Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus (August 31, 12 – January 24, 41), also known as Gaius Caesar or Caligula, was the third Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, ruling from AD 37 to 41. Known for his extremely extravagant, eccentric, and sometimes cruel despotism, he was assassinated in 41 by several of his own guards.
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Family and childhood
Born in Antium (modern day Anzio), he was the third child of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder. Germanicus was son to Nero Claudius Drusus and Antonia Minor, and older brother to Claudius. Agrippina was daughter to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Julia Caesaris. They had four other sons (Tiberius and Gaius Julius, who died young; Nero, Drusus), and three daughters (Julia Livilla, Drusilla and Agrippina the younger). See Julio-Claudian Family Tree.
Gaius' life started out promisingly, as he was the son of extremely famous parents. Germanicus was a grandson to Tiberius Nero of the gens Claudia and Livia as well as an adoptive grandson of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus of the gens Julia. He was thus a prominent member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and was revered as the most beloved general of the Roman Empire. Agrippina was herself a granddaughter of Caesar Augustus and Scribonia. She was considered a model of the perfect Roman woman.
When he was two or three years of age, Gaius became the mascot of his father's army. The soldiers were amused whenever Agrippina would put a miniature soldier costume on young Gaius, and he was soon given his nickname "Caligula" (or Caligulae), meaning "Little Soldier('s boots)" in Latin, after the small boots he wore as part of his costume. He would end up hating this name, but he also hated the name "Gaius". ("Caligula" is formed from the Latin word "caliga", meaning soldier's boot, and the suffix "ula" indicating inferiority.)
In AD 14, when news of Augustus' death made its way across the Empire, the soldiers of Germanicus's camp almost started a mutiny against Tiberius because they wanted Germanicus as Emperor. Germanicus sent Agrippina and Caligula away from the mess that was soon to brew and tried to calm his men down. The superstitious men became horrified at the prospect of losing their favorite mascot. They promised to amend their ways and so Caligula was returned.
The new Emperor, Tiberius, made Germanicus his adopted son. However, Tiberius did not appear too fond of Germanicus; Tacitus suggests that this was due to jealousy over Germanicus' popularity. Germanicus died on October 10, 19. The relationship between Tiberius and Agrippina did not improve, especially as foul play was suspected in Germanicus's death and Agrippina accused Tiberius of not doing enough to secure justice. Caligula, along with his sisters, went to live with their great-grandmother, Livia (widow of Augustus and mother of Tiberius) and then with their grandmother Antonia Minor when Livia died in 27. Neither Livia nor Antonia had much time to watch Caligula, so the only comfort he had was with his three sisters. Stories of Caligula engaging in incest with his sisters (Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Julia Livilla) began around this time. Suetonius in particular writes much about these acts.
Caligula's life was in constant danger. Tiberius's Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus, was extremely powerful, doing everything he could to gain power over Tiberius. This wasn't too hard, as Sejanus had control of Rome while Tiberius retired to the island of Capri. Treason trials, known as maiestas trials, were commonly practiced, as Tiberius in his old age was growing increasingly paranoid and began to rely increasingly upon his friend Sejanus, who once saved his life. These trials were the main lever Sejanus used to strengthen his position and dispose of any opposition. From a very early age Gaius learned to tread very carefully. According to both Tacitus and Suetonius he surpassed his brothers in intelligence, and was an excellent natural actor, realizing the danger when other members of his family could not. Gaius survived when most of the other potential candidates to the throne were destroyed. His mother Agrippina was banished to the tiny island Pandataria, where she starved herself to death (although it is suspected she was murdered). His two oldest brothers, Nero and Drusus, also died. Nero was banished to the island of Ponza, while Drusus' body was found locked in a dungeon with stuffing from his mattress in his mouth to keep off the hunger pangs. Before Sejanus could kill Caligula, Sejanus was brought down and killed based on information given to Tiberius by Antonia.
A Capri education
By this time, Caligula was already in favor with Tiberius. He was summoned to Capri to stay with Tiberius on one of the many villas on the island. Suetonius writes of extreme perversions happening on Capri, as Tiberius was without the people who managed to keep him in line (Augustus, Livia, his brother Drusus and best friend Nerva.) so he felt free to indulge in any perversion he desired. Whether this is true or not is hard to say. Unpopular Emperors such as Tiberius and Caligula rarely had the whole truth written about them, and gossip is common throughout ancient texts.
Suetonius writes of Caligula's servile nature towards Tiberius, and his indifferent nature towards his dead mother and brothers. By his own account, Caligula mentioned years later that this servility was a sham in order to stay alive, and on more than one occasion he very nearly killed Tiberius when his anger overwhelmed him. An observer said of Caligula "Never was there a better servant or a worse master!" Caligula proved to have a flair for administration and won further favor with the ailing Tiberius by carrying out many of his duties for him. At night, Caligula would inflict torture on slaves and watch bloody gladiatorial games with glee. In 33 Tiberius gave Caligula the position of honorary quaestorship.
