‘Little Boots’: The Madness and Extremism of Roman Emperor Caligula
Suetonius said that Caligula, even at nineteen, could not control his inherent cruelty and wickedness.
by dr. a. Sandison (1923-1982)Professor of PathologyGlasgow University
caligula (gaio julio caesar germanico)
Throughout the centuries the name Caligula has been synonymous with madness and infamy, sadism and perversion. Marshal Gilles de Rais, perhaps the most notorious sadist of all time, has been said to have modeled his behavior. in that of the evil Caesars described by Suetonius, including Caligula. however, in recent years caligula has acquired apologists for him, e.g. rich; also, a fortiori, the Emperor Tiberius, whose reputation has been largely rehabilitated by modern scholarship.
Our knowledge of Caligula’s life depends largely on Suetonius, whose Vita Caesarum was not published until some eighty years after Caligula’s death in AD. 41. Unfortunately, the part of the Tacit Annals dealing with the reign of Caligula has been lost. Other ancient sources are Dio Cassius, whose History of Rome was written in the early 3rd century, and, to a lesser extent, Josephus, whose Anhtitates Judaicac was published in AD. 93, and philo jadaeus, whose pamphlet legatio ad-gaium and in flaccum can be considered contemporary writings. it seems likely that all these ancient sources are to some degree prejudiced and highly colored. Suetonius’s gaius caligula in de vita caesarum is full of lurid and sometimes entertaining stories, some of which may seem unreliable.
However, the contours of Caligula’s life story are not in doubt, and Balsdon provides a useful summary in The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Caligula was born in Antium on August 31 AD. 12, son of that popular prince, Germanic Julius Caesar and Agrippina. From the age of two to four he was with the army on the Rhine border with his parents, and it is said that here he received the name Caligula from the soldiers because of the miniature military boots he wore. in ad. 18-19 he accompanied his parents east. there germanicus died in antioch in a.d. 19 under rather mysterious circumstances, and Caligula returned to Rome with his mother. After his arrest and banishment to the pandateria by Tiberius, he lived with Livilla and Antonia, his grandmother, until AD 21. 32, when Tiberius sent for him to join the imperial house in capreae.
caligula had been pontiff in ad 31 and quaestor two years later, but had held no other official position. however, upon the death of his Druse brother in AD 33 he was declared co-heir to Tiberius along with Tiberius’ twin, his nephew. on the death of tiberius, caligula was strongly supported by macro, prefect of the praetorians, and acclaimed sole emperor on march 16, ad 37
At first he spoke disrespectfully of Tiberius and honored the shadows of his dead fathers and brothers. He appears to have ruled admirably, possibly under Antonia’s influence. Antonia, however, passed away on May 1, 37 AD.
In October of the same year, Caligula became seriously ill. Philo thought his mind was deranged as a result. After her recovery, she had both Macro and Tiberius Gemellus executed. he then quarreled with the senate, became completely autocratic and changed his attitude to the memory of tiberius, blaming the senate for many of the faults attributed to the late emperor. in the winter of ad 39-40 he went to gaul and the rhine, and possibly attempted to invade germany or britain. To this period belongs the story of Caligula ordering his troops to collect shells on the seashore. certainly no major military operations were carried out in the end.
Suetonius reports that he “was so passionate about the green faction [in circus racing] that he constantly dined and spent the night in their stables, and in one of his sprees with them he gave the driver eutychus two million sesterces in gifts. he used to send his soldiers the day before the games and order silence in the neighborhood, to avoid disturbing the horse incitatus. besides a marble manger, an ivory manger, purple blankets and a necklace of precious stones , he even gave this horse a house, a troop of slaves and furniture, for the most elegant entertainment of the guests invited in his name; and it is also said that he intended to make him consul.”
one of the fundamental principles of transparent government is that the rules must be prescribed in advance. William Blackstone, describing this principle, wrote that it is important that the government not only prescribe, but enact the laws as clearly as possible, “not like [the Emperor] Caligula, who . . . he wrote his laws in a very small print, and hung them on high columns, in order to more effectively trap people ”(according to dio cassius).
