ACTA ACCLA, May 2008



By Robert Lattanzi

"Few rulers in all the history of the world who were as crazy, cruel, conceited, and arbitrary as the Roman Emperor, Caligula" (Ferrill, 19911)

Bust of Gaius Caligula in the Louvre, Paris
Figure 1. Bust of Gaius Caligula, Louvre, Paris

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Caligula

  • Born: August 31, 12 CE
  • Dynasty: Julio-Claudian
  • Father: Germanicus
  • Mother: Agrippina the Elder
  • Brothers: Nero (not the notorious Nero) and Drusus
  • Sisters: Agrippina Minor, Drusilla, and Livilla
  • Wives: Junia Claudilla (33-34 CE), Livia Orestilla (37 or 38 CE), Lollia Paulina (38 CE), and Caesonia (39? – 41 CE)
  • Children: Julia Drusilla, 39? – 41 CE
  • Consul: 37 (60 days), 39 (30 days), 40 (12 days), 41 (6 days)
  • Reign: 37–41 CE, Assassinated: January 24, 41 CE
  • Preceded by Tiberius; Succeeded by Claudius

DISCLOSURE - I relied primarily on two modern books and one ancient source regarding Caligula to write this article. They are; Caligula, The Corruption of Power, by Anthony A. Barrett, Yale University Press, 1989; Caligula, Emperor of Rome, by Arthur Ferrill, Thames, Hudson, 1991; and, Suetonius The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars. I recommend the two modern books to anyone interested in a more detailed and scholarly treatment of Caligula's life and Suetonius as a historic read.

The books of Tacitus, one of the most important historians of the first century CE, are lost for this period. Much of what we know about Gaius comes from the writings of the biographer Suetonius in his The Lives of the Twelve Caesars2 written in 121 CE (eighty years after Caligula's death in 41 CE) and the historian Dio (born circa 163/164 CE) in his Roman History3. Both sources are considered full of innuendo and anecdotes and not based on primary sources of factual information.

There appears to be two schools of thought regarding Caligula's mental state. The first exemplified by Arthur Ferrill is that there were "few rulers in all the history of the world who were as crazy, cruel, conceited, and arbitrary as the Roman Emperor, Caligula".4 The other view is of a rational and logical individual. Anthony Barrett5 represents Caligula as "intelligent,", "insufferably arrogant and totally wrapped up in his own sense of importance", "lacked any basic sense of moral responsibility," and "unsuited either by temperament or training to rule and empire," with "no consistency or coherence in his policies, and little administrative talent," but that he "was clearly capable of acting right to the end in a rational manner."5

It is unlikely that we will have a better description of Caligula's character until such time as historians find the lost writings of Tacitus. Contemporary sources for this period provide some information about Caligula. They are: Seneca the Younger6 who knew Caligula personally and Philo of Alexandria7 who was part of the Jewish delegation to Rome. Josephus8, who wrote after Caligula's reign, gave a detailed description of Caligula's assassination.


Gaius, i.e. Caligula as he became known, was born on August 31, 12 CE into a family of Julio-Claudian ancestry (the two families to which the first five Roman emperors belonged starting with Augustus). His birthplace is uncertain.

Gaius' father, Germanicus (Figure 4), was highly respected and well known. "In Germanicus all good parts and gifts as well of body as of mind…full of passing beauty, favor and feature…with strength and valor…excellently well seen in eloquence and learning of both kinds (Greek and Latin) highly favored of the common people he was."2

As of Caligula showing his father Germanicus
Germanicus, father of Gaius. Æ As, Rome mint, 28 mm, 10.67 g. Struck 37-38 CE. Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Germanicus served under Tiberius in the north as governor of the Three Gauls. He was victorious in several engagements and put down a mutiny of the legions against Tiberius, Germanicus' uncle. According to Suetonius the legions “most stiffly refused Tiberius for their emperor, offering unto him (Germanicus) the absolute government of the state.2 Germanicus' loyalty to Tiberius was unquestionable and the mutiny was squashed. It was during this period that Gaius received the nickname Caligula. He was brought up living in camp tents among the common soldiers and wore a uniform with little military boots called caliga, hence the nickname Caligula ('little boot'). He was a favorite of the troops.

After a series of victories, Germanicus was celebrated as a conquering hero. When recalled, "the people of Rome, of all sexes, ages and degrees, ran out by heaps to meet him twenty miles from Rome."2 He entered Rome in a grand procession as the most popular conquering hero of his day and rode in a chariot with his five children to the tremendous applause of the people. Caligula was five years old at the time and likely never forgot the excitement of the event.

