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 By then Tiberius had largely withdrawn from active government and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.
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,
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,
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
by an obsequious Senate and subject to no restraint or authority,
until stopped in his tracks by the daggers of the inevitable assassins."