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Was Caligula Actually The Insane, Sadistic Pervert History Paints Him Out To Be?

Legend has it that the infamous Roman emperor Caligula was unhinged to the point that he sentenced people to death for forgetting his birthday. But stories like this may have been more fiction than fact.

Gaius Caesar Germanicus, better known as Caligula, was 24 years old when he became the third Roman emperor in 37 A.D. But the young man ruled for only four years until he was brutally slain alongside his wife and daughter by a group of guardsmen and dumped into a shallow grave.

His nickname “Caligula” translates to “Little Boot.” The unsuspecting monicker might have you believe that the emperor was something of a benevolent leader, but his historical record begs to differ. The third emperor reintroduced treason trials and performed public executions.

Regardless of whether Caligula actually hosted orgies or made parents watch as their children were killed, Stephen Dando-Collins, author of Caligula: The Mad Emperor of Rome concludes that he was nonetheless a dangerous man to know. Indeed, with Caligula, “friendship and loyalty would not save you if he turned on you in the late stages of his reign.”

Caligula’s Complex Family History

Gaius Caesar Germanicus was born in Antium (modern-day Anzio), Italy on August 31, 12 A.D. He was the third of six living children born to his father Germanicus and mother Agrippina the Elder. The boy was born into unimaginable nobility, as his family was the most esteemed in all of Rome — and his great-great-grandfather was none other than Julius Caesar.

Both Gaius’ great-grandfather Augustus and father Germanicus were largely heralded and respected in their times, but his legacy would be a sadistic one.

A depiction of Caligula’s mother, Agrippina, who was imprisoned and starved to death for accusing the reigning emperor Tiberius of murdering her husband, Germanicus.

The reign of Augustus, the first emperor, was nearing its end when Caligula was born. With Augustus had come the beginning of a new Roman rule, one under a single leader, that also pushed Rome’s ruling elite somewhat into chaos. Tiberius, Augustus’ stepson, had little desire to become emperor. As such, the heir to the throne rested on Augustus’ teenaged grandsons, both of whom would die before Augustus himself.

A reluctant Tiberius was adopted as full son and heir, required to adopt his nephew Germanicus in order to continue the bloodline and to take the crown upon his stepfather Augustus’ death.

When Augustus died on August 19, 14 A.D., however, Tiberius assumed power and sent Germanicus to the eastern provinces.

Germanicus brought Gaius Caesar Germanicus, as young as three, along with him on his military campaigns. Gaius was a loyal little soldier, then, and his eternal nickname “Caligula” was born while on these campaigns as he’d wear a military uniform replete with little boots, and subsequently became a sort of mascot to the troops.

But in 19 A.D., however, Germanicus fell ill and died. It’s believed by Suetonius, a biographer of Caligula’s largely believed to have begotten his infamous legacy, that Germanicus was actually poisoned on the orders of Tiberius who feared the latter was a political rival.

Agrippina pushed this narrative — a move that later cost her life.

Caligula’s nickname stemmed from the little boots he wore as a child while accompanying his father on military campaigns.

Perhaps desperate to shut the narrative down, Tiberius banished Agrippina to prison on a remote island. She starved to death, after which the emperor imprisoned her two elder sons.

One of them committed suicide and the other starved to death just as his mother did. “Little boot” Caligula and his sisters, however, were spared violent retribution as they did not appear to be immediate threats. He was sent to live with his great-grandmother Livia, who would soon die, leaving Caligula to the care of his grandmother Antonia.

The future emperor’s famed history of incest is believed to have started during this time. Caligula was now a teenager and is rumoured to have engaged in ancestral relations with his sister Drusilla while the two lived with their grandmother. Whether or not Caligula truly did engage in incest, however, is debated.

When Caligula came of age between 18 and 19 years old, Tiberius felt it necessary to garner the young man’s loyalty. Tiberius summoned Caligula to the island of Capri where, by conflicting accounts, was either treated like a prince or a prisoner by the emperor.

Becoming Emperor Caligula

Drusilla, Caligula’s sister, is seated to the right of Felix, who is center. Some say she and her brother engaged in incest, though author and historian Stephen Dando-Collins is dubious.

It could be that Gaius Caesar Germanicus was simultaneously treated like a prince while forced to remain on the island as Tiberius’ prisoner. This cognitive dissonance and confusing treatment perhaps left Caligula traumatized, according to several historians.

It’s thought that during this tumultuous period in Caligula’s life, he began to relish in the macabre.

“Even in those days Caligula could not control his natural brutality,” Suetonius wrote. “He loved watching tortures and executions; and, disguised in wig and robe, abandoned himself nightly to the pleasures of feasting and scandalous living.”

The man’s unleashed id became so apparent that even Tiberius made mention of it. “I am nursing a viper for the Roman people,” he said.

Tiberius fell ill in March of 37 A.D. and died a mere month later. Even though the public strongly considered that Caligula may have been an impetus in his death, they were overjoyed. It was believed that Caligula — the son of Germanicus, a military man beloved by the Romans — would likely display the same honourable traits and behaviours as his father. The Roman Senate strongly concurred with that notion.

Caligula in a winged helmet and holding double-headed arrows before a military scene in the background, even though the emperor had no military experience.

But Caligula, 24 years old at the time, had no experience in war, diplomacy, or government. He was nonetheless named sole emperor of Rome.

At first, Caligula’s reign was well-received. He freed those his predecessor had unjustly imprisoned and eliminated a universally unpopular tax. He ushered in a bountiful era of public events that ranged from chariot races and boxing matches to plays and gladiatorial fights.

Six or seven months into his reign, however, everything changed.

Caligula fell so ill that he teetered between life and death for a solid month. He did recover in October of 37 A.D., but whatever had ailed him had apparently left him largely unrecognizable.