Caligula's mother, Agrippina the Elder (Figure 5), was the daughter of Marcus Agrippa who was to a great degree responsible for winning the Battle of Actium against the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. He was a son-in-law and minister to Octavian. Agrippina was the granddaughter of Augustus, the first emperor, which places Caligula in Augustus' blood line. During her lifetime she was one of the most prominent and independent women in the Roman Empire. "Agrippina herself too being rather excitable, only her purity and love of her husband gave a right direction to her otherwise imperious disposition" (Tacitus9). She was obstinate, ambitious and outspoken, characteristics which eventually lead to conflict with Tiberius and her death.

As of Caligula showing his mother Agrippina Senior
Agrippina Senior, mother of Gaius. Æ Sestertius, Rome mint, 35 mm, 28.83 g. Struck under Claudius. Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Upon his return to Rome, Germanicus was so popular that Tiberius, out of jealousy and perhaps fear of a conspiracy, sent him and his family to Asia Minor in 17 CE. On their way they passed through Athens, Perinthus, and Byzantium, the site of Troy, Assos, Colophon, Rhodes and Syria where Germanicus took up his new position.5 It was in Antioch that Germanicus became ill in 19 CE and was either poisoned or died of natural causes at age 34. "As the opinion of the world went, his death was contrived by the wicked plot of Tiberius, and effected by the ministry and help of Gnaeus Piso."2 Piso committed suicide while awaiting trial. Germanicus, adopted by Tiberius, was next in line of succession after Tiberius. Plausible motives for Tiberius' involvement in the alleged murder were his "reverent respect and fear that he had in him (Germanicus)," his popularity with the people, i.e. jealousy, and if Germanicus came to power he would restore the republic. Caligula was seven years old at the time of his father’s death and had lost the father figure that would have had a significant positive influence on his development. After Germanicus’ death Tiberius’ popularity in Rome was greatly affected because of his suspected complicity.

Agrippina returned to Rome with revenge foremost on her mind. The journey was orchestrated to gain maximum effect and garner public support which came easily given the popularity of Germanicus. Her attitude and outspoken manner against Tiberius were considered treasonous by him and eventually provoked him to the point of prosecuting her. The end result was her banishment along with Caligula’s brother Nero. Drusus, Caligula’s other brother, was arrested and imprisoned in Rome where he starved to death. Agrippina committed suicide by starvation and Nero also committed suicide.

During this time Caligula lived with his great grandmother, the Emperor’s mother, Livia Augusta. After her death in 29 CE, he lived with his grandmother Antonia. While living with Antonia, Caligula is said to have had incest with his sister Drusilla and later with his other two sisters. Historians are divided as to whether incest actually occurred. According to Suetonius "as it is verily thought, he deflowered Drusilla being a virgin, when himself also was yet under age" and "with all his sisters, he used ordinarily to be naughty, and at any great feast he placed evermore one or other of them by turns beneath himself." Incest is not mentioned by other contemporaries of Caligula and much of Suetonius' material, as previously discussed, is not based on established fact.

In 31 CE, at age twenty, Caligula was summoned to Capri by Tiberius and granted the toga virilis. He held a quaestorship in 33, the same year that his mother and brother died and the same year he married his first wife, Junia Claudia. Junia became pregnant and both she and the child died during the birth. While at Capri, Caligula was at an impressionable age and the atmosphere at Tiberius' villa was nothing short of a house of pleasure and torture given over to all sorts of sexual perversions and gluttony. Caligula lived in this environment for five years and if we are to believe Suetonius he spent his time in taverns and brothels and indulging in Tiberius' orgies and the like. However, Philo states that the "manner of his living (Caligula's)... was... while Tiberius was alive, very simple and on that account more wholesome than one of great sumptuousness and luxury."10 Tiberius brought a number of scholars to Capri who presumably provided Caligula with an excellent education. He learned Greek and Latin and became an exceptional public speaker. Given all the consternation in his life, Caligula must have suffered great mental anguish suppressing his feelings in order to survive while living with the man allegedly responsible for the annihilation of his family; father, mother, and brothers.


