The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome – Part 4
Caligula: The Evil Emperor
The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome series explores the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire,” with a stable economy, a strong government and a superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a roller coaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers that Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Caligula, whose evil ways would make him forever known as one of the most heinous men to ever rule Rome.
The third of Rome’s emperors, Caligula achieved feats of destruction during his four-year reign unmatched even by his infamous nephew Nero. Caligula’s personal and fiscal excesses led him to be the first Roman emperor to be assassinated.
Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus (the future Caligula) was born in 12 A.D., the third son of the renowned Roman general Germanicus and his wife, Agrippina the Elder. During his childhood, his family lived at his father’s posting on the Rhine, where the general’s troops gave the future emperor his nickname “Caligula,” meaning “little boot,” in reference to the miniature uniform in which his parents dressed him.
After Germanicus died in 17 A.D., Caligula’s family was seen as a threat to Emperor Tiberius and the powerful Praetorian guardsman Sejanus, who saw the elder sons of the popular general as political rivals. Caligula’s mother and brothers were accused of treason and all died in prison or exile. Caligula’s grandmother Antonia managed to shield him from these intrigues until Sejunus’ death. The next year, Caligula moved in with the aging Tiberius, who gleefully indulged his great-nephew’s wicked habits, commenting that he was “nursing a viper in Rome’s bosom.”
Tiberius adopted Caligula and made him and his cousin Gemellus equal heirs to the empire. When the emperor died in 37 A.D., Caligula’s ally Marco arranged for Caligula to be proclaimed sole emperor. A year later, Caligula would order both Marco and Gemellus put to death.
Caligula was not quite 25 years old when he took power in 37 A.D. At first, his succession was welcomed in Rome, as he announced political reforms and recalled all exiles. But later that year, a serious illness unhinged Caligula, leading him to spend the remainder of his reign exploring the worst aspects of his nature.
Caligula lavished money on building projects – from the practical, like aqueducts and harbors, to the cultural, theatrical and temples. His downright bizarre requests included requisitioning hundreds of Roman merchant ships to construct a two-mile floating bridge across the Bay of Bauli so he could spend two days galloping back and forth across it. In 40 A.D., Caligula led an army north into Gaul, robbing its inhabitants before marching to the shore to invade Britain. Just as the army was about to launch its attack, he ordered them to stop and gather seashells. He called these “the spoils of the conquered ocean.”
Caligula’s relationships with other individuals were turbulent as well. His biographer Suetonius quotes his oft-repeated phrase, “Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody.” He tormented high-ranking senators by making them run for miles in front of his chariot. He had brazen affairs with the wives of his allies and was rumored to have incestuous relationships with his sisters.
At other times, his cruelty was more random. In one instance, Caligula was about to sacrifice an animal as a sacred offering to the gods. He raised his mallet to kill the animal and brought it down hard, yet at the last moment, he turned and struck a priest standing nearby, who died instantly.
Caligula was tall, pale and so hairy that he made it a capital offense to mention a goat in his presence. He worked to accentuate his natural ugliness by practicing terrifying facial expressions in a mirror. But he wallowed in luxury, allegedly rolling around in piles of money and drinking precious pearls dissolved in vinegar. He continued his childhood games of dress-up, donning strange clothing, women’s shoes and lavish accessories and wigs, eager, according to his biographer Cassius Dio, “to appear to be anything rather than a human being and an emperor.”
Dressed in silk robes and covered in jewels, Caligula pretended he was a god. He forced senators to grovel and kiss his feet and seduced their wives at dinner parties. He ordered his statue to be erected in the Temple at Jerusalem. This would have been highly controversial in a region already prone to revolt. Luckily, Herod Agrippa, who ruled Palestine on behalf of Rome, managed to persuade Caligula to change his mind.
All this time, Caligula was spending vast quantities of money. His extravagance soon emptied Rome’s treasury, which Tiberius had greatly increased. Still spending, but now short of cash, he began blackmailing leading Roman families and confiscating their estates.
A conspiracy formed between the Praetorian Guard, the Senate and the equestrian order and in late January of 41 A.D., Caligula was stabbed to death, along with his wife and daughter, by officers of the Praetorian Guard led by Cassius Chaerea. Thus, Cassius Dio notes, Caligula “learned by actual experience that he was not a god.”
Dead but certainly not mourned, Caligula was succeeded by his uncle, Claudius, the most unlikely of emperors.