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

Ancient History | February 19, 2021

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.

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.

A marble bust of Caligula restored to its original colors. (G.dallorto/WIkimedia Commons)

The Divine Caligula

Eventually, Caligula came to believe he was a god—or at least that everyone should treat him as such. He even dressed as Jupiter while meeting with politicians, who were expected to address him as the god. He had another reason for playing dress-up, however: He thought he looked like a goat, and he was so touchy about it that he forbid talk of the animal in his presence, so he wore outlandish wigs and costumes to detract from his appearance.

Caligula often reminded his followers that he had "the right to do anything to anybody," and he extended the decree to literally everyone. Senators in the Roman government were tasked with running in front of his chariot, he slept with the female relatives of his allies, and he may have carried on incestuous relationships with his sisters before sending them away.

Caligula and Incitatus. (Victor Adam/Wikimedia Commons)

Caligula's Downfall

Probably the most famous legend about Caligula was his singular love for his horse, Incitatus, who lived in a marble stall and ate from an ivory trough. It's said that he wanted to appoint the horse to the position of consul in the Roman government, but he was ousted before he got the chance. It wasn't about the horse—the pampered pet was merely a symptom of the real problem.

Caligula's spending was out of control, so in 41 C.E., various government figures hatched a plan to kill the emperor before he bankrupted Rome. While he met with a group of actors in the imperial palace, he was approached by Cassius Chaerea, who stabbed the emperor 30 times before executing his wife and daughter for good measure as well. It turned out Caligula was no god after all.

Tags: ancient rome | assassination | horses

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.