Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, Caligula (‘little leggings’) as he became known to posterity, but never to his contemporaries, was, as he liked to point out, the most royal of Emperors. He reached the purple at the age of twenty-four to the acclaim and high hopes of the Senate and People of Rome, who imagined that nobody could be as bad as the late Emperor Tiberius. He was descended, separately, from both Augustus and the Empress Livia and, through his grandmother Antonia, from Mark Antony, and both his father and grandfather, Germanicus and Drusus, had been famous and well-loved generals. An early memory was of riding in the chariot of his papa, to the cheers of the populace, and another was of being shown off, dressed as a little soldier, to the mutinous army on the Rhine by his theatrically inclined mama, Agrippina.

One of Caligula’s fantasies was of himself as conquering hero, but he never seriously went to war. In AD 39 he had to crush a revolt in a camp in Upper Germany, promoted by Aemilius Lepidus, son of the triumvir of the same name34 who had given so much trouble to Augustus. This man’s pretensions were based on his proximity to Caligula as the widower of his adored sister Drusilla, and the lover of another sister, Agrippina. The two main conspirators were executed and two other sisters banished.

Then Caligula had to think how to occupy and impress his armies. He made some raids across the Rhône assisted by Vespasian, then a praetor, and Galba, who had been interfered with as a youth on Capri (both of whom were to become Emperors). He wintered in Lugdunum (Lyons) and received a goodwill delegation from the Senate, which included his uncle Claudius, whom he is said to have ducked in the river Rhône. This is very much Caligula’s style for he had organized a speaking contest and the local punishment for a poor performance was exactly that. Uncle Claudius had a speech impediment. He also conduced an auction of imperial property, obliging those who attended to pay crazy prices; a pattern was beginning to emerge. For his German Triumph, Gallic slaves were produced with their hair dyed red and trained to mutter German. The next year, AD 40, in the spring, Caligula assembled an army at Boulogne for an invasion of Britain, but the operation was cancelled on the grounds that the exiled son of the British king Cunobellinus (Cymbeline) had crossed the Channel to offer submission to the power of Rome. The truth was that the troops, fearful of an expedition across the ‘ocean’ to what they regarded as the end of the world, to conquer an island which had not fallen to the great Julius Caesar, where the possibility of loot was minimal and which was inhabited by a barbaric people who painted their skin blue and sacrificed children at the start of battles (a habit of the Druids), refused to budge. Caligula ordered them to collect sea-shells,musculi, by the sea-shore, or was this a misinterpretation of a command to the engineers to pack up their huts, also musculi? Certainly he decreed decimation – one in ten of the soldiers to be killed – certainly this order was ignored. Thus ended Caligula’s military pranks.

The reign had begun so well. The Roman people welcomed the untainted scion of a popular family (on his father’s side) and the survivor of an imperial house where violent and premature death had been the norm with an outburst of joie de vivre. (Inscriptions discovered in Lusitania and Asia of oaths of allegiance show that the accession of young Gaius was popular throughout the Empire.) The Senate, mobbed by enthusiastic citizens, voted him all the powers Augustus had accumulated and some which Tiberius had declined. Romans celebrated in the way they most enjoyed, slaughtering 160,000 animals. Caligula responded piously and generously. He buried the late Emperor with an expensive funeral, which would have shocked the deceased, and wept during his own funeral oration. He sailed over in rough weather to collect the remains of his mother and brother. He changed the name of the month of September to ‘Germanicus’,35 heaped as many honours on his grandmother Antonia as Livia had received in a lifetime, upgraded his stumbling, bumbling uncle Claudius from mere knight to fellow consul, adopted (yet another) Tiberius, recalled all exiles, abolished censorship and, to ensure that he would be loved in the provinces, restored client kings and gave them their back taxes. Twice he gave banquets for all the knights and senators and soon, of course, he had blued his inheritance.

One folly must have cost a pretty denarius or two. He assembled a bunch of merchant ships, bracketed them in pairs at anchor in a lane about three miles long between Baiae and the new port of Puteoli, covering them with earth and planks to make a sort of artificial Appian Way, and drove up and down it for two days in a chariot, wearing the breastplate of Alexander the Great. After this story Suetonius remarks: ‘So much for Gaius the Emperor, now for Gaius the monster.’

In October of the year of his accession Caligula became seriously ill and the people feared for the life of their new benign young prince and prayed for him. He recovered. Historians have tried to find clinical evidence of insanity in Caligula from his behaviour, which could be explained, it was thought, only in this way, but his two most recent biographers36 do not agree. Professor Ferrill, paraphrasing Acton in a manner Caligula himself would have enjoyed, writes: ‘Power corrupts but absolute power is more exciting.’ Caligula is best understood as an enfant allowed to be infinitely terrible by an obsequious Senate and subject to no restraint or authority, until stopped in his tracks by the daggers of the inevitable assassins. He is surely the classic example of a man dominated by ‘the child within’. After the death of his sister Drusilla, with whom he had a passionate and enduring affair, and who was thought to have been a restraining influence, Caligula was utterly alone in the world; although he had been one of seven children, four sons and three daughters, the others were all now dead or banished.

