Caligula: The Embodiment of Cruelty

From the lecture series: The Roman Empire — From Augustus to the Fall of Rome

By Gregory Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, Green Bay

At the time of his accession as emperor, Caligula was greeted with enthusiasm. Soon, people discovered just how cruel (and possibly insane) he was. What made Caligula one of the most infamous emperors in the history of ancient Rome?

Marble bust of emperor Caligula
(Image: PLRANG ART Artur Furmanek/Shutterstock)

Caligula Charms the Romans

At the time of his accession, Caligula was 25 years old. His father, Germanicus, had been very popular, and this affection carried over to Caligula.

Although he had been granted many titles, Caligula had very little practical experience with governing. Most of his youth had been spent either in the palace or with Tiberius on Capri, where he had grown up in an unhealthy atmosphere of constant plotting and paranoia. Nevertheless, he charmed the Senate, the people, and the army with his initial behavior.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Caligula distributed huge amounts of cash as gifts to the people of Rome and also to the soldiers. He staged extravagant beast hunts, chariot races, spectacles, and entertainments for the amusement of the city’s inhabitants. The Senate and upper-class Romans were pleased by his cutting of taxes on the sale of slaves, and by his demeanor towards them, which was respectful and conciliatory.

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Enter Caligula the Cruel

Late in 37 A.D., Caligula fell ill with some sort of brain fever. Afterward, his behavior changed.

Whether this change was an effect of the illness, as some sources claim, or whether his true nature began to assert itself once he felt securely in charge, is unclear. He became increasingly erratic and cruel. He had Macro executed and forced Gemellus, his fellow joint-heir and potential rival, to commit suicide. He terrorized and humiliated members of the Senate; for instance, making them run awkwardly alongside his chariot in their togas. He even raped one eminent senator’s wife.

Bust of Gaius Caesar Caligula.
After an illness, Caligula became increasingly cruel and erratic. (Image: Louis le Grand/Public domain)

There were many rumors of Caligula’s depravity, including that he supposedly committed incest with all three of his sisters. He had Roman citizens murdered for flimsy excuses, and he took pleasure from watching his victims being tortured, even goading on his executioners on, calling “Make him feel that he is dying.” He liked to whisper in his lovers’ ears, “I can have your beautiful throat cut anytime I like.”

Once, when presiding over the sacrifice of a bull, instead of bringing down the hammer on the animal’s cranium, Caligula instead deliberately bludgeoned to death the priest’s assistant who held the bull’s head.

Some of his cruelties, while not overtly deadly, had a capricious, arbitrary nature. He would order that the awnings providing shade for the crowds at public entertainments be pulled back at the hottest time of the day. If he ran across a man with a thick head of hair, he would have him seized and his scalp roughly shaved on the spot, as Caligula himself was balding.

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Caligula Squanders the Treasury

Most of this behavior was inflicted upon the inhabitants of Rome, but some of Caligula’s actions had farther-reaching effects.

To pay for his extravagance, Caligula ended up raising some taxes, imposing new ones, and confiscating the property of citizens that he had murdered. Under Augustus, the Jews had been granted certain rights and the freedom to follow their traditional practices. But Caligula deeply offended them by ordering that a statue of himself be placed in the Great Temple in Jerusalem as if he were a god, and he turned a blind eye to pogroms against them.

In an apparent desire to gain military glory, Caligula organized a massive army that he led into Gaul and Germany but accomplished nothing there. Then, with great fanfare, the emperor announced he would invade the island of Britain, but the troops never launched the attack. Instead, Caligula lined them up in battle formation on the beach facing the English Channel, ordered them to collect seashells, and declared that these were the spoils of a great victory that would be displayed in his triumph.

Another eccentric scenario involving the sea occurred on the Bay of Naples, where Caligula ordered a three-mile-long temporary bridge to be constructed across the width of the bay from Puteoli to Baiae. It was made by lining up a double row of merchant ships; an elaborate roadway was then laid down on top of them. So many grain freighters were diverted to indulge this whim that it resulted in a famine in Rome.

