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Looking sinister but sexy, even with that stone turd on his head.
Tomorrow is a mystery,
but yesterday is

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Secrets of times gone by

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (12 CE–41 CE) better known by his childhood nickname, Caligula ("little boots") was the Emperor of Rome from 37 CE to 41 CE. He is generally remembered as a depraved, insane tyrant who gave actors like Malcolm McDowell, John Hurt, Simon Farnaby and Jay Robinson the opportunity to chew the scenery playing him in historical epics. Exactly how much of Caligula's insanity is real or exaggerated is difficult to say. A great many extreme accounts were by Suetonius who wrote well after Caligula's time and may have been biased since he worked for a rival dynasty.[1] What is for certain is that Caligula was a spoiled, narcissistic megalomaniac who wanted to reign as an autocrat and take all (the largely symbolic and fictive) power away from the Senate. He died at the age of 29 when he was viciously killed by his own guard who were sick of his antics.[2]

Early life[edit]

Gaius was an army brat who was born in Germania, in the the base of his father Germanicus, a popular and charismatic Roman general. His mother, Agrippina the Elder made him a miniature Roman uniform in which he would totter about the army camp, being fussed over by the Centurions who thought he was adorable and adopted him as their mascot, giving him the affectionate nickname, "Caligula", meaning "little boots" a reference to the small boots or sandals (caligaeWikipedia) he wore on his feet. The nickname stuck and was a cause of significant annoyance to him in later life though it's doubtful that anybody was actually stupid enough to call him that to his face, given what he grew up to be like.

In 18 CE when Caligula was six, his father Germanicus died of a mysterious illness in Antioch where he had been sent by the current emperor, Tiberius, his brother in law. It is widely believed among scholars that Germanicus was poisoned by his lieutenant, Piso, acting on orders from Tiberius. Most people at the time held this belief too so Caligula probably grew up harbouring great bitterness towards his uncle.

Rise to power[edit]

He spent the rest of his childhood with his aunt, Livia. Nothing is known about that time.

What is known is that when he was twenty-four, he was summoned to the palace of his uncle Tiberius who was even worse than Caligula himself ever was, given rumours that he was a paedophile who had people's legs broken if they annoyed him, had prisoners thrown off the cliffs on Capri and ordered mass arrests back in Rome, via his enforcer, Sejanus, captain of the Praetorian Guard until he had Sejanus executed for plotting against him. Upon arrival, Caligula witnessed his uncle's cruelty and perversity and likely concluded that no-one was going to miss him. Tiberius passed away in his sleep and Caligula was suspected of poisoning him. [3] When his death was announced, courtiers allegedly cheered "The Tiber with Tiberius!"

Whatever the case, with Tiberius dead, Caligula became emperor though he had to share power with his twelve year old cousin, Gemellus, who had been named joint heir by Tiberius. He returned to Rome to great fanfare. The son of the popular Germanicus and grandson of Mark Anthony and the Emperor Augustus, he had the bluest blood it was possible to have in Rome. Good-looking, charismatic, witty and the life and soul of any party, he was loved by the people of Rome who named him "our star." [3]

As Emperor[edit]

The first six months of his reign are recorded as being a blissful time. He famously burned the paranoid Tiberius's enemies list in public (though not without discreetly keeping copies), held games that lasted for weeks and bought himself some love, throwing gold coins over the cheering crowds, having inherited six million gold pieces from his uncle. Later that year, however, he fell gravely ill and wasn't expected to live. The cause of his illness is still debated. Some suggest herpes while others suggest lead poisoning, exacerbated by his alcoholism (the Romans used lead in everything, including both lining of their wine jugs and using it as sweetener in their wine). Alternatively, he may have had the deadly fever that was epidemic in Rome at the time; another possibility is malarial encephalitis (malaria was an accepted fact of life in ancient Rome).

All of Rome prayed for him to survive. Cave quid petere![note 1]

Upon recovering, Caligula had permanently lost his hair and apparently his mind; extremely high fevers are known to cause brain damage that alters personality and mental function, and the result is very seldom an improvement. He began to order the assassination of anyone whom he believed posed a threat. Gemellus was killed along with Caligula's father and brother-in-law. He left his paternal uncle Claudius alive because he found him amusing. Claudius had a stutter, a twitch and most likely cerebral palsy -- and as such was generally regarded to be disabled, an image which he played up in order to get people to underestimate him and thus stay alive. In fact, Claudius was extremely intelligent and well-educated, and an accomplished historian.

