Caligula: Biography, Facts & Achievements
Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, also known as Caligula, was a tyrannical ruler who served as the third Emperor of the Roman Empire. Caligula’s life and tenure on the throne ended abruptly when he was assassinated in A.D. 41 by some members of the Praetorian Guard.
Emperor Caligula was a self-absorbed and quick-tempered young man who allowed his insatiable thirst for lust and violence consume him, turning him into one of the most ruthless and erratic rulers of Rome.
What else was Caligula most known for? How did his reign come to be despised by the very people he put in charge to protect him?
Below, World History Edu takes an in-depth look at the life, reign, and the few achievements of Caligula:
Caligula was born in 12 AD to a hero father, Germanicus in Italy. Caligula’s mother was Agrippina the Elder (Vipsania). But that does not complete the history of his great family tree. He also had the honor of being Emperor Augustus‘ grandson through his adoptive father Emperor Tiberius.
Augustus was the legal inheritor to the powerful Julius Caesar. Acting together, Caligula’s royal family line helped to push him to the limelight. At 2-4 years old, Caligula and some of his dad’s soldiers resided at the Rhine.
It was the soldiers who nicknamed him “Caligula”, meaning “little boots”. His other nickname was Bootikins.
In 33 AD, Caligula’s brother passed away and he stayed at Capri (is an island located in the Tyrrhenian Sea on the south side of the Gulf of Naples in the Campania region of Italy) with Tiberius’s grandson, Gemellus.
In 35, Caligula and his cousin were named joint heirs to ailing Tiberius. It was also agreed that Caligula would adopt the young Gemellus as his son.
When Tiberius died in 37 AD, Caligula engineered a plot and became an emperor. His accession was partly masterminded by a Praetorian (an imperial bodyguard) named Sutorius Macro. They did everything in their power to prevent Gemellus from co-ruling.
There have been controversial accounts regarding Tiberius’s death. A theory suggested that Macro and Caligula were closely linked with the death of Tiberius. They were rumored to have sped up his death by using a pillow to suffocate the emperor.
During Caligula’s reign, he developed the habit of either killing or exiling his close friends and family members. For example, he did away with not just Gemellus but also Macro. He also had two of his sisters – Livilla and Agrippina the Younger – exiled to remote islands in the empire. Such was the shocking nature of new emperor’s actions that his grandmother, Antonio Younger, committed suicide.
Notable Achievements of Caligula
In Roman history, Caligula is regarded as one of the worse emperors to have ever reigned. But even though his time as emperor was marred by his bizarre behavior and debauchery, the young ruler did chalk up a few achievements.
Abolished Some Taxes
When he ascended the throne, Caligula instituted a lot of reforms. Notable among his changes was the eradication of certain taxes. He loved to spend money, but surprisingly, he was able to abolish some unfair taxes implemented by his predecessors. To many Romans, the tax abolishment was good news.
Caligula took credit for developing Roman infrastructure. In his reign, he supervised many construction projects. He built temples, racetracks, theatres and a lot more. The transportation sector benefited a lot from Caligula’s tenure, as he constructed roads and channels that still beat the imagination of today’s engineers. Caligula also did repair works on walls in the cities.
Expanded the Palace
Caligula loved to live a life of luxury. To serve his personal advantage, he enlarged the royal residence. He built a temporary floating bridge to connect a resort in Baiae to Puteoli port.
Caligula requested and had two big ships built for him. These ships were listed as some of the largest vessels of the time. Interestingly, one of the ships served as a floating palace, a true depiction of the young emperor’s self-centeredness.
He arrested Sejanus
Caligula was a master planner whose efforts helped Tiberius to arrest Sejanus, who was a powerful Praetorian prefect that many people feared. At a point in time during his reign, Tiberius developed a strong dislike for Sejanus and sought to depose him. He stepped in to offer his help, even though he was lower in rank to Sejanus.
He enlisted the help of Sutorius Macro, the second commander of the guard. The two men influenced Tiberius to write a letter and authorize the removal of Sejanus from office. The letter also issued an arrest warrant on Sejanus. After bringing down Sejanus, Caligula won the admiration of Tiberius and the Roman people.
Facts about Caligula
Emperor Caligula is generally regarded as one of the most ruthless and erratic rulers of Rome. He started his reign on a good note, but he ended very badly. The following are some interesting facts about him:
He spent extravagantly
Caligula made a bad name for himself with his lavish spending character. After rising to power, it didn’t take long for him to squander the resources of the empire and plunged Rome into a devastating famine. After emptying the coffers left behind by his predecessor (Tiberius), he started extorting from rich Roman citizens by confiscating their properties. He eventually did try to counter the famine by importing Egyptian grain.
