Tremendous Lives and Dramatic Deaths of Twelve Roman Caesars

A Roman Emperor by Sir Lawernce Alma Tadema. The Emperor Claudius is shown hiding behind a curtain while Caligula is (inaccurately) depicted lying dead inside the palace. Fine Art America


Caligula may not have been the first emperor to rule through excessive violence, but he was the first to reap what he sowed. Whichever version of his assassination you believe, the end result is the same. On January 24 41 AD, in the midst of the Palatine Games, he was butchered in a passage underneath the Palatine Theatre by precisely the men who had sworn to protect him.

Suetonius reports two versions of his death. In the first, Chaerea sneaks up behind him while he’s talking to some Asian boys about to perform onstage. Slashing his neck from behind, he cries out, “take this!”—words traditionally accompanying a sacrifice—while the people’s tribune Cornelius Sabinus runs him through from the front. The second version involves the same cast, but the performance is far more theatrical.

In this version, Sabinus asks Caligula for the military password to which the emperor responded, “Jupiter!” Chaerea then approaches from behind and cries out, “let it be so”—Jupiter being the god of sudden death—and as the emperor turns around he swings his sword and splits his jaw open. Dropping to the floor, Caligula repeatedly calls out that he’s still alive (Suetonius brushes over how he does this with his jaw hanging off) before being stabbed to death by other conspirators.

Caligula’s genitals are then cut off, and to put an end to the Julian bloodline the conspirators also butcher his wife and infant daughter, the former is hacked to death beside him, the latter taken out of sight and dashed against a wall. Later writers would try to justify the murder of his one-year-old daughter Julia Drusilla by saying she’d inherited her father’s savagery, and would bite and scratch at the faces of those who played with her. However, it’s not hard to see through this as a pathetic attempt to justify the inhuman murder of an infant.

The question is how much of this distortion can be applied to Caligula’s reign as a whole. There’s no question he was unhinged—being raised in an environment in which your father is poisoned, your mother is starved to death, and you wake up every morning not knowing if your uncle is going to murder you would do that to you. But the image of the deranged sociopath, who believes himself a god, puts to death anyone and everyone creates a character that belongs more to the theatre than to history.