CALIGULA (37 - 41 AD)



The emperor Gaius (Caligula) …

…makes a promising start, but descends, after an illness, into madness and murder. He is assassinated by the imperial guard.


Gaius Caesar: born AD 12, son of Germanicus Caesar (15 BC - AD 19), nephew of Tiberius, and Agrippina (14 BC - AD 33), granddaughter of Tiberius. Became emperor in AD 37. Married [1] Junia Claudilla; [2] Livia Orestilla; [3] Lollia Paulina; [4] Caesonia (one daughter, Julia). Assassinated 24 January AD 41.

The question as to who would succeed Tiberius was resolved by Naevius Cordus Sutorius Macro (d. AD 38), commander of the imperial guard in succession to Sejanus. He proposed Caligula’s name to the senate; there was no objection.

Caligula, though inexperienced in matters of government, recalled many political exiles and dropped charges against them; he also banished all male prostitutes. He formally adopted his cousin, Tiberius Gemellus, and appointed his uncle Claudius (his dead father’s younger brother) to his first public office as consul. Then he fell ill. When he recovered, the citizens of Rome found they were in a living nightmare.

Caligula became totally irrational, with delusions of divinity as well as of grandeur. He put Tiberius Gemellus and Macro to death without trial. He proposed that statues of himself be erected in synagogues. His extravagance knew no bounds, and he introduced heavy taxes to meet his personal expenditure.

Caligula's sisters

Bronze coin of Caligula depicting his three sisters, Agrippina (later the mother of Nero), Drusilla, and Julia. He is said to have committed incest with each of them in turn. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

In such an atmosphere executions and displays of bloodlust were commonplace, and conspiracies proliferated. Finally, one of the plots succeeded, and he was assassinated by members of his imperial guard. His fourth wife, and his child, were murdered at the same time.

Underground passage - scene of Caligula's murder

Underground passage from the imperial palace to the Area Palatina, in which Caligula was killed. (VRoma: Barbara McManus)


Caligula: a chilling study of weakness and cruelty. (Ny Carlsberg Glypotek: René Seindal)


Pen portrait of Caligula

“He was very tall, with an enormous body supported on spindly legs, a thin neck, and an extremely pallid complexion. His eyes and temples were sunken, and his forehead broad and glowering. His hair was thin and he was bald on top, though he had a hairy body. For that reason it was a crime punishable by death to look down on him from above as he passed by, or for any reason whatsoever to mention a goat in his presence. He was by nature ugly, but he made himself even more so by practising gruesome faces in a mirror.” (Suetonius, Caligula 1)

Caligula kept his favourite racehorse, Incitatus, inside the palace in a stable box of carved ivory, dressed in purple blankets and collars of precious stones. Dinner guests were invited to the palace in the horse's name. And the horse, too, was invited to dine with the emperor. Caligula was even said to have considered making the horse consul.