“I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man and therefore I am a God.”—Caligula, 1979 film
Caligula, born Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus in 31 AD, was the Emperor of Rome between 37 and 41 AD. Known throughout history as a cruel and erratic ruler, his reign would end when he was killed by Cassius Chaerea and the Praetorian Guard at the Palatine Games. He’s perhaps most famous today for his (largely fictional) portrayal in the infamous 1979 erotic film Caligula. The movie strays quite far from the truth, but that doesn’t meant the actual Emperor Caligula was not seriously fascinating, often in strange and disturbing ways. Read on for 42 facts about the man who thought himself a god.
42. Fact or Fiction
While there’s no question that Caligula was real, the biographers from whom most source material is taken wrote their accounts several decades after he died, and much of what they wrote was based on legend. Furthermore, these biographies were commissioned by emperors who succeeded Caligula, and so many of them had good reason to portray him in a negative light. In more recent times, historians have begun to look at some of his more positive accomplishments, and have sought to better understand how Caligula went from a well liked leader to a cruel tyrant. Still, if even a fraction of the stories about the man are true, it’s undeniable that he was a violent, vindictive, and outright bizarre person.
41. Little Boots
When young Gaius was growing up, any time his father brought him along on campaign he would dress the boy in a child-sized solider’s uniform. As such, the troops called him Caligula which means “little boots” or “booties.” Whether it was meant affectionately or teasingly isn’t known, but either way, Caligula apparently hated the nickname.
40. Disputed Birthplace
Historians disagree about where Caligula was born. Gnaeus Lentulus Gaetulicus wrote that his birthplace was in Trivoli, but Pliny the Younger claimed he was born in the village of Ambitarvium, and supports the claim by referencing local altars inscribed the words “In Honor of Agrippina’s Purperium” (child birth), Agrippina being Caligula’s mother. However, today it’s generally agreed that Caligula was most likely born in the city of Antium.
39. A New Level of Excess
Caligula had a well-known love of gold, and he allegedly used to pour pieces of gold and other artifacts over the ground to walk on them with his bare feet and to wade in them like water. He was also known to put gold and jewels over his clothes and lined the walls of his palace with it. A real Ponyboy, that Caligula was.
38. Cleopatra’s Cocktail
In a history of Cleopatra, Pliny wrote about an incident where the Egyptian Queen melted a pearl earring in vinegar and drank it. While he was Emperor, Caligula was also reported to have enjoyed this extravagant cocktail. As if that wasn’t enough, he also had his dinner table set with golden loaves of bread. How did he justify the extravagance? Well, he said that you either had to be frugal, or be caesar. Thankfully for him, he was the latter.
37. Tough Mommy
Caligula’s mother, Agrippina the Elder, was known to be a tough and courageous woman. She went out on campaigns with his father, the beloved general Germanicus, and served as his advisor. It was an open secret throughout Rome that she intended to be the mother of emperors, though she never actually lived to see it. She was known to openly express her dislike for her son’s predecessor, Emperor Tiberius, and he eventually had her exiled, where she would starve herself to death.
36. Sisterly Love
According to the historian Suetonius, Caligula had incestuous relationships with all three of his sisters. He was greatly interested in the Egyptian practice of using incest to protect the royal bloodline and decided to do the same himself. However, Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars was written 80 years after Caligula’s assassination, and since earlier chronicles never mention Caligula’s incestuous behavior, it may be an exaggeration on Suetonius’ part. That does sound more like the Caligula from the movie at least.
35. Distinguished Line
Caligula was descended from a prominent line of Roman leaders. Julius Caesar was his great-great-grandfather, Augustus was his grandfather, and his father Germanicus was one of Rome’s most popular generals.
34. Living God
While Caligula was still alive, he had a temple built for himself and placed a life-sized golden statue in his own image inside. Each day, he had the statue dressed in whatever he was wearing, and Rome’s wealthiest citizens would make offerings to the emperor there. Gifts included flamingoes, peacocks, and other exotic animals that were greatly admired by the Romans.
