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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

The Insane Depravity of Caligula: Was he Truly Mad?

Written by Olivier Guiberteau

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Throughout human history, we have seen countless highly questionable personalities rise to the very extremes of power. 

Adolf Hitler may have been just sane enough to convince millions that he was the right man for the job, but the man came with a treasure chest of the absurd. Charles IV of France went from Charles the Beloved to Charles the Mad during his reign and reportedly thought he was made of glass, while the mental stability of George III of England collapsed to such a point that he became unable to rule for the final decade of his regency.   

But then we come to a man born Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus – better known then, and now, as Caligula. A man who had a traumatic upbring before becoming Emperor and whose initial period of power was seen as a huge success, but after a serious illness that saw him remain unconscious for a month, the Caligula who returned was very, very different. 

The final years of his reign are remembered as a blizzard of some of the strangest, most depraved and outright cruel actions you are ever likely to hear in connection with a sitting ruler. Incest, sadism, paranoia, theft, murder and of course a good old fashioned god complex – the story of Caligula has it all. 

A Confusing Figure   

Before we dive straight into the madness of Caligula, it’s important to begin with a slight disclaimer. There is probably no other leader throughout history that comes with such a litany of truly bizarre stories attached to him as Caligula does. 

A quick search on Google will lead you into a dizzying torrent of utter madness and depravity that was said to be Caligula’s life, but it is important to remember that this was a man who died nearly 2000 years ago and almost all of what we know about him in the modern age came from the ancients – many of whom were just as likely to embellish stories and exaggerate events as we see today. 

Maybe they’re all true. Perhaps he really was one of the most mentally unhinged people we’ve ever seen take power, but then again, after his death, there was said to be a concerted effort to destroy his reputation and to almost expunge him from the glorious annals of the Roman Empire. Many stories regarding him may simply be gossiping hearsay with a Chinese whisper twist that created some of the more unbelievable tales.

The truth is that his reign caused significant problems within the Roman Empire and many were not only glad to see the back of him but eager to ridicule and destroy his memory.  

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Early Years   

It’s now commonly understood that a child’s formative years have a huge bearing on how they grow up and if that’s the case, it’s perhaps not a great surprise that Caligula’s sanity eventually unravelled. 

However, things began well for the young boy, born into a well to do Roman family, part of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which formed Rome’s first five emperors. His father, Germanicus, was a well-respected Roman general and his mother, Agrippina the Elder, whose father had been a close friend of Emperor Augustus, carried an almost regal air and was highly regarded by her peers.  

The two had six children who survived into adulthood, three sons; Caligula, Nero and Drusus, and three daughters; Agrippina the Younger, Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla. As a family, they would often accompany their father on his military campaigns and after successful operations in Germania, Germanicus was sent to govern the eastern provinces, while his family remained in Rome. 

Now, before we arrive at our first tale of intrigue and possibly murder, it’s important to set the scene here. The Roman Empire reached dizzying heights during its heyday but political backstabbing, ravenous personal ambition and vicious bloodshed were just as much a part of the Roman story as their famed architecture, road systems and sanitation network. Rome regularly seemed just a step or two away from upheaval and those who had obtained power were constantly wary over who might be waiting greedily in the wings. 

At this point, Emperor Tiberius was at the helm, Rome’s second Emperor after Augustus and Germanicus, who was a nephew of the much loved Augustus, was widely seen as next in line to the throne. Tiberius may not have been a terrible emperor, but he was certainly no Augustus. His time as the most powerful person in Rome was solid but unspectacular and he was said to remain deeply paranoid about the Senate and how it might be colluding against him. 

Germanicus on the other hand was supremely popular throughout Rome and was compared to Julius Caesar and even Alexander the Great in terms of their age and semi-mythical military campaigns. However, popularity was a dangerous challis in Ancient Rome and when Germanicus fell ill and died mysteriously in what is today Syria in 19 AD, questions were immediately asked as to whether the governor of Syria, Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso or even the Emperor himself, may have been behind his death. 

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Persecution and Exile

The loss of his father at age seven had a traumatic effect on the young Caligula. Initially, he lived with his mother and for a time it appeared as if his two older brothers had been elevated as Tiberius’ heirs. However, the wheels of political intrigue moved quickly in Ancient Rome and overtime the family’s standing began to slip, thanks in no small part to Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a politician and close confidant of Tiberius, who in part led the purge against Caligula’s family through the infamous Treason Trials.    

