Caligula: Was He Really That Bad?

If you have heard any stories about the emperors of ancient Rome, you are most likely aware of the fact that some of them were slightly unconventional, by today’s standards. Many tales have been told about the infamous emperor Caligula- he has a particularly bad reputation, often described as being a cruel and unstable tyrannical leader, who made extravagant demands of his subjects.

Caligua’s true name, and surely the name which he himself would have been preferred to be remembered by, was actually Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Roman names, as you have probably gathered, were quite a mouthful. The name ‘Caligula’, was actually a nickname, which roughly translates to ‘little boots’, or ‘Bootkins’, which I imagine would have been quite entertaining to those of his subjects who disliked him. This name was bestowed upon the young Gaius when he was just two years of age. As his father was involved with the military, the young boy found himself accompanying his father on campaign. The story which has been passed down to us details that Caligula received this nickname from other soldiers, who found it amusing that such a tiny child was wearing a full set of imperial armor, including tiny little boots!

To say that Caligula’s upbringing was traumatic would be an understatement. His mother and brothers were accused of plotting against his uncle, and were killed subsequently. He lived with Tiberius on the island of Capri when he turned 18 years old, eventually being named heir. At first, he was loved by the Roman people, and even the senate, but after just six months, everything went, well, a bit west. Caligula fell seriously ill. A nervous breakdown? A mental health problem? Just a horrible person? It’s hard to tell what exactly caused Caligula to act in the ways he did. In some sources, it’s said that Caligula barely slept, suffering horrible nightmares and wandering through palace corridors through the night, waiting for the sun to rise. Caligula became increasingly paranoid. Being an emperor came with a very high risk of being killed as so many lusted after his power. Caligula was accused of incest with his younger sisters, which became a public rumour, emphasized by the fact that when his ‘favourite’ sister died, he had her deified, meaning that she was to be publicly worshiped as a goddess.

Caligula had four wives during his reign as emperor. His first sadly passed away, however soon after he married his second wife, in quite an unconventional way. During a wedding ceremony between Piso and Livia Orestilla, Caligula swooped in and married the woman himself. He was quite the opposite of a wingman, but who could stop the most powerful man in Rome from doing whatever he pleased? Caligula, despite his faults, was known to be completely devoted to his wife Livia and his daughter.

One of the most famous, or infamous, stories told about Caligula was that he made his horse consul. It is true that his racehorse lived a more luxurious life than most Romans ever could, but unfortunately, there’s no actual evidence that he did actually make his horse a legitimate leader of the Roman political system. He did, however, ensure that his horse wore a necklace made of precious stones. This rumour originated from a story in which Caligula was at a dinner party, and most likely joked about making his horse consul, in reference to his distaste for the fact that anyone could achieve that position.

Caligula’s excessive and extravagant spending is shown by one example, in which he built a huge bridge made up of boats across the bay of Naples (over two miles!) which still exists today, although it has mostly deteriorated. He also supposedly wore the breastplate of Alexander the Great, stolen from his tomb in Alexandria and rode as fast as he could on his racehorse, returning in a chariot. There were around 3000 million sesterces left to Caligula by Tiberius, but his lavish and excessive spending did not stop when he ran out of money. Alike to many powerful men in the ancient world (and modern day but that’s a blog post for another day), Caligula resolved his lack of funds through extortion. He even opened his own brother in the imperial to palace to make money- I guess no one can criticize Caligula for not being innovative in his methods of raising money.

After Caligula dismissed both consuls from office, the senate had had enough. Caligula built a temple dedicated to himself on the Palatine Hill, making leading noblemen pay him thousands of sesterces to have the honour of being his priests, which unsurprisingly was not very popular with the Romans.
In 41 A.D, Caligula was assassinated. A conspiracy within the praetorian guard caused the death of Caligula; it is believed that he was stabbed through the neck, before his daughter and wife were also killed. After his death, all of the statues which depicted his image were torn down. Although a lot has been exaggerated and perhaps made up over time in order to paint a negative picture of Caligula, it seems to be evident that he was, to some extent, a megalomaniac. When we hear the name ‘emperor Caligula’, we think to the mad-king archetype which the horror stories of his reign portray.


7 thoughts on “Caligula: Was He Really That Bad?

  1. I am so glad to have stumbled upon your blog. You do excellent research on the history of Rome. So I am sure, I will find more interesting articles on a subject I liked as early as my high scholl years in Germany. Many greetings from Canada!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d love someone to do a cross-comparison psychopath test between Caligula and Nero. What’s always curious about Caligula is that he came from such noble, highly regarded parents, who both – even according to the Roman historians – were the best that the imperial family had to offer after Augustus.
    On a related note, have you ever seen the classic BBC series ‘I Claudius’? I assume, given your subject matter, you probably have – but if you haven’t, you’re going to have one of the greatest viewing experiences of your life. I bring that up here because John Hurt’s portrayal of Caligula is utterly spellbinding.


      1. I’m more fond of the sane ones – Claudius, Augustus, etc. But I guess the lunatics are more psychologically interesting.
        Yeah, definitely do look for ‘I Claudius’. I really rank it as the greatest TV drama series ever produced.
        Nice blog, by the way – I look forward to keeping up with your posts.

        Liked by 1 person

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