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?
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.
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