When Tiberius considered who would be his successor he had few choices, namely Caligula and Tiberius Gemellus, Tiberius' grandson. Having lived closely with Caligula for several years Tiberius identified his self-centeredness and his "fierce and savage nature" and openly said "that Gaius lived to the destruction of himself and all men, likewise that he cherished and was bringing up a very viper for the people of Rome, and a Phaethon to the whole world"2 (Phaethon, son if Apollo, rode Apollo's fiery chariot to the Earth causing rivers to dry up, cities and forests to burn, and set the Sahara Forest on fire turning it into ashes and burning sands.) Yet Caligula was popular with the masses not for his own deeds but rather for the tremendous popularity of his father, Germanicus. Gemellus, on the other hand, was only a teenager of seventeen at the time of Tiberius' death and apparently had little public exposure, had not received the toga virilis, and could not stand up to the popularity of Caligula. In 35 CE, Tiberius made a will that named them joint heirs and bestowed the titles of the Principate to both Caligula and Gemellus. His intent may have been to have them rule jointly.

Tiberius fell ill and died on March 16, 37 CE at his villa in Campania. There was some speculation that he was poisoned or smothered to death by Caligula or Marco, the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard. However, he may have died of natural causes.

The Senate and consuls nullified Tiberius' will on the grounds of insanity and Caligula became the consensus of the Senate, the populous, the military commanders and the troops. He was acclaimed Imperator by the Senate at age twenty-four.

Caligula’s election was great cause for celebration. Tiberius had held a tight grip on the treasury and had cut many of the public activities and shows. In his later years he spent his time in seclusion on Capri. The people would have thrown his body in the river if it were not for the reverence Caligula showed him. As he brought Tiberius' body to Rome on the Appian Way the people gathered in crowds along the way calling him (Caligula) "Sidus, 'their star,' Pullum, 'their chick,' Pupum, 'their babe' and Alumnum, 'their nurseling'."2

Caligula's accession was celebrated with the sacrifice of more than 160,000 beasts. The Senate granted him "full and absolute power" over all things. He "enkindled and set more on fire the affections of men by all manner of popularity."2 He gained everyone's affection by retrieving the ashes of his mother and brother with his own hands and bought them to Rome to the Mausoleum at noon when the greatest number of people would be present. He treated Gemellus generously, granted him the toga virilis, gave him the title Princeps Iuventutis and designated him as his heir. He (selectively) freed prisoners, granted amnesty to exiles and revoked the ban on the writings of certain authors. Caligula honored his dead parents by issuing coins in their honor and issued a sestertius depicting his three sisters (Figure 2). He even renamed the month of September after his father, Germanicus. He paid out large sums of money to the Praetorian Guard and the people and, above all, treated the senators with respect. In an act of forgiveness, Caligula burned copies of the letters and documents of those involved in the attacks against his family. He later used the originals to single out and eliminate them. Caligula’s most popular move was to significantly increase the number of public events curtailed by Tiberius, such as stage plays, gladiatorial shows, and horse races. The people were elated during the initial months of his reign. With time it became evident that he spent such enormous amounts of money on public games that he bankrupted the empire. When Tiberius died, the treasury contained 2,700 million sesterces, enough to support the empire for several years. Caligula spent all of it in one year!


Sestertius of Caligula with his three sisters on the reverse
Æ Sestertius, Rome mint, 35 mm, 28.85 g. Struck 37-38 CE. Obverse: Caligula's laureated head, C CAESAR. AVG. GERMANICVS. PON. M TR POT. Reverse: His three sisters: left to right. Agrippina as Securitas, Drusilla as Concordia, and Jullia Livilla as Fortuna. Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Caligula's physical appearance is known from descriptions by Suetonius and Seneca and his portraits on coins such as the one shown above. He was tall, pale, and had a long neck and thin legs. He had sunken eyes and his forehead was broad, furrowed and frowning. He was balding but otherwise hairy. "His face and visage being naturally stern and grim, he made of purpose more crabbed and hideous… to strike greater fear."2 It was said that he was ugly. He suffered form insomnia and slept less than three hours a night that were "fearful; and scared with strange illusions and fantastic imaginations."2

Caligula loved spectacles and put on many gladiatorial shows, horse races and stage plays. He associated with gladiators and actors, joined in their activities and even took them with him on his journeys to the north. One of the actors was his lover.

