Biographies & Memoirs

ONE

Childhood and Youth

THE LEGACY OF AUGUSTUS

Gaius Caesar Germanicus was born on 31 August in the year A.D. 12 to Germanicus and the elder Agrippina. At the time no one could have foreseen that at the age of only twenty-four this young man, known by then under his nickname, “Caligula,” would become Roman emperor. On 18 March 37, he would become ruler of an empire that spanned virtually the entire known world of antiquity, from Syria to the English Channel, from North Africa to the Danube region, and from Spain to Asia Minor. No one could have anticipated how many intrigues and murders, trials and executions would take place in Rome, the center of that Empire, in the two and a half decades leading up to his succession. Nor could anyone have possibly imagined in the year 12 how Gaius would come to exercise his rule in the end.

At the time of his birth, his great-grandfather Augustus was still in power. Although aristocrats criticized Augustus in private, they were all agreed on the most important achievement of his long sole rule (31 B.C.–A.D. 14): After almost a hundred years of violent political conflict and civil wars, which had affected the entire Mediterranean region and could be described in retrospect as a process of gathering monopolization of political power, Augustus had brought peace. Admittedly in doing so he had also ended the old collective rule of the aristocracy that had characterized the Roman Republic and functioned with great success for centuries, replacing it with a form of sole rule—something that had clearly become unavoidable. His exceptional position, which he had usurped during the civil war against Marcus Antonius, was based on military might, but he had not given it the form of monarchy, showing a restraint for which many of his senatorial coequals gave him credit. Instead he had chosen the term “principate,” which allowed him to appear as merely one of the first among citizens. At the same time he had reanimated the old political institutions and practices of the Republic: The Senate met and debated; the magistrates in Rome and the provincial governors performed their tasks; the people assembled, voted, and decided—and acted on important questions only as Augustus wished. The emperor’s unrestricted control over the military was symbolized by his bodyguard, the elite Praetorians, whose presence and its import could not be overlooked. Nevertheless he had caused his unique position to be confirmed in Rome and the provinces in the traditional legal forms, showing that although he had drained the old Republican institutions of real power he still needed them to justify his authority. Thus a curious situation had arisen, one that demanded great communicative skill from all participants: The senators had to act as if they still possessed a degree of power that they no longer had, while the emperor had to exercise his power in such a way as to dissemble his possession of it.

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Figure 2. Bust of Caligula. Heraklion, Archaeological Museum, 64.

How did this contradictory, historically unique combination of republic and monarchy come about? One social and one political reason can be named. Like all highly developed pre-modern cultures, ancient Rome had a stratified society, with a deep division between the nobility and the non-noble population. The exercise of authority, whether in the military or in the civic sphere, had always been limited to members of the upper class. Even though the common people were included in the political process during the Republic, it was precisely their behavior that reserved authority for the noble families. For although elections were held regularly and were technically open to non-noble candidates, again and again those elected to political office (and thus to positions of military leadership) came almost exclusively from the same noble families. They were evidently the only men whom the common people were prepared to obey. Every emperor faced this situation. He needed the leading members of the nobility to command the Roman legions throughout the Empire and to perform civic functions in Rome itself. This group was identical, however, to the approximately six hundred men who composed the membership of the Senate—the most important Republican political institution—and the core of the Roman aristocracy, with whom an emperor thus had to have some kind of workable entente.

A second reason for the situation was more banal, but just as important. It involved the mortal danger to which all participants were exposed. The civil wars of the late Republic had shown what ruthlessness military leaders were capable of in dealing with their fellow aristocrats. Since the time of Sulla there had been repeated proscriptions in which political and personal opponents had simply been liquidated. Conversely, however, it had become apparent that in Rome bayonets did not make a good throne, so to speak. The fate of the all-powerful dictator Caesar, the adoptive father of Augustus, had shown that the aristocratic Roman resistance to all forms of monarchy could stiffen into assassination, even within the circle of the ruler’s most trusted followers. Conspiracy and murder, ever justifiable for removing tyrants, became swords of Damocles hanging over the head of every emperor from then on. As the coming centuries were to show, more than a few would fall victim to them.

Augustus’s answer to this situation was the paradoxical establishment of sole rule through restoration of the old Republic. His particular achievement consisted in demonstrating that such a thing was possible. Augustus’s precedent, however, proved exceedingly difficult to follow. Attempts to reproduce it became the dominant feature of the period after his death in the year 14, and thus also of the world in which his great-grandson Caligula came of age. Two central problems above all rapidly became apparent: the personal inadequacy of possible successors for the difficult role of emperor, and the complicating politicization of the imperial family (a process that could be observed even during Augustus’s lifetime).

Augustus’s style of ruling demanded both a high degree of dissimulation regarding his own position and great skill in handling power. For several centuries a social system had been established based on an immediate link between political power and social status. The members of the aristocracy, whose goal in life—as in other pre-modern aristocratic societies—was to acquire honor and fame, depended for that purpose on exercising political functions and holding office as magistrates. Success in these endeavors determined an individual’s ranking in the social hierarchy of the aristocracy, and this status was visible in many aspects of everyday life: in the order in which senators voted; in seating at theatrical performances in Rome; in the number of followers who paid morning calls at the home of a successful aristocratic politician and accompanied him to the Forum; in the location and size of his house, and in the luxury displayed there, especially at dinners and banquets.

One condition of Augustus’s success was his willingness, in social situations, to dispense with displays of the political power he had acquired. In daily life he behaved like an ordinary senator, maintaining friendships with other aristocrats as if they were equals, refraining from appearing in public with a large retinue, and residing in a house on the Palatine Hill that was reported to be relatively modest by aristocratic standards. Via this renunciation of honors Augustus was evidently following a conscious strategy, to ensure that the aristocracy accepted his position. In so doing he overcame the typical aristocratic mentality, and he was successful primarily because his contemporaries retained their traditional outlook. This was an extraordinary achievement on his part and, as the subsequent history would show, one that few of his successors were willing or able to emulate.

Augustus’s willingness to forgo special honors was connected with a style of ruling that dispensed entirely with giving orders to members of the Senate, but nevertheless offered sufficient clues for them to grasp what his wishes were. Because of his superior position of power the senators automatically obeyed his intimations, in a thoroughly opportunistic manner that sometimes even anticipated any actual hint or sign. Yet it was decisive that traditional forms were observed. Thus it was sufficient for the emperor to break off his personal friendship with a recalcitrant senator and deny him admittance to his house. Immediately other senators would see to it that he was charged with a crime and brought to trial; as a result the careers of the emperor’s “enemies” soon came to an end, and often their lives as well. The art in Augustus’s dealings with the aristocracy consisted in making such serious cases the rare exception, even though a whole series of conspiracies against him were discovered and exposed.

Augustus implemented wise policies on particular issues, such as increasing the security of the Empire and its infrastructure, adding architectural adornments to Rome, or keeping its citizens supplied with grain. But fundamentally his grip on success came not from policy, but from his personal ability to master paradoxical demands in communicating with the aristocracy: ruling without giving orders, wielding power without appearing to do so. At the end of his life, it is reported, he sent for the members of his inner circle, delivered a cynical commentary on the times, and asked for a round of applause, like a star retiring from the stage. His immediate successor would demonstrate that such acting skills were rare among the Roman aristocracy.