He was a murderous child star with a licence to kill. His nearest relations had been murdered and his last relationship had been with a vicious old man, convoluted by hate and mistrust, his moral tutor. His only playmate and friend was Herod Agrippa, a charming but feckless young man whose ancestor was the greatest family murderer and torturer of them all, Herod the Great. Caligula was a (very) sick comedian, playing the ultimate in practical jokes, rather than a criminal madman; nor was he an idiot, otherwise he could not have ruled in Rome. His targets were only ever from the upper class and the toll was not as high as posterity has imagined.37 It was observed at the time that the home lives of the Emperors only affected those unfortunate or ambitious enough to be close to them. The horrors and high jinks at the courts of Caligula and Nero occurred in isolation and during both their reigns the people prospered, and both were popular with the plebs. (Caligula restored to the assembly powers carefully withdrawn from them by Augustus.) The Roman Empire ran on automatic pilot.

Caligula was a terrible tease – which was his undoing – and he used his caprice to amuse and terrorize his court. But he never made his horse a consul; though he said he could. And he never had any of his guests at his dinner parties killed; though he said he could. He pushed outrage to the edge of reality, dressing up – he loved dressing up – with the insignia of a god and setting up a shrine to the Egyptian goddess Isis as a certain way of offending Roman sensibility. (Echoes of the dreaded Cleopatra.) As a revenue raiser (he said) he converted part of the palace into a brothel, with Roman matrons and their daughters as the personnel. He conducted auctions, and once a rich old knight nodded off during the proceedings and woke to find he had bought a clutch of gladiators for 9 million sesterces. One can imagine his planning these complicated tricks with a satanic giggle, but more dangerous was his pitiless pursuit of legacies and New Year gifts (hence the suicides). When one man, thought to be rich, harried to his death by the Emperor, turned out to have left no money, Caligula commented: ‘Oh dear, he died in vain’. This sort of remark, repeated, as he had intended, in the taverns of Rome, endeared him to the masses, who saw him as an ally in a sort of class war.

Like many rich, spoilt young Romans he indulged in nostalgie de la boue, playing hookey with his guards, rampaging, in disguise, with his cronies in squalid parts of the city till the early hours, occasionally ending up in a prison. If Caligula was a danger to himself, he was death not only to his imagined enemies but also to his obvious allies. One man who had vowed to sacrifice his life for the Emperor’s recovery was forced to do just that, in public; another had promised to fight a gladiator, Caligula made him do so. Of course, as Tiberius had predicted he had his co-heir, Gemellus, done away with38 but he also forced his father-in-law and the faithful Macro into suicide. The latter had only tried to help the young Emperor, whose accession he had organized, with advice, perhaps with too much advice, which irritated Caligula. Philo the Jew, a contemporary witness, relates how Caligula remarked on Macro’s approach, ‘Here comes the teacher of one who no longer needs to learn . . . who holds that an Emperor should obey his subjects, who rates himself versed in the art of government and an instructor therein . . . And then does anyone dare to teach me, who even while in the womb, that workshop of nature, was modelled as an Emperor . . . ?’ Thus the authentic voice of tyranny, yes, but of madness . . . Caligula gave the downfall of Macro a typical twist, having had an affair with his wife, he accused him of being her pimp.

Caligula’s cruelty was not wanton or casual like that of Tiberius, but planned, even painstaking, outrageous and, to him, enjoyable . . . His cruelty was political – ‘Let them hate me as long as they fear me’ – and never far from his thinking even with his lovers – ‘You’ll lose this beautiful head whenever I decide’ – as he kissed them on the neck. Suetonius also tells how he forced parents to attend the executions of their children and once made a father come to dinner immediately afterwards, joking throughout the meal.39He gloated over the deaths of his victims, requiring the torturers to take their time – ‘Strike so he may feel he is dying’. His capacity for horror appeared to be limitless. He once ordered the guts and arms and legs of a senatorial victim to be stacked up in front of him.

It would be unbalanced to imply that Caligula’s only activities were in the area of cruelty and outrage. He did rule – amazingly – for three years and nine months in Rome and attended to a few of the standard duties of an Emperor. He rebuilt, for instance, the burnt theatre of Pompey, removing, of course, Pompey’s name from the façade. His foreign policy was quite as bizarre as his domestic, over which he had totally alienated the Senate. Apart from the absurd expedition to the north with a quarter of a million men under arms, and baggage including women and actors, to construct, it seems, a lighthouse in Boulogne, still standing in the sixteenth century, and the consolidation of Mauretania (north-west Africa), which was happening anyway, his most significant move in the Empire was nearly to provoke a Jewish rebellion.

