13. Caligula Discovered it Was Unwise to Insult His Bodyguards
Caligula (12 – 41 AD) was raised by his uncle, the Roman emperor Tiberius, a paranoiac who spent much of his reign as a recluse in a pedophilic pleasure palace in the island of Capri. He surfaced on occasion to order the execution of relatives accused of treason, including Caligula’s mother and two brothers, and had probably poisoned Caligula’s father as well.
Caligula survived the bitter Tiberius, who named him heir, quipping “I am rearing a viper for the Roman people“. The years of repressed living left their mark, and once freed of his homicidal and paranoid uncle, Caligula cut loose. He went into an orgy of lavish spending and hedonistic living, as the combination of sudden freedom and sudden unlimited power went to his head.
His craziness included once cackling uncontrollably at a party, and when asked why, replied that it was hilarious that he could order anybody present beheaded on the spot. On another occasion, displeased by an unruly crowd at the Circus Maximus, he pointed out a section to his guards, and ordered them to execute everybody “from baldhead to baldhead”, gesturing at two bald people. Another time, when told that there were no more criminals to throw to the beasts, he ordered a section of the crowd thrown to the wild animals.
Among the sexual depravities attributed to him, incest with his sisters was the least of it. At dinner parties, he would frequently “request” that a guest’s wife accompany him to his bedroom, and after bedding her, return to the party to rate her performance, berating the cuckolded husband if she was lacking. He also turned the imperial palace into a brothel, in which he forced the wives of leading Romans to serve as prostitutes.
He declared himself a god, and had the heads removed from the statues of various deities, replacing them with his own. He also once declared war on the sea god Neptune, marched his legions to the sea, and had them collect seashells to show the deity who was boss. However, it was not the preceding craziness that did him in, but his grievous error in offending his own bodyguards.
The commander of his security detail, a man named Chaerea, had a high pitched voice, and Caligula got a kick out of mocking him as effeminate. He thought it hilarious to come up with derogatory daily passwords that had to do with homosexuality, and whenever Chaerea was due to kiss the imperial ring, Caligula made sure it was on his middle finger, which he would waggle obscenely. In 41 AD, Chaerea finally had enough, hatched a plot with other Praetorian Guards, and hacked Caligula to death.