He killed many people close to him
Despite rising to power with support from his close companion Macro, Caligula betrayed Macro by killing him. As if that wasn’t enough, he also killed his predecessor’s grandson, Tiberius Gemellus. His cruelty is said to have started when he was struck by an illness in 37 AD.
Upon his recovery, the young emperor totally changed his character from a caring leader to a brutal dictator. Contrary to his earlier disapproval of exile, he started to banish people, including his two sisters Agrippina the Younger and Livilla.
The young emperor basically murdered a good number of his close relatives that he perceived as threats to his throne, sparing only his uncle, Claudius. Perhaps the reason why he sparred the life of Claudius was because he, like many of his family members, considered Claudius not too much of threat. In fact, the emperor belittled Claudius, turning the inexperienced politician into a laugh stock.
He allegedly committed incest
Caligula allegedly had an incestuous relationship with his sister. He also committed adultery and sought the services of many prostitutes.
He portrayed himself as a god
Caligula was consumed by pride. At a point in time, he carried himself as god. He even dressed to appear as such. His religious dogma became more hilarious when he asked for a statue of himself to be built in a Jerusalem temple.
Caligula was murdered in cold blood
In January A.D. 41, Caligula, 28, was murdered by some members of the Praetorian Guard. Many of his critics endorsed his murder by saying that Caligula had a cold-blooded character, so his murder served him right. He was stabbed multiple times while addressing people at a games event.
The leader of the men who murdered the young emperor was Cassius Chaerea. It is said that Caligula was stabbed about 30 times. Similar to how ruthless the emperor had been during his reign, his murderers also killed his wife and young daughter.
Emperor Caligula’s family
Caligula was a member of Rome’s most eminent family, the Julio Claudiens. Thus he was born into the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the first ruling family of the empire. For example, his great-great-grandfather was Gaius Julius Caesar, a famous Roman statesman and general who formed the First Triumvirate.
It is said that Caligula, born Gaius Caesar, was named after Gaius Julius Caesar.
Caligula was the nickname his father’s troops gave to him. The name means “little boot” or “little soldier’s boots”.
Caligula’s paternal great-grandfather was Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.
Caligula’s grandfather Drusus the Elder, a younger brother of Tiberius, the 3rd emperor of Rome.
Through his father’s mother (Antonia Minor), Caligula was the great-grandson of Mark Antony, a renowned Roman politician and general who was a founding member of the Second Triumvirate.
Read More: Greatest Accomplishments of Emperor Augustus, 1st Emperor of Rome
Germanicus – Caligula’s father
Caligula was third of six children of his father Germanicus Julius Caesar, a renowned Roman general and the nephew of Emperor Tiberius. He had three younger sisters – Agrippina the Younger, Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla. His two older brothers were Nero and Drusus. At one point in time, his brothers were heirs to Emperor Tiberius. The emperor also made his son, Drusus the Younger his heir.
At the time of Caligula’s birth, then Roman emperor Augustus was in the latter years of his reign. Augustus took a bold decision of making his stepson (from his marriage to Livia Drusilla) Tiberius as his heir. Augustus, however, insisted that Tiberius adopt his nephew Germanicus as his son and heir.
Even before he turned 4, he had started tagging along with his father Germanicus, a leading Roman general, on many military campaigns, particularly in the north of Germania.
Caligula’s father, Germanicus, died in 19 AD. Germanicus succumbed to an illness while on a diplomatic mission in Rome’s eastern provinces.
According to renowned Roman historian Suetonius, Tiberius poisoned Germanicus.
Death of his mother and two older brothers
Rumors floated around that Emperor Tiberius was responsible for the death of his nephew, Germanicus. Leading those accusations was Caligula’s mother, Agrippina the Elder. To quell such rumors, Tiberius decided to commit Agrippina and her son Nero into exile on a remote island.
Exiled and saddened by the death of her husband, Agrippina refused eating and died in 33 AD. She was in her mid-forties when she died. Prior to that Tiberius had vehemently prevented her from remarrying.
Emperor Tiberius still wasn’t through with his nephew’s family. Two of Caligula’s brothers – Nero and Drusus – were imprisoned as well. Both Nero and Drusus died in in AD 31 and AD 33, respectively. Again, rumor had it that Emperor Tiberius had a hand in their deaths.