Caligula found particular pleasure in annoying the Jews, although he had honoured his friend ‘Herod’ (actually M. Julius) Agrippa by adding the tetrarchy of Philip to his kingdom, to the fury of his sister, Herodias. (The descendants of Herod the Great were no more fond of each other than those of his patron Augustus.) On his way to take up his new kingdom, Agrippa stopped over in Alexandria and to encourage his own people, feuding as always with the Greeks of that city, thought it would be a good idea to parade through the streets with his bodyguard. This started the first recorded pogrom, which the Roman governor made no effort to suppress. Both parties sent delegations to Rome to complain about each other and were received cordially by Caligula. The Jews, headed by the philosopher Philo, were told to come back later.40 Months passed and in the meantime a Roman procurator in Jamnia, Judaea, reported to the Emperor, who had decided he was a god, at least in the East, that the Jews had destroyed an altar erected to him in that city. (The same man had arrested Agrippa for owing Tiberius a million sesterces.) Caligula decided the Jews should be taught a lesson and commissioned Petronius, governor of Syria, to build an enormous statue of himself, dressed as Jupiter, and to install it in the Holy of Holies in the Temple at Jerusalem, a place so special that it was entered only by the high priest, only on Yom Kippur. If necessary the governor could use two of his four legions (12,000 men) for this purpose.

This ultimate in outrage has been held as a sign, nay proof, of Caligula’s insanity but we may consider, granted his previous performance in this area, that it was par for the course, for Caligula had the devilish cunning to hit not just a nerve, but the nerve of his Jewish subjects. Petronius did as he was told up to a point, moving his legions south to the border of Galilee, but wrote to his Emperor that the Jews were so upset that they were neglecting the harvest; i.e., a revolt was imminent with consequent loss of revenue. His only friend, Herod Agrippa, who had returned to Rome, was appalled, hearbroken, and possibly had a stroke, when he heard the news. He sent Caligula a long letter rehearsing imperial policy towards the Jews, and out of friendship Caligula countermanded the instructions to Petronius, on the understanding that the Jews would not interfere with his new cult outside Jerusalem; but, according to Philo, he had secretly decided to renege on the deal and planned to bring the statue with him on his forthcoming trip to the East. Fortunately, he died.

Caligula was a (conscious) artist in making enemies, especially out of friends. He lost Agrippa and now his freedman, Callistus, a responsible figure, turned against him, appalled at his master’s political folly. But it was not this, or a high-minded conspiracy, of which there had been many, which caused his death. When a man possessed of absolute power insists publicly on immediate sexual congress with the wife of another, he offends. When after the adultery he returns and comments to the husband that his wife’s performance was inadequate, he offends absolutely.’41

Cornelius Sabinus, a tribune in the Praetorian Guard, was one of the young husbands humiliated in this way by Caligula. Another conspirator was Cassius Chaerea, a soldier of a certain age, distinguished in the Rhine mutiny of AD 14, where Caligula had been present as a little boy. Like General Patton, the American tank general in the Second World War, he had a high squeaky voice, which Caligula imitated remorselessly. He taunted him for effeminacy, and embarrassed him by inventing the daily passwords for the palace, which were in his charge, like ‘Venus’ and ‘Priapus’; not too much provocation for an assassination, one might think, but enough.

On the last day of the Palatine Games, 24 January AD 41, the Emperor, while sacrificing a flamingo, spilled some blood on his toga. He had a hangover that morning and perhaps his hand was unsteady. Persuaded to adjourn for lunch, around one o’clock, by the Senator Asprenas, he was being carried up to the palace via an underground tunnel in his litter, when he stopped to talk to a group of young aristocrats from Asia who were practising a Trojan war dance they were to perform for him later that night. (They had been ‘planted’.) In the confines of the tunnel and unprotected by his German guards the Emperor was temporarily vulnerable . . .

Chaerea struck the first blow, Sabinus the second, in the chest, then again and again – thirty times – he was stabbed by the patrician assassins, finally in the genitals, surely by Sabinus? His litter-bearers tried to defend him with their poles – he was not the only bad man to be loved by his servants – but they were no match for his determined killers. The Germans arrived too late to save him but killed a few of his assassins, Asprenas and another senator among the bystanders for good measure. They also killed one conspirator who could not resist looking at his dead body, ‘for the sheer pleasure of it’. A praetorian tribune killed his wife Caesonia42 and then their little daughter, Julia Drusilla, was picked up by her feet and had her brains dashed out against a wall.

‘On this day,’ wrote the historian Dio Cassius, ‘Caligula learned by experience that he was not a god.’

Caesonia had been found weeping over the dead body of her husband. She was the only person in Rome who wept. Caligula was the first Roman Emperor not to receive a state funeral. His legacy was nil, though dramatists and film-makers have been attracted to his extravagant life. A movie has been made about Caligula, so salacious that the egregious Gore Vidal, not known for his sensitivity in this regard, had his name removed from the credits. Malcolm McDowell, the actor, is better-looking than Caligula, but the manic laugh, the exaggerated grief for his sister, the violent changes of mood and costume are authentic and likely. The erotic scenes are juicy. The sets glitter with convincing replicas of marble, gilt and porphyry, the floors are spattered with stage blood and the entrails of the tortured. In the palaces of Caligula the blood and the spunk and the shrieks of pain were real.

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