Caligula – Tyrant or Victim?

Hello everyone! I have been set a challenge! I have to say, this one is a little out of my field, but I had a go, and I must say it was rather interesting. My challenge was to research Caligula. For those of you modern history people like myself I am ashamed to say that I had no idea what or who Caligula was – but I have emerged enlightened from my recent study.

Caligula, also known as Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus was the third Roman Emperor, and many historians and commentators believe the most tyrannical and brutal Emperor in Rome’s history.

A little bit of context. He was son of Germanicus, and the great-grandson of Augustus (the founder of what we know as the Roman Empire, and its first ever Emperor).   When he was a young boy, he joined his father on the Rhine, where he lived amongst the Roman army. According to history, he was dressed in a petite version of the traditional army uniform; earning him the affectionate nickname ‘Caligula’ meaning ‘little boots’ or ‘bootikins’ by the soldiers. After the death of his father, Caligula survived a rather traumatic childhood. His brothers were exiled and his mother and sisters thrown in prison after a fierce argument with Emperor Tiberius – leaving Caligula as the only male left from his family. Surprisingly, Emperor Tiberius adopted Caligula and sent for him to live alongside him on the island of Capri. Many historians have argued whether this was an act of pity on the young boy or whether it was a political move to keep his rival close and under his influence as Emperor.

This is where it gets a little bit nasty. At the death of Tiberius in 37AD, Caligula became the next heir, and subsequently Emperor of Rome. Whether this succession was entirely legitimate or not remains to be seen, as it has been suggested that Caligula may have hastened the death of his adoptive father by smothering him with a pillow. History never seems to be a pleasant subject does it?

At 24, Caligula was at first seen to be a very popular ruler – and made a welcome change from previous Emperors by having a lively and active personality that seeped into his policies. In complete contrast to his predecessors, he provided lavish games for the Romans to enjoy and abolished the sales tax. Unfortunately for history, he became ill seven months into his rule, and recovered from this as a megalomaniac. According to chronicles from the period, he began to demonstrate traits of insanity. Caligula insisted on being treated as a God-like creature, a condition now come to be known as ‘Imperial madness’.  Such madness included incorporating the sacred Temple of Castor and Pollux within his palace, whilst at the same time treating it like a brothel. He had three sisters, who it is rumored that he committed incestuous acts with on multiple occasions. He almost tried to make his horse consul, as well as leading an entire army on an expedition to the channel, only to instruct them to pick up seashells before marching them all back again! (Sounds a bit like The Grand Old Duke of York doesn’t it?) He also managed to offend the Jewish population, by wanting to place a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem. He wasn’t a very popular leader at this point, especially as Caligula saw executions as mere sport, and once ordered an entire seated section of an amphitheatre to be fed to the animals below as he was bored! Bit grisly isn’t it?

Understandably, it is perhaps clear to see why many of the contemporary writers of the day may have viewed Caligula’s actions to be beastly and tyrannical. However, there is rather a lot of doubt surrounding Caligula’s reputation as a monster. For starters, according to the historian Aloys Winterling author of Caligula: A Biography, there are some issues with some of the rumours about Caligula. He believes the claim against the Emperor that he had intercourse with his female siblings is too shallow.  He goes on to argue that two well-known contemporaries Seneca and Philo who wrote extensively on Caligula’s life, were well up to date within aristocratic circles to not have mentioned an accusation such as that. The same goes for Tactitus’ (perhaps one of the most famous historians of the Roman empire) history. He speaks of Agrippina, who was Caligula’s sister attempting to seduce her own son, the emperor Nero – surely he would have mentioned any such incest between Caligula and herself, but again no such story was known to him.

It could be argued that rumours such as this were invented after the death of Caligula perhaps to blacken his name even further. Almost all the sources based on this Emperor can be traced back to members of the Roman aristocracy, whom Caligula went out of his way to humiliate – think back to that infamous horse!! Senators and Knights who were in direct contact with the Emperor and who were also damaged by his actions could have perhaps made false statements towards him. However, although most historians do not doubt the exaggeration of some of the sources they may contain some historical truth. The Roman aristocracy must have experienced some awful things under Caligula’s rule that he was branded forever as a monster and madman.

Unfortunately for Caligula his story does not end well. In 41 AD, he became the first Emperor to be assassinated along with his wife and daughter at only twenty-nine years old. In his short life, if the accounts are to be believed he would go down in history as an incestuous, lavish tyrant. Although there are little sources to collaborate such an incredible reputation, one can only assume that in order for such colourful accounts to be committed to history, there must have been some element of truth within the tales. Or else perhaps he has fallen victim to the willingness of others, doomed to be forever remembered as a cruel leader of unsound mind.

‘Caligula’, BBC History,, 18th July 2014.

Winterling, A.,Caligula: A Biography, (California, 2011).



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