33. Of Little Worth
In the various writings about Caligula, nearly all historians agree that he placed very little value on human life. In one story, he was supposedly meant to make a sacrifice to the gods by hitting a bull over the head with a mallet, but at the last minute, turned and hit the priest instead. He then apparently laughed at the priest as he was dying.
Caligula was born as Emperor Augustus lay dying. The first Roman emperor named his stepson Tiberius as his heir, under the condition that Tiberius adopt Caligula’s father Germanicus and make him his heir. However, when Tiberius assumed power, he sent Germanicus on a diplomatic mission where he became ill and died, thus removing the young Caligula from the line of succession. It was widely believed that Germanicus’ death was planned by Tiberius.
31. Family Intrigue
The young Caligula barely survived the fallout of his father’s death. His mother accused Tiberius of murdering Germanicus and sought revenge. Tiberius acted first and accused her and Caligula’s two older brothers of treason. Agrippina died of starvation in exile on a remote island, and the two brothers were imprisoned, one of them also dying of starvation and the other from suicide. Through all of this chaos, Caligula was still just a young child and was thus spared, getting sent to live with his great-grandmother Livia.
30. There’s Nothing in the Rulebook That Says A Horse Can’t Be Consul
When it came to his treatment of humans, Caligula was known for his cruelty, but there was one creature he revered: He loved his horse Incitatus so much that he gave him his own house with a marble stall and manger made from ivory. Caligula had planned to make the horse a consul as an expression of his total power, but died before he had the opportunity.
29. Path to Power
For most of his youth, Caligula was shielded from politics by his great-grandmother, but that changed when Tiberius’s son was killed, leaving him without an heir. In 31 AD, Caligula was summoned to the island of Capri and was adopted by Tiberius, the man assumed to have killed his father. Tiberius’ will named Caligula co-heir with his younger cousin Tiberius Gemellus, but the Senate rejected these provisions and gave complete imperial power to Caligula, and instead made Gemellus his heir. Ahh politics, making things as complicated as possible for thousands of years.
28. Pleasure Barges
Caligula curiously spent a fortune having several large barges built to be used on the the volcanic Lake Nemi, about nineteen miles south of Rome, and historians have generally disagreed about his reason for building them. One theory is that he wanted to prove to the Egyptian leaders that Rome was capable of matching any luxury craft that they built. Others believe that one of them was constructed as a floating temple to the Goddess Diana, while the other was likely a floating palace where Caligula could indulge in his vices, #yachtlife style.
27.Who’s the Mightiest of Them All?
Caligula was known to dislike his nickname, and he chose a name for himself that was more to his liking: He called himself Jupiter—the Roman King of the Gods—and was referred to as such by his senators and in documents. He also allegedly enjoyed dressing up as the god. In yet another of the famous stories about Caligula, he once stood near Jupiter’s statue and asked a nearby actor who was more mighty—himself or Jupiter. When the actor didn’t immediately reply, the emperor had him whipped. A little self-conscious maybe?
26. A Promising Start
When Caligula became Emperor, the people had high hopes for his rule. They believed that he had similar qualities to his father, and were sympathetic to what he went through as a child. At first, he lived up to their greatest hopes: He freed unjustly imprisoned citizens, gave bonuses to soldiers, and eliminated a highly unpopular tax. The Roman historian Philo described those six months as “blissful.”
25. Famous Floating Bridge
Early in his reign, Caligula was said to have built a famous floating bridge across the Bay of Naples just to stick it to one of his naysayers. The astrologer Thrasyllus made a prediction that Caligula “had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baiae.” The bridge supposedly covered three miles across the Bay, contained resting points with drinkable water and was built from hundreds of pontoons. When the bridge was completed, he supposedly covered himself in a gold cloak, put on Alexander the Great’s breastplate, and crossed the bridge on his horse, showing Thrasyllus for good (while also wasting an untold fortune of public money, but oh well, old’ Thrassy was probably so red). Some historians believe that the bridge may have simply been a story, but since there is so little contemporary evidence of anything Caligula did, it’s impossible to know for sure.
24. Nursing a Viper
Even before he was Emperor, Caligula had an innate viciousness. He enjoyed watching torture and executions, and indulged in scandalous behavior at night. As he became more unhinged, Tiberius commented “I am nursing a viper in Rome’s bosom…I am educating a Phaethon who will mishandle the fiery sun-chariot and scorch the whole world.”
