Caligula was the nickname for Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, a Roman emperor that ruled for four eventful years. The stories surrounding him and his madness started ever since he got on the throne, and did not stop many years after his death. In popular culture, Caligula has often been associated with infamy, perversion, sadism, cruelty, and so on.

But what determined Caligula to go insane?


In October 37 AD, it has been reported that Caligula had fallen seriously ill. As a consequence, historians said that he was not the same person anymore.  He began afterwards to have quarrels with the Roman Senate, blamed them for the disastrous state of the Empire under his predecessor, and instaured an autocratic form of government.

Caligula, the Roman emperor, also intended to invade Britain or Germany in order to prove his military capabilities, and that is where the stories of his troops collecting sea shells or stabbing the water to enrage Neptune (the Roman god of water) originate from. However, no large-scale military deployment was undertaken according to the historians of that time. 

After Caligula returned to Rome, he foiled the plans of an assassination conspiracy, and governed with an iron fist. It is been said that he enjoyed receiving extravagant honours that deified him, and caused great unrest in the Jewish community when he ordered for a statue of himself to be worshipped at the temple in Jerusalem. Fortunately, the statue was never mounted.

Bust of Caligula

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cruelty, Redifined

As a young man, Caligula could hardly control his cruelty and rage. He often indulged himself in seeing other people getting tortured, dancing, singing, and organizing large feasts.

Suetonius, the Roman historian that documented Caligula's life wrote that he had incestuous relationships with all his sisters. The Roman emperor allegedly married (while keeping his initial wife) one of his sisters, Drusilla. When she died, Caligula was struck by grief and demanded she be consecrated (this aspect was later denied by modern historians). Apart from homosexual relationships with the actor Mnester, Caligula took great pleasure in impoverishing high-ranked women and officials at dinners or social events, and even appeared in women's clothing or those that impersonated gods.

If that was not enough, he used to feed prisoners to wild beasts, and personally attended the torture of enemies of the empire, and devised methods of torture himself (for instance killing the person with countless small cuts).  

He hated the literary works of Homer, Virgil, and Livy, and shaved the heads of men with fine hair.

Drunk with Power?

Although the stories surrounding Caligula might be exaggerated, they nevertheless help shape the personality of the Roman emperor. He was clearly exhibiting the character of a person that enjoyed power too much. There is no surprise that he was killed in his palace along with his wife Caesonia and child.

Modern historians, however, challenge the severity of Caligula's actions. Because the emphasis of the historians contemporary with the Roman emperor Caligula was on his cruelty, the recent scholars sought to verify the facts. Caligula was definitely hated during his reign, but according to Balsdon (1934), Tiberius was paranoid in the later years of his life, however, not to the extent described by Suetonius.

In addition, there was no general discontent with Caligula up until January 41 AD, when the taxes were levied. His decisions to appear dressed as Jupiter at social occasions was motivated by a strong belief in the Roman gods, and this was common in the Hellenistic tradition. If this aspect was to be extended, Caligula's interest in incestuous relationships might also be due to an extremist religious practice.

As for the feeding of the prisoners to wild animals, Caligula wanted to show how close he was to the common people. Very different image than the one previously mentioned, isn't it? However, Baldson is not the only one that tries to restore Caligula's image.

Caligula - Movie Adaptation

Short clip from the film Caligula


While it is undoubtedly clear that Caligula was a complete madman that hold the reigns to absolute power, his actions might be determined psychologically/biologically, as the disease he suffered in his early years affected his power of reasoning. While he appeared as a normal person in his youth, the power he inherited made him into one of history's most sadistic men. However, how much of the stories that surround him are true, they nevertheless add to his image as a deluded, paranoid, alcoholic, envious, deranged leader that gave Ancient Rome a dark image during his short rule. [1]