THE POLITICAL FAMILY

Because Augustus had not introduced a monarchy in a constitutional sense, arranging instead for the institutions of the Republic to grant him special powers tailored to his own needs, it was an open question who would legally succeed him. The characteristic motto of hereditary monarchies—“The king is dead; long live the king!”—did not apply to the Roman Empire. In Theodor Mommsen’s classic phrase, “by law the Principate died with the princeps.” Every time an emperor died, someone had to emerge as the next wielder of supreme power, to be proclaimed emperor by the army, and to be confirmed by the Senate. In the worst-case scenario—as it played out after Nero’s death in the year 68 or that of Commodus in 192—that meant the outbreak of a new civil war, until one of the claimants emerged as victor. Normally an emperor would make arrangements for the succession during his lifetime. It was crucial, however, that in principle he had a free hand to choose a successor. To start with, the identity of the next emperor was an open question.

Usually it was not only the family fortune that was passed on from father to son in aristocratic families in ancient Rome; sons also inherited the close relationships within the aristocratic society, alliances known as “friendships,” as well as any political prestige that the father had enjoyed with the people of Rome and the soldiers of the Empire. If the emperor had a son or had adopted one, that son was thus automatically destined to be the successor. Women, especially wives or daughters of an emperor, could also play a crucial role in the question of succession if they had a son from a previous marriage or had given birth to a grandson of the emperor. As a result family relationships acquired great political significance, which could destabilize the position of a reigning emperor as well as support it.

Although Augustus had no son of his own, he did have a daughter, Julia, from a former marriage. His second wife, Livia, for her part had brought two sons with her into the marriage: Tiberius, the later emperor, and Drusus (known as Drusus I, or Drusus the Elder). Augustus chose to signal and secure his choice by arranging for the presumptive successor to marry Julia: first his nephew Marcellus and then, after Marcellus’s early demise, his chief general and associate, Marcus Agrippa. When Agrippa also died in 12B.C. Augustus adopted his two grandsons from Julia and Agrippa’s marriage, Gaius and Lucius, who thus became candidates for the throne. Both of them also predeceased Augustus, however, so that the choice finally fell on his stepson Tiberius. He, too, had to marry Julia, and of all the candidates was the one who actually lived to become her father’s successor.

The politics of the imperial family had, however, produced other aspirants for the throne. Augustus had married off his second stepson, Drusus, to his niece, Antonia II (Antonia Minor, Antonia the Younger). At the time of Drusus’s death in 9 B.C. they had two sons—Claudius, the later emperor, and Germanicus—who were thus great-nephews of the emperor. Claudius received little notice initially because of a physical handicap, but for Germanicus a marriage was arranged with Agrippina the Elder, Augustus’s granddaughter from the marriage of Julia and Agrippa. Germanicus and Agrippina’s children included three sons: Nero (not the later emperor), another Drusus (III), and Caligula. At the time of Augustus’s death they were all still children, but unlike Tiberius they acquired the prestige of the imperial family by virtue of being the first emperor’s biological great-grandchildren and great-great-nephews. Augustus “solved” this problem by requiring Tiberius to adopt Germanicus, thereby opening the way to the succession for his great-grandchildren. The fate of Tiberius’s own son, Drusus II (Drusus the Younger) remained undecided. An attempt was made to resolve it by arranging further marriages between the different branches of the imperial family. Thus Drusus the Younger married Livilla, Augustus’s great-niece, while Livilla’s daughter in her turn married one of Germanicus’s sons, Nero. One last grandson of Augustus, named Agrippa Postumus, from the marriage of Julia and Agrippa, had fallen into disfavor for reasons that remain unclear. He was murdered in the year 14, possibly on Augustus’s own initiative or that of Livia or Tiberius.

These complicated family relationships—difficult not only for modern prosopographers, but probably also for contemporaries to keep straight—signal a central problem that resulted directly from Augustus’s construction of the Principate. Because he chose to forgo a hereditary monarchy and thus the concomitant legal clarification of the succession, he found it difficult to control the political prestige derived from blood relationships to the emperor. Rivalries could arise within the imperial family, which in turn offered ideal openings for groups of aristocrats to back possible successors. Sometimes these alliances developed into conspiracies. Augustus’s own daughter, Julia, started the ball rolling. In the year 2 B.C. she was banished because of her contacts with young aristocrats in Rome, including Iullus Antonius, the son of the triumvir Marcus Antonius, who had been Augustus’s last remaining rival in the civil war. Whether adultery was involved, as the official charge claimed, or a political conspiracy, as many suspected, is in the last analysis irrelevant. If the daughter of the emperor, whose three marriages had created presumptive candidates to succeed him, entered into a close relationship with a high-ranking aristocrat, that in itself amounted to an important political development that threatened the emperor, regardless of what her own motives may have been.

Similar events would occur repeatedly over the decades that followed. All these conspiracies, real or imagined, and the punitive reactions to them meant that when the emperor Nero died in the year 68, not a single descendant of Augustus remained alive. This complete disappearance of the imperial family can hardly be judged in moral terms. It resulted from the political relevance of those familial relationships and the potential mortal danger menacing all the emperor’s kin.

A CHILDHOOD AS “LITTLE BOOTS”

Caligula spent his first seven years in Germania, Rome, Greece, and the Orient. As many sources attest, his father, Germanicus, who had risen to the status of prince through Augustus’s adoption arrangements, enjoyed great popularity in all parts of society on account of his good looks and genial personality; he was made commander of the Roman legions on the Rhine in the year 13. His task there was to lead a campaign against the Germanic tribes east of the river, who had inflicted a major defeat on the Romans in the Teutoburg Forest a few years earlier. Germanicus’s wife, Agrippina, followed him, and soon afterwards their small son was sent north to join them, too. He thus spent his early years in a military camp. Supposedly it was Agrippina, known to take an active interest in military affairs, who hit on the idea of dressing little Gaius in a kind of miniature legionary’s uniform, as a form of flattery to the soldiers and designed to win their affection. He acquired his nickname, “Caligula,” from the little soldier’s boots he wore, and it stuck to him for his entire life.

Agrippina had anticipated the soldiers’ reaction correctly. The little boy became the favorite of the legions’ camp. After the death of Augustus, when the armies of the Rhine mounted a dangerous mutiny and tried to proclaim Germanicus emperor even against his will, the child is thought to have played a decisive role. When the precarious situation prompted the commander to send his wife and child to safety in Trier with their retinue, the solders are supposed to have become ashamed and called off the uprising. According to another source they took Caligula hostage to prevent his removal from the camp.

In early summer of the year 17 the family returned to Rome, where Germanicus was honored with a triumph for his campaigns against the Germanic tribes. Such a procession to celebrate a commander’s victories was the traditional apex of an aristocrat’s career, and a huge enhancement to his family’s prestige, but a goal achieved by very few. Germanicus’s triumph is said to have been staged with exceptional pomp. Trophies, prisoners, and depictions of the mountains, rivers, and battlefields were included, so that the Roman public could get a vivid picture of the popular general’s feats. Caligula, not quite five years old, and his four siblings stood at the center of the grand display with which the city celebrated Rome’s military success in the North and honored Germanicus: “To the spectators the effect was heightened by the noble figure of the commander himself,” writes Tacitus in his Annals, “and by the five children who loaded his chariot” (2.41.3).