His mother and Nero were banished from Rome in 29 AD on charges of treason, which also carried salacious accusations of sexual misconduct and corruption. Nero died shortly after his banishment, possibly by his own hand but then again maybe not, and his mother died in 33 AD on the island of Pandateria – ironically where her mother had once been exiled. Caligula’s remaining brother, Durus, was also imprisoned and died the same year and his three sisters were sent into exile.   

In just a few years the family had been decimated and many assumed that the young Caligula would be next. But instead of having him killed or dropping him into a dungeon never to reappear, Tiberius exiled the young boy to the island of Capri where he remained for six years. 

And to add a little extra spice to this already sordid tale, Emperor Tiberius had also decided to up and leave Rome for, you’ve guessed it, Capri. Leaving us with a situation where the young Caligula is forced to spend years in close proximity to the man responsible for the destruction of his family. As I said earlier, a difficult upbring and one which in today’s day and age would probably take several decades of therapy to straighten out.    

Rags to Riches

As the purges against his family expanded with murderous effect, few would have dared to believe that Caligula would not only make it to adulthood but would one day become Emperor. His time on Capri may have ostensibly been as a prisoner, but over time his relationship with Tiberius improved to such an extent that he was made co-heir along with his cousin Tiberius Gemellus, who was also Tiberius’ grandson. 

When Tiberius died aged 77 in 37 AD – again we’re not entirely sure if this was old age or whether pillow to the face may have significantly sped up nature’s course – the Emperor who had become increasingly unpopular in Rome left a puzzling succession situation. 

According to his will, both Caligula and Tiberius Gemellus were joint-heirs as well as jointly inheriting the Emperor’s estate. But things moved quickly and it appears there may have been some significant political support for Caligula – not least because of his links with Augustus and his lauded father – and on 18th March 37 AD, the young man who had once been the very epitome of a deadman walking was proclaimed emperor by the Senate.

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A Glorious Start  

Caligula’s time as Emperor is often broken into two, with the mystery illness that left him dangling between life and death for a month, the event that separates them. Broadly speaking, the first part of his rule, which lasted around 6 months, was hugely successful and through a series of reforms and what can only be described as politically motivated goodwill projects he quickly captured the hearts of the Roman public. He handed out bonuses to soldiers, recalled many who had been exiled under Tiberius and put on the kind of gladiatorial games that hadn’t been seen in decades.

Romans had grown tired of Tiberius, the absent Emperor, and with this young man with a glittering patriarchal legacy now at the helm, a degree of optimism began sweeping the city and the wider empire.

On the family front, the young Emperor was reunited with his three sisters, who hadn’t seen for over six years, and for all intent and purposes, things were looking up for Rome’s ruler after the chaos of his younger years.   

Illness 

But this period of positivity came crashing down when the Emperor was struck by a devastating and entirely mysterious illness. He remained unconscious for nearly a month and few believed he would ever make a full recovery. There have been numerous theories over his illness, ranging from lead poisoning to epilepsy, and there have even been consistent suggestions that it was in fact an assassination attempt that didn’t quite go far enough. 

The question of Caligula’s mental health has puzzled historians for nearly 2,000 years. Some modern suggestions state that he may have suffered from hyperthyroidism and that seizures were a daily fear for the young emperor even before the major illness.   

Whatever it was, as the Emperor lay frail and unconscious, discrete actions began to prepare Tiberius Gemellus for the throne – reportedly led by a Praetorian prefect, Naevius Sutorius Macro, a man who Caligula had grown close to during his time on Capri and who was said to have been instrumental in placing him on the throne instead of Tiberius Gemellus. As far as we can tell, few expected Caligula to recover, and had he died at that point, history would have remembered him very differently, no doubt as an excellent young ruler who was taken far too soon.   

But recover he did. When the Emperor woke, with no immediate signs of long-term damage, most would have presumed that life was about to continue as normal and that Rome, and its popular young leader, was about to stride forward as only the Romans could. But what actually happened was very different.    

Paranoia

It didn’t take long for Caligula’s paranoia to set in. There had been some very tangible steps taken while he was ill to begin replacing him should he not recover and when this came to light, his vengeance was swift. 

Tiberius Gemellus was effectively ordered to commit suicide, something the young man apparently needed help doing, while Caligula’s father-in-law Marcus Junius Silanus and his brother-in-law Marcus Lepidus were executed, while his grandmother Antonia Minor, who he shared with Tiberius Gemellus, also committed suicide during this period. 

Now, it is at this point of the story where the facts, slander and outright mythical tales relating to Emperor Caligula begin to merge into one almighty repugnant beast. No doubt some of them are true, but it’s also perfectly conceivable that many were embellished well after his death to accentuate his madness.

