All classical accounts of Gaius "Caligula" (12-41) agree that he possessed elements of madness, cruelty, viciousness, extravagance and megalomania. He is described as a coarse and cruel despot with an extraordinary passion for sadism and a fierce energy. He could get extremely excited and angry. Caligula was tall, spindly, pale and prematurely bald. He was so sensitive about his lack of hair that it was a capital crime for anyone to look down from a high place as Caligula passed by. Sometimes he ordered those with a fine head of hair to be shaved. He made up for lack of hair on his head by an abundance of body-hair. About this, too, he could be equally sensitive; even the mention of "hairy goats" in conversation was dangerous. He used to grimace, which he practised in front of a mirror, and he was an impressive orator. An interesting detail is that his real nature was only gradually revealed. His great-uncle, the Emperor Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD), once said: "There was never a better slave nor a worse master than Caligula."

Caligula was originally called Gaius. He grew up in a camp as a favourite of his father's soldiers. The troops nicknamed him "Caligula" after the child-size military boots he wore in camp. From the Emperor Augustus he inherited ambition and sensuality as well as the family affliction epilepsy. He was caught in bed with his sister Drusilla before he came of age. His famous father Germanicus (15 BC - 19 AD), his mother Agrippina the elder (14 BC-33 AD) and all his brothers were either killed or starved to death by order of the suspicious Emperor Tiberius and his ambitious Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus. During his adolescence, Caligula was a virtual prisoner of Tiberius. By then Tiberius had largely withdrawn from active government and retreated to the island of Capri, where Caligula kept him company and tried to play the part of a dutiful and upright young man. However, he could not fool Tiberius, who described him as a 'serpent'. Capri was ideally situated as a fortress and a refuge where Tiberius was free from fears of conspiracy and assassination. According to the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius, at Capri Tiberius felt at liberty to indulge in all kinds of prolonged tortures and sexual perversities until he fell ill in March AD 37 and subsequently collapsed into a coma. The court officials thought he had died and began to congratulate Caligula on his accession, when Tiberius awoke. It is said that the Emperor was smothered with his bedclothes by Caligula's chamberlain, Macro. Thus Caligula came to power.

In the first months Caligula's reign was mild and his policies showed some political judgement. Even then, Caligula took much pleasure in attending punishments and executions and he preferred to have them prolonged. In May his grandmother Antonia, who might have been a good influence, died. In October Caligula fell seriously ill, and after his recovering Caligula seems to have changed for the worse. In a few months he entirely exhausted the treasury, which Tiberius had filled by years of economizing. In 38, while having an affair with Macro's wife, he accused Macro of being her pimp and ordered him to commit suicide. Tiberius' grandson and heir, Tiberius Gemellus, once drank a cough medicine that Caligula mistook for an antidote to poison. When accused, the youth replied: "Antidote - how can one take an antidote against Caesar?" Soon afterwards Tiberius Gemellus was murdered. It became a capital crime not to bequeath the Emperor everything. In 39 Caligula revived Tiberius' treason trials. People suspected of disloyalty were executed or driven to suicide. A supervisor of games and beast-fights was flogged with chains before Caligula for days on end, and was not put to dead until Caligula was offended by the smell of the gangrene in his brain. On one occasion, when there weren't enough condemned criminals to fight the tigers and lions in the arena, Caligula ordered some spectators to be dragged from the benches into the arena. Another time, Caligula decided to proclaim his mastery of the sea by building a three mile long bridge of boats across the Bay of Naples. He crossed them on horseback, wearing the breastplate of Alexander the Great. Thus he claimed that, like the god Neptune, he had ridden across the waters. He gave his horse, Incitatus, jewelled necklaces, a marble stable with furniture and a staff of servants to itself and made it a priest of his temple and even proposed to make it a senator. Caligula loved dressing up and used to dress in rich silk, ornamented with precious stones and he wore jewels on his shoes. Pearls were dissolved in vinegar, which he then drank, and he liked to roll on heaps of gold. Like his nephew, Nero (37 AD-68 AD), Caligula appeared as athlete, charioteer, singer and dancer. To increase his revenues Caligula introduced all possible forms of taxation and rich people who had involuntary willed him their estates were murdered. Once, when a supposedly rich man had finally died, but turned out to have left no money, Caligula commented: "Oh dear, he died in vain." Caligula even opened a brothel in his palace where Roman matrons, their daughters and freeborn youths could be hired for money.