On March 16, 37 Tiberius died and on March 18 the Roman Senate annulled Tiberius' will and proclaimed Caligula emperor. Suetonius writes how Caligula's guard Macro smothered him with a pillow, but in reality, Tiberius probably died a natural death. Caligula was not Tiberius's only successor. The Emperor had made his young grandson, Tiberius Gemellus, joint heir. Because of his young age, Gemellus was hardly an obstacle, and Caligula had him killed soon after becoming Emperor. Caligula's grandmother Antonia committed suicide around this time as well.
The first few months of Caligula's reign were good. He gave cash bonuses to the Praetorian Guards, destroyed Tiberius's treason papers, declared that treason trials were a thing of the past, recalled exiles, and helped those who had been harmed by the Imperial tax system. He was loved by many simply by being the beloved son of Germanicus. Moreover, he was a descendant of Augustus, and therefore related to Julius Caesar. He was also a great-grandson of Marc Antony.
On becoming Emperor, Caligula performed a spectacular stunt. He ordered a temporary floating bridge to be built using ships as pontoons, stretching for over two miles from the resort of Baiae to the neighboring port of Puteoli. He then proceeded to ride his horse across, wearing the breastplate of Alexander the Great. This act was in defiance of an astrologer's prediction that he had "no more chance of becoming Emperor than of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baiae".
However, following this auspicious start to his reign, Gaius fell seriously ill in October of 37, and, as Scullard remarks, "emerged as a monster of lust and diabolical cruelty".
Recent sources say that Caligula probably had encephalitis. Ancient sources, like Suetonius and Cassius Dio, describe Caligula having a "brain fever". Philo of Alexandria reports it was nothing more than a nervous breakdown, as Caligula was not used to the pressures of constant attention after being out of the public eye for most of his life. Rome waited in horror, praying that their beloved Emperor would recover. He became better, but his reign took a sharp turn. The death of Gemellus and of Silanus, Caligula's father-in-law, took place right after Caligula recovered.
Was Caligula insane? Many agree that he was, but Philo, author of On the Embassy to Gaius disagrees. The leader of an Embassy sent to Caligula to seek relief from persecution by Alexandrian Greeks, Philo thought that Caligula was just a vicious jokester. He was arrogant, aloof, and a bit cruel, but insane? We may never know for sure.
There are famous stories that he tried to make his beloved stallion, Incitatus, a consul. However, this could have been a political statement that he felt his horse as well qualified for the position as any of the incumbents. Other stories are of incest with his sisters (especially Drusilla), a brothel he set up at the palace including prominent senators and their wives, his campaign in Britain ending with his soldiers collecting seashells as "spoils of the sea" in his battle with the sea god Neptune, wanting to erect a statue of himself in Jerusalem (his good friend Herod Agrippa stopped it), and labeling himself a "god". Ancient sources classify him as insane and a tyrant. However, modern sources attempt to explain his insanity as the product of a painful childhood or that he was simply misunderstood. Historians tend to agree on one fact: he was extremely unqualified and unprepared to become Emperor.
Caligula only ruled for three years, ten months, and eight days. On January 24, 41 a conspiracy among the Praetorian Guard ended his life. While Caligula was in a corridor alone, he was struck down at the age of 28, by one Cassius Chaerea, a colonel of the guard with a distinguished record. He had known Caligula since infancy and had been one of Germanicus's best officers. Years of abuse from Caligula over his so-called effeminacy finally took their toll. Together with another aggrieved colonel, Cornelius Sabinus, he also killed Caligula's wife Caesonia and their infant daughter, Julia Drusilla by smashing her head against a wall. After much confusion, his old uncle Claudius was made Emperor by the Praetorian Guard.
- Ludwig Quidde's essay Caligula. Eine Studie über römischen Caesarenwahnsinn (Caligula: A Study of Imperial Insanity) (1894), in which Caligula is likened to the German Emperor Wilhelm II.
- Caligula is the title of a play by Albert Camus, which was the basis for a 1996 Hungarian movie and the 2001 made for TV version.
- Caligula (film) is also a controversial 1979 movie starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, and Peter O'Toole.
- Actor Jay Robinson played Caligula in The Robe 1953 and its sequel Demetrius And The Gladiators 1954. See Caligula (film)
- John Hurt played Caligula in the TV adaptation of Robert Graves's book I, Claudius.
- Life of Caligula (Suetonius; English translation and Latin original)
- Cassius Dio, Book 59 (English translation)
- Straight Dope article
- A chronological account of his reign
- A critical account of a number of his reported activities
- His genealogical tree