He enjoyed eating, drinking and had quite a sexual appetite. "He out went the wits and inventions of all the prodigal spendthrifts that ever were; as having devised a new-found manner and use of baths, together with most strange and monstrous kinds of meats and meals….to drink of most precious and costly pearls dissolved in vinegar; to set upon the board at feasts loaves of bread and other viands, all of gold."2 One report indicated that Caligula spent ten million sesterces on a single dinner and another describes a picnic in a tree house large enough to accommodate fifteen guests.

He was bisexual. At banquets he would invited the wife of one of his prominent guests to join him in another room to abuse her as he wished and then return to the banquet to report on her performance, "reckoning up every good or bad part of body and action."2 He had affairs with several prominent women, with male partners and very possibly with his sisters. "A young gentleman descended from a family of consul’s degree, complained and openly cried out, that he was unnaturally by him (Caligula) abused, and that his very sides were wearied and tired out with his filthy company."2

Caligula's other passions included horse racing and gambling. He spent huge sums on horses and had his own track. He is said to have poisoned the horses of his rivals. His favorite horse, Incitatus, had a "stable all of marble stone ...a manger made of ivory"2 and a collar of precious stones. Suetonius also states that Caligula wanted to make the horse a consul.

Gaius "built moreover tall galleons of cedar timber, with sterns beset with precious stones, carrying sails of sundry colors, containing in them bath, large galleries, walking places, and dining chambers of great receipt, with vines also and trees bearing apples and other fruit." Barrett11 describes one of the Roman ships recovered from Lake Nemi that appears to be a floating villa as 241 feet long and 79 feet wide that was constructed under Caligula. The ship was raised from the lake in the 1930's but completely burned by retreating German soldiers in 1944.

Hull of Roman ship recovered from Lake Nemi
Figure 3. Roman ship recovered from Lake Nemi. Arrow points to man for scale.
Photograph taken in 1930, author unknown.


In the fall of his first year Caligula became very ill. There is speculation that he caught a virus from too much drinking and sex, suffered from a nervous breakdown, or was epileptic. Whatever the cause, he was in very serious condition and almost died. At this point in his reign he was so loved that there was general depression throughout the empire during the illness. Crowds kept watch by night about the palace waiting for word of his condition. In time, he completely recovered his physical health.


After the illness Caligula's character underwent a significant change to the point that Suetonius describes him "Thus far forth as of a prince; now forward, relate we must as of a monster."2 His first victims were Gemillus and Silanus, Caligula's father-in-law. Both were presumably involved in a conspiracy against Caligula during the time of his illness. Both took their own lives, Gamillus requiring some assistance in the act. Marco, the man who gained the support of the army to install Caligula and the man most responsible for his accession, was next. Marco was out of favor perhaps for exerting too much control or for conspiring with Gemillus and Silanus. Marco and his wife, Ennia (Caligula's lover), were forced to commit suicide in the spring of 38 CE. Over the next four years Caligula was responsible for the humiliation, execution, banishment, starvation to death or suicide of no less than thirty prominent individuals, among them relatives, senators and friends. Many others of less prominence suffered the same fate.

In June of 38 CE, Caligula's beloved sister, Drusilla, died. He was so grief stricken that he did not attend her funeral. While he was ill he had appointed her his successor. During Drusilla’s mourning period he ordered it a capital crime "for any man to have laughed, bathed, or supped together with his parents, wife or children."2

In 39 CE, Caligula had a serious confrontation with the Senate that was possibly triggered by a conspiracy among its members to depose him. In what must have been a most dramatic denunciation of the Senate he gave a scathing speech before the assembly criticizing them for not supporting Tiberius and attacked them as informers against his mother and brother. Caligula used as evidence the letters and documents that he had supposedly burnt. One measure he used to instill fear in them was to reinstate the laws of treason that would be used against individual members of the senate. The next day in a move to appease him the senators praised Caligula’s clemency and decreed an annual celebration at which a golden statue of the emperor should be carried to the Capitol in a procession, this in addition to other honors. In this same year Caligula removed two consuls from office without consulting the senate and humiliated some senators by forcing them to run for several miles beside his chariot in their gowns.