In any case, Gemellus's death allegedly drove his grandmother Antonia to suicide although some say that Caligula had her offed too. Supposedly, a sooth-sayer of Tiberius's said "Caligula has about as much chance of becoming emperor as he does of riding a horse across the Bay of Naples." Caligula clearly got wind of this as he designed a floating bridge, connecting the province of Baiae to the neighbouring port of Puteoli and rode his horse Incitatus across it wearing the armour of Alexander the Great (which, you have to admit, is pretty damned cool). It nearly crashed the economy however. Caligula also designed two gigantic ships for his personal use, the Lake Nemi shipsWikipedia, which incorporated central heated baths, bejewelled sterns and even trees and vines aboard. The smaller was a floating temple to Artemis, Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt while the larger was equipped with marble floors and plumbing. They were the two largest ships in the ancient world, and were not exceeded until the Renaissance. [4] He designed the boats drawing on the knowledge of architecture and engineering from Ptolemaic Egypt and Hellenistic Greece. Benito Mussolini excavated them from the bottom of Lake Nemi but unfortunately they were destroyed during aerial bombardments in WWII, a sad reminder of how the Nazis managed to ruin absolutely everything.

Despite his obvious intelligence, he stood right at the top of the scale for Imperial insanity.[note 2] While most Roman Emperors used wigs to conceal their baldness, Caligula adopted the novel approach when any handsome man dared to have a full head of hair in his presence the back of that man's head was shaved. [3] The rest of Caligula's body was very hirsute however, something which he was so self-conscious about, that he made it a crime to mention the word "goat", punishable by being beaten with an iron stick, that is on a good day. The worst was yet to come.

It is reported that Caligula had relations with all of his sisters (and we're not talking about agreeable conversations, either), his favourite apparently being Julia Drusilla whom he is said to have taken as his queen. He held vast banquets during which he seduced the wives of his guests and sold them to the highest bidders; and had political prisoners decapitated. He declared that he was a living god, annexed two sacred temples into his palace, [2] had conversations with a statue of Jupiter, the king of the gods, insisted on being addressed by the title of "Jupiter" as it was somewhat cooler than "little boots"[note 3], declared war on Britain and upon arriving on its shores, decided to wage war with the sea god Neptune instead. And so he commanded his men to go down to the beaches and start stabbing the sea with their swords before collecting all of the seashells, bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase "We'll fight them on the beaches." Caligula returned to Rome, declaring that he had defeated the Sea God. The Senate did not look favourably upon his actions, not that that bothered him.

A persistent rumour says that Caligula made his horse Incitatus a senator in order to troll the Senate while scholar Mary Beard says that in all likelihood, he just jokingly threatened to do so. After his sister Drusilla died of a fever, Caligula became deeply depressed and had her elevated to godhood, naming his daughter after her. Julia Drusilla. Jr. is said to have inherited her father's sociopathic tendencies, clawing out the eyes of other children, supposedly prompting Caligula to remark "There is no doubt as to who her father is then." This story may have been fictionalised to justify what eventually happened to her.

Death and succession[edit]

Finally the Praetorian Guard got sick of his shit and so, under the guide of their leader, Cassius Chaerea, a number of Praetorians, Equestrians and Senators decided to do what they did best: kill the emperor. The Praetorian were already pretty pissed off at the fact that he kept making fun of them by giving them embarrassing code words to use such as "Venus" (slang for vagina) and "Priapus" (slang for penis). Caligula also liked to make fun of Cassius's high pitched, effeminate voice. Making fun of the people your life depends on is generally not recommended, but presumably he was too arrogant and/or insane to realise this.

So one day while he was in the Coliseum watching a gladiatorial game, Caligula excused himself on the basis that he had a hangover, which was his default state when not drunk. As he walked back to the palace via an underground tunnel, Chaerea and his fellow conspirators surrounded the mad emperor with their swords unsheathed. Cassius gave the order saying "Strike so that he feels he is dying" and in a gruesome tableau, heavily reminiscent of the murder of Julius Caesar, they stabbed Caligula thirty times. He allegedly declared "Vivo!", Latin for "I live!" before dying. After this, the Praetorian insurgents assassinated Caligula's wife, Millonia Caesonia and his two year old daughter Julia Drusilla.