At around this time, he prevented a conspiracy against his life, led by Cornelius Lentulus Lentulus, (not to be confused with Publius Cornelius Lentulus), who was executed in early October AD 39. After his return to Rome, he feared assassination, ruled with extreme cruelty, and accepted extravagant honors that bordered on deification. He was responsible for much unrest among the Jews over a proposal to install his image in the Jerusalem temple.
Suetonius reports that “his imminent murder was foretold by many wonders. The statue of Jupiter in Olympia, which he had ordered to be dismantled and moved to Rome, suddenly let out such a laugh that the scaffolding collapsed and the workers began to run; and immediately a man named Cassius appeared, who declared that he had been asked in a dream to sacrifice a bull to Jupiter. the capitol of capua was struck by lightning on the ides of march, and also the porter’s room of the palace in rome. some inferred from the last omen that the owner was threatened with danger at the hands of his guards; and of the first, the murder of a second distinguished personage, such as had taken place long before that same day. also the soothsayer sila, when gayo consulted him about his horoscope, declared that inevitable death was at hand.”
He was assassinated in his palace on January 24, AD 41, along with his fourth wife Caesonia and their young daughter, and was succeeded by his uncle Tiberius Claudius Nero Germanicus. Suetonius reports that “while he lay on the ground and with writhing limbs shouted that he still lived, the others dispatched him with thirty wounds; for the general signal was “strike again.” some even plunged swords into his private parts… with him died his wife caesonia his, stabbed with a sword by a centurion, while his daughter’s brains were dashed against a wall.”
separating truth from fiction
Of the accuracy of the above summary there can be no doubt. Suetonius has said that Caligula, even at nineteen, could not control his inherent cruelty and wickedness, was an enthusiastic witness to torture and execution, and delighted in song, dance, gluttony, and lust. If one accepts the modern assessment of Tiberius’s life in capreae made, for example, by Maranon (1956), however, it is difficult to reconcile this with Seutonius’ description of the young Caligula in capreae.
Among Suetonius’s allegations is that after the death of Tiberius, Caligula lived in habitual incest with all his sisters, especially Drusilla, with whom he contracted some form of ‘marriage’. it seems certain that he was very saddened when drusilla died and had her consecrated. many modern authorities discount this story of incest. Suetonius also alleges that Caligula had homosexual relations in both roles, among others with Mnester, his favorite actor whom he embraced in public, and with Marcus Lepidus and Valerius Catullus. it is also said that he molested and raped many women of rank, selecting them at dinner parties and other social occasions in his palace, and that, when he was short of money, he opened a house of ill repute in his palace, where both matrons and freeborn young men they were exposed to salary.
Suetonius also states that Caligula used to exhibit his beautiful wife Caesonia in a state of nakedness to his friends. It is also said that he affected peculiar clothing and sometimes wore women’s clothing, including the garb of Venus, that he invited the moon into his bed, that he spoke with Jupiter Capitolinus, and that he erected a temple to his own divinity. p>
Among the atrocities listed by Suetonius were feeding wild beasts to criminals when cattle became expensive, branding men of rank who were also sometimes caged or hacked to pieces. other cruelties included prolonged death by intermittent blows with chains or by many small wounds. it is said that he cut out a man’s tongue to silence him before throwing him to the beasts. he reveled in torture and execution while at the table and openly gloried in his ability to behead anyone with his assent.
he toppled statues of famous men and deprived the oldest and most noble families of rome of their ancient devices, p. he dropped the surname of ‘magnus’ from gnaeus pompeius. he denigrated the works of homer, virgil and livio. he had even shaved the heads of men that showed fine hair growth. there was no one of such low status or of such abject fortune that he did not envy the advantages that he possessed.
Suetonius described Caligula’s personal appearance as tall and pale with a large body and slender legs. his head was bald but his body was shaggy. he was not healthy in body or mind: as a child he was troubled by “falling sickness”. in his youth sometimes he could not walk, stand up, collect his thoughts and hold his head up. he was plagued by insomnia, never sleeping more than three hours at a time and experiencing vivid dreams. Added to this weakness, paradoxically, was extreme security but excessive shyness, so that he feared thunder or lightning and even the smoke from the crater of Mount Etna. In his “History of Rome,” Dio Cassius emphasizes Caligula’s essential annoyance, his madness, sadism, and his incestuous tendencies. Josephus also presents Caligula in a less monstrous light, but shows that his mind is unbalanced by power.