After Caligula’s confrontation with the Senate a bizarre incident occurred in 39 CE. He ordered a temporary floating bridge be built stretching an estimated two or more miles from Baiae to the port of Puteoli near the Bay of Naples. Boats were built on the spot and others were brought in, lashed together and covered with dirt. Fresh drinking water was available at various points along the bridge. A two day dedication festival followed. During the first day Caligula, accompanied by the cavalry and infantry of the Praetorian Guard, charged across the bridge. It is said that he wore the breastplate of Alexander the Great, had a garland on his head and wore a purple cloak decorated with gold. On the second day Caligula crossed the bridge riding in a chariot pulled by a team of race horses followed by Parthian hostages, among them the boy Darius, the son of the King of Parthia. People were invited from the shore to join the great feast being held on the bridge. “suddenly he (Caligula) turned them headlong over the bridge into the water. And seeing some of them taking hold of the helmets for to save themselves, he shoved and thrust them off, with poles and oars into the sea.2 Some were said to have drowned. During the celebration the sea remained calm and Caligula declared that even Neptune was afraid of him. Suetonius provides three possible reasons for the bridge episode. He was trying to emulate Xerxes who built a bridge over the Hellespont, or perhaps he aimed to terrify the Germans and Britons upon whom he intended to engage in battle or to challenge the words of the great astrologer, Thrasyllus. Thrasyllus predicted “that Gaius should no more become emperor than able to run a course to and fro on horse-back, through the gulf of Baiae.2


In 39 CE, a number of strange events occurred as Caligula traveled north to Germany and then on to an aborted attempt to invade Britain. The reasons for this excursion as identified by historians and scholars are many. Perhaps he wanted to strengthen the northern borders and replenish the troops after what appears to be years of neglect as well as to protect his eastern flank in prepared to invade Britain. More likely he planned to continue expansion of the empire started by his father across the Rhine. From all appearances he had serious intentions and assembled a force of about 200,000 troops with an enormous amount of supplies. In any case, Tacitus characterizes the campaign to the north as “the mighty menaces of Caligula against them (Germans) ended in mockery and derision12 since nothing much was accomplished given all this effort and expense.

Prior to traveling to Germany, Caligula discovered a conspiracy against his life. Among the possible conspirators were his sisters Agrippina and Livilla, Caligula’s friend Lepidus, and Gaetulicus, the governor of Upper Germany. It appears that Gaetulicus supported replacing Caligula with Lepidus. As it turned out it was not such a good idea and Caligula had the two men executed and banished both his sisters to some Islands between Naples and Rome.

While at his base camp at Lyon, Caligula held many games, including a contest in Greek and Latin oratory in which some of the losers were thrown into the Rhone River. During his stay in Lyon there were reports of him gambling to excess. Meanwhile in an effort to replenish the treasury, Caligula personally auctioned off all his sisters’ possessions in Rome and many objects from the old imperial court. He also devised a way to acquire money by attaching the estates of some of the wealthiest inhabitants of Gaul after putting them to death.


Caligula may have decided to invade Britain to upstage Julius Caesar who crossed the Channel but decided not to maintain a presence in Britain.

Caligula marched his troops from Germany to the English Channel where he positioned his soldiers at the sea shore arrayed in battle formation along with his siege machines. Next he went out into the Channel in a ship and then sailed back to shore "Having embattled his army upon the ocean shore, planted his ballasts and other engines of artillery in their several places (and no man wist the while or could imagine what he went about), all at once he commanded them to gather fish-shells (sea shells), and therewith to fill their headpieces and laps, terming them the spoils of the ocean."2 The shells were then sent to Rome as booty to be put on display on the Capitoline and the Palatine. The planned invasion may have been aborted for a number of reasons; the German border was not yet secure, the Britons may have gathered enough forces to foil an invasion by sea, or the troops feared a sea crossing and the sea shell fiasco may have been a form of humiliation. Barrett13 makes note that in all the detailed descriptions of this event no mention is made of the large number of troop transports that would be needed to cross the Channel (Caesar needed over 800 vessels for his invasion). There are more questions than answers about what happened at the Channel. So much for Caligula’s invasion of Britain. For a more detailed representation of these events see Barrett.13

The senate, primarily out of fear, sent a large number of representatives to congratulate Caligula on his 'victories' and to bestow special honors which he apparently rejected only to become more hostile toward them.


Caligula maintained two books; one "inscribed Gladius (the sword); the other Pugio (the dagger)." "They contained both of them the marks and names of such as were appointed to death."2 A chest of Caligula’s containing many poisons was discovered after his death. When Claudius threw the chest into the sea the poisons were so deadly that they were said to contaminate the waters and littered the nearby shore with dead fish.

