Bad Emperors: Caligula

People who know me usually know one thing about me: I am obsessed with the emperor Caligula. Completely and totally and all-consumingly obsessed. I have no idea how it started, but it’s been going on for over a decade now and it once drove me to nearly push an elderly woman off a ferry to Capri (she deserved it). I’ve come to terms with it. So, bear in mind how hard I will have struggled to keep this under 10,000 words.


Caligula’s was born Gaius Julius Caesar, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus upon his ascension to the throne. The name Caligula is a childhood nickname derived from the Latin world caliga which means army boot. Gaius’s father Germanicus was a much beloved Roman dude who spent the majority of his time traipsing around Germany with his army dragging his wife and kids with him. Gaius was born and raised for the first few years in the German camps and was allegedly very popular with his dad’s troops, who gave him a tiny army uniform and made him their mascot. This is where Caligula comes from: little army boot. What a great nickname. Guess where that story comes from. I really hope you guessed Suetonius. I am a terrible, awful, annoying person and so I am going to insist upon calling him Gaius because calling a grown man and emperor by his infant nickname is so unseemly. So to me he is Gaius.

Poor Gaius has an absolutely godawful childhood. He has a couple of good years in Germany, then while on a holiday in the east (in which he broke at least one massive law)(0) his Dad Germanicus dropped dead. His mum (Agrippina 1) did not deal well with the loss, and accused Uncle Tiberius of murdering her husband. She insists upon living in the slums of Rome with her kids and agitates wildly against Tibby until he gets cross and exiles her and her two older sons. All three die in exile. This leaves Gaius and his three sisters. By this time Gaius is 18 and still hasn’t received his toga virilalis, meaning he is still legally a child. Most boys get their toga virialis at 13/14 so this is a big deal. He’s not even allowed to shave yet and has to wear child’s clothing. He just has to walk around, being obviously physically an adult and yet legally a child with a beard. You cannot imagine how unbearably embarrassing this would have been. Imagine getting stuck at year 9 in school for 4 years, never being allowed to move on to do your GCSEs while class after class of 13 year olds pass you by and have finished their A-Levels by the time you’re allowed to do your SATs. Awful. Also both your parents and brothers are dead, your mum ensured that you had absolutely no connections in society on purpose and all evidence suggests that the emperor might personally want you dead. That’s Gaius at 18.

Then Tiberius calls for him to move to Capri.

There, he is swiftly and unceremoniously shaved and made an adult and made Tibby’s heir because, as we discussed, he’s Tibby’s only living relative over the age of 12, with all his mental faculties, and the principate is still too much of a full time job to let kids do it. And there he’s stuck, with boring uncle Tibby who was definitely responsible for the exile of his family and who his mum has taught him also killed his dad, who openly hates Rome and the senate, on a tiny island with nowt to do. For years. Until Tiberius dies. At which point he suddenly becomes emperor.

So. Little Gaius has had a fairly brutal upbringing. But even more importantly than that he has absolutely no experience of the Roman political system. Both Augustus and Tiberius had significant experience working their way through the various offices of the senate – not least being consul multiple times before taking the ultimate power of the principate. And here’s the second point: the principate is really a collection of little powers. It’s not one office at this time, Augustus collected an awful lot of totally constitutional, republican powers and held them all at the same time. It’s this which makes him Princeps and how he manages to subvert the republic into one man rule without anyone really noticing or minding. He hands the vast majority of these to Tiberius slowly, over many years and the senate give him most of the rest (he rejects loads) on Augustus’s death. Gaius hasn’t done this. Tibby has given him almost no powers, he’s never been to the senate. They’re gently coerced into accepting Gaius as emperor by the Praetorian Guard led by Macro, who points out very politely while holding a sword that there’s not a lot of choice in the matter. So the senate just give Gaius all the powers that Augustus had in one lump and just sort of hope really hard that this will work out for them. Because the idea of ruling by themselves is still way too much. And boom. Gaius goes from 25 year old isolated orphan, to emperor of the world.