The stay in Rome lasted only a few months. Already in the fall of the same year Germanicus was given the task of reorganizing governmental affairs in the eastern part of the Empire. Again his wife, Agrippina, accompanied him, and so did Caligula, while the other children remained behind in Rome. The trip turned out to be a combination of educational journey and ruler’s progress. In addition to his military skills Germanicus is reported to have been very knowledgeable about Greek and Roman traditions and well versed in literature; he is thought to have written comic plays in Greek himself. The group visited the site of the naval battle at Actium, where Augustus (then still known as Octavian) had defeated Marcus Antonius, Germanicus’s grandfather. The next stop was Athens, followed by the islands of Euboea and then Lesbos, where Agrippina gave birth to another child, Livilla. They then traveled through northwestern Asia Minor to Byzantium and the Black Sea before returning to the Aegean coast. After making an excursion to Troy the family headed for Syria next, making intermediate stops that included Rhodes. Everywhere the potential successor to the throne, his wife, and their small son were received with great honor. As we know from surviving inscriptions and coins, several cities used the opportunity to commemorate Germanicus and Agrippina as deities, a form of honoring rulers that had a long tradition in the Greek East. Twenty years later the town of Assos on the coast of Asia Minor reminded Caligula, then emperor, that he had first set foot on the soil of the province of Asia there in the company of his father.

From Syria the group proceeded to a further country under Roman influence: Armenia, where a new king was crowned. After seeing to the reorganization of some parts of the Roman administration, particularly in Cappadocia and Commagene, Germanicus proceeded with his family to the famous ancient city of Alexandria. It was here that the Ptolemaic kings had resided in their magnificent palaces, but also where Caesar and Antonius had lived with Queen Cleopatra. The inhabitants of the city, which had served as an opposite pole to Rome during the civil war, staged great festivities to celebrate Germanicus’s arrival. After an excursion up the Nile to see Memphis and the Pyramids, the family returned to Syria.

There the journey came to a sudden and tragic end. Germanicus fell ill and died on 10 October of the year 19, at the age of thirty-three. An open quarrel had broken out with Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the governor of Syria, and as he lay dying Germanicus accused the governor of poisoning him. A rumor to this effect quickly spread and soon acquired the added detail that the actual instigator had been the emperor Tiberius himself. It was said he had plotted the murder of his adopted son because Germanicus’s great popularity with the common people and soldiers had turned him into a rival.

On his father’s death Caligula, then a boy of seven, was thrust into the spotlight for the last time during his childhood. He was once again at the center of extraordinary events, but now of a sad kind. When Agrippina, accompanied by Caligula and Livilla, arrived in Brindisi with the urn containing her husband’s ashes, she was met by a huge crowd of mourners. Two cohorts of the Praetorian Guard provided an escort for the family’s onward journey. Drusus, the son of Tiberius, and Claudius, Germanicus’s brother, came as far as the town of Tarracina to meet them, accompanied by the four other children, the consuls, the Senate, and citizens from the city. They escorted the procession back to Rome, where Germanicus’s remains were interred in the Mausoleum of Augustus. Vast crowds of Romans lined the streets for his funeral.

For Caligula, his father’s death was a major turning point in his life in more respects than one, for it affected not only his family. He had spent his first seven years in an elevated position in a milieu dominated entirely by monarchic institutions. The role played by a Roman general in war was monarchical, and the position of a Roman governor in the provinces resembled that of a monarch. At the legionaries’ camp on the Rhine, in the triumph at Rome, and on the journey through the eastern parts of the Empire, Caligula had always been presented to a public that transferred some of its veneration for the outstanding prince Germanicus to his small son. The general popularity that “Little Boots” thus enjoyed became visible again eighteen years later in the enthusiasm with which the population greeted his accession to the throne. In the intervening years, however, Caligula would have very different experiences. The admiration showered on him when he stood beside a future emperor gave way to a long phase marked by peril and mortal enmities. Along with the rest of his family Caligula was exposed to such threats, which cost his mother and brothers their lives.

CONDITIONS IN ANCIENT ROME
UNDER TIBERIUS

The reign of Tiberius (14–37) was of central importance not only to young Caligula personally, but also to the development of the emperor’s position, which had implications for Caligula’s own later rule. Difficult as it is to sum up the character and actions of the second Roman emperor, one conclusion is irrefutable: The legacy left him by his stepfather and adoptive father, Augustus, required the emperor to play a complex role, and Tiberius never grew into it. One could say that while Augustus did play the part like a consummate actor, Tiberius took it all at face value. If the former princeps had exercised his power vis-à-vis the aristocracy by pretending that he did not possess it, then the latter had the power but did not exercise it. And if during the rule of Augustus the senators could pretend that they were exercising power that they did not possess, under Tiberius they possessed power that they could not exercise.

The new emperor’s first step had been to make sure he controlled the armed forces; the Praetorian Guard and the legions had to swear an oath of allegiance to him. From time to time he summoned the guard to drill in front of the assembled senators as a visible demonstration of his power. He disapproved, however, of the evident result of this situation, already discernible under Augustus—namely that the members of the aristocracy, whose chances for advancement depended to a great extent on the emperor’s favor, attempted to guess what he wanted and then behaved opportunistically to gratify him. Tiberius acted as if the Republic had been restored in actual fact. He frequently had the Senate debate matters related to the real exercise of power without letting the senators know his own position, but was then highly displeased when they reached decisions counter to his wishes—and he let the senators involved feel his wrath. Thus, Tiberius failed to manage the paradoxical situation of sole rule and Republican institutions, as he might have done had he followed Augustus’s model and resorted to ambiguous communication. Instead, he acted in all sincerity, confronting the senators with contradictory demands: They were to accept him as emperor, but also act as if he did not exist, as if the Senate truly remained the real center of power, as it had been in the time of the Republic.

The difficulties that ensued as the emperor and the Roman aristocracy tried to communicate with one another in the Senate are vividly rendered in Tacitus’s account of the reign of Tiberius in the Annals. To carry out the emperor’s will without knowing what that will was required considerable skill on the part of the senators. In a telling example from the year 15, when the Senate was debating a matter of direct personal concern to him, Tiberius declared that he would vote under oath and called on the other senators to do likewise. Calpurnius Piso responded: “In what order will you register your opinion, Caesar? If first, I shall have something to follow; if last of all, I fear I may inadvertently find myself on the other side” (Tac. Ann. 1.74.5–6). This man known for his courage brought up the problem that usually went unmentioned, in conjunction with a clear indication of his readiness to submit to the emperor’s wishes, but, as Tacitus reports, at the same time he could not avoid embarrassing Tiberius.

The situation was worsened by a change in the traditional relationships in the Roman aristocracy. These had been governed by a multi-polar system of political friendships: Friends visited one another at home for the salutatio, a formal morning reception, and for banquets in the evenings; they supported one another with the votes of their clients at elections or votes in the Senate; and they left each other bequests in their wills. The existence of an emperor strangely altered this situation in that there was no alternative to friendship with the emperor. All aristocrats were now the emperor’s “friends” or, at the very least, no one could afford to be on bad terms with him publicly. Of course there was a distinction between those men close to the emperor, who enjoyed his particular trust, and all the rest. But the traditional forms of interaction that symbolized friendship were now extended to the entire aristocracy.

It is reported that under Augustus the entire Senate, all the members of the equestrian order, and many of the common people appeared regularly for the morning receptions at his house, turning them into a time-consuming mass event. The emperor had a decisive influence on the political offices granted to a senator, which counted as a “favor” or “kindness” (beneficium), an act of imperial friendship. In return the number of bequests to the emperor rose enormously, and the emperor remembered all aristocrats of highest rank in his own will. “Friendship” with the emperor thus acquired a new function, as the all-important mechanism for regulating relationships within the aristocracy. The traditional rivalries once expressed in terms of direct amity or hostility were now transformed into a competition for access to the emperor and his favor.

Here, too, Augustus had succeeded in unifying contraries by using the new hierarchical system of relationships based on the emperor’s favor but behaving as if it were still the old one of close personal friendships between equals. Once again ambiguity in communication between the emperor and the aristocracy was the result. The emperor had to act as if every aristocrat were his friend, and the aristocrats pretended that they were all friends of the emperor, even though it was clear that opportunism was foremost in everyone’s mind and that below the surface, feelings of genuine hostility toward the emperor existed, as became evident now and then when conspiracies were uncovered.

