhaps Caligula wanted to divide Mauretania, but the uprising prevented him from doing so. Dio wrote a full chapter on Caligula in the kingdom of Mauretania, but it was lost. As a result, details of the campaign are unclear.

Interestingly, Caligula set the wheels in motion for the conquest of Britain. He sent troops to the English Channel in what may have been a scouting mission. Alternatively, the Romans may have traveled that far to accept the surrender of Adminius, a British chieftain. Whatever the reason, Caligula never got around to invading Britain as he was murdered soon after.

The aborted attempt to invade Britain also contains yet another tale of Caligula’s madness that may be untrue. He apparently told his soldiers to collect seashells as ‘spoils of the sea.’ Again, this would be the sign of a madman. However, the word for seashells ‘musculi’ was also military slang for engineer’s huts. Caligula was a child of the military, so it is entirely possible that he was referring to huts and not seashells.

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know: 5 Things You Should Know About Caligula
The Famous People

5 – He Finally Went Completely Crazy

While tales of Caligula’s insanity and tyranny might be exaggerated for effect by Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and others, there is no question that he became a bloodthirsty monarch once the illness took hold. The emperor spiraled out of control at an alarming rate. First of all, he had his close friend Macro executed before killing Gemellus after announcing the boy as his heir.

Caligula became even more unhinged upon the death of his sister Drusilla. From that point onwards, he saw no value in human life and viewed other people as nothing but playthings for his personal amusement. He glorified in building up consuls before publically humiliating them. The Emperor saw fit to rape the wives and daughters of senators and, once he had defiled these unfortunate women, he would allegedly speak to their husbands/fathers about how the lady performed in bed. Caligula also liked to humiliate senators by forcing them to run for miles in front of his chariot.

The emperor caused outrage in Rome in 40 AD when he demanded that the Senate declare him as a deity while he was still alive. By now, the senators were terrified of Caligula and complied. Upon announcing his self-deification, he started building temples and statues in his honor. The emperor infuriated the Jewish population of Rome by ordering a statue of himself to be built in the Temple of Jerusalem and announcing that the Jews would have to worship him. Fortunately, Caligula was assassinated before the project could be carried out.

Pretty much everyone in Rome was fed up by Caligula in 41 AD. He was wildly unpredictable, undermined the Senate, and increased taxation on the people. The emperor was spending money faster than he could make it and the vast treasury left by Tiberius was empty. Finally, a plot was hatched to murder the emperor. Sources claim that three men were responsible for the plan but in reality, a number of members of the Praetorian Guard, equestrian order and the Senate knew.

There were several failed conspiracies against Caligula until one succeeded in January 41 AD. The murder was carried out by members of the Praetorian Guard and led by Cassius Chaerea. He had personal reasons for killing the emperor; Caligula had humiliated Chaerea by saying he was effeminate and called him names such as Venus. The group of assassins confronted the emperor when he was instructing a dance troupe set to perform at the games held for the Divine Augustus.

There are similarities with the murder of Julius Caesar. Both conspiracies were carried out by men named Cassius, both men were called Gaius Julius Caesar, and both were stabbed 30+ times. Caligula’s wife and daughter were brutally murdered, and Claudius became emperor. One of his first acts was to order the execution of Chaerea and the other conspirators.