The Life of Emperor Caligula

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Ruling from 37 AD until 41 AD, Caligula ascended to the position of Emperor following the death of Tiberius in 37 AD.

Born as Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus on August 31, 12 AD in the Roman resort town of Antium, Caligula was the third of six children born to Germanicus and his first wife, Agrippina the Elder.

Caligula’s Childhood

When Caligula was two or three years old, he began to accompany his father on campaign in the Rhineland, in a miniature soldier’s uniform complete with boots and armour. The amused soldiers began to call him Caligula, or Little Boots. However, Caligula eventually grew to dislike the nickname.

Following the death of his father, Caligula went to live with his mother, until her relationship with Tiberius broke down. Some primary sources claim that Tiberius would not allow her to re-marry for fear that her new husband would become a political rival.

When Caligula was a teenager, he was sent to live with his great grandmother, Livia, then with his grandmother, Antonia.

A year later, Caligula was remanded to the custody of Tiberius and sent to live in the imperial villa on the island of Capri.

In 33 AD, Caligula was given a Quaestorship by Tiberius, in order to improve his legitimacy. In the meantime, Caligula’s mother and a brother died while in prison. Caligula also married at this time, however, his wife died in childbirth the following year. Caligula also formed an alliance with Naevius Sutorius Macro, who became the commander of the Praetorian Guard following the treachery of Sejanus. Macro spoke well of Caligula in front of Tiberius, and was able to quell any feelings of mistrust on the part of Tiberius.

Following the death of Tiberius, in 37 AD, the titles and powers of the Principate passed to Caligula, and Tiberius’ grandson, Tiberius Gemellus, who were to rule together. Thanks to his alliance with Macro, Caligula was able to have Gemellus removed from power, on grounds of insanity.

Caligula Becomes Emperor

Many of Caligula’s first acts as Emperor, appeared to be generous in spirit, but were in reality politically motivated. In order to gain the support of the army, Caligula gave bonuses to all of the Legions

Following this auspicious start to his reign, Caligula fell ill at the end of 37 AD Caligula eventually recovered, but Philo saw Caligula’s near death experience as a turning point in his rule. Following his recovery, Caligula had a number of loyal followers put to death.

In 38 AD, Caligula instituted a series of political reforms. He also abolished certain taxes and gave out prizes at athletic competitions. During that same year, Caligula was also criticized for allowing criminals to be executed without trial, and for arranging the death of Macro.

In 39 AD, Rome was struck by a financial crisis. Caligula’s political gifts had depleted the state treasury. He made many people unhappy, when he began to confiscate property and levy taxes on marriage, law suits and prostitution.

That same year, the relationship between Caligula and the Senate broke down. Why this occurred is uncertain, but prior to Caligula’s appointment, the Senate had been accustomed to ruling without the Emperor in Rome

In 40 AD, Caligula added the province of Mauritania to the empire. At the same time, he also began to implement a series of controversial policies that introduced elements of religion into the office of emperor. He began appearing in public dressed as gods and legendary heroes. Additionally, some public documents refer to Caligula as Jupiter.

Caligula’s reign was plagued by a number of scandals. The writings of Philo and Seneca the Younger depict Caligula as an insane tyrant who killed at a whim. The primary sources recount one incident where Caligula was presiding over a series of gladiatorial games and ordered his guards to throw members of the crowd into the arena, to be eaten by wild animals.

Caligula’s actions as Emperor were particularly harsh on the Senate. According to the ancient writer Josephus, this led to a number of unsuccessful plots against Caligula.

Josephus claimed that the assassination of Caligula was politically motivated. Suetonius wrote that Caligula was murdered because he often made fun of Chaerea for having an effeminate manner.

The Assasination of Caligula

On January 24, 41 AD, Caligula was accosted by Chaerea and several other members of the Praetorian Guard, while giving a speech to a troop of actors at a series of games given for the memory of Augustus. The details of what happened next are uncertain, but all the primary sources agree that Chaerea struck the first blow. By the time Caligula’s Germanic bodyguards arrived, he was dead.

The conspirators failed to capture his brother, Claudius, who was found hiding behind a curtain, and smuggled out of the city to a Praetorian camp. Claudius was declared Emperor after procuring the support of the Praetorian Guard.

Sources

Barrett, Anthony A, Caligula: the corruption of power (Batsford 1989)

Grant, Michael, The Twelve Caesars. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1975

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