Tiberius is reported to have tried to withdraw as much as possible from such traditional contacts with the aristocracy and the opportunistic behavior they encouraged. Thus at his morning receptions he received the senators as a group, a step that simplified the procedure but greatly limited the possibilities for private communication with the emperor. He is also said to have systematically avoided contact with senators on other occasions, by hardly granting private interviews. Clearly he was helpless in the face of the usual flattery, which he reportedly detested.

Two central events from Tiberius’s reign can be explained by his attempt to demand political decisions from the Senate that because of the altered center of power it was no longer able to make and by his withdrawal from personal communication with the aristocracy—that is, by his manner of being emperor without being willing or able to play the part required of him. These events were the treason trials and the rise of Sejanus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard.

Since under Tiberius rivalries within the aristocracy could not take the form of a competition for imperial favor that was regulated and guided from above, a new and extremely ugly form of behavior arose: intrigues and denunciation. The lex maiestatis had originally been applied to crimes against the “sovereignty” (maiestas) of the Roman polity: mutiny in the army, fomenting rebellion among the people, or gross abuse of office by magistrates. Augustus applied this law to crimes against the emperor as well, in modified form, and in the beginning Tiberius allowed such charges to be raised as a way of prosecuting the authors of vituperative attacks on him. It transpired that an aristocrat unscrupulous enough could use the charge that such a crime had been committed as a way of getting the otherwise inaccessible emperor’s attention. As the aim was to appear solicitous of his safety, the more serious the alleged case, the better. At the same time the tactic provided a relatively safe way of eliminating rivals from the field. Rewards could be earned, too, since there was no public prosecutor in ancient Rome; if a defendant was found guilty, his accuser received a portion of his assets.

A typical case, reported by Tacitus, shows that allowing such charges endangered the lives of the defendants but could have a grotesque ripple effect as well. The victim in this instance was a high-ranking knight named Titius Sabinus, and his accusers were four senators of Praetorian rank. Their ambition was to become consuls, and they hoped that by pressing charges successfully against Sabinus they would win the support of his enemy Sejanus, the powerful Praetorian prefect. Lucanius Latiaris, the man on best terms with Sabinus among the four, invited him to his house and began complaining about Sejanus; he then went on to heap abuse on the emperor, and ultimately Sabinus joined in. Simultaneously the three others hid in the space between the roof and the ceiling so that they could serve as witnesses. The group then filed charges, which resulted in a death sentence and Sabinus’s execution. “In Rome, the anxiety and panic, the reticence of men toward their nearest and dearest, had never been greater,” Tacitus reports. “Meetings and conversations, the ears of friend and stranger were alike avoided; even things mute and inanimate—the very walls and roofs—were eyed with circumspection” (Tac. Ann. 4.69.3).

At the start it was often men newly raised to the rank of senator who chose this method of advancing their own careers, while their victims tended to be members of old aristocratic families whose ancestry made them potential rivals of the emperor. The crucial factor, however, was that the whole Senate heard the trials and had no choice but to condemn its own members if the emperor did not intervene. The trials thus became a process by which the aristocracy was destroying itself. Tiberius had clearly lost the ability to assess the relative importance of each case. Suetonius reports in his Life of Tiberius that the emperor was dominated by a dread of conspiracies—and the more trials of this nature took place, the better founded that dread seemed to be.

The increase of flattery, intrigue, denunciation, and fear among the aristocrats—to which Tiberius’s own behavior unwittingly made a decisive contribution—now led the emperor to withdraw entirely from aristocratic society, and even from Rome itself. In the year 26 he moved to Campania, and the following year to the Isle of Capri. Until his death in 37 he never set foot in Rome again. It was an astonishing step: The ruler of the Roman Empire retired from Rome, the center of his realm, and from then on ran the government by correspondence. His retreat, which documented Tiberius’s failure in the role of emperor, went hand in hand with the rise of Sejanus. As Praetorian prefect he was head of the emperor’s bodyguard, and thus carried out an important military function. In addition, however, Sejanus possessed to a high degree the very skills so notably lacking in the emperor: He managed to his own benefit the sometimes unscrupulous opportunism that dominated aristocrats’ behavior; he used the web of intrigue for his own purposes; and finally he came to monopolize the favor that Tiberius was withholding from the aristocracy.

Through clever maneuvers Sejanus had succeeded in winning Tiberius’s complete trust. He achieved a position of preeminent power by the time of the emperor’s withdrawal to Capri, at the very latest. He monitored the entire imperial correspondence, which was transported back and forth by the Praetorian Guard. In addition Sejanus had placed his own people in positions close to the emperor, so that he was able to oversee all access to and communication with Tiberius, and thereby controlled all avenues to gaining influence with him. As a result, the aristocrats’ efforts to win the emperor’s favor now became efforts to win the favor of his favorite. According to Cassius Dio’s Roman History there was a great crush in front of Sejanus’s house in Rome every morning during thesalutatio, not only because men were afraid of being overlooked, but also because they didn’t want to be seen bringing up the rear of the procession. This was true of the leaders of the Senate in particular, whose behavior was observed closely. Tacitus writes that it was possible to reach the consulship, and thereby the highest social rank, only with Sejanus’s support, and the consuls themselves discussed all public and personal matters with him. At the same time, Tacitus continues, everyone who was on bad terms with Sejanus for any reason, or who stood in his way, was exposed to the gravest danger. The fate of Titius Sabinus was described above, and we will soon learn what happened to the family of Germanicus. Tiberius permitted extraordinary honors to be awarded to the commander of his bodyguard: Sejanus’s birthday was celebrated publicly, and golden images of him were venerated. He reached the zenith of his power in the year 31, when he shared the consulship with the emperor, had the best prospects for marrying into the imperial family, and was promised tribunician potestas, which would have made him a kind of co-regent.

To trust no man but one, and trust him too much—this captures Tiberius’s behavior in a nutshell. Clearly he overextended Sejanus’s loyalty. Given that the question of the succession remained open, Sejanus seems to have found the temptation too great to resist: Not content with being the emperor’s virtual equal, he strove to become emperor himself. The report of the conspiracy is said to have been delivered to Tiberius by a trusted slave of Antonia Minor, who as his sister-in-law had privileged access to the emperor. The old man rallied to bring off one bravura performance. He secretly appointed a new Praetorian prefect, Quintus Naevius Macro, simultaneously ordering that ships be made ready to carry him away to safety in case of emergency, to a garrison of loyal troops. Then in a dramatic denouement in the Senate, a letter was read aloud in Sejanus’s presence; it began with noncommittal phrases, but finally accused him directly of plotting against the emperor. The once all-powerful favorite was executed the same day, along with his children. Their bodies were dragged through Rome for several days after that.

A new spate of trials for treason ensued, as people settled old scores and used new openings to try to make a name for themselves. In the year 33 Tiberius gave orders that everyone in prison for participating in the conspiracy was to be killed. “On the ground lay the huge hecatomb of victims: either sex, every age; the famous, the obscure,” writes Tacitus, “scattered or piled in mounds. Nor was it permitted to relatives or friends to stand near, to weep over them, or even to view them too long; but a cordon of sentries, with eyes for each beholder’s sorrow, escorted the rotting carcasses as they were dragged to the Tiber, there to float with the current or drift to the bank, with none to commit them to the flames or touch them. The ties of our common humanity had been dissolved by the force of terror; and before each advance of cruelty compassion receded” (Tac. Ann. 6.19.2–3).