23. Public Humiliation
About halfway through his reign, Caligula seemed to break with the senate, and used every opportunity to humiliate them. According to historians, around 39 AD, he removed and replaced all of the Consuls without asking the Senate’s approval. It’s also said that he would force senators to run alongside his chariot dressed in their full robes. Real mature.
22. Playing Dressup
Caligula always had the best clothes that money could buy and particularly enjoyed silks and ornately decorated items, but he also had some unusual tastes. He liked to dress up as gods like Neptune and Jupiter, attempting to mirror them as closely as possible. He would also sometimes dress as a woman, or as female gods such as Diana and Juno. He had an extensive collection of jewelry and a shoe collection that included many female shoes.
21. Big Spender
Historians like to assert that Caligula was so reckless in his spending that he bankrupted the Roman Treasury, but like many facets of his life, there are different theories about the validity of this claim. The common theory states that he was an excessive spender who wasted money on parties and other overindulgences, leaving the empire completely bereft. However, another theory points out that this would have been impossible, because his successor Claudius commissioned many large and expensive projects and planned over-the-top parties that wouldn’t have been possible if Rome were bankrupt. So it’s unlikely that Caligula’s spending actually managed to make Rome go completely dry, but it would still be hard to argue that the man was financially responsible.
20. First Assassination
The assassination of Caligula marked the first time that a Roman Emperor was assassinated. He was stabbed 30 times by the Praetorian guards at the Palatine Games. His wife and daughter were also executed.
19. Caligula the Builder
Despite his noted cruelty, Caligula did manage to complete some crucial building projects that Tiberius had ignored. He completed construction on the Temple of Augustus and Pompey’s theatre, and he started work on an aqueduct to improve Rome’s water supply, and an amphitheatre. He also rebuilt the walls at the temples of Syracuse and built a city in the Alps. Apparently, his biggest goal was to cut a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece and sent an official officer of the Roman Army there to examine the site, though the ambitious project was never completed in ancient times.
18. Death on a Whim
The gladiatorial games were not only for public exhibition and political reputation, but also to serve up Roman justice. Criminals and slaves were often sacrificed for entertainment and in the case of Caligula, even members of the crowd were at risk. In one instance, he supposedly ordered that an entire section of the crowd be given to the beasts to make up for a shortage of criminals that day.
Chariot racing was one of Caligula’s passions, and he was known to personally participate in races and even to sleep in the stables with the horses. Also, he apparently also enjoyed singing and dancing, and liked to show off whenever possible. One story claims that he once called his Consuls to his room in the middle of the night and forced them to watch him sing and dance in nothing but a tunic and a robe. He also apparently liked to sing along with actors as they performed. That’s what I love when I’m at a show: to hear the jerk next to me sing instead of the trained professionals on stage.
16. Who Needs to Be Liked?
As Caligula’s behavior became more erratic and cruel, critics began to question his actions. This didn’t bother Caligula, who said in response: “Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.”
15. War with Judea
Caligula had a very acrimonious relationship with the Jewish people of Judea, as he believed that they did not worship him passionately as they ought to. Once, when the people of Judea were particularly angry with him, he threatened to have a statue of himself raised in the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem. He was talked out of it to avoid additional riots.
14. Bringing Back the Ashes
One of Caligula’s first acts as Emperor was to retrieve his mother and brother’s ashes from the Pontian islands for burial in the tomb of Augustus. A famous portrait of the act by Eustache Le Sueur called Caligula Depositing the Ashes of his Mother and Brother in the Tomb of his Ancestors hangs in the Royal Gallery in Windsor, England. Le Sueur used Suetonius’ biography The Twelve Caesars as his source.
13. War With a Sea God
Though it is hard to say whether or not it really happened, one of the most pervasive legends about Caligula claims that he once went to war with Neptune after being forced to abandon a military campaign to invade Britain. The story says that he couldn’t return to Rome without a victory of some kind, so he declared war on Neptune and ordered his men to whip the waves. He then had the men collect seashells as spoils of war. Though accounts of this event come from years after Caligula’s death, based on what we know about him, is it really that far-fetched?