Caligula had become more paranoid. He raised taxes to pay for his lavish lifestyle. He retreated to his behaviour's on Capri, and with that, the hedonistic ruler infamous today was born.

Cruel And Delusional After Escaping Death

According to Ancient Origins, Caligula’s illness has been greatly debated. Some historians believe he was poisoned, while others have staunchly contested this. To other accounts, he perhaps experienced a breakdown or an epileptic seizure.

When he first took power, Caligula hd the ashes of his mother and brother moved to the sacred tomb of his ancestors.

Whatever the cause, historian and author Stephen Dando-Collins found through his own research that Caligula’s illness caused an indisputable change in his temperament.

“Only after Caligula suffered a near-fatal illness seven months into his reign did his personality and ruling style change dramatically,” Dando-Collins posited. “Soon, everyone and everything irritated him. Eventually, when the crowds at chariot races supported teams other than his favourite Blues team, he spoke, only half-jokingly, of executing the lot of them.”

Indeed, Caligula killed anyone who displeased him, regardless of how close they were to him. He executed his cousin and adopted son, Tiberius Gemellus. Caligula’s grandmother was infuriated at the deed, and, of course, died shortly after expressing that fact.

As with most of these sudden deaths that surrounded Caligula’s life, a debate rages on as to whether or not the woman committed suicide or was, indeed, poisoned by the emperor. The former could still very much be pinned on Caligula, as the tyrannical ruler had a way of intimidating people to death.

“Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody,” he’d remind people.

He did just this. He purged anyone who appeared loyal to the prior emperor, including his own wife. He’d reprehend landowners just so that he could take their belongings.

But it was the other members of the Roman senate who appeared to suffer the most. Caligula allegedly executed two consuls for forgetting his birthday. It was virtually impossible for senators to decipher how Caligula might react to any given matter.

“He had double standards,” Dando-Collins reported. “He personally wrote detailed prosecution indictments for cases in the Roman Senate, considering himself the best legal mind of his day, only to summarily execute many people without hard evidence. And while he complained about the rulings of the Senate, he never overturned those rulings, even though he had the power to do so.”

Caligula give his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet.

Caligula is also said to have literally declared himself a living god. Not only did he dress as gods and demigods like Hercules, Mercury, Venus, and Apollo, but he ordered a bridge to be built that connected his palace to the Temple of Jupiter.

He once declared to the Senate that he’d be moving to Egypt because, in Egypt, Caligula asserted, he’d be worshipped as a living god. Naturally, soiling the Roman Empire’s corridors of power with such madness wasn’t well-received by virtually anyone.

It’s said Caligula forced the parents of those he executed to watch their children die, that he ordered the heads of various statues removed and replaced with his own, and that he seemed to have more affection for his horse, Incitatus, than for even his wife or daughter. Caligula treasured the steed so much that he gave it its own house — with an ivory manger and a marble stall.

As legend has it, the emperor even intended on making Incitatus a consul.

The narcissism didn’t end there. Caligula often referred to himself as a god during political meetings and was even registered as such in public documents recording his attendance or appearance. He dissolved pearls in vinegar for sustenance, gave his horse a jewel-encrusted collar, and declared war on the ocean — the legends are endless.

But just how far Caligula’s taste for extremism and excess goes is still hotly debated.

Just How “Mad” Was This Mad Emperor?

The ruins of the house of Caligula as photographed in 1910. Caligula allegedly had a bridge from his home built to the temple of Jupiter to illustrate his divine power.

In a biography by Aloys Winterling, Caligula: A Biography, the limits of Caligula’s insanity are drawn to a surprising degree.

“By no means do all modern authors assume Caligula was insane,” Winterling wrote. Instead, the reputation of the “mad” emperor could have been one fabricated by political rivals.

Some historians have posited that Caligula was simply insane, but do not pinpoint any specific condition. One theory suggests epilepsy as the main cause of his headaches and that he was perhaps deathly afraid of impending seizures.

Caligula was known to speak to the moon, which was the celestial body thought to be connected with seizures during his time.

Others have focused on Caligula’s impatience and irritability, as well as a recorded penchant of his for staring into the distance. They believe he suffered from hyperthyroidism, which also commonly leads to headaches. Indeed, at some point in his reign, Caligula was said to have been plagued with headaches.

For his part, Dando-Collins asserts that Caligula could have been insane, but because he was driven so by a mental disorder. “His recorded symptoms suggest he did in fact suffer from bipolar disorder,” Dando-Collins reported. “He was diagnosed with epilepsy as a child, but his bipolar symptoms escaped diagnosis because the condition was unknown to physicians in his day.

According to Dando-Collins’ account, Caligula would have developed paranoia as part of bipolar disorder. But growing up in the environment Caligula experienced, rife with murder, execution, and suicide, anyone could have become paranoid.

“He only survived to become emperor by chance,” Dando-Collins concluded. “And his only ambition to that point must have been to survive.”

Legend has it that Caligula loved his horse Incitatus so much he planned on anointing it to high office. Some historians, like Stephen Dando-Collins, assert that this is just legend.

“Most of the myths are just that, myths.” Dando-Collins asserted.

For one thing, it’s important to remember that Caligula’s real name was “Gaius.” “The Roman people knew him as the emperor Gaius. Later detractors used Caligula as a way of ridiculing him,” Dando-Collins added.

Caligula also didn’t make his horse a senator, but he did name his favourite chariot racing horse a member of a religious order. “As a joke,” Dando-Collins was sure to add.

Caligula didn’t host orgies, but that was in part because Tiberius, who was actually a known paedophile, forced him to have sex with male prostitutes as a teenager.