Caligula, the Infamous Roman Emperor Who Made His Horse a Senator
Caligula, the Infamous Roman Emperor Who Made His Horse a Senator

Caligula, the Infamous Roman Emperor Who Made His Horse a Senator

Natasha sheldon - October 23, 2018

Caligula, the Infamous Roman Emperor Who Made His Horse a Senator
Caligula’s three sisters: Drusilla, Agrippina, and Livia. Picture Credit: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Murder and Terror

However, most of Caligula’s post-illness behavior was anything but funny. He gained a reputation for immorality, violence- and extreme cruelty. The least of his crimes was incest with all three of his sisters. When his favorite, Drusilla died, Caligula was reputedly inconsolable. He was so crazed with grief that after her death, he made it a capital offense to laugh, bath or publicly dine while the mourning period lasted. He even declared Drusilla a goddess- an unprecedented honor for a woman and had her name added to imperial oaths.

Whether or not this incest was consensual or a matter of survival is unknown. However, Caligula was undoubtedly a sexual predator. It became a favorite custom of his to have female dinner guests paraded before him so that he could choose a sexual companion for later in the evening. When he was a guest at the wedding of Gaius Piso and Livia Orestila, he took a fancy to the bride. “Hands off my wife,” Caligula suddenly declared in the middle of the wedding feast. He forced Orestila to accompany him home and ‘married’ her- only to divorce her two days later.

When he was not forcing noble women to sleep with him, Caligula was forcing them to sell themselves to other men. As the imperial coffers rapidly drained due to his lavish spending, Caligula had to find new ways of raising funds. One idea was to open the palace as a brothel. All the married noblewomen of Rome- and quite a few young boys were required to serve in this imperial whorehouse. The customers were citizens that Caligula had rounded up off Rome’s streets.

Caligula, the Infamous Roman Emperor Who Made His Horse a Senator
Dying Gladiator by Fedor Bronnikov. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The nobles put up with this indignity and abuse because far worse awaited anyone who displeased the emperor. For Caligula would have men tortured and executed on the merest whim. His first murders occurred in the immediate aftermath of his illness when in May 38 AD he had the praetorian prefect, Macro and his young cousin, Gemellus executed on trumped-up charges. Macro had reputedly helped Caligula in his rise to power by murdering Tiberius. Gemellus, although only a boy was a potential threat to Caligula as he was Tiberius’s grandson and had been Caligula’s co-heir.

The deaths of Gemellus and Macro suggest Caligula suffered from a certain amount of paranoia. However, he instigated plenty of other deaths from sheer cruelty. Caligula had revived the treason trials of Tiberius’s reign as another way of raising much-needed cash. Those found guilty had their estates confiscated. However, if they did not kill themselves or die in prison, they could look forward to public execution. For Caligula was fond of fighting the condemned as gladiators.

Caligula added to his enjoyment of these spectacles by forcing the condemned’s families to watch. The emperor even sent a litter to convey one ailing father to his son’s execution. Another, who asked permission to close his eyes rather than watch, died with his son. Caligula even invited the father of one of his victims to dinner- on the day of his son’s execution. The bereaved parent was forced to sit and laugh at the emperor’s jokes for the whole evening – or die himself.

Caligula, the Infamous Roman Emperor Who Made His Horse a Senator
Reconstruction of the original polychromy of Caligula. Istanbul Museum. Picture credit G.dallorto Wikimedia commons

Mad-or Bad?

Suetonius’s account of Caligula was written decades after the emperor’s death during the reign of Hadrian, and some of its details do seem to have been deliberately shaped to suit Suetonius’s picture of Caligula as a deranged lunatic. For instance, his account of Caligula’s aborted invasion of Britain ignores the fact that the Roman word for seashells “Musculi” was also a soldier’s slang for an engineer’s hut. This means that instead of ordering his troops to gather seashells, Caligula could have been commanding them to clear the beach of military installations.

However, other details have been proven correct. The discovery of Caligula’s palace in 2003 confirms that it was indeed remodeled to join with the Temple of Castor and Pollux. Supports have also been discovered that prove a bridge was constructed from the palace over the forum to join the Capitoline temple. So, given that the events described in the sources broadly correspond with the facts, how do we assess Caligula: mad or bad?

Caligula, the Infamous Roman Emperor Who Made His Horse a Senator
Caligula Depositing the Ashes of his Mother and Brother in the Tomb of his Ancestors by Eustache Le Sueur. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Before his illness, Caligula seems to have been sane enough. He certainly navigated the tricky period after the deaths of his mother and brothers with a particular skill. Tiberius had brought the eighteen-year-old Caligula to live with him on Capri. For the next six years, Caligula walked through a minefield of intrigue. He sidestepped attempts by Tiberius’s courtiers to trick him to speak against the emperor. Nor did he show any emotion over his family’s deaths. This indicates a certain intelligence, self-restraint and a well-developed survival instinct. So perhaps Caligula’s illness did weaken him mentally.

As crazy and cruel as Caligula’s post-illness behavior was, a method can be detected beyond his madness; one that speaks of a young ruler desperate to establish his authority. By declaring himself a living god, tearing up the whole streets of Rome for his own convenience to connect the palace to its temples, Caligula was acting like no emperor before him. He no longer wished to be seen merely as an emperor, a first amongst equals. He needed to set himself above all others without taking the hated title of King. To do this effectively, Caligula had to erode the standing of the Senate. For although he had been happy enough to rule with them before his illness, his incapacity had shown all of Rome the Senate could govern without him.

Caligula set about this task without restraint because his illness, pressure or the corrupting nature of power had eroded his self-control. However, his intention remained clear. Caligula wanted to debase his rivals by emphasizing their weakness in the face of his power. So he humiliated senators, making them run for miles beside his chariot or serve as slaves at his dinners. He also terrified them. Once at a dinner party, the emperor suddenly burst into laughter. “It occurred to me that I have only to give one nod and your throats will be cut on the spot,” Caligula replied when asked what the joke was. Seen in this light, the incident with Incitatus takes on a different perspective. It is not the action of an utterly insane man, but of a despot who was telling his government, that really, they were no more effective than a pampered pet.


Where Do We get this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Twelve Caesars, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (trans Robert Graves). Guild Publishing 1979

Caligula’s Roman Palace Discovered, Bruce Johnston, The Telegraph, August 8, 2003

Who’s Who in the Roman World, John Hazel, Routledge, 2002

Scholars discover evidence of Caligula’s excessive behavior, John Stanford, Stanford news service, August 9, 2003

A Mad Roman Emperor With Evidence Of Today’s Common Mental Health Problems, Kennedy Elise Ghibellini, Odyssey, May 10, 2016

Caligula: Mad, bad, and maybe a little misunderstood, Allan Massie, The Telegraph, July 20, 2013

Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars, Alexander Meddings, History Collection, November 6, 2017