Today in 12 AD, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born in Antium, a resort town in Italy near the present-day city of Anzio. He would become the third Roman Emperor, and as such would be remembered as a tyrant who was, perhaps, mentally ill.
Gaius’ family was part of the Julio-Claudian family, the clan that produced the first five Roman Emperors who ruled between 27 BC and 68 AD. His father, Germanicus, was one of the best generals the Roman Empire had ever produced. Gaius accompanied his father on military campaigns in northern Europe when he was as young as two. He had his own uniform and armor, an outfit that earned him a place as a sort of mascot to his father’s army. He was soon given a nickname in Latin, a name that translates into English as “little soldier’s boots”. The name was Caligula, and it remained with the boy for the rest of his life.
Caligula’s father died when his son was just seven, leaving him in the care of his mother. Exact details of the future emperor’s life are hard to find, but contemporary historians theorized that Germanicus was actually murdered, a victim of Emperor Tiberius, who felt threatened by Germanicus’ popularity and renown. Tiberius went even further, denying Caligula’s mother the right to re-marry and then banning her, Caligula and his brother from Rome. Caligula, then 17, eventually went to live with his grandmother. In the following years, he lost both of his brothers to a life-long prison sentence and suicide. He and his sisters were constantly watched and lived as prisoners in everything but name.
At the age of 19, Caligula was sent to Capri and placed under the personal care of Emperor Tiberius. The emperor’s motivations for this move remain unclear, but one thing is certain: Caligula knew an opportunity when he saw one. He buried his hatred of Tiberius and became everything the emperor, now nearing 70 years of age, needed him to be. In time, he would become Tiberius’ adopted grandson and, in the year 35, his heir along with Tiberius Gemellus, the emperor’s young grandson.
Emperor Tiberius died in 37 AD, possibly from suffocation by one of his Praetorian guards. Caligula’s ascension to the throne was met with great fanfare, for Tiberius had not been popular. The new emperor immediately had his predecessor’s will nullified and had Gemellus removed from power with the accusation that he was insane. Caligula would eventually have the young man killed by claiming that he was plotting to have the emperor removed from power.
Caligula, son of the well-loved Germanicus, was initially seen as a good, fair and kind ruler. He granted bonuses to the army, eased tax regulations and funded spectacular gladiator battles for the entertainment of the public. Only two years into his reign, however, Caligula fell ill. The cause of his sickness and an accurate description of it have been lost to history, but the Caligula that emerged from what was thought to be his deathbed was a different man. One of his first actions was to have his wife banished. He then forced his father-in-law to commit suicide. Some historians claim that these actions were taken in response to plots to overthrow the emperor, but this is not certain.
In some aspects, Caligula remained a just ruler. He restored some elected positions in government and made a full disclosure of how public funds were being used. But underneath these actions, an underground of corruption was beginning to grow. Many of Caligula’s enemies, both genuine and perceived, were executed without trials or without even hearing the accusations against them. When the treasury began to run out of money because of the emperor’s lavish spending habits, Caligula began ceasing wealthy citizens’ estates and personal property and auctioning them off, with the money going directly to the government.
When the Roman Senate began to disagree with Caligula’s policies, he revived his predecessor’s tradition of speedy and harsh trials for treason. As a result, several senators were put to death and others were publicly humiliated by being made to act as servants to the emperor. Caligula also eliminated any public opposition to his reign, mainly by accusing his critics of plotting to kill him. Whether or not these plots ever existed is a matter of debate.
In 40 AD, Caligula began making public appearances dressed as a god and began referring to himself in the third person as Jupiter. He had two temples erected in Rome for the sole purpose of worshiping the emperor. He would appear at these temples from time to time and present himself as a god to his now doubting and fearful public. Emperor worship was not new in the Roman Empire, but it was almost exclusively reserved for the dead.
So many rumors existed about Caligula’s personal life that it is now impossible to tell truth from fiction. Those close to him claim the emperor made his favorite horse his chief adviser and priest. His palace became a brothel in service for him alone and he boldly bragged about the affairs he had with high-ranking officials’ wives.
As he became increasingly unpopular, the plots against Caligula became real. On January 24, 41 AD, Praetorian Guards led by Cassius Chaerea attacked Caligula as he was making a speech to a group of young actors. Like Julius Caesar two generations before, Caligula was stabbed around 30 times. In addition to his Praetorians, the emperor also employed a loyal company of Germanic soldiers to serve as his personal bodyguards. They arrived too late the save Caligula, but in their rage they attacked anyone and everyone in the area, most of them innocent bystanders. The death toll from this rampage is uncertain.
Despite the murder of Caligula’s wife and daughter, the Senate was unable to gain enough support to restore the empire to the Republic it had once been. Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, earned the support of the army and the Praetorians, thus securing his position as the next emperor. He ordered the execution of everyone involved with Caligula’s murder. In the end, all that remained was a madman’s reputation.