Caligula, born Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus in 12 AD, was the Emperor of Rome between 37 and 41 AD. Remembered as a cruel and erratic tyrant, his deranged tendencies threw Rome into chaos—and eventually caused his violent end. Most people know him from the infamous 1979 explicit film Caligula, but if anything, the real emperor was even more disturbing than the one we saw on screen. Read on for 42 facts about the man who thought himself a god.
When young Gaius was growing up, his father would dress him in a child-sized soldier’s uniform whenever he brought him on campaign. As such, the troops took to calling him Caligula, which means "little boots." We don't know if the men meant it affectionately or as an insult, but either way, Caligula apparently hated the nickname. He grew up with a massive chip on his shoulder—and it only got worse as he got older.
Caligula allegedly had a voracious appetite in the bedroom, and as emperor, nobody would defy him. Historians wrote that he would sleep with his own officials' wives, then brag about it publicly in front of them.
Historical accounts of Caligula may vary, but nearly all historians agreed on one dark fact: this deranged emperor placed very little value on human life. In one twisted story, Caligula was supposedly meant to sacrifice a bull to the gods by hitting it over the head with a huge mallet. At the last minute, Caligula had an even worse idea—he turned and struck the priest instead.
He then apparently laughed at the priest as he died. Not the kind of man you'd want to have absolute power—but this is just the beginning of his cruel antics.
Unlike her weasely son, Caligula’s mother Agrippina the Elder was a famously 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—but she crossed the wrong man, and she would never live to see her dream come true.
Agrippina often and openly expressed her dislike for her son's predecessor, Emperor Tiberius. Unsurprisingly, insulting the most powerful person on earth had dark consequences. Eventually, Tiberius had her exiled, where she refused all food, eventually wasting away.
We can thank the Roman historian Suetonius for the eroticism of the 1979 movie. According to Suetonius, Caligula was extremely interested in the Egyptian practice of using incest to protect the royal bloodline. The emperor decided to do the same himself, and embarked on incestuous relationships with all three of his sisters in the hope of perfectly preserving his royal blood.
We should note that 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's part. But if you thought the rumors about Caligula were bad, you should hear the disturbing things we know for sure.
As befitting a gilded emperor, Caligula absolutely loved gold. He allegedly liked to spread gold coins all over the ground and walk on them with his bare feet—some stories even say he pulled a Scrooge McDuck and waded in them like water.
Pliny's history of Cleopatra described a decadent—and utterly revolting—cocktail. The Egyptian Queen apparently melted a pearl earring in vinegar and drank it. Of course, Caligula wasn't about to be outdone in hedonism, so he is also reported to have enjoyed this extravagant drink. And as if that wasn't enough, he also had his dinner table set with golden loaves of bread.
So, how did he justify this ridiculous excess? Well, he had a saying: "You either had to be frugal, or be Caesar." Thankfully for him, he was the latter.
Caligula came 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 effective and popular generals. Remarkable men all around—but Caligula would soon prove that the apple can fall very, very far from the tree.
While Caligula was still alive, he erected a temple dedicated to 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 the Romans greatly admired.
Caligula thought of himself as a god—but he was never a benevolent deity.
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Caligula was born as Emperor Augustus lay dying. The first Roman emperor named his stepson Tiberius as his heir, but with one very specific condition. Augustus deeply admired Caligula's father, Germanicus, and made Tiberius promise to make the great general his heir. Tiberius agreed, and Augustus died—completely unaware that his best-laid plans were about to go down in flames.
One of Tiberius's first acts as emperor was to send Germanicus on a diplomatic mission, where the general mysteriously caught ill and died. But this was Ancient Rome, and powerful people didn't usually drop dead without a reason; rumors spread like wildfire that Tiberius had been behind Germanicus's end. Conflict erupted at the highest ranks of Roman society—and the aftermath was absolutely brutal.
The young Caligula barely survived the fallout of his father's demise. 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 Tiberius had the two brothers imprisoned. One of them also died of starvation, and the other from suicide. In an instant, Caligula's entire family was in the ground.
Through all of this chaos, Caligula was still just a young child, so Tiberius spared him. The emperor sent him to live with his great-grandmother Livia.
If you think it seems strange that Tiberius would let Caligula live after killing almost his entire family, you’re not the only one. Many people in Rome were utterly shocked that the emperor would show such mercy to the boy.
For most of his youth, Caligula's great-grandmother Livia shielded him from politics—but a sudden tragedy changed all of that. Tiberius’s son died, perhaps murdered by a political rival. Either way, Tiberius suddenly had no heir. In 31 AD, he summoned Caligula to his pleasure island of Capri and adopted the boy.
Tiberius let Caligula and his sisters come live with him, but that’s not to say he put them up in luxury suites. According to Suetonius, the few remaining Julii were mere prisoners, constantly under the eye of Tiberius’s men.