Now Suetonius claims that, because Gaius’s dad was very, very popular and Tibby was so spectacularly unpopular, Gaius started off his reign to calls of “star”, “chicken”, “baby” and “pet”. Which is sweet. There’s a fair whack of evidence that Gaius never lost his popularity with the army or with the people of Rome but he certainly did with the senate, pretty much immediately when it becomes clear that he is wildly incompetent and has exactly zero interest in the day to day, administrative side of running an empire or indeed doing much ruling at all. This is the key difference between good emperors and bad emperors. Good emperors are keen on admin and meetings. Bad emperors are not. I would definitely be a bad emperor. On top of that, every administrative decision that Gaius does make is either totally impractical (deciding that treason is no longer a crime; ejecting all “sexual perverts” from the city) or look super weird (inexplicably adding his sisters’ names to the oath of allegiance) even though they seem to come from an idealistic place. So, when he brings back treason law, in part to exile two of his sisters who appear to be plotting against him, he looks like a liar. A liar with bad judgement. Who has started executing people again. And man do the senate hate him after that.

There’s a set of popular narratives about Gaius’s reign that he was a lovely bloke until he became ill towards the end of his first year as emperor, and as a result of the mysterious illness he went mad and became evil. (1) The illness idea comes from the structure of Suetonius’s biography, which is strange to modern eyes. It begins with his birth and ends with his death, and therefore we the reader assume that the events within are chronologically arranged, but they are not. They are arranged thematically. So, we get several chapters of “good” things at the start of the biography, and several more chapters of “bad” things afterwards, with the illness in the middle. There’s very rarely an implication of chronology in Suetonius and - enormously inconveniently – the books of Tacitus (who did write chronologically) covering Gaius’s reign have been lost to time. SO we have broadly no idea what was going on when. Moreover, the good things are all listed very quickly, a sentence each about publishing previously banned books, and fixing taxation and so on but the bad things are related in lavish detail, with imagery and quotes and so on. So the long, long list of good things gets very swiftly buried by his dancing and murdering and quips and humiliation. Such is the effect of structuring, as I regularly tell my students.

What we do know is that an awful lot of what can be verified externally in Suetonius is absolute nonsense, which casts a lot of doubt on those bits which can’t be. And even more of what you think you know about the evil Caligula is either a misreading or totally made up in the twentieth century. For example: 1. Caligula made his horse a consul. No he did not. The exact line is “It is said that he even planned to make Incitatius a consul”. Even Suetonius is hedging there. The man you think you know as Caligula – the extremely evil, sister murdering, foetus eating, mad man doing dances in a gold bikini, is a myth really, a twentieth century myth narrative device influenced strongly by I, Claudius, who has almost no relationship with the living man named Gaius.
What there evidence there is suggests that he did lead an extravagant and frivolous life and was probably a pretty rubbish emperor if you want your emperor to be taking a keen interest in the administrative workings of Syria or the strategic importance of Armenia or what Judaism is. He definitely did take an active interest in building massive, extravagant party boats (like Jay-Z) and being generally fancy. We know this, because we found his boats and they are FANCY. Look:



Also, we uniquely have a first person account of someone attempting to have a high level diplomatic chat with Gaius and how incredibly frustrating that was. This comes from a guy called Philo, an Alexandrian Jewish leader who went to visit Gaius on behalf of the Jews because he was attempting to put a statue of himself in the great Temple in Jerusalem. I am sure you can imagine why the Jews would have a problem with this. Gaius, however, seems to have no idea what their beef is. Everyone else has a statue of him, why won’t they? And he treats them like an annoyance. He keeps them waiting for days and eventually agrees to see them while he’s doing something else, specifically designing a garden. So these poor men, suffering what to them is an extreme moment of crisis and persecution, are forced to chase Gaius around as he half listens and decides where to put the hydrangeas and keeps running off mid-sentence. This drives them NUTS. And Philo writes a very nasty piece of insinuations of anti-Semitism and widespread murder. Eventually Gaius stops wanting a statue in the temple and moves on to something else. Probably more boats.