At this point the relationship between the emperor and the aristocracy had reached a nadir. Both sides were extremely fearful after the events surrounding the fall of Sejanus. Those who had nothing left to lose circulated denunciations and scurrilous attacks. The emperor furnished publicity to the universal hatred that befell him, by having such tracts read aloud at their authors’ indictment before the Senate. A letter Tiberius sent to the Senate, whose opening passage is cited by both Tacitus and Suetonius, vividly captures the situation near the end of his reign. It also displays the harrowing and helpless frankness so characteristic of him: “If I know what to write to you, Senators, or how to write it, or what to leave unwritten at present, may all gods and goddesses visit me with more destruction than I feel that I am daily suffering” (Tac. Ann. 6.6.1; Suet. Tib. 67.1). All communication between the emperor and the aristocracy had broken down. When the seventy-eight-year-old man, who no longer dared set foot in his home city, finally died, the Romans shouted, “Tiberius into the Tiber!” (“Tiberium in Tiberim!” Suet. Tib. 75.1).

A PERILOUS YOUTH

The social conditions encountered by a young man growing up in aristocratic circles in Rome during the rule of Tiberius could not have been less suited to fostering humanity. The emperor had unlimited powers and his orders had to be carried out without hesitation; at the same time he was hated and lived in constant fear of conspiracies. Many aristocrats were utterly without scruples; they would denounce each other but bow and scrape to the emperor, all the while waiting for the next opportunity to conspire against him. Murders and executions were everyday occurrences, and ultimately an ambiguity in communication with which the actual circumstances were covered over, lacking all candor and honesty, and thus further intensifying the general anxiety and uncertainty. How did Caligula fare as an adolescent in such a society?

The death of Germanicus in the year 19 rid Tiberius of a potential problem in the succession. His biological son Drusus (II) was by virtue of his age the only eligible aspirant for the throne at the time. The following years would reveal, however, that the acquisition of dynastic prestige by one branch or the other of the imperial family could always become a political problem, either because it aroused the ambitions of other family members or because third parties were able to exploit latent rivalries.

Sejanus’s position as the emperor’s trusted confidant made him a rival of Drusus early on. The sources report that in the year 23 he began an affair with Drusus’s wife, Livilla, who was a sister of Germanicus, and persuaded her to poison her husband. Evidently the charge was clearly proved in a trial eight years later, after the Praetorian prefect’s fall from favor. It is highly improbable that Sejanus had ambitions of seizing the throne himself at that time; more likely he was concerned about securing his own future if Tiberius should die. The emperor was then already over sixty, and his death would have put Sejanus in a most precarious position in the event of Drusus’s succession.

After Drusus II died, the popular family of Germanicus—his widow, Agrippina, and her sons—immediately regained their central place in speculation about the succession. In a session of the Senate Tiberius particularly recommended Nero and Drusus (III), by then seventeen and sixteen years of age, to the senators, and in so doing offered official confirmation of their importance. Ten-year-old Caligula, by contrast, seemed of less interest because of both his age and his two older brothers. For a time this situation would prove a great advantage. The very next year it emerged that the senators had taken Tiberius’s recommendation too literally; they heaped so many honors on Nero and Drusus that the emperor complained, perhaps because he felt a bit neglected himself. Furthermore his relationship with Agrippina was deteriorating, a development that the sources attribute mainly to intrigues set in motion by Sejanus. After the death of Drusus (II), Tiberius is said to have thought about eliminating Agrippina and her sons as well. According to Tacitus this plan failed for two reasons: The guards in the house of Germanicus’s family were alert and Agrippina was too chaste for Sejanus to use his apparent charms on her. Thereupon he prevailed upon Livia and Livilla to inform Tiberius that the mother of the two possible successors was ambitious for power. Moreover Sejanus denounced her to the emperor himself, saying that Agrippina was gathering a political faction around her that threatened to divide the citizenry.

The next step—denouncing those who still dared to frequent the family’s house—drew on the assistance of compliant senators. The charge was crimes against the lex maiestatis, as in the particularly nasty case of Titius Sabinus described above. When things went so far that even one of Agrippina’s cousins was accused, Agrippina went to Tiberius to demand an explanation, and he accused her openly of a lust for power. Sejanus then made use of the atmosphere prevailing at the time, in the truest sense utterlypoisoned, to mount a classic intrigue. Through intermediaries he convinced Agrippina that Tiberius was planning to poison her, and that she should avoid having anything to eat at the house of her adoptive father-in-law. When she was invited soon thereafter to a banquet at which Livia was also present, the emperor noticed that she ate nothing. (He may possibly have been informed of Agrippina’s suspicions.) He praised the fruit that was just then being served, selected a piece, and handed it to her himself. This gesture only heightened her fears, so she passed the fruit to a slave in her retinue without tasting it. Tiberius is said to have turned to Livia and remarked that it would be no wonder if he were to adopt even harsher measures against Agrippina, since she thought he was trying to poison her.

If Tacitus is to be believed, Agrippina was in fact scheming to hasten her sons’—and hence her own—rise to power. If so, she would have represented a real threat to the emperor. The problem cannot be reduced to the individuals involved, however, since it was structural in nature. A very high degree of skill was required—not just of the emperor in his political role, but also of the members of his family—to master the extremely complex relationships among them, which clearly involved mistrust and intrigue. In the end it is hardly surprising that most of them would prove unequal to the task. Caligula himself represented an exception in this respect, as time would show.

The next victim was his eldest brother, Nero, who had become the leading candidate for the throne after the death of Drusus (II). A marriage had been arranged for Nero with his cousin Julia, who was Drusus’s daughter and thus a granddaughter of Tiberius. The household he thus acquired seems to have been instrumental in his downfall. “In spite of the modesty of his youth”—thus Tacitus characterizes the syndrome of inadequacy described above—Nero “too often forgot what the times demanded” (Tac. Ann. 4.59.3). Tacitus reports further that Nero’s freedmen and clients were hoping to gain influence themselves if he became emperor, so they urged him to show vigor and confidence. The people and the army were behind him, they said, and Sejanus, who was now exploiting the trust of the aging emperor, would not dare to make a move against him. The Praetorian prefect had covert informants placed in Nero’s house, however, and they carried any incautious remark elicited from Nero straight to Sejanus and the emperor. Nero was not even safe at night, for whether he was awake, or slept, or sighed, his wife, Julia, supposedly told her mother, Livilla, about it, and she passed the information on to her lover Sejanus. For his part Sejanus now fed the feelings of rivalry and envy in Nero’s brother Drusus (III), whom he won over and encouraged in his hopes for the throne. The time was ripe in the year 27, when Nero was twenty-one and Tiberius already settled on Capri: Agrippina and her eldest son were placed under arrest. Soldiers were assigned to guard them; to watch over all their activities and contacts, including the letters and visitors they received; and to report everything they said.

These events, to which the fourteen-year-old Caligula was an immediate witness, meant that a new home had to be found for him and his two young sisters, Drusilla and Livilla. (Their sister Agrippina married shortly thereafter.) The three children moved into the house of their great-grandmother, Livia, the widow of Augustus who as grande dame kept up associations with many aristocrats and had a corresponding degree of influence.

She is supposed to have intervened to prevent Agrippina and Nero from being placed on trial and condemned. She died two years later, at the age of eighty-six, and Caligula appeared in public on that occasion and delivered her funeral oration. Once again it was necessary for Germanicus’s children to seek a new home. In the year 29 Caligula and his sisters moved to the house of their grandmother Antonia Minor, the other grande dame in Rome during that era. Antonia was well connected not only in Rome, but also in the East. Through her father, Marcus Antonius, and his relationship with Cleopatra, she had ties to several rulers there, who functioned as “client kings” of Rome, and their families. Several princes were also living in Antonia’s house at the time and got to know Caligula; later on the relationship would stand them in good stead.

