Emperor Gaius, nicknamed Caligula, was the third emperor of Rome. Famed for his legendary megalomania, sadism and excess, he met a violent end in Rome on 24 January 41 AD. He had assumed the role of emperor only four years earlier, in 37 AD, when he succeeded his great-uncle Tiberius.
Caligula’s alleged debauchery as well as the circumstances of his death, and indeed that of the emperor he replaced, have fuelled suspicion and rumour for almost two millennia. Among the most tantalising suggestions of the emperor’s hedonism are the vast, luxurious pleasure barges he launched on Lake Nemi.
1. His real name was Gaius
The emperor allegedly loathed the nickname given to him when he was a child, ‘Caligula’, which referred to the miniaturised military-style boots (caligae) that he was dressed up in. In fact, his real name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.
2. He was the son of Agrippina the Elder
Caligula’s mother was the influential Agrippina the Elder. She was a prominent member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and the granddaughter of Emperor Augustus. She married her second cousin Germanicus (a grandson of Mark Antony), who was given command over Gaul.
Agrippina the Elder had 9 children with Germanicus. Her son Caligula became emperor after Tiberius, while her daughter Agrippina the Younger served as empress to Caligula’s successor Claudius. Agrippina the Younger is supposed to have poisoned her husband and installed her own son and Caligula’s nephew, Nero, as the fifth Roman emperor and the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors.
3. Caligula may have assassinated his predecessor
The Roman writer Tacitus reports that Caligula’s predecessor Tiberius was smothered with a pillow by the commander of the Praetorian Guard. Suetonius, meanwhile, suggests in Life of Caligula that Caligula himself took responsibility:
“He poisoned Tiberius, as some think, and ordered that his ring be taken from him while he still breathed, and then suspecting that he was trying to hold fast to it, that a pillow be put over his face; or even strangled the old man with his own hand, immediately ordering the crucifixion of a freedman who cried out at the awful deed.”
4. Caligula himself was assassinated
Just four years after he assumed rule, Caligula was assassinated. Members of the Praetorian Guard, who were charged with protecting the emperor, cornered Caligula in his home and killed him. His death is well documented. 50 years after Caligula died, the historian Titus Flavius Josephus produced an expansive history of the Jews which featured a long account of the event.
Josephus reports that a personal grudge motivated the leader Chaerea, who was unhappy with Caligula’s taunts of his effeminacy. It’s unclear whether higher principles led to the murder. Caligula was certainly linked to misdeeds in later accounts to give the impression that the violence was justified. In any case, Claudius was immediately elected as Caligula’s replacement by the killers.
They found him, it is alleged, hiding in a dark alley. Claudius claimed to be a reluctant beneficiary of the murder of his nephew, and subsequently pacified the Praetorian Guard with a handout described by the writer Suetonius as “bribery to secure the loyalty of the soldiers.”
5. He was the subject of salacious accusations
Caligula’s reputed cruelty, sadism and salacious lifestyle often put him in comparison with emperors like Domitian and Nero. Yet as with those figures, there are reasons to be suspicious about the sources from which these dismal portrayals originate. Certainly, Caligula’s successor benefited from the stories of scandalizing behaviours: it helped to legitimise Claudius’ new authority by creating a distance with his predecessor.
As Mary Beard writes in SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, “Caligula may have been assassinated because he was a monster, but it is equally possible that he was made into a monster because he was assassinated.”
6. His detractors described legendary excesses
The truth of his monstrousness notwithstanding, these bizarre behaviours have long defined the popular character of Caligula. He is supposed to have had incestuous relationships with his sisters and planned to make his horse a consul. Some claims are more far-fetched than others: he allegedly built a floating roadway over the Bay of Naples, on which he rode while wearing the armour of Alexander the Great.
7. He launched pleasure barges in Lake Nemi
He certainly did launch extravagant pleasure barges on Lake Nemi, however. In 1929, Mussolini, the dictator obsessed with the legacy of ancient Rome, ordered the whole of Lake Nemi to be drained. Two vast shipwrecks were recovered in the basin, the largest of which was 240 feet long and steered by oars 36 feet long. Caligula’s name is inscribed on lead remains on the ships.
Suetonius recalled the luxuries that ornamented the pleasure vessel: “Ten banks of oars… the poops of which blazed with jewels… filled with ample baths, galleries and saloons, and supplied with a great variety of vines and fruit trees.”
8. Caligula celebrated with grand spectacles
In their breathless denunciations of Caligula’s excess, Roman writers noted how the emperor quickly spent the savings his predecessor Tiberius had left behind. Caligula’s dinner parties must rank among Rome’s most extravagant, apparently spending 10 million denarii on a single party.
Caligula drew some distaste from the aristocratic class by professing support for a favourite chariot team (Green). But worse was that he spent more time attending races, which may have lasted from sunrise to sunset, than doing any sort of business.
9. He prepared for an invasion of Britain
In 40 AD, Caligula expanded the frontiers of the Roman empire to incorporate Mauretania, the Latin name for a region in Northwest Africa. He also made an attempt at expanding into Britain.
This apparently aborted campaign was derided by Suetonius in his Life of Caligula as a deluded trip to the beach, where “he suddenly bade them gather shells and fill their helmets and the folds of their gowns, calling them ‘spoils from the Ocean, due to the Capitol and Palatine.’”
Caligula’s successor Claudius did invade Britain. Conquest over foreign peoples was a reliable route to establishing authority in ancient Rome. In 43 AD, Claudius made much of the victory of Roman troops over the inhabitants of Britain.
10. He probably wasn’t insane
Roman writers such as Suetonius and Cassius Dio depicted the late Caligula as insane, driven by delusions of grandeur and convinced of his divinity. In ancient Rome, sexual perversion and mental illness were often deployed to suggest bad government. Though he may have been cruel and ruthless, the historian Tom Holland depicts him as a shrewd ruler.
And the tale of Caligula making his horse a consul? Holland suggests that it was Caligula’s way of saying “I can make my horse a consul if I want. The highest prize in the Roman state, it’s entirely within my gift.”