None of this is great for poor Gaius, as it all broadly manifests as what Anthony Barrett called a “totally self-centred view of the world” where it seems that the only thing that Gaius cares about is Gaius and he’ll happily trample on the senate to get it. The number of named people executed or “forced to commit suicide” under Gaius’s 4 year reign is a not insignificant 27, and this really is the kind of thing that upsets senates enormously because they begin to worry for their lives. And Gaius seems to have been a hardcore jerk about the whole thing, with – if we believe Suetonius’s quotes – quite the penchant for very dark humour. Along the lines of “if only all Rome had just one neck”, “I can do whatever I want to whoever I want” ahaha. Which makes everyone really very uncomfortable.

So, eventually, a conspiracy of senators and the Praetorian Guard (basically the army of the city of Rome/private army of the emperor) and almost certainly his much neglected Uncle Claudius decide to kill him, his wife and his daughter and make everything better. This is where it gets sticky for those who have tried to fully rehabilitate Gaius, who want to see all the bad things as lies and calumny (we’ve all been there). Because a large number of people he’s close to do agree to murder him, which is quite the step. Now, they either do this because he was genuinely awful and they hated him, or they do it simply because they want to put their own man (Claudius) in his place in order to advance their own personal power. Both are equally valid explanations, and frankly we’ll never know the answer because only evidence which supports the one explanation survives. But, for whatever reason, Gaius is murdered: they stab him to death as he’s leaving the theatre during a festival, then stab his wife and smash his 2 year old daughter’s head against a wall in order to wipe out his bloodline. They were nice dudes too.

And so, at 29 Gaius is dead, having had a truly horrible, traumatic childhood and ending up pretty much alone but for his wife – almost as alone as Tibby – and managed to upset everyone who met him so much by that they literally killed him with knives. Having been thrown into global leadership with no training, no experience and a total lack of understanding of what the job required, it’s difficult to see how this could have ended up differently. And as we will see, ending up emperor rather than plotting to be emperor is a defining feature of “bad” emperors. Nonetheless, Gaius was definitely a difficult person at the end of his reign. Despite the fact that a huge amount of the stories told about him are emphatically untrue, there is enough that is verifiable to demonstrate that he was not fun to be around and more than a little  unpredictable. Whether he deserved a brutal, bloody murder is an issue for another day (never), but him not being emperor anymore was certainly a good thing. The moral of this story is don’t make an unqualified, inexperienced 25 year old man child emperor of the world. It won’t end well. Unfortunately, it is not a lesson the Romans learnt.


0. He went to Egypt without permission. Egypt was an incredibly sensitive territory as it provided a huge proportion of Rome’s grain and so it was treated in various special ways, including the rule that no one with power could visit without express permission from the emperor in case they took control of Egypt and held Rome to ransom. Germanicus violated this. He also broke the nose off of Alexander the Great’s mummified corpse during this visit so he sounds like a fun guy.
1. As a result there’s a swathe of super funny, completely ridiculous historico-medical articles trying to diagnose Gaius’s mysterious illness based on Suetonius’s fifth hand descriptions. I don’t recommend you read it unless you have a very niche idea of funny, and that idea includes heated academic arguments about what type of epilepsy a dead man had. The other narrative is that Gaius was all cool until his sister Drusilla died. That one actually comes from Albert Camus so…let’s ignore it for the time being.
2. Suet, Caligula 54. This is a part of a chapter concerning his obsession with horse racing and particular fondness for a specific horse, which manifested as him trying to make him as comfortable as possible in ivory stalls and purple blankets. Which is profligate and extravagant but whatever.