A Brief History
On January 24, 41 A.D., the Roman emperor known as Caligula was assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard!
Digging deeper, we find Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (his actual name) usually referred to as Caligula or “little boot,” a nickname.
By any name, Caligula is remembered as perhaps the worst of the worst of the Roman emperors, and his excesses are legendary! Although some of these excesses are probably exaggerations made by his enemies and detractors, the idea that his most loyal body guards would kill him should serve as a clue! (Imagine how bad a U.S. president would have to be for his Secret Service detail to assassinate him!)
The first Roman emperor to be assassinated (Julius Caesar was technically not emperor), Caligula’s reign was marked by a constant grab for power in order to make his position supreme and absolute. In so doing, he minimized the power of the senate, making that body a mere joke.
Caligula is purported to have killed his predecessor Tiberius by smothering him and was initially received by the masses with enthusiasm as Tiberius was known as a cruel and ruthless ruler. The public love for Caligula lasted only a few months until his acts of kindness and generosity changed wildly to acts of cruelty and persecution. Exiling and executing anyone that opposed him, or at his whim, Caligula is reported to have humiliated politicians and other rich people by making a horse a senator and by prostituting their wives!
Caligula’s wanton spending quickly depleted imperial funds, and he reacted by confiscating property and levying harsh taxes. No wonder the people from top to bottom quickly tired of him after only 4 years and accepted the limping and partially deaf Claudius as their ruler upon Caligula’s death.
Although the most sensational aspects of Caligula’s reign may well be fiction (nobody living really knows), today he is thought of as the epitome of excess and power gone mad. This is apparent in the many films (notably the 1979 movie Caligula, starring Malcolm Macdowell), books, video game allusions, music and television specials that refer to Caligula as the crazy, power hungry, sexual maniac, the embodiment of all sorts of abuse.
A final bizarre aspect to Caligula’s story is that he declared himself a god and had the heads removed from statues of gods and had them replaced with heads in the likeness of himself. Apparently the people were not fooled and he was murdered anyway! With good reason, he ranks first among the “Top 10 Infamous Roman Emperors!”
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you believe the sources that Caligula was really a madman? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information on this fascinating, yet terrible man, see…
Schneider, Deborah Lucas, Aloys Winterling, et al. Caligula: A Biography. University of California Press, 2015.
Tranquillus, Gaius Suetonius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Volume 04: Caligula. Aeterna, 2010.
And for a movie version, you know you secretly wish were made, please watch the following NSFW video… (again, I cannot stress enough here, the following is NSFW!)