Keeping it in the Family

Let’s begin with incest. We believe that Caligula had sexual relations with Julia Drusilla, his favourite sister – which may have actually begun at a young age – and may well have done the same with Livilla and Agrippina the Younger too. Some say that he did this as a way of securing an heir and may well have even impregnated Julia Drusilla – who was married to another man at the time. When she died in 38 AD, Caligula’s grief was all-encompassing and he initially refused to allow her body to be taken away. When she was finally laid to rest, he requested that the senate declare her a Goddess, as Diva Drusilla, in the same representation of the Roman goddess Venus or the Greek goddess Aphrodite. 

The word incest comes from the Latin word ‘incestum’ – which translators roughly as not pure – but was also used to cover a wide variety of sexual activities that were seen to step over the boundary of what was prim and proper. However, what was deemed acceptable wasn’t always clear. Roman and Greek mythology is littered with incest and while brotherly and sisterly love was probably a step too far for the Romans, it wasn’t uncommon for marriages between cousins or uncles and nieces to occur even at the highest level – Emperor Claudius, who came after Caligula, married his brother’s daughter, Agrippina after all. But generally speaking, incest was still considered a no-no and accusations of such could ruin a reputation.    

When Julia Drusilla died her surviving widow, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, was said to make advances on his two sisters-in-law, possibly as a way of shoring up his support as a possible heir. It appears as if, to begin with at least, Caligula looked upon Lepidus favourably as a possible heir, but in 39 AD, details of these supposed relationships with his two sisters, along with a rumoured plot against the emperor emerged – tantalisingly known as ‘the plot of the three daggers’. Lepidus was quickly executed and Livilla and Agrippina the Younger were both exiled to the Pontine Islands.

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Madness

Another questionable relationship that Caligula was said to have had was that with Incitatus – his horse. This has become one of the classic mad Caligula tales in which some say he attempted to make his stead the consul of Rome – a political position as the head of the senate that one would assume would require something of a logical human brain and perhaps even opposable thumbs. While this is a truly bizarre story it may have some grounding and might not be as weird as you’d imagine. Caligula frequently sought to humiliate the senators and perhaps the simple threat of placing a horse in charge of them, emphasised his disdain. 

Whether or not he planned to actually dress Incitatus up in a robe and send him into the Senate we’ll never know, but the horse was said to have a stable of marble, with an ivory manger, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones.  

The final few years of his life seemed riddled with wacky exploits as the state of the empire pitched up and down. In 39 AD, he pulled off a quite extraordinary stunt to build a floating bridge for over two miles across the Bay of Baiae, stretching from the resort of Baiae to the nearby port of Puteoli over which he proudly rode his horse. The reason? Years before, Thrasyllus of Mendes, an astrologer and personal friend of Tiberius, had once predicted that Caligula had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae”. 

By actually riding his horse across this vast pontoon bridge – shattering the prophecy in a bizarre act of petulance – he was sticking a very public middle finger up to those who had ever doubted him – specifically of course Thrasyllus of Mendes.  

He eventually took to referring to himself as a god, namely Jupiter, and the title even began appearing on official documents. He built temples to himself and erected numerous statues in Rome, while apparently Caligula even had the idea of chopping off the head of the statue of Zeus at Olympia and replacing it with his own likeness. 

Cruelty

But while all of these stories may be wonderfully extravagant in their absurdities, let’s not forget that Caligula was not a pleasant person. He was said to genuinely relish people squirming with discomfort and got quite a kick out of borderline – or not so borderline – torture. While attending gladiatorial games he would remove the awning and prevent people from leaving so he could watch them slowly swelter in the Roman sun. If that didn’t quite do it for him, he would sometimes order his guards to throw spectators down into the pit and allow wild animals to run amok.  

By all accounts, the man was an absolute sexual deviant whose desires could stretch to any woman, regardless of their standing or marital status. There are stories of the emperor inviting guests to lavish parties that with our contemporary language we would probably refer to as orgies, where he would have the women line up before he made his choice. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he would then on occasions force the woman’s husband to sit with him while he regaled them with his exploits with his wife.

And while we’re discussing his sexual misadventures, Caligula ordered the construction of two enormous floating palaces, known as the Nemi ships, which at the time were among the largest boats in the world. While their use has long been argued over, the marble, mosaic floors, heating, plumbing and even baths onboard have led some to dub them floating orgie palaces.