Wife and daughter
When he was around 21, he tied the knot with a woman called Junia Claudilla, the daughter of Roman senator Marcus Junius Silanus who was a close ally of Tiberius. Junia was also friends with Julia Agrippina, Caligula’s sister. Sadly she died during childbirth in 34 AD.
Other spouses of Caligula include Livia Orestilla, Lollia Paulina, and Milonia Caesonia. By the later, he fathered a daughter called Julia Drusilla (also known as Drusilla the Younger). Both women were killed in the year A.D. 41 by the same people who murdered Caligula.
Heir to Emperor Tiberius
Not seen as much of threat to Tiberius, the young Caligula was spared from all his family drama. He was sent to live with his great-grandmother, Livia – Emperor Augustus’ surviving widow. His sister Julia Drusila was also in the same household. Rumor has it that Caligula had incestuous relationship with Drusila.
Also, the deaths of Caligula’s two brothers paved the way for Caligula to be adopted by Emperor Tiberius, a man he ultimately succeeded in 37 AD.
Around the age of 19, Caligula was adopted by his great-uncle Emperor Tiberius, a man who had been accused of killing Caligula’s father Germanicus. As expected, the mere sight of Tiberius caused Caligula’s blood to boil. However, Caligula was wise enough not to show any slight form of disrespect or resentment towards the Emperor. The young man bided his time as Tiberius’ health was deteriorating.
Unable to lash out at his Emperor Tiberius, Caligula is said to have taken out his anger on his courtiers. It was during this time that he came to have a strong appetite for hedonistic activities as well as torture. This habit of his would stay with him for the rest of his life, even during his reign as emperor of Rome. The would-be emperor of Rome developed several ways of inflicting pain and misery on people. He got a huge kick out of watching people scream in agonizing pain; he would then kick his feet up, so to speak, with all kinds of drunken orgies.
Such was the young Caligula’s insanity that even Emperor Tiberius was taken aback by some of the cruelties of Caligula. Tiberius once remarked that he believed he was nurturing a “viper for the Roman people”.
In 35, Caligula and Tiberius Gemellus, the grandson of Tiberius, were name joint heir of Emperor Tiberius.
After succumbing to an illness, Emperor Tiberius passed away on 16 March, 37 AD, although under very strange circumstances. According to one rumor, Caligula simply couldn’t wait for Tiberius to die graceful, instead he connived with the Praetorian commander Naevius Sutorius Macro to poison the emperor. In some stories, it was said that Caligula smothered the ill Emperor to death with a pillow.
After Tiberius’s death, Caligula tampered with the emperor’s will and had Gemellus removed from the inheritance. He did this with the help of his friend Macro.
Caligula’s ascension to the throne
Every Roman was deeply pleased upon hearing the death of Tiberius. The mood at the time was that the crown was passing on to Caligula, who many believed would exhibit similar traits as his father, the renowned general Germanicus. When he made his entry into Rome on March 28, the people were jubilant, calling him “our star” and “our baby”. Oh boy, were they hugely wrong! As we shall see below, Emperor Caligula ended worse than his predecessor. As a matter of fact, his brief stay on the throne was one of the most brutal reigns of any Roman emperor in history.
A 24-year-old Caligula was catapulted to the throne of Rome with hardly any military or political experience. The Roman Senate proclaimed him emperor on March 18, just two days after Tiberius’s death.
His first six months or so as Emperor saw him order the release of many people that had been imprisoned by his predecessor. The treason trials that were so rampant in his predecessor’s era were brought to an end.
He also called political exiles back to Rome. He also received strong applause from the people for removing a number of unpopular taxes.
The young emperor handsomely compensated members of the Roman military, particularly the Praetorian Guard. Everything seemed to be moving smoothly, coupled with his grand chariot races and other sporting activities. Caligula was thus praised as a moderate compared to the ruthless later years of Emperor Tiberius.
Onset of Caligula’s reign of terror
However, all that changed following Caligula’s recovery from a life-threatening illness. For about three weeks, the emperor was hanging on to his dear life as his illness was very severe. In the end, the Emperor was able to pull through. However, it was not the same emperor that came back. And so Caligula’s reign of terror began.
It is unclear what exactly caused Caligula to change from a relatively liked ruler to one that could cause shiver to run down the spine of the devil himself.