Caligula’s stay in Antonia’s house was destined to last only two years. During this period—as Sejanus’s power was approaching its peak—the final downfall of his mother and eldest brother occurred. The emperor himself had written a letter accusing them of various crimes. Because of a gap in Tacitus’s Annals and the abbreviated accounts of Suetonius and Cassius Dio, their trial before the Senate cannot be reconstructed in detail. But if we do not know which senators aided Sejanus in instigating it, we do know its outcome: Nero was declared hostis, an enemy of the Roman polity, and banished to the island of Pontia; Agrippina was exiled to the island of Pandateria. The circumstances of Nero’s death on Pontia—probably in the year 30—remain unclear; he may have been starved to death or have killed himself, possibly driven to suicide because he believed he was about to be executed: Suetonius reports that an executioner was sent to Nero to show him the noose and hooks.

In that same year Caligula’s brother Drusus (III), who stood next in succession to the throne, came under attack from Sejanus and his minions. Like Nero he was accused of conspiring against the emperor. For years agents had shadowed and eavesdropped on him as well, activities in which his wife, Aemilia Lepida, is said to have played an important role. Caligula, at that time seventeen or eighteen years old, witnessed how Drusus was thrown into a dungeon on the Palatine Hill, from which he would never emerge. Not much later he too was declared a hostis; in his trial the senator Lucius Cassius Longinus served as prosecutor, a role that earned him Sejanus’s goodwill.

There is little reason to doubt what the sources say about how the members of Germanicus’s family were eliminated. In part the authors based their accounts on sessions of the Senate, for which minutes were available to them. The violent deaths of Caligula’s mother and brothers are thus firmly established. It is unclear, however, what was going through Tiberius’s mind in those years. Suetonius asserts in hindsight that Tiberius had planned to kill the members of Germanicus’s family from the start and simply used Sejanus to carry out his will. This claim attempts to explain the brutality of their deaths, but it is not very plausible. According to Cassius Dio, people had concluded Tiberius was mad, because he ultimately brought up the details of their deaths before the Senate, giving himself away completely. It must be assumed that the emperor had lost a sense of reality as he suffered constant fear for his own safety; the fear was actually heightened by his withdrawal from Rome and the influence, on Capri, exerted by his immediate environment, which Sejanus was controlling. In Rome fear must have been the dominant emotion in the Senate as well, for otherwise it is impossible to explain the senators’ reaction to the detailed reports about how Agrippina, Nero, and Drusus were spied upon: Although in fact they were appalled at the emperor’s behavior, as Tacitus reports, they pretended that what horrified them was the supposed enmity within the imperial family.

It took no great skill for Romans to figure out who was next in line, and accounts exist of several attempts to eliminate Caligula, too. Later, after the fall of Sejanus, several senators were prosecuted for attempting crimes of this kind. Sextius Paconianus was alleged to have helped the Praetorian prefect to organize an intrigue against Caligula. Cotta Messalinus and a close confidant of Tiberius named Sextus Vistilius were accused of having spread rumors about his dissolute morals. (Allegations of sexual misconduct had also played a role in the case against Nero.) Everything suggested then that Caligula would soon be placed on trial as well, but things took an unexpected turn.

CAPRI AND THE PATH TO THE THRONE

Toward the end of the year 30, that is to say before the dramatic downfall of Sejanus the following October, described above, Tiberius summoned the eighteen-year-old Caligula to Capri. Only now was he granted the toga virilis, the formal sign identifying him as an adult. The man’s toga suggested that the emperor was considering him as a possible successor. But what were the aging emperor’s real intentions for him? Evidence suggests that at first Caligula had a different role to play. The purpose of the young man’s presence on Capri was to make the emperor safer: In effect his status closely resembled that of a hostage.

Several events at this time indicate that in dynastic terms the prestige of Germanicus’s sons remained high or had even risen because people felt pity for them. When the Senate took action against Agrippina and Nero, a rebellious crowd had surrounded the Curia, where the senators were in session, carrying pictures of both and demanding that they be spared. And during the planning for the overthrow of Sejanus, Macro had instructions that if the action failed, he was to fetch Drusus from his dungeon and present him to the people. The idea was that if the need arose they might be able to exploit Drusus’s popularity in order to shift power back to their side. Finally, it is also reported that the mood in Rome turned against Sejanus and the prefect gave up his plans for a coup the moment that Caligula was summoned to Capri and appeared to be gaining in favor with the emperor. Taking into his household the remaining son of Germanicus, on whom no suspicion had as yet been cast, was a clever tactical move on Tiberius’s part—or on the part of his new strongman, Macro. Caligula’s popularity could help to stabilize the emperor’s own position, and bringing him to Capri would deprive others of the opportunity to make him their instrument.

A new phase of life began for Caligula, but one that was no less dangerous than before. From now on he had to live close to Tiberius, the man responsible for sending his mother into exile, imprisoning his brother Nero, and killing Drusus. The emperor’s attitude toward Caligula must have been ambivalent at best. Without doubt the people closest to the emperor were hostile toward Caligula, and most of them had played more or less leading roles in the proceedings against the other members of his family. For them the prospect of Caligula’s accession to the throne must have looked ominous. One man in this circle, Aulus Avillius Flaccus by name, is described as enjoying the confidence of both the emperor and Macro; beginning in the year 32 he would become governor of Egypt, one of the highest positions available to a knight. He and several other men envisioned an alternative solution to the succession: Tiberius had a biological grandson, Tiberius Gemellus, from the marriage of his son Drusus (II). The boy, also on Capri at the time, was only twelve years old in the year 31, but because the emperor was showing no signs of infirmity, Gemellus presented a realistic and considerably better option for the future to Flaccus and his associates. Under such circumstances Caligula’s own fate must have looked uncertain, and it is reasonable to assume that his actions were dominated by one motive—to survive. His position would remain precarious for six more years, until his actual elevation to the throne in the year 37 put a temporary halt to the threats.

At first the situation on Capri must have been overshadowed by events in Rome, where as a result of Sejanus’s downfall the trials and executions for treason were reaching a peak among the aristocracy. The death of Sejanus had no positive effects at all on Caligula’s family, however. His brother Drusus (III) starved to death in his prison on the Palatine in the year 33, reportedly after trying to eat the hay used as stuffing in his mattress. The circumstances of his death became known because Tiberius wanted to justify his treatment of Drusus to the Senate and therefore ordered the reports of the spies in Drusus’s household and of his prison guards to be read aloud. It emerged from the accounts that Augustus’s great-grandson had been beaten by slaves after begging for food and attempting to leave his cell, and that at the end, although weakened to the point of apathy, he had uttered dreadful curses against Tiberius. Agrippina died that same year, a suicide according to the official version, although people suspected that she too had been starved. How did Caligula react to the deaths of his mother and second brother and Tiberius’s responsibility for them?

Tacitus reports: Caligula’s “monstrous character was masked by a hypocritical modesty: Not a word escaped him at the sentencing of his mother or the destruction of his brothers; whatever the mood assumed for the day by Tiberius, the attitude of his grandson was the same, and his words not greatly different” (Ann. 6.20.1). Suetonius’s account is similar: “Although at Capri every kind of wile was resorted to by those who tried to lure him or force him to utter complaints, he never gave them any satisfaction, ignoring the ruin of his kindred as if nothing at all had happened, passing over his own ill treatment with an incredible pretense of indifference, and so obsequious toward his grandfather and his household that it was well said of him that no one had ever been a better slave or a worse master” (Suet. Cal. 10.2).