Caligula tormented his victims with cruel words and had them suffer long and agonizing deaths. He forced parents to attend the execution of their own children. On one occasion he invited the father whose son he had just executed to attend a dinner and "made him great cheer, and by all manner of courtesy provoked him to jocundness and mirth."2 Caligula brought King Ptolemaeus to Rome, honorably entertained him and then executed him presumably "for no other cause but that as he entered into the theater to see the shows and games there exhibited, he (Caligula) perceived him to have turned the eyes of all the people upon him, with the resplendent brightness of his purple cassock."2 On another occasion Caligula ordered the master of his gladiatorial shows to be beaten with chains as he watched "but killing him not quite, before himself could no longer abide the stench of his brain by this time putrefied."2 For more of the same, read Suetonius.2

Caligula declared himself a living god, not a new concept in the ancient world but one he took to extremes. Suetonius tells us that Caligula often set himself between the two gods, Castor and Pollux, and "so exhibited himself to be adored by all comers."2 He ordered a temple built to his own godhead with his own life-size image in gold. The temple was supported by priests who each day presented the "most exquisite sacrifices of flamingoes, peacocks, woodcocks, guinea hens, and pheasants."2 Caligula supposedly called to the full moon to come and live with him in his arms. In the daytime he secretly talked with Jupiter Capitolinus. He established a temple and cult for his worship at Miletus.

Caligula often wore exotic costumes. He dressed as gods, women, Alexander the Great and often "clad in cloaks of needlework and embroidered with divers colors and the same set out with precious stones…Sometime you should see him in his silks, and veiled all over in a loose woman’s mantle of fine sandal with a train…now and then also he was seen shod with women’s pumps…But for the most part he showed himself abroad…in the attire and array of Venus."2

After exhausting Tiberius’ treasury Caligula proceeded to levy taxes “such as never heard of before… omitted no kind of thing, no manner of person, but he imposed some tribute upon them.” As for money, “so far was he incensed with the desire of handling money, that oftentimes he would both walk barefooted up and down, yea and wallow also a good while his whole body upon huge heaps of coined gold pieces.2


His denunciation speech to the Senate followed by restoration of the laws against treason, treason trials, executions and deranged acts provided ample motive for removing him from the throne. Caligula feared a senatorial conspiracy and fought fear with fear often repeating Oderint dum metuant (Let them hate me so long as they fear me).

Seneca sets the stage thus: "Gaius Caesar slashed with the scourge and tortured Sextus Papinius, whose father had been consul, and Betilienus Bassus, his own quaestor and the son of his procurator, and others, both Roman senators and knights, all in one day, and not to extract information but for amusement. Then so impatient was he of postponing his pleasure, a pleasure so great that his cruelty demanded it without delay, that he decapitated some of his victims by lamplight...How small a matter it would have been if he had waited just until dawn so as not to kill the senators of the Roman people in his pumps! He had scourged senators, but he himself made it possible to say, 'An ordinary event.' He tortured them by every unhappy device in existence, by cord, by knotted bones, by the rack, by fire, by his own countenance…three senators, as if no better than worthless slaves, were mangled by whips and flame at the behest of a man who contemplated murdering the whole senate, a man who used to wish that the Roman people had only one neck in order that he might concentrate into one day and one stroke all his crimes, now spread over so many places and times."14

The Praetorian Guard thwarted several attempt to assassinate Caligula but by the end of 40 CE everyone had had enough including the Guard "perceiving themselves suspected and odious unto him."2 Cassius Chaerea, a tribune in the Praetorian Guard, with the aid of others in the Guard, undoubtedly backed by many senators, the army and members of the equestrian order, planned the murder.

On January 24, 41 CE crowds were gathered for a series of games and plays held for the Divine Augustus. Caligula arrived late. He sacrificed a flamingo to Augustus the blood of which spurted out on his toga. He then took a seat and ate and drank with companions. At one o’clock Caligula proceeded to leave the theatre by way of an unguarded passage. He stopped to talk with some actors when approached by Chaerea who asked for the watchword to which Caligula gave him a mocking reply. By one account Chaera then struck him between the neck and shoulder then “as he lay on the ground and drawing up his limbs together cried still, that he was yet alive, the rest of their accomplices with thirty wounds dispatched and made an end of him.2 In the commotion that ensued several of the assassins, innocent bystanders and two senators were killed. The tribune Lupus was sent to the palace to eliminate Caligula’s wife Caesonia “stabbed with a sword…and also a daughter of his, whose brains were dashed out against a wall.2


Caligula’s body was taken to the Lamian Gardens, partially cremated and buried in a shallow grave. His sisters, Agrippina Minor (mother of the infamous emperor Nero) and Livilla, upon their return from exile, properly cremated the body.