modern commentators such as t.s. Jerome (Aspects of the Study of Roman History, Chapter 18, New York and London, Putnam-1923) emphasize the unreliability of the testimony of Suetonius and Dio Cassius on the grounds that his accounts do not fully agree. He also suggests that the evidence for Philo Judaeus and Josephus is suspect because of the deep hatred engendered among the Jewish nation by Caligula’s proposal to erect a statue of him in the Jerusalem Temple. Jerome suggests that Caligula’s conduct on his accession to the throne was exemplary and that this probably continued for about a year. he agrees that Caligula may have been an epileptic, but claims that mania is rare in epileptics. It should be noted, however, that although true mania is rare, many epileptics are subject to states of exaltation and excitement not unlike true mania. Jerome suggests that alcoholism may have been partially responsible for Caligula’s behavior.
pm Charlesworth (1933, ‘the Caligula lore’, camb. hist. j., iv, 105, 1934, ‘gaio and claudio’, chapter 20 in the ancient history of cambridge, cambridge, vol. x.) also questioned the reliability Suetonius and gave Cassius on grounds of inconsistency with inscriptional evidence and relies more on Josephus. Charlesworth thinks that Caligula’s atrocities possibly occurred only in the last year of his reign, and that they may have been engendered by fear and suspicion. It seems certain, however, that in AD 40 Rome experienced a reign of terror, a tyranny that required men to fawn and subservient and in which the informer flourished. Nor can there be any doubt, Charlesworth admits, that Caligula envied eminence in every sphere of life. Charlesworth comes to the conclusion that Caligula’s life was ultimately possessed by self-exalted madness.
j.p.v.d. Balsdon (1934, Emperor Gaius (Caligula), Oxford) gave a detailed and scholarly analysis of Caligula’s life, but to some extent this could be considered apologist. Balsdon thinks that Tiberius in the last years of his life was paranoid, but by no means the depraved libertine portrayed by Tacitus and Suetonius. His capreae companions were learned Greeks and Chaldeans, so that the notorious “Spintrians” seem to fade in the light of modern scholarship.
Balsdon cleverly downplays many of the accusations made against Caligula, thinking that his serious illness may have been a “nervous breakdown.” Balsdon points to the important fact that there was no hostile popular sentiment against the emperor until about January AD 41. c., when new and highly resented taxes were collected. He further suggests that Caligula’s belief in his own divinity, his appearances dressed as Venus or Jupiter, the prostration of his subjects, the kissing of feet were normal practices of the Hellenistic monarchy. If this is true, it could be extended to include incest that occurred in the Ptolemaic family in Egypt. As for his interest in bloody spectacles, Balsdon points out that here he was one with all the Roman people.
balsdon further suggests that caligula squandered only from his personal fortune and not from state funds. Balsdon describes him as cultured, well-educated, and a literary critic with original views. his personal life displayed only in exaggerated fashion the foibles of his time: prodigality, immorality, hedonism, cruelty, and extravagance in all things. Balsdon does not consider his rapid succession of four marriages unusual, nor does he believe that he established that Caligula was guilty of incest. Balsdon also does not believe that Caligula was a habitual drunk, although it is conceded that he may have been an epileptic.
In fact, it’s hard to understand Caligula’s early popularity unless he was a normal, attractive personality at the time. Although Philo Judaeus believed that Caligula’s illness in AD 37 radically altered his character, Balsdon notes that other authorities are unclear on this point. Josephus dated his character change to AD 38 or 39; Balsdon comes to consider that there was no clear change and that he may never have really been mad. he claims his cruelty to fear after the plot against his life in ad 40 at the death of caligula the populace was neither dejected nor exultant. In conclusion, Balsdon thinks that the accounts of Suetonius and Dio Cassius were probably colored by more recent political hatred. He also notes that it is a great pity that Tacit’s account of Caligula’s reign has been lost in the annals, and he feels that it is likely that Tacit thought it violent and tempestuous rather than insane.
