Caligula: All The Most Ridiculous And Horrifying Things He Ever Did

By | February 17, 2021

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Roman sestertius depicting Caligula. (CNG/WIkimedia Commons)

No Roman leader is quite as infamous as Caligula. In just four short years, Caligula went from a legitimately beloved emperor to a mad man running Rome into the ground. Sure, Nero might have watched Rome burn (although he was actually pretty helpful to the firefighting effort), but did he ban his followers from speaking to him about goats?

Little Boot

Caligula was born Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus in 12 C.E. to the revered Roman general Germanicus and his wife, Agrippina the Elder. Much of his early life was spent in Rhine, where his father was posted. The young Germanicus enjoyed dressing as a soldier, complete with his own tiny uniform, earning him the nickname Caligula, or "Little Boot."

Caligula's life was turned upside down, however, when his father fell out of favor with Emperor Tiberius, who happened to be the elder Germanicus's uncle, in 17 C.E. Fearing that popular generals represented a threat his power, Tiberius and his guards charged Germanicus, his wife, and Caligula's older brothers with treason. They were all either exiled or sent to prison and died without their freedom, but the young Caligula was not only spared but taken under his great-uncle's wing.

After a few years with his grandmother, Caligula moved in with Tiberius, who downright spoiled the boy, even going so far as to name him one of his heirs. When Tiberius died in 37 C.E., Caligula was named emperor of Rome, and one of his first orders of business was executing the ally who'd ensured his ascension and a cousin with an equal claim to the empire. He was only just getting started.

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Caligula Depositing the Ashes of his Mother and Brother in the Tomb of his Ancestors, by Eustache Le Sueur, 1647. (Royal Collection/Wikimedia Commons)

Descent Into Madness

Aside from the shady way that he took the throne, Caligula was pretty on the level at first, at least for about a year. He passed a series of popular reforms allowing exiles to return to Rome and spent money on aqueducts, harbors, and other things that Rome needed, but then he came down with a mysterious illness. Rumors swirled that he was poisoned by his wife, but he may have suffered from epilepsy or meningitis.

Whatever it was seemed to have a dire effect on his personality, and once he recovered, the generous and popular emperor was long gone. He reversed many of his policies, cranked up taxes, embarked on a lavish spending spree, exiled two of his sisters that he had previously invited back to Rome, and possibly even killed his grandmother.

Caligula sunk the empire's funds into a series of bizarre building projects, but possibly the strangest was his so-called Bridge to Nowhere, the largest pontoon bridge in history across the Bay of Baiae. Why? Supposedly, a Roman oracle named Thrasyllus predicted that Caligula had "no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across" the vast bay, so he built the bridge for the sole purpose of riding a horse back and forth over it.

His whims weren't limited to infrastructure, however. In 39 and 40 C.E., he led his troops on a campaign to Britain, but once he reached the Channel, he called the whole thing off and ordered them gather seashells instead. No one knows why.