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Gaius' life started out promising. For one, his parents were extremely famous. Germanicus was loved as Rome's most beloved general and as Augustus' adopted grandson, which cemented his connection to the Julian Clan. Agrippina was Augustus' granddaughter and was the model for what the perfect Roman woman should be. Gaius became the mascot of his father's army. The soldiers were amused whenever Agrippina put on a miniature soldier costume on Gaius, and he was soon given his nickname "Caligula", meaning "Little Boot" in Latin for the small boots he wore that were part of his costume. In 14 AD, when news of Augustus' death made its way, the soldiers of Germanicus' camp almost started a mutiny, opposing the rise of Tiberius because they wanted Germanicus as Emperor. Germanicus sent Agrippina and Caligula away from the mess that was soon to brew and tried to calm his men down. The men soon became more horrified at the prospect of their dear mascot being sent away. Promises of being good made its way to Germanicus, if only Caligula could return. Germanicus sent for Agrippina and Caligula again.
The new Emperor, Tiberius, made Germanicus his adopted son. But Tiberius was not too fond of Germanicus, jealousy at Germanicus' popularity may have been a factor. Either way, Germanicus died on October 10, 19 AD. The relationship between Tiberius and Agrippina didn't improve and Caligula, along with his sisters, went to live with their great-grandmother, Livia (widow of Augustus and mother of Tiberius) and then with their grandmother Antonia when Livia died in 27 AD. Livia or Antonia didn't have time to watch Caligula, so the only comfort he had was with his sisters. Stories have been told of Caligula already beginning incest with his sisters around this time.
Caligula's life was in constant danger. Tiberius' Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus, was in power now, doing everything he could to gain power over Tiberius. Outrageous treason accusations floated around those closest to the Emperor, including most of Caligula's family. His mother Agrippina was banished to an island, where she starved herself. His two oldest brothers, Nero and Drusus, also died. Drusus' body was found locked in a dungeon with stuffing from his mattress in his mouth to keep off the hunger. Sejanus had plans for Caligula, but he was brought down and killed based on information given to Tiberius by Antonia.
By this time Caligula was already in favor with Tiberius. He was summoned to the island of Capri to stay with Tiberius on one of his many villas on the island. Rumors have it of extreme perversions happening on Capri. Tiberius was without the people who managed to keep him in line (Augustus, Livia, his brother Drusus....) so he felt free to indulge in whatever perversions he wanted. Whether this is true or not is hard to say. Unpopular Emperors like Tiberius or Caligula rarely had the whole truth painted about them, and rumors are rampant in ancient texts.
What Caligula did on Capri is hard to say as well. He was extremely servile to Tiberius, acting nice to the old man who had killed his family off. But popular stories say that at night he would turn around and inflict torture on slaves and watch bloody gladiatorial games with glee. In 33 AD Tiberius gave Caligula the position of honorary quaestorship.
On March 16, 37 Tiberius died. Some say Caligula's guard Macro smothered him with a pillow. Caligula was not Tiberius' only successor. Tiberius had made his young grandson, Tiberius Gemellus, joint heir. Gemellus was hardly an obstacle, and Caligula had him killed soon after becoming Emperor.
The first few months of Caligula's reign was a good one. He gave cash bonuses to the Praetorian Guards, destroyed Tiberius' treason papers, declared that treason trials were a thing of the past, recalled exiles, and helped those who had been screwed by the Imperial tax system. He was loved by many simply by being the beloved son of Germanicus, the young military mascot they all remembered. Plus, he was a descendent of Augustus, and therefore related to Julius Caesar. He was also a great-grandson of Marc Antony).
And then he became ill.
Recent sources say that Caligula probably had encephalitis. Ancient sources, like Suetonius and Cassius Dio, describe Caligula having a "brain fever". Either way, sources say he was on deaths' door. Rome waited in horror, praying that their beloved Emperor was OK. He became better, but not mentally.
Was Caligula really insane? Many would agree that he was, but Philo of Alexandria, author of On the Embassy to Gaius doesn't seem to think so. The leader of an Embassy sent to Caligula to stop a giant statue from being erected on a cherished Jewish landmark, Philo seems to think that Caligula was just a vicious jokester. He was cruel. But insane? Probably not. Philo is one of the few ancient writers to have actually met Caligula.
There are stories that he tried to make his beloved stallion, Incitatus, a senator. He may have meant this as a joke. Other stories are of his incest with his sisters (especially Drusilla), the orgy he held at the palace, his campaign in Britain ending with his soldiers collecting seashells as "spoils of the sea", his battle with the god Neptune, wanting to erect a statue of himself in Jerusalem (Herod Agrippia put a stop to that), calling himself a "God", etc. The list goes on. Ancient sources label him as downright insane, a tyrant. Modern sources are attempting to explain away his insanity as a messed up childhood or he was misunderstood. One thing is for certain. He was extremely unqualified and unprepared to become Emperor. Some might say he was too young, but Augustus was eighteen when Julius Caesar died. Then again, Augustus and Tiberius had political and military experience well before gaining power and, it's true, they didn't have as messed up of a childhood as Caligula.
He only ruled for three years and ten months. On January 24, 41 the latest conspiracy managed to end his life. While Caligula was in a corridor alone he was struck down by one Cassius Chaera, a man who had been with Germanicus' army long ago, and had become fed up with Caligula for personal reasons (Caligula liked to make fun of Cassius' voice). They also killed Caligula's wife Caesonia and their baby daughter, Julia Drusilla by smashing her head against a wall. After much confusion, as Caligula was the first assassinated Emperor, old uncle Claudius was made Emperor. Caligula was only 28 when he died.
Tiberius (14 - 37)
Claudius (41 - 54)
Caligula is the title of a play by Albert Camus, which was the basis for a 1996 Hungarian movie and the 2001 made for TV version.
Caligula is also a controversial 1979 movie.
See Caligula (film)