Caligula (12-41) was the third emperor of Rome. At best, he was one of the most autocratic of Rome's early emperors; at worst, one of the most deranged.
Caligula was born Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus in Antium (modern Anzio) on Aug. 31, A.D. 12. His mother, Agrippina, was Emperor Augustus's granddaughter, and his father, Germanicus, was Emperor Tiberius's nephew, adopted son, and heir. Gaius was brought up among the soldiers his father commanded on the Rhine. His mother dressed him in the uniform of a Roman legionnaire, and for this reason the soldiers called him Caligula ("Little Boots"), the name by which he is commonly known.
In A.D. 19 Germanicus died. His death was mourned throughout the empire because he was, by all accounts, an honorable and courageous man. After his father's death Caligula lived in Rome, first with his mother, then with Livia (Augustus's wife), and then with his grandmother. Finally, in 32, he joined Tiberius in his retirement on Capri.
By 33 those people with prior claims to the imperial position, including Caligula's brother Drusus, had died, and Caligula was next in line to succeed Tiberius. Caligula held public office in 31 and 33 but, apart from that brief experience, had no other training for political life. His experience at Tiberius's court seems largely to have been in the art of dissembling—hiding what his biographer Suetonius calls Caligula's "natural cruelty and viciousness."
Tiberius died in 37, and Caligula was acclaimed emperor in March. During the first months of his reign he distributed the legacies left by Tiberius and Livia to the Roman people, and after the austerity which Tiberius had practiced the games and chariot races Caligula held were welcomed. He was respectful to the Senate, adopted his cousin Tiberius Gemellus as his son and heir, and recalled political exiles who had been banished during the reigns of his predecessors.
But by the spring of 38 the character of Caligula's rule changed drastically. An illness late in 37 seems to have seriously affected his mind. Suetonius claims that, after the illness, Caligula succumbed completely to the role of Oriental despot. In all things he became arbitrary and cruel. He murdered, among others, Tiberius Gemellus, humiliated the Senate, and spent money recklessly. He revived treason trials so that he could confiscate the property of the convicted. Caligula's extravagances included building a temple to himself in Rome and appointing his favorite horse as high priest.
Caligula spent the winter of 39/40 in Gaul and on the Rhine and planned to invade Germany or Britain. His plans aroused some patriotic fervor, but the project was abandoned.
After his return to Rome, Caligula lived in constant fear and real danger of assassination. He was murdered by a tribune of the Praetorian Guards on Jan. 24, 41. His fourth wife and his daughter, who was his only child, were murdered at the same time.
Further Reading on Caligula
The principal ancient source is the biography of Caligula in Suetonius's The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. The best full-length modern treatment is J. P. V. D. Balsdon, The Emperor Gaius (Caligula) (1934), which contains an extremely useful bibliography. The ways in which the Augustan system was changed are discussed in Mason Hammond, The Augustan Principate in Theory and Practice during the Julio-Claudian Period (1933; enlarged ed. 1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Balsdon, J. P. V. D. (John Percy Vyvian Dacre), 1901-, The Emperor Gaius (Caligula), Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.
Barrett, Anthony, Caligula: the corruption of power, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Ferrill, Arther., Caligula: emperor of Rome, London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
Hurley, Donna W., An historical and historiographical commentary on Suetonius' Life of C. Caligula, Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1993.
Josephus, Flavius, Death of an emperor, Exeter, U.K.: University of Exeter Press, 1991.
Nony, D. (Daniel), Caligula, Paris: Fayard, 1986.