The historian Suetonius called him. The Monster. He has been accused of seducing his sisters, declaring himself a god and making a Roman Legion collect sea shells. Did the Emperor Caligula really do these things? If he did, was he insane? If he was insane, why was an insane man allowed to become Emperor?
He was Emperor for only four years (37 CE to 41 CE) but he became one of the Roman Empire’s most famous rulers. He is known as Caligula, but that was not his real name. His real name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Caligula was a childhood nickname that meant “little boots.” Historians refer to Gaius Germanicus as Caligula to distinguish him from his father Germanicus and other people with similar names. Still, there are very few parents today who would dare call their sons “Caligula.”
Caligula definitely lived. We know that much for sure. What he did while alive remains debatable. Caligula is popularly known as “the mad Emperor.” Was he really insane or was he just misunderstood?
How Caligula Got the Reputation For Being Insane
Historians have some fragmented records of Caligula’s by his contemporaries such as the orator Seneca, Pliny the Elder and Philo of Alexandria. But unfortunately, most of the Caligula legend has come to us from one historian, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus who lived a century after Caligula. He was not exactly an unbiased writer. He worked for the Imperial family of the times, the Flavians. It was in his best interests to make the original Imperial family, the Julians, look as wicked as possible in order to make the Flavians look good.
Suetonius was a sensational writer, but an erratic historian. It was from him that the world learned about Incitatus, Caligula’s favorite race horse. Whether Caligula actually made the stallion a Senator and then a consul (President of the Senate) is unknown, but this story has stuck down through the centuries. Historian Aloys Winterling points out that Caligula may have only threatened to make the horse a consul in order to insult the Senate, showing them that they were powerless compared to the Emperor.
Caligula as Deity
One part of the Caligula legend is true – he was worshipped as a god when he was alive. Although this seems shocking today, it wasn’t that big of a deal back in 40 CE. Julius Caesar and Augustus were both deified after their deaths. Modern histrian Aloys Winterling writes that Tiberius, Caligula's predecessor, was criticized by the Senate for refusing to be called a god during his lifetime.
Caligula did make his sister Julia Drusilla a goddess after her sudden death in 38 CE. Whether Caligula actually believed he and his sister were deities is unknown but unlikely. Saying that you were a god was a good way to make people afraid of you and more prone to obey you. This was a custom for many countries, especially those in the East. What is certain is that he knocked out a wall connecting his palace with the Temple of Pollux and Castor for parties. This was shocking to Roman society.
Caligula’s War on Neptune
Suetonius writes that Caligula stopped a planned attack on Britain to suddenly declared war on the sea god Neptune. He supposedly made two Roman legions collect seashells and attack ocean waves. This was yet further proof of his insanity.
But it didn’t happen. Caligula added two new legions to the vast Roman army for the express purpose of conquering Britain. However, by the time he got to the English Channel, he learned of a civil war brewing in Rome. Caligula had survived no less than three conspiracies during his time on the throne. He knew if he waited too long, someone else would be on the throne when he returned to Rome and his life would be in peril. Winterling reports that Caligula’s troops became rebellious at this time. Gathering sea shells was their punishment and a way to humiliate these disobedient soldiers before marching them back to Rome in disgrace.
The legend also states that Caligula, having spent all of his inheritance, turned his palace into a brothel and forced all wives of aristocrats to become prostitutes for him so he could make money. This makes for a great scene in the 1976 mini-series I, Claudius. Did it really happen? No.
What really happened is even more twisted. He took various wives and children of each upper class Roman family as hostages. Therefore, if the palace was attacked, Caligula could order the deaths of the hostages. Officially, the wives and children were invited to live in the palace but they had to pay huge rent to Caligula. Refusing an invitation to live in the palace was risking certain death. Taking hostages was a tactic used by many previous Roman rulers, including the revered Augustus. However, instead of taking hostages from conquered nations, he took them from his own countrymen. His own countrymen murdered the majority of his family, which could be why Caligula feared his fellow Romans.
Most stores about Caligula are sensationalized. There is no proof that he slept with his sisters or turned the Imperial palace into a brothel. He was Rome’s first young Emperor and wanted to break with traditions held sacred to the Roman aristocracy. He also went out of his way to insult and mock the Senate, held hostages in his palace and desecrated a sacred temple.
Although he the most powerful man in the Roman Empire, he still needed allies. Deciding to humiliate his allies and shock Roman society were bad political moves but not proof of insanity.
Blood of the Caesars: How the Murder of Germanicus Led to the fall of Rome. Stephen Dando-Collins. John Wiley & Sons; 2008.
Caligula: A Biography. Aloys Winterling. University of California Press; 2011.
“Caligula’s Roman Palace Discovered.” Bruce Johnston. The Telegraph. 8 August, 2003.