Here it is necessary to distinguish between factual information and moral value judgments in the accounts written after Caligula’s death. Above all it is essential to be clear about the character of these judgments. Tacitus, in no uncertain terms, condemned the fearful hypocrisy and submissiveness displayed toward the emperor by even the highest-ranking and most powerful members of the aristocracy. And we know that Caligula’s mother and brothers had been brought down by their own incautious comments about Tiberius, passed on by spies placed in their households. Yet despite this state of affairs Tacitus demands from the nineteen-year-old Caligula a forthrightness and sincerity that would have been extremely foolish and would certainly have cost him his life.

If we leave aside the double moral standard, what remains is this: In contrast to his mother, his brothers, and other members of the imperial family in the preceding years, and in spite of the emperor’s unpredictability and the open hostility of people around him, Caligula managed to maintain his position. The price he paid for this was to control his own feelings and to play a part in front of Tiberius. He possessed an advantage, however. Philo of Alexandria, who, as the leader of a Jewish delegation, met Caligula twice, described it. Although Philo mostly heaped abuse on Caligula in hate-filled tirades, in this passage, inconsistently with his usual antipathy, he reports that Caligula “was skilled in discerning a man’s secret wishes and feelings from his open countenance” (Phil.Leg. 263).

The degree of danger posed by the situation on Capri is demonstrated vividly by two episodes. One involves Julius Agrippa, a grandson of Herod the Great who had grown up in the house of Antonia Minor in Rome. In the year 36 he received permission to visit Tiberius. He was asked to accompany Gemellus, the emperor’s grandson, on his excursions, but instead began spending time with Caligula, whose favor he hoped to win. When they had become better acquainted and were out for a drive one day, Agrippa expressed the wish that Tiberius would make way for Caligula on the throne as soon as possible, since the young man was so much worthier of it. The driver of the carriage, a freedman of Agrippa’s, overheard the remark, and when he was accused of stealing some clothing a little later, he reported it to the emperor, citing Agrippa’s exact words: “I hope that the day will at length arrive when this old man will leave the scene and appoint you ruler of the world. For his grandson Tiberius would by no means stand in our way, since you would put him to death. The world would then know bliss, and I above all” (Jos. Ant. 18.187). Tiberius believed the man, and the prince, despite his purple robes, was arrested on the spot and led away in chains. For Caligula, who had not allowed himself to be drawn out even in a very private setting, the episode had no repercussions.

Another instance of the dangers of Capri involved Tiberius’s favorite companions, for, according to reports, he most enjoyed the society of Greek philosophers, grammarians, poets, and astrologers. At meals he would carry on learned conversations with them, raising questions that had occurred to him in his daily reading. As could be expected, given that he was not simply another scholar but the emperor of Rome, there was naturally great competition for his favor. Gaining it could mean fame and riches, but the pursuit was also dangerous, as the companions vying for it used every means at their disposal. Suetonius writes that the grammarian Seleucus inquired of the emperor’s servants what their master was reading, so that with advance preparation he could dazzle Tiberius with his knowledge. Unfortunately, he seems to have overdone it. The emperor, already weary of the opportunistic behavior of aristocrats in Rome, detested it even more in his inner circle on Capri, so when his suspicions were aroused he looked into the matter. Seleucus was banned from his daily company and later forced to commit suicide.

Caligula apparently had more success when he took part in the learned discussions on Capri. We are told that he had a profound knowledge of the works with which educated men of the day were expected to be familiar. Josephus writes that “he was, moreover, a first-rate orator, deeply versed in the Greek and Latin languages. He knew how to reply impromptu to speeches that others had composed after long preparation, and to show himself instantly more persuasive than anyone else, even where the greatest matters were debated. All this resulted from a natural aptitude for such things and from his adding to that aptitude the practice of taking elaborate pains to strengthen it.” There is no question that he had enjoyed a good education from his earliest years. As was customary in aristocratic families, Caligula probably received instruction from tutors, who were usually Greek slaves or freedmen. He may have been influenced by the reported interest of his father, Germanicus, in scholarship and literature, or perhaps his interest was spurred by his journeys as a child to the centers of ancient learning in Greece and Egypt. It appears that he also made use of his time on Capri to further his studies. According to Josephus again: “Being the grandson of the brother of Tiberius . . . he was under a great compulsion to apply himself to education, because Tiberius himself also had conspicuously succeeded in attaining the highest place in it. Gaius followed him in his attachment to such noble pursuits, yielding to the injunctions of a man who was both his kinsman and his commander-in-chief” (Jos. Ant. 19.208–9).

No accounts of the later period of Caligula’s rule mention a particular interest in learning. It is thus probably no mistake to assume that in this respect, too, he skillfully adapted his behavior on Capri to the prevailing circumstances and showed an interest in the subjects Tiberius preferred, especially since he was clearly endowed with the requisite intellectual gifts. And he did improve his relationship with the emperor, which was no doubt quite strained to begin with because of the general political atmosphere and the particular family constellation. At least their relationship appears to have grown better during Caligula’s first two years on Capri. Although Tiberius did not display any particular friendship to his great-nephew and potential successor, neither was he openly hostile.

In the year 33, that is, in the same period when his mother and remaining brother met their deaths, Caligula was appointed quaestor, the lowest honorary political office, which carried with it automatic membership in the Senate. He was only twenty, under the usual minimum age for the quaestorship. At the same time he was given permission to be a candidate for other offices, five years before reaching the required age. This was a privilege traditionally granted to princes of the imperial family and could thus be interpreted as a positive signal for his position. And finally Tiberius had arranged for Caligula to marry Junia Claudilla (or Claudia) during a visit to Antium. She was the daughter of Marcus Junius Silanus, a former consul who had gained attention by introducing servile and flattering resolutions in the Senate. He was considered one of Tiberius’s closest associates and received the right to cast his vote first. This was an extraordinary honor that gave him the highest standing in the Roman aristocracy. In political terms such an honor was not without its dangers, as shown by the emperor’s behavior in the Senate described above. Nevertheless Silanus was clearly able to use his standing skillfully.

Caligula’s marriage would last only a short time, and it is impossible to determine how much it meant to him. Nor can anything positive be deduced from it about Tiberius’s plans for the succession. Each of Caligula’s brothers had been married to a cousin (Nero to Julia, a granddaughter of Tiberius, and Drusus to Aemilia Lepida, a great-granddaughter of Augustus) and thereby gained the prestige conferred by an additional connection with the ruling family. No further young ladies of appropriate background were available, but the idea that one of these might take Caligula as a second husband seems not to have been considered. Julia was perhaps excluded because her testimony had contributed to Nero’s downfall. Aemilia Lepida might have been a candidate, for her participation in the fall of Drusus (III) was not discussed until years later, but both women remarried aristocrats unconnected to the imperial family. Caligula’s wife, Junia Claudilla, could boast of no comparable ancestry. Nor did the marriages of his sisters, which were certainly based on the emperor’s plans, reveal any particular favor. Only Agrippina the Younger married Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, a grandson of Marcus Antonius and Octavia, Augustus’s sister. The later emperor Nero was the offspring of this marriage. Drusilla was married to Lucius Cassius Longinus, descended from an old aristocratic family, while Livilla’s husband, Marcus Vincius, came from a less illustrious background. Tiberius’s marriage policy with regard to the children of Germanicus and Agrippina can thus be summed up as follows: None of the marriages he arranged had the slightest effect on the possibility that his own grandson, Tiberius Gemellus, might become emperor.