Caligula’s death provided the Senate with an opportunity to restore the Republic. However, the common people, angry and distressed, were not in the mood to put power back into senatorial hands. Crowds demanded that those responsible for Caligula’s death be brought to justice. Meanwhile, the Praetorian Guard discovered Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace. Claudius feared for his life only to be acclaimed by the Guard as the new emperor. Herod Agrippa convinced the Senate that it would not prevail against the might of the Praetorian Guard and so Claudius became the next Julio-Claudian emperor.


Though Caligula’s reign was short he accomplished much. During the first six months or so of his reign the Roman Empire experienced a dramatic uplifting of spirits due to Caligula’s significant and positive changes. He built and kept the roads which were the main lines of communication throughout the empire, in good condition. He moved forward on a project to build the Isthmus of Corinth canal, and the building of the lighthouse at Boulogne on the English Channel coast. He began construction of two new aqueducts into Rome and improved the harbor at Rhegium to facilitate the transport of grain. He annexed Mauretania and divided it into two provinces. Caligula completed work on the theater of Pompey which had been previously destroyed and built a very popular race-course in the Vatican area with an obelisk that he had transported from Egypt. A special ship was built for the purpose of transporting the obelisk which weighs over 300 tons. To put the ancient move of the obelisk into perspective, moving it to St. Peter’s Square in 1586 was considered quite an engineering feat as would such a move today.


All coin photographs shown below are courtesy of
Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.

Sestertius of Caligula showing on platform, raising hand, facing five soldiers, each holding a legionary eagle
Gaius (Caligula). Æ Sestertius, Rome mint, 35 mm, 28.83 g. Reverse shows Caligula on platform, raising hand, facing five soldiers, each holding a legionary eagle. Struck 37-38 CE. Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Denarius of Caligula showing him with Divus Augustus
Gaius (Caligula) with Divus Augustus. AR Denarius, Rome mint, 3.77 g. Struck CE 37-38. Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Bronze coin of Caligula from Philadelphia showing a panther on the reverse
Gaius (Caligula) with Divus Augustus. Æ 15 mm (3.98 g). Minted in Philadelphia, Lydia, 37-41 CE. Reverse shows a panther, head turned left, thyrsus over shoulder. Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Denarius of Caligula showing him with Divus Augustus
Gaius (Caligula) with Divus Augustus. AV Aureus, struck in Lugdunum (Lyons) 37-38 CE, 18 mm, 7.68 g, 6 hr. Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Denarius of Caligula with portrait of Germanicus
Gaius (Caligula) and Germanicus. AR Denarius (3.67 gm), struck 37 CE. Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
Sesterius of Caligula with four line legend within and oak wreath
Gaius (Caligula). Æ Sestertius (31.57 gm), struck CE 37-38. Reverse shows S P Q R / P P / OB CIVES / SERVATOS in four lines within an oak wreath. Courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.


[1] Ferrill, Arthur, Caligula, Emperor of Rome, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 1991.

[2] Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Philemon Holland translation, circa 1606), The Heritage Press, New York, 1965.

[3] Dio Cassius, Dio’s Roman History.

[4] Ferrill, Arther, Caligula, Emperor of Rome, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London 1991, pp.10,165.

[5] Barrett, Anthony A., Caligula, The Corruption of Power, Yale University Press, 1989, pp. xix, 240.

[6] Seneca, Lucius Annasus, Dialogues.

[7] Philo, Legatio ad Gaium, 10 vols., Embassy to Caius.

[8] Josephus, Josephus, 9 vols., Antiquities of the Jews.

[9] Tacitus, 1.33, The Annals.

[10] Philo of Alexandria, On the Embassy to Gaius, 14.

[11] Barrett, Anthony A., Caligula, The Corruption of Power, Yale University Press, 1989, p. 201.

[12] Tacitus, Germania, 37.

[13] Barrett, Anthony A., Caligula, The Corruption of Power, Yale University Press, 1989, pp. 135-39.

[14] Seneca, Lucius Annasus, Dialogues, De Ira (On Anger), III, xvii, xviii.


Caligula on Wikipedia

Gaius (Caligula) on De Imperatoribus Romanis

Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars - The Life of Caligula (English)

Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum - CALIGVLA (Latin)


ACTA ACCLA edited by Michael J. Connor.