Infamous Roman Emperors: Caligula the Cruel

Warning! The reign of Roman Emperor Caligula involves a descent into murder and madness! I don’t know about you but I think it’s time to put Caligula on trial and uncover his many transgressions.

That Julio-Claudian Dynasty

Caligula is the third Roman emperor under the Julio-Claudian DynastyThis dynasty stretches from 27 B.C to 68 A.D. and included the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. It was a time of prosperity. The Romans were at their height of power, wealth, and art. Although, the dynasty also became known for its imperial extravagance and notoriety.  

Caligula, or Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus (what a mouthful), is the son of Germanicus, the adoptive son and heir of Emperor Tiberius. Did you know that his nickname ‘Caligula’ means ‘little boots’? It was given to the little emperor by soldiers. The little tyke liked to wander around camp all dressed up in military gear. They always start out innocent, don’t they? 

Before his untimely death, Germanicus was loved by the Romans. Such affection was passed down to Caligula when his father died. In fact, the Romans were optimistic about Caligula’s future reign! They were hoping for some relief from the horrible Tiberius! In other words, Tiberius was consumed with paranoia often exiling those he considered threats and starting treason trials. It is speculated that he orchestrated the deaths of Caligula’s mother and brothers. Caligula lived in a tense place always having to tip-toe around the paranoid emperor or else he suffers a bloody end. With Caligula stuck with Tiberius and this toxic environment, the cruel emperor (quoted by Suetonius) even said he was

‘nursing a viper for the Roman people’

Tiberius, quoted by Suetonius

 Wow, we’re already off to a great start, right!? 

A Brief Respite

Despite his rocky upbringing, upon Tiberius’ death, Caligula’s reign wasn’t off to a bad start. He was said to have rained coins down to the Roman people and brought back public games. He also burned his predecessor’s treason trial papers and welcomed back the exiled. For many Romans, their new emperor was fulfilling their expectations! That is to say, he was a breath of fresh air. Ah! So far so good! 

Insane Beginnings

Netflix’s Roman Empire Series: Caligula: The Mad Emperor

Everything went downhill fast when Caligula fell ill. The origins of his illness are still speculated. Whether it’s brain inflammation, epilepsy, syphilis, poison, or some other problem, no one really knows. What we do know is that many Romans feared the worse during their emperor’s illness and they began grooming a successor. Caligula recovered (at least physically!) but mentally, he became unhinged. 

From tormenting Romans, paranoia, to increased vanity, Caligula began a reign of unforgiveable cruelty. To quote Caligula, 

‘Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody.’


And, let me tell you, he sure took that to heart!  

(Note: Many atrocities associated with the cruel emperor might be exaggerated through history, some true, others untrue, but they still paint a nasty picture.) 

The Bloody Court

Following his illness, Caligula felt betrayed by the Romans. They were ready to replace him! Therefore, just like his predecessor Tiberius, paranoia festered in the emperor. Becoming murderous, Caligula restored the treason trials and executed enemies and allies alike. In fact, he executed, Macro, the head of the Praetorian Guard. When you start killing off your own bodyguards, you know things are bad. He tormented senators making them run for miles in front of his chariot. Let’s not forget his multiple affairs with his allies’ wives! Nor his incestuous feelings towards his sisters!  

Caligula also fueled his bloodlust with gladiator and chariot battles. Often, he upped the stakes by throwing in exotic animals and criminals. In addition, during a religious sacrifice, instead of killing an animal, Caligula struck down a priest!  

Talk about cruel and unusual punishment. 

Narcissism at its Worst

Possible Statue of Caligula with horse at the British Museum (credit to the BM)

Caligula’s bloody personality is paired with award-winning narcissism. In Caligula’s mind, he was a god. Therefore, it was only fitting that he lives like one! He did whatever he wanted! With ‘divine’ goals, Caligula ordered the construction of his statue to be erected in the Temple at Jerusalem. He allegedly rolled in money piles and drank vinegar dissolved pearls. By living extravagantly, he quickly depleted the royal treasury. The poor Romans faced higher taxes and extortion to pay for everything!  

Flaunting His “Good” Looks

Caligula was obsessed with his looks (or lack thereof). Suetonius describes Caligula as,

‘very tall and extremely pale, with an unshapely body and very thin neck and legs. His eyes and temples were hollow, his forehead broad and grim, his hair thin and entirely gone on the top of his head.’


So, Caligula wasn’t a looker. As a result, he wanted any portraits to show him looking better than he was (no bald spot to see here!). He forbade anyone to gaze upon his hairless head, or to mention a goat in his presence (apparently he resembled one). Although, to accentuate his cruelty and spread fear, Caligula is described to have

‘purposely made [his face] even more savage, practicing all kinds of terrible and fearsome expressions before a mirror.’


Adding to the crazy, he was so self-absorbed that he planned on promoting his favorite horse, Incitatus, to a high office. What a crazy expression of power and humiliation for his senators!  

Caligula also had a flair for the dramatics. For military glory, he planned to invade Britain. But, instead of attacking and fueled by madness, he ordered his soldiers to randomly stop and gather seashells which humiliated his troops. Apparently, in his mind, shells were spoils from conquering the ocean. Likewise, Caligula once built a 2-mile floating bridge just so he could gallop across it.  

He definitely wins the prize for the maddest narcissist! 

Cruel Till the Bitter End

The Stabbing of Caligula by Giuseppe Mochetti

I don’t know about you, but I’d sure be fed up with Caligula’s reign! Certainly, the Romans were done with it too! As a result, a conspiracy began between the Praetorian Guard and Senate. And, by 41 A.D., Caligula and his family were assassinated. In fact, the hated emperor was stabbed around 30 times! In the end, Caligula learned a hard truth: he was no god!  

Imperial Propaganda

Though no god, Caligula’s legacy lives on. The Metropolitan Museum of Art even displays one of Caligula’s portrait busts. The sculpture maintains the portrait style of Augustus to show unity and continuity throughout the Julio-Claudian dynasty. This fine bust plays into Caligula’s vanity with its nice features and carefully designed hair. It definitely doesn’t show Caligula’s bald spot! However, the artist is sneaky. They convey Caligula’s vanity and cruelty with the proud turn of his head and his thin, pursed lips. 

No matter what propaganda the Roman emperors dished out to make them look good, we know the dirty truth about Caligula! His reign was one of oppression, tyranny, and madness! 

Which horrible act do you think is the worst? What about the strangest?  

If you want to know more about Rome’s many emperors, join us for a treasure hunt! For some modern reading about Roman emperors, check out Rick Riordan’s Trials of Apollo! It’s a must read!

Leave a Reply