But during all of this brazen behaviour, he did find time to get married and have a child, but even here, the story is far from clear. This was technically his fourth marriage. The first had been before his reign but she had died in childbirth, with reports of him not exactly being too broken up over it. While the second and third were short-lived and ended with divorce and a ruling from the Emperor that they could never again be with another man. 

The fourth was Milonia Caesonia, a divorcee – or widow, we aren’t sure – who already had three children and was possibly already pregnant when she married Caligula in 40 AD after a short affair with the Emperor.      

Collecting Seashells 

In terms of military campaigns, there were some potentially outlandish actions here too. He stretched the Roman Empire westwards by annexing Mauritania – after he had invited Rome’s client ruler, Ptolemy of Mauretania, to the city under friendly terms before promptly having him killed. 

But it was his exploits to conquer Britania that was the strangest. At some point, probably around 40 AD, Caligula travelled to the cusp of the empire, where he stood on the shores of the English Channel. Now, what came next isn’t at all clear. The more outlandish version states that Caligula had declared war on Neptune, the god of freshwater and the sea in Roman religion, and ordered his troops to begin attacking the water. 

This story does seem a little far fetched, even for Caligula, but the alternative tales are just as bizarre. Both tell of soldiers on the verge of mutiny over the poorly planned invasion of Britannica, with one stating that Caligula had them pick seashells as a punishment or the other that he dressed some of his own men up as Britons and marched them through Rome as a way of preventing the humiliation of returning home empty-handed. Whatever happened, Caligula’s planned invasion of Britannia ended in farce and showed many he was no longer fit to lead.    

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Assassination   

Through all of the madness, whether entirely true or not, his relationship with the senate and Roman nobility rapidly deteriorated. As his lavish lifestyle continued to spiral out of control, Rome’s coffers were quickly emptied. In an act of shocking disregard for his fellow Romans, Caligula authorized the resumption of the treason trials, a practice under Tiberius that had seen his family purged, for the simple reason that the fortunes of those found to be treasonous would be defaulted to the Empire – and so on to him. This led to a period of absolute savagery where countless Romans were executed – certainly hundreds, maybe thousands and some even put the figure as high as 10,000.    

 In 40 AD, he announced his intentions to up and leave Rome for the Egyptian city of Alexandria – where he hoped to be worshipped like a living god – and many influential Romans baulked at such an idea. 

By this point, many had lost patience with the emperor and there were open discussions over a potential assassination with a plan to replace him with Claudius, the last male in the family bloodline and Caligula’s uncle.  

On 24th March 41 AD, officers within the Praetorian Guard led by Cassius Chaerea – a man who had long been mocked relentlessly by Caligula – accosted him as he travelled through an underground passage to the amphitheatre. Chaerea’s knife was said to be the first thrust into the Emperor’s body before he was set upon by the remaining guards who stabbed him a total of 30 times. 

But not satisfied there, the assassins turned their attentions on Milonia Caesonia and one-year-old Julia Drusilla, both of whom were quickly despatched. The age of Caligula was over. 

Mad or Myth?   

While the planners of the assassination had hoped that by killing Caligula they might be able to restore order and pride in the Roman Empire – with some suggestions that they may have hoped to restore the Republic, something that had been seen 31 BC – quite the opposite occurred.  

There seemed to be genuine fury among the Roman people over what had happened. Almost immediately, Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, who had likely been involved in the plot also, was made Emperor and he soon ordered the executions of those who had carried out the attack, including Chaerea. 

Much of what we know about Caligula comes from sources written well after his death, sometimes over a century later, and it’s important to remember that writers of the age, like today, were more than open to embellishing stories and exaggerating events. Many of the stories of Caligula are so outlandish that we have to question their veracity. Was he really mad or was this a case of mythical madness that may have been created to sully his name long after his death?

Alas, we’ll probably never fully know, but if he was the sexual disgrace, vicious psychopath and human incarnation of a god, as he believed, he must go down in history as one of the strangest and possibly craziest leaders we’ve ever seen. Mad or myth – the story of Caligula was never dull.     

Caligula – Wikipedia

10 Insane And Perverse Things Attributed To Caligula | Learnodo Newtonic (learnodo-newtonic.com)

10 Facts That Show Why Caligula Was Rome’s Craziest Emperor – Listverse

The Wild Life and Times of Caligula (ranker.com)

Sex and Violence in Rome: Caligula’s Empire and the Salacious Rumors that Built It – MagellanTV

Caligula the Mad Emperor: The Horse That Almost Became a Senator and Other Strange Tales – Museum Hack

Caligula: Mad or Misunderstood? — Museum Center at 5ive Points  

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