Caligula was irresistibly attracted by every pretty young woman whom he did not possess. He even committed incest with his own three sisters. He would carefully examine women of rank in Rome and whenever he felt so inclined, he would send for whoever pleased him best. He debauched them and left them like fruit he had tasted and thrown away. Afterwards, he would openly discuss his bedfellow in detail. His first wife, Julia Claudilla, died young. In the first year of his reign Caligula attended a wedding and ran off with the bride, Livia Orestilla, whom he divorced after a few days. He soon tired of his rich third wife, Lollia Paulina, too. He made the older Milonia Caesonia (Ī5-41) his fourth wife in 38, when she was already pregnant. The sensual and immoral Caesonia was an excellent match for him. Caesonia gave birth to a daughter, Julia Drusilla, whom Caligula considered his own child, because "she was so savage even in childhood that she used to attack with her nails the faces and eyes of the children who played with her". Whenever Caligula kissed the neck of his wife or mistress, he used to say: "This lovely neck will be chopped as soon as I say so". In addition, Caligula had sexual relations with men like the pantomime actor Mnester, Valerius Catullus and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Lepidus was married to Caligula's favourite sister Drusilla and also engaged in affairs with Caligula's other sisters. Meanwhile, Caligula forced Drusilla to live with him as his wife, following the practice of the Egyptian pharaohs. It was said that when Drusilla became pregnant, Caligula couldn't wait for the birth of their god-like child and disembowelled her to pluck the unborn baby from her womb. True or not, Drusilla died and Caligula had her deified. The next year Caligula had Marcus Aemilius Lepidus murdered. In addition, he had his sisters Livilla and Agrippina the younger (to the right), Nero's mother, exiled to an island and confiscated their possessions.

Caligula demanded that he be worshipped as a god. Caligula's self-indulgence in his supposed divinity deteriorated his insane behaviour. He was convinced that he was entitled to behave like a god. Thus, he set up a special temple with a life-sized statue of himself in gold, which was dressed each day in clothing such as he wore himself. As a sun god he courted the moon. He claimed fellowship with the gods as his equals, identifying himself in particular with Jupiter, but also with female gods like Juno, Diana or Venus. Standing near the image of Jupiter, Caligula once asked the actor Apelles whether Jupiter or Caligula were greater. When Apelles hesitated, Caligula had him cut to pieces with the whip, praising his voice as he pled for mercy, remarking on the melodiousness of his groans. He justified himself by saying: "Remember that I have the power to do anything to anyone."

Caligula's behaviour, a splitting of emotions and thoughts, is nowadays diagnosed as schizophrenia. The absolute power that Caligula enjoyed strengthened and developed the worst features of his character. His grandmother, Antonia, and his favourite sister, Drusilla, who could both have had a restraining influence on him, died during the first year of his reign. In his youth - as a favourite of the soldiers - he must have been thoroughly spoilt. The near-extinction of his family and the subsequent fear for his own life during his adolescent years will surely have marked his personality. However, Caligula's madness could have been organically influenced, because it was said to have become apparent after a serious illness which he had suffered in October 37. If this disease was encephalitis, then it could very likely have been a contributory factor to the bizarre features of his behaviour, for encephalitis can cause a marked character change and give rise to impulsive, aggressive and intemperate activity, similar in its symptoms to those of schizophrenia. In addition, Caligula had inherited epilepsy. Some forms of epilepsy have symptoms similar to those of both schizophrenia and the post-encephalitic syndrome. At times, because of sudden faintness, Caligula was sometimes hardly able to move his limbs, to stand up, to collect his thoughts or to hold up his head. He suffered severely from sleeplessness, never sleeping for more than three hours a night and even for that length of time he did not sleep quietly; he was terrified by strange manifestations.

After a 4-year-reign the Praetorians stabbed Caligula to death when he left the theatre. His fourth wife was stabbed to death too, while their infant daughter's head was smashed against a wall. One of the conspirators was Cornelius Sabinus, whose wife had been debauched and publicly humiliated by Caligula. Another conspirator was Cassius Chaerea, who hated Caligula, because he had remorselessly imitated his high, effiminate voice. Suetonius wrote that Caligula's reign of terror had been so severe that the Romans refused to believe that he was actually dead.

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 2000 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.


"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."

Anthony Blond



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