Other, more practical members of the Guard realised that without an emperor, they wouldn't have a job. Fortunately for them, the insurgents missed one doddering old fool hiding behind the curtain: Caligula's uncle Claudius who was promptly declared emperor to the shock of all, not least himself. Claudius was tough but fair. Usually at least. While he was a Republican, he was also a pragmatist and reluctantly accepted the job of emperor though unlike Caligula, he never declared himself a god. Eventually the Senate declared him one, much to his chagrin.

Caligula never engaged in persecution of Christians or Jews. In fact, despite believing himself to be the one true god and planning to erect a golden statue of himself in the Jerusalem Temple, he largely ignored the monotheists who were regarded as suspicious troublemakers in Rome at the time.[2] Maybe he thought that ignoring them was the worst possible way to torment them, having prophetic insight into the existence of Andrew Schlafly and other Bible bashers. Claudius on the other hand, was not fond of the Christians and tried to have them banished.

Insane though he was, Caligula was certainly intelligent as his construction of huge, grand sail barges and a floating bridge proved. He did wonders for engineering and architecture in Rome and also designed the fortresses that would later be used by the Romans in their conquest of Britain, under Claudius. He also designed two aqueducts, described by Pliny the Elder as "marvels of engineering."


The fact that he is still largely known by his embarrassing childhood nickname shows just how successful his enemies were in posthumously heaping scorn upon him. To this day, Caligula's name is a byword for insanity, decadence and tyranny. Given the amount of enemies he gleefully made, it is possible that a lot of his antics were exaggerated or maybe fabricated entirely but he must have done something to get the reputation he has. Theologians speculate that the passage about "The Abomination of Desolation" in the Book of Revelation is a reference to Caligula's statue in the Temple of the Holy of Holies while some say that the Great Beast described in the same book is either him or his nephew Nero who took after his uncle, though he's another story in his own right.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Caligula was played as terrifying, hilarious and strangely poignant by the late, great Sir. John Hurt in I, Claudius. One of those shows you have to see. Heavily fictionalises aspects of Caligula's life. He is depicted as impregnating Drusilla and killing her via a forced Caessarian so that he can eat the fetus, fearing that it will threaten his power. The real life Caligula never went quite that far.
  • Jay Robinson has fun hamming it up as Caligula in The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators. They're both religious movies but they're worth watching. Also heavily fictionalised.
  • Simon Farnaby played Caligula in Horrible Histories,Wikipedia where he moonwalks and sings about being one of the baddest emperors that Rome's ever had.[5]
  • Unfortunately, perhaps the most well known portrayal is that of Malcolm McDowell, of A Clockwork Orange fame, playing him (and devouring more scenery than a Category 5 hurricane) in the 1979 film Caligula.Wikipedia Produced by Penthouse Magazine owner Bob Guccione and very loosely based on a screenplay by Gore Vidal, the film was little more than an excuse to depict scenes of stomach-turning torture and stomach-turning 70s porn (much of which was added by Guccione in post-production, without the cast's knowledge). One of the few films Roger Ebert has actually walked out of.[6] Avoid at all costs. It's really that bad.


  • Let there be one one king, one lord!
  • Let them hate me as long as they fear me.
  • Would that the people of Rome had but one neck, I would slit it.
  • He deserved it quite as much. - After having the wrong person beaten for a crime, probably mentioning the G Word.
  • There is no question as to whom her father is then. - After hearing that his daughter had clawed out another girl's eyes.
  • I just realised I could have you all killed. - Spoken to his guests over dinner when they asked what he was laughing at
  • I LIVE! - Spoken as he died.


  1. "Be careful what you ask for!"
  2. On sheer weirdness value alone, Elagabalus left Caligula utterly in the dust -- by both his time's standards and ours. But Elagabalus, while fractally bizarre, wasn't really insane.
  3. In actual fact, nobody in Rome with a balls-brains ratio below 20 ever called him this, or at least not to his face.


  1. Beard, Mary. Spqr: A History of Ancient Rome. London: Profile Books, 2015. pp 392-98.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Caligula (AD 12 - 41)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 The Life of Caligula
  5. The Evil Emperors Song, Horrible Histories