12. The Dagger and the Sword
Caligula was reported to have always carried two notebooks with him wherever he went. One was called “the Dagger” and the other “the Sword,” and they allegedly had the names of people whom he wanted prosecuted, tortured, or executed.
11. Biggest Fear
According to Suetonius’s biography, Caligula was afraid of lightning. To protect himself whenever he was afraid, he was said to have worn a crown of laurels on his head, because the leaves were supposedly from a tree that never got hit by lightning.
10. Archaeological Discovery
In 2003, archaeologists from the US and Britain located what they believe to be the site of Caligula’s palace. The ruins were found on Palatine Hill where it joined the Temple of Castor and Pollox. The archaeologists found evidence of palace walls that actually joined directly to the sacred temple, which would have been highly taboo at the time, and you can bet that if it pissed someone off, Caligula was probably going to do it.
9. Sinking the Boats
On the day of Caligula’s death, the Senate and the Praetorian Guard pillaged and sank his fabulous Lake Nemi barges, and in the years that followed, many fisherman swore they could see the outlines of the ships under the waves. For centuries, the citizens of Lake Nemi believed that the sunken ships were filled with treasure, but it wasn’t until 1932, in the era of Mussolini, that both ships were recovered from their burial spot. To recover the wrecks, the lake was actually drained, revealing the ships that had sat on the bottom for centuries.
8. Planning His Death
Caligula was so hated by the Roman people at the end of his reign that the citizens began to demand that he be removed from power. A plot developed within the senate to assassinate Caligula, and on January 24, 41 AD, Cassius Chaerea slashed his throat from behind, followed by a blow to the chest from Cornelius Sabinus. The blow caused Caligula to fall to the ground, where the remaining conspirators stabbed him 30 times.
7. Intended Patricide
Caligula often bragged that he once carried a dagger into the bedroom of Emperor Tiberius with the intention of killing him and avenging the death of his mother and brothers. Apparently, when he entered the room and found Tiberius asleep, he had a change of heart and dropped the dagger and left. He also claimed that Tiberius was well-aware of what had happened but decided not to pursue the matter.
6. Strengthening His Position
Caligula took every step to ensure his popularity when he was made Emperor. At Tiberius’ funeral, he delivered a passionate and weepy speech in his honor and gave him an extravagant burial. Based on historical reports, Caligula knew how to work a crowd, and put his abilities to good use on the day of his predecessor’s funeral, despite his hatred for the man.
5. Swear to Me, Swear to My Sisters!
Caligula insisted that every Roman take an official oath of allegiance, in which he also required people to swear fealty to his sisters (remember some of the rumors about ol’ Little Boots and his sisters?). The oath went: “I will not value my life or that of my children less highly than I do the safety of the Emperor Gaius and his sisters!” In Senate motions, they said: “Good fortune attend the Emperor Gaius and his sisters!”
4. Disturbing Joke
Caligula had a malevolent sense of humor. Once at a dinner party, he reportedly burst into raucous laughter. When asked to explain the reason for his mirth, he replied, “I’ve just thought that I’ve only to give the word and you’ll all have your throats cut.” Hilarious, right?!
3. Chatting With the Gods
Not only did Caligula want to be a God, he supposedly also had conversations with them. Rumors suggested that he talked to the moon at night and invited her to his bed. He was also said to speak to Jupiter directly, sometimes threatening him outright, and claimed that the spirit of the ocean spoke to him when he couldn’t sleep. Luckyyy.
2. The Mad Emperor
Approximately six to seven months after taking power, Caligula fell ill, possibly by poisoning, and when he recovered he was greatly changed. Among other things, he began having his family members killed, beginning with his cousin (an heir) Gemellus. Incensed with Caligula’s actions, his grandmother died shortly after. Some claimed he poisoned her, while others said it was suicide. He also had his father-in-law and brother-in-law executed, and his two living sisters exiled.
1. Erased from History
By the time Caligula died, he was so hated that the Senate pushed to have him completely erased from Roman history. They ordered the destruction of his statues and public inscriptions, and his coins were pulled from circulation and melted down whenever possible.