It’s likely that Caligula had grown insane. He complained of having severe headaches on a daily basis. In his fits of insanity, the Emperor sometimes wore women clothes. Certainly no one in Rome was safe as Caligula engaged in sporadic killings and torture. Many of his political enemies were gruesomely killed. Many times, he would sit right through while his enemies were tortured in the most horrific of ways. He also forced the parents of those he tortured to sit beside him and watch.
Caligula ordered the execution of his heir and cousin, the young Gemellus. Upon hearing the murder of Gemellus, Caligula’s grandmother Antonia Minor is said to have committed suicide. There are some accounts that state Caligula was responsible for the death of Antonia Minor.
Many other close friends and family members of the Emperor were also executed, including Caligula’s former father-in-law Marcus Junius Silanus and his brother-in-law Marcus Aemilius Lepidus who was the husband of Drusilla. Caligula had accused the later of having an affair with his sisters Julia Livilla and Agrippina the Younger. His sisters were then exiled.
After falling out with the Praetorian commander Macro, Caligula force Macro to commit suicide.
Caligula’s extravagant lifestyle and grandiose projects had put Rome on the verge of bankruptcy, causing a financial crisis to erupt around 39 AD. To replenish the state’s coffers, he falsely accused wealthy politicians and citizens of treason in order to seize their properties. He even tried to borrow money from the public. Further taxes were slapped on many things, including prostitution and weddings.
Assassination of Caligula
Many politicians and citizens of Rome secretly prayed for the death of Caligula. On January 24, 41 AD, the people’s prayers were finally answered. The emperor was ambushed by the very men he had trusted to protect him.
Caligula was attending one of his sporting spectacles when his guards, led by Praetorian Guard Cassius Chaerea, stabbed him. He was stabbed about 30 times, according to reports. As a sign of the disgust his murderers had for him, his body was thrown into a shallow grave. Not even his wife and young daughter’s lives were sparred.
The deceased emperor’s loyal Germanic guard avenged his death by going after the assassins and conspirators, including Marcus Vinicius and Lucius Annius Vinicianus. Many innocent people died as well.
Did you know?
- According to historian Suetonius, parallels can be drawn between the deaths of Rome’s dictator Julius Caesar and Emperor Caligula in the sense that they were both stabbed about thirty times.
- Caligula’s death in 41 AD meant that the Julii Caesares family was brought to an end. The first recorded prominent person to hail from the Julie Caesares family line was Sextus Julius Caesar, an early third century Roman praetor based in Sicily. Then there was Sextus Julius Caesar, the first person in the family to become consul. One of his brothers, who was probably called Gaius, is generally considered the great-grandfather of Gaius Julius Caesar.
- Caligula may have suffered from epilepsy; as a result, he did not learn how to swim since epileptics were discouraged to swim as they could drown if their fits came.
Caligula’s successor – Claudius
Caligula was succeeded to the throne by his uncle Claudius in 41 BC. Claudius was the younger brother of Germanicus.
The people who conspired to kill Caligula initially tried to kill his uncle Claudius; however, he was saved by a member of the Praetorian Guard. And with the support of some Praetorian Guards, Claudius ascended the throne. Claudius executed Chaerae, his nephew’s killer.
How did Caligula get the nickname “Little Boot”?
Emperor Caligula was also nicknamed “Little Boot” (“little caliga”). But how did he get this nickname? Historians state that Caligula frequently accompanied his father to military campaigns even right from an early age. As a result, the young Caligula would don a soldier’s uniform and small pair of boots (caligae). As a result, the troops under his father’s command nicknamed him “little boot”. According to some historians, Caligula was not so fond of this nickname.
Roman Emperor Caligula – Quick Facts
Names at birth: Gaius Caesar
Other name: Gaius Caesar Caligula
Adopted name: Gaius Caesar Germanicuus
Regnal name: Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
Reign: March 16, 37 AD – 23 January, 41 AD
Nickname: “Little Boot”
Date of birth: August 31, 12 AD
Place of birth: Antium, Italy
Died: January 24, 41 AD
Place of death: the Palatine Games at the Palatine Hill, Rome, Italy
Cause of death: Assassination
Buried: Mausoleum of Augustus, Rome
Religion: Ancient Roman religion
Mother: Agrippina the Elder
Siblings: Nero, Drusus, Agrippina the Younger, Julia Drusilla, and Julia Livilla. His two older brothers were Nero and Drusus.
Spouses: Junia Claudilla, Livia Orestilla, Lollia Paulina, Milonia Caesonia
Daughter: Julia Drusilla (also known as Drusilla the Younger)