the monograph on tiberius of maranon (1956, tiberius: a study in resentment, london) goes much further to restore that emperor’s reputation. Maranon interprets Tiberius’ actions as motivated by resentment and possibly influenced by his addiction to alcohol. However, Maranon does not consider that Tiberius was mad, although he may have been a schizoid personality. It seemed likely that Tiberius’s scandalous stories about capreae are fabrications and that Caligula probably behaved normally there. Maranon believed that Caligula was undoubtedly insane, a typical childhood epileptic with seizures and delusions of cruelty and sexual aberration. it is well known that epilepsy tended to run in the Julian family. Caligula’s grandmother Julia was alleged to be epileptic, as was Agrippina II. Gaius Caesar, the eldest son of Agrippa and Julia, was said to be mentally dull and melancholy, while Agrippa Posthumus, the third son of the same marriage, was brutal, violent and depraved.
Albert Camus (November 7, 1913 – January 4, 1960) was a French philosopher, author, and journalist. His views contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as absurdism. Camus contrasts individual madness and collective madness in his Caligula work. Sometimes, for quite arbitrary reasons, Caligula executes someone from his court. this seems arbitrary and scary. However, Caligula is contrasted with sane military officers who engage in terrible acts of war in which thousands upon thousands of civilians and soldiers die. So who’s crazy?
caligula [first released 1979] by bob guccione (former editor of penthouse magazine), based on the original screenplay by gore vidal, may very well be the most controversial film ever. Only one movie dares to show the perversion behind Imperial Rome, and that movie is “Caligula,” the epic tale of Rome’s mad emperor. All the details of his cruel and bizarre reign are revealed here: his unholy sexual passion for his sister, his marriage to Rome’s most infamous prostitute, his fiendishly inventive means of ridding himself of those who came to him. oppose, and more. The combined talents of film giants Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud and Shakespearean actress Helen Mirren, along with an internationally acclaimed cast and a bevy of beautiful penthouse pets, make this one-of-a-kind historical drama a masterpiece. from the screen. Not for the squeamish, not for the prudish, “Caligula” will surprise and awaken you as it reveals the deviance and decay beneath the surface of once-romantic grandeur.
Robert Graves (1895-1985) was an English poet, translator and novelist, one of the leading English men of letters of the 20th century. he fought in the great war and gained international recognition in 1929 with the publication of his memoirs of the war, goodbye to all that. after the war he was awarded a classical scholarship at oxford and subsequently went to egypt as the first professor of english at cairo university. He is best known for his series of novels about the Roman Emperor Claudius.
The legendary story of Claudius, a nobleman in the corrupt and cruel world of Ancient Rome during the rule of Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, is a truly fascinating listening experience. Derek Jacobi defined his career when he starred in the 1976 masterpiece stage miniseries “I, Claudius.” Jacobi is so strong in this role that it seems created especially for him. Jacobi’s compelling voice demands his audience’s undivided attention from start to finish, and in doing so delivers an unforgettable performance as Claudio once again.
The people of Rome do not realize the extent of Caligula’s madness and continue to be enthusiastic about his reign. By the time John Hurt appears as Caligula, the character has already plotted to murder his father and committed incest with his three sisters. his mother and his brothers have been arrested, but he doesn’t care one bit about them. He is careful to flatter his uncle Tiberius, buying her pornography and giving her advice on how to take down his traitorous henchman Sejanus. Caligula becomes a monstrous villain wielding absolute power. for him, power is a game. Caligula’s popularity begins to wane as the people of Rome tire of his strange behavior. Hurt plays Caligula as a troubled man who, very briefly, seems to admit that he’s crazy.
it seems certain that caligula, during the last years of his reign, displayed an undoubted mental disorder characterized by self-deification, sadism, perversion, gross extravagance, pathological envy, possibly some degree of paranoid change, intractable insomnia, and vivid dreams. It is likely that at the time of his enthronement Caligula’s personality was normal, and the truth is that he suffered a serious illness at the age of twenty-five. Philo Judaeus believed that from then on his mind was deranged. this seems entirely possible and not unlikely. if this is accepted, then we can speculate on the nature of this disease. it is suggested that this may have been an epidemic encephalitis known to produce mental changes not inconsistent with those described in caligula.
Originally published by medical history 2:3 (1958 Jul, 202-209), republished by cambridge university press, 08/16/2012, free and open access, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.