Caligula spent several days triumphantly riding back and forth over this bridge, as well as parading the Roman army across it.

Caligula distributed bonuses to the soldiers and held sumptuous feasts and elaborate celebrations in honor of his pointless and wasteful accomplishment. In a short time, such extravagances squandered the enormous treasury surplus that had been built up by Tiberius and plunged the empire into debt.

Scholars still debate whether Caligula was merely a particularly extreme example of this phenomenon, or if he was mentally unbalanced in a clinical sense. Some ancient authors are more direct. The biographer Suetonius bluntly asserted, “Caligula was sick, in both body and mind.”

Caligula the God

One controversial aspect of Caligula’s behavior often raised as evidence of his insanity was his apparent desire to be worshipped as a god.

Cameo depicting Caligula and a personification of Rome.
Cameo depicting Caligula and a personification of Rome. (Image: Photography by Andreas Praefcke/Public domain)

There is some ambiguity in the surviving sources regarding this issue. It had already become customary for Romans to offer prayers to an emperor’s genius, which might be thought of as a person’s capacity or potential for divinity. But the worship of the genius is not the same as regarding that person as a god. Leaders could also be elevated to divine status after their deaths. Augustus had done this for Julius Caesar, and had erected a prominent temple in the Forum in Rome to “the deified Julius.” After his death, Augustus, too, had been declared a god.

In the eastern sections of the empire, there was a long tradition of ruler cults. Kings were often given religiously-tinged titles such as soter, or “savior.” When these eastern areas were conquered by Rome, the ruler cult observances were seamlessly transferred to the emperors; but in the west and Rome, there was still a reluctance to view living emperors as divine. Concerning Caligula, some sources claimed that he openly expressed the desire to be worshipped as a god, and may even have truly believed that he was some sort of deity. He allegedly dressed up as various gods, spoke to them as equals, and had temples to himself built.

Whether these actions occurred or not, at the very least, when individuals wished to ingratiate themselves with Caligula by instituting cults to him or addressing him with divine titles, the emperor did not seem to discourage it.

As additional evidence of his megalomania, Caligula routinely appeared dressed in a special all-purple toga decorated with golden palm leaves, and he clutched an ivory scepter which was surmounted with a golden eagle. This was an outfit that traditionally had been reserved for generals on the day they celebrated a triumph. Jupiter, the king of the gods, was often envisioned in this same garb, further suggesting Caligula saw himself as divine.

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The End of Caligula

After less than four years of this behavior, many were fed up with Caligula, and a conspiracy formed to assassinate him.

Among its leaders were several officers of the Praetorian Guard. One of these was a tribune named Cassius Chaerea, whom Caligula had taken particular delight in humiliating.

On January 24, 41 A.D., Caligula went to the theater to take part in festivities associated with the Palatine Games. He sacrificed a flamingo, watched some performances, and then, around one o’clock, headed back to the palace for lunch. Chaerea and some other officers intercepted Caligula and fell upon him with their swords, stabbing him 30 times.

Common Questions About Roman Emperor Caligula

Q: What were Roman Emperor Caligula’s accomplishments?

Caligula was a good Emperor before his illness and abolished unnecessary taxes, improved infrastructure, public transportation, and gave aid to many who had been wronged by Tiberius.

Q: Why is Roman Emperor Caligula remembered as the cruelest Emperor?

Shortly into Emperor Caligula’s rule, he fell ill from what many suggest was syphilis. He never recovered mentally and became a ruthless, wanton killer of Roman citizens, including even his family. No one was safe. He spent the treasury on lavish but useless spectacles and began killing Senators and engaging in many other horrible acts.

Q: What killed Roman Emperor Caligula?

Roman Emperor Caligula was assassinated when his Praetorian Guard and other conspirators stabbed him to death in the year 41 C.E.

Q: Who succeeded Roman Emperor Caligula?

Claudius was selected by the Praetorian Guard as Caligula’s successor.

This article was updated on November 27, 2019

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