Caligula (12 – 41 AD)
If there’s one emperor who defines degeneracy and gives us the image we have today of the debauched and luxurious lives of the Roman emperors, that emperor is Caligula. Ascending to power after the death of Tiberius, he crossed every boundary of what was expected of both a Roman and an emperor. He ruthlessly murdered anybody he saw as a threat, as well as those who simply annoyed him; buggered (and was buggered by) almost anything that moved, and even demanded to be worshipped as a god, complete with his own temple and priesthood. He ultimately reaped what he sowed, however, assassinated by his own praetorian guard on his way out of a theatre in 39 AD.
Alcoholism, however, is not one of the vices he’s well known for; that is unless you start digging around the ancient literature. Firstly, the description of Caligula’s physical appearance we get from his biographer Suetonius closely mirrors that of the stereotypical alcoholic described by Pliny the Elder. He was apparently pallid and weak, wracked with insomnia and hallucinations. His behavior was also erratic and forgetful; on several occasions sending for people he had just put to death.
The Jewish historians Josephus and Philo described Caligula as a gluttonous drinker, but they had a personal, religious axe to grind given that the emperor had tried to install a statue of himself in Jerusalem’s Temple in 40 AD. But while trying to thread alcoholism through his later life might be a thankless task, we do have one particular anecdote that reveals the bibulous excesses to which he would go.
In 37 AD Caligula ordered a bridge of ships to be built across the bay at Baiae, near Naples. The reasons for him doing so are unclear: some speculated that he wanted negate a prophecy that he would sooner ride horses over water than be emperor; others that he wanted to emulate the Persian king Xerxes’s bridging of the Hellespont in 480 BC.
What is clear is that he spent the day riding up and down the bridge on horseback before leading a military procession along it wearing the breastplate of Alexander the Great, another notorious drinker. As night fell, the procession turned from a military one into a Bacchic one, and several of Caligula’s drunken companions fell into the sea, where—held under by oars under the orders of the hysterical emperor—they drowned.