Caligula’s future remained uncertain, since no doubt he stood in the way of Tiberius’s biological grandson, because of both his own descent and his popularity in Rome. During his stay on Capri he was further awarded two religious offices that were a customary part of a Roman senator’s career, but they also permit no conclusions about the emperor’s plans for him. Finally, in the year 35, Tiberius drew up a will, whose contents can be described as most definitely leaving both options open. Caligula and Gemellus received equal shares of his inheritance, in a decision that was no decision at all. Even at that point, however, the conclusion that emerged two years later upon Tiberius’s death must have been evident. The imperial office was not divisible, yet according to the will the vast imperial assets would have had to be divided, even though by this time they constituted a central part of the emperor’s authority and had taken on a character that in the modern sense of the word was public and no longer private. If it is not to be read as documentary evidence that Tiberius was incapable of making up his mind—in which case the emperor could have dispensed with it entirely—then the message it conveyed was clear: The question of the succession was to remain open.

In addition to Caligula’s indifference to the fate of his family and his successful opportunism in dealings with the emperor and his circle, Suetonius reports that during his time on Capri the later emperor was already unable to conceal his brutal and depraved character. Caligula “was a most eager witness of the tortures and executions of those who suffered punishment, reveling at night in gluttony and adultery, disguised in a wig and a long robe, passionately devoted besides to the theatrical arts of dancing and singing, in which Tiberius very willingly indulged him, in the hope that through these his savage nature might be softened. This last was so clearly evident to the shrewd old man that he used to say now and then that to allow Gaius to live would prove the ruin of himself and of all men” (Suet. Cal. 11).

It is easy enough to assess this account if one takes into consideration the general situation as it is reported in other, unjaundiced passages that do not touch on Caligula. From Tacitus’s account, cited above, we know that after the death of Sejanus the demeanor of those present was carefully observed when guilty sentences were announced or executions were carried out, in an attempt to discern any indication of hostility toward the emperor. Any such sign perceived in a person’s reaction was reported. Thus if Caligula was present at executions on Capri—an occurrence reported nowhere else—he was probably under close observation also. Not too much significance for interpreting his character should be attached to his failure to display much emotion. Furthermore, no evidence survives, written or archeological, to suggest the existence of taverns, brothels, or theaters on the island at that time. Or to put it more precisely: The milieu on Capri was not that of a large city like Rome, where it was easy to move about incognito. Furthermore, there are no indications that on occasional visits to the mainland Caligula would have been able—or would have wanted—to absent himself from the emperor’s entourage. Suetonius has thus ascribed to him attributes reported from the youth of a later emperor in Rome who was similarly hated, namely Nero. Finally, the suggestion that the old emperor saw through Caligula’s deception explicitly contradicts reports by Suetonius himself and others of Caligula’s ability to dissimulate, which he had perfected and which probably saved his life on Capri. It also contradicts everything that can be inferred about Tiberius’s own personality from accounts of his behavior over many years. Tiberius’s most notable trait was placing too much trust in one person (Sejanus) and responding with exaggerated distrust to everyone else; if he had one failing, it was precisely the lack of what is claimed for him in this passage: a sound knowledge of human nature. Suetonius’s account is thus utterly false. He has projected alleged qualities of the later “evil” emperor Caligula back into the time of his residence on Capri.

For Caligula’s ultimately successful path to the imperial throne, the support of Macro, prefect of the Praetorian Guard, was decisive. All the sources are unanimous on that point. They also agree that intrigue was involved, as was only to be expected in view of the emperor’s failure to settle on a successor. Exactly how this intrigue played out cannot be determined, but that very fact suggests its secrecy was well planned—whether by Caligula himself, by Macro, or by Ennia, the prefect’s wife.

After Junia Claudilla died in childbirth, Caligula and Ennia are supposed to have begun an affair. Philo reports the “widespread view” that because she had a sexual relationship with Caligula she was able to persuade her husband to defend her lover when others denounced him to Tiberius, and also to support Caligula as an aspirant to the throne. If this version is correct, then the intrigue probably originated in Ennia’s ambition to become empress. According to Suetonius, however, Caligula seduced Ennia and promised to marry her, so that she would intervene with Macro and gain his backing. Tacitus, and similarly Cassius Dio, reports a third version, that it was Macro who attempted to win Caligula’s favor by inducing Ennia to have an affair with him, hoping that a bond with the wife would also extend to the husband. This last version is certainly the most implausible. It presumes that Caligula’s succession was a foregone conclusion, regardless of whether Macro supported him or not, so that Caligula would have had no reason to seek Macro’s favor. Macro, however, is generally depicted as the most powerful man of that day after the emperor.

It is difficult to assess the situation because we do not know how often Macro visited Capri, where Ennia must have spent considerable time. Her relationship with the future emperor probably was not sexual at all, and the married couple was simply paving the way for Caligula’s succession through a division of labor—with Macro machinating in Rome and Ennia on Capri in the role of Caligula’s confidante. Such an interpretation would fit well with the harmonious relationship among the three in the first few months after Caligula’s accession to the throne. Yet whatever the details of the intrigue were, it involved bypassing the emperor and his grandson to contrive the succession. It was an extremely risky enterprise, but again Caligula prevailed.

He seems to have remained in danger until the very end, however. Several sources report that Tiberius was concerned for the safety of his grandson, then seventeen years old, if Caligula should become emperor. Philo writes that Macro saved Caligula’s life several times on Capri; he also mentions reports that Caligula would have been eliminated if Tiberius had lived only a little while longer, for very serious allegations had been raised against him. These charges may refer to the intrigue concerning the succession. According to Philo, toward the end of his life Tiberius was planning to name his biological grandson as his successor. Dio tells a different story: Tiberius considered Gemellus illegitimate, the child of Livilla’s liaison with Sejanus, and therefore he preferred Caligula. Josephus provides yet another version, that Tiberius decided to regard a chance occurrence as an omen and indicator of God’s will. The conflicting accounts suggest that the succession was an open question until the last moment. Tacitus probably came closest to the truth when he concluded that Tiberius could not summon the strength to make a decision.

Tiberius died on 16 March in the year 37. In the preceding weeks the old man had approached the city of his birth for the last time, but he died at Misenum, the base of the Roman fleet. Various rumors about his death found their way into circulation. According to one, after death seemed to have occurred and preparations were already under way to proclaim Caligula emperor, Tiberius is supposed to have regained consciousness suddenly and asked for food. While everyone else present stood rooted to the spot in terror, Macro ran into the bed chamber, threw covers over the emperor, and smothered him. Another version declared that Caligula had hastened his adoptive grandfather’s demise, first with poison and then by strangling him with his own hands. According to a third account, Caligula had first starved the emperor and then suffocated him with Macro’s help. Regardless of how the emperor actually died, even in their diversity the reports of the death of the emperor—who over the years had become ever more odious—confirm the contemporaries’ image of the center of power, where Caligula had lived for six years: All who took part were in mortal peril.

The same day, members of the Praetorian Guard in Misenum proclaimed Caligula imperator. Following arrangements with the consuls and leading senators, the Roman Senate accepted the new disposition of power. On 18 March Tiberius’s last will and testament was set aside on the grounds that he had been of unsound mind when he made it. The Senate—an ancient and honorable institution that in the preceding two decades had both lost a large number of members to violence and suffered a decline in morale—recognized the son of Germanicus as emperor in absentia. After his arrival in Rome on 28 March, “the right and the power to decide on all affairs” was conferred on him (Suet. Cal. 14.1). With this step Caligula, at the age of twenty-four, became Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus and ruler of the Roman Empire.

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