Tiberius was responsible for wiping out most of Caligula's family, but when the emperor offered to make Caligula his heir, the boy wasn't about to say no! 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, who instead made Gemellus his heir. Ahh politics, making things as complicated as possible for thousands of years.
As you can imagine, Caligula despised Tiberius for what he did. Yet, the emperor still named Caligula his successor—why? According to contemporary accounts, Caligula, at least when he was young, was a gifted actor, and he managed to hide all of his dark feelings. He served Tiberius so well that one writer commented: “Never was there a better servant…or a worse master.”
Even before he was Emperor, Caligula had an innate viciousness. He enjoyed watching executions and indulged in scandalous behavior at night—but that's not even the worst part: Tiberius knew what kind of person his heir was, but named him all the same. As Caligula became more unhinged, the aging emperor commented, “I am nursing a viper in Rome's bosom…" He didn't even know the half of it...
Caligula was cold-blooded from the start. He often bragged that he once carried a dagger into Emperor Tiberius's bedroom with the intention of killing him, avenging his mother and brothers. Apparently, when he entered the room and found Tiberius asleep, he had a change of heart and left, but he still felt like people had to know that he could have done it.
Years before he became emperor, Caligula married a woman named Junia Claudilla, and she soon became pregnant. Perhaps a loving family might have calmed the mercurial Caligula down a little—but tragedy soon tore his new family apart. Junia died in childbirth a year after their wedding, and Caligula was left alone once again.
While living as Tiberius’s “guest,” Caligula befriended Naevius Sutorius Macro, the head of the powerful Praetorian guard. Macro’s good words helped softened Tiberius towards young Caligula—but Macro would come to regret ever knowing Little Boots.
One historian, Tacitus, wrote that Macro smothered the dying Tiberius with a pillow to make sure that Caligula rose to the throne—but Suetonius suggested an even darker fate.
Suetonius claimed that Caligula himself ended Tiberius's life and ensured his rise to emperor. We'll never know what really happened on that dark day, but the result was clear: Caligula took the throne, and Rome trembled.
In the final years of his reign, Tiberius let Rome fall apart while he relaxed in his pleasure palace on Capri. As such, the people of Rome absolutely hated him by the time he died. So when Caligula took the throne, the Romans rejoiced. One writer described him as the first emperor who everyone in the Empire loved—if only they had known what was coming.
Caligula took every step to ensure his popularity when he became emperor. At Tiberius’ funeral, he delivered a passionate and weepy speech in the deceased emperor's honor and gave him an extravagant burial. Based on historical reports, Caligula knew how to work a crowd. He put these abilities to good use on the day of his predecessor's funeral, despite his utter hatred for the man who murdered his family.
The jubilant public celebrated Caligula’s ascension the only way they knew how: they started sacrificing animals—and a lot of them. Suetonius recorded that the Romans sacrificed a whopping 160,000 animals in the first three months of Caligula’s reign.
The people of Rome had extremely high hopes for Caligula's rule. After all, he came from a pretty amazing pedigree, and many were sympathetic to the nightmares he went through as a child. And, believe it or not, he lived up to their greatest hopes...at first. He freed unjustly imprisoned citizens, gave bonuses to military men, and eliminated a highly unpopular tax.
The Roman historian Philo described those first few months as “blissful,” but the bliss ended almost as quickly as it started.
Very soon, Caligula's madness began to creep into his actions. Early in his reign, he decided to spend a fortune to build a floating bridge across the Bay of Naples...just to stick it to one of his naysayers. Before he took the throne, 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.” Caligula set out to prove the man a fool—and he went to desperate lengths to do so.
The bridge, built on countless floating pontoons, allegedly stretched three miles across the Bay and featured several rest stops with drinking water along the way.
When his glorious (and pointless) bridge was completed, Caligula 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. Sure, he wasted an untold fortune of public money, but oh well, old' Thrassy was probably so red.
Approximately six to seven months after taking power, Caligula suddenly fell ill, possibly by poisoning. He recovered, but by all accounts, the painful illness broke something in his mind—and Rome shook from the consequences. He began having his family members killed, beginning with his cousin (and heir) Gemellus. His grandmother was utterly furious with him, but she too 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.
In the chilling days following Caligula’s near-fatal illness, he had nearly every single one of his close family members executed. One of the few to be spared his wrath was his feeble uncle Claudius, whom Caligula chose to keep around as an object of ridicule. The mad emperor didn’t realize it, but before long, Emperor Claudius would be dancing on his grave.
Caligula’s legendary parentage was part of why people loved him so much—but the man himself felt a little differently. Maybe he felt like he couldn’t live up to his name, or maybe he just hated attention being drawn away from him, but Caligula deeply resented his famous ancestors. He even claimed that his grandfather, Augustus, had an incestuous affair with his daughter, Julia the Elder.
Despite being remembered as a cruel tyrant, one of Caligula’s first actions as emperor was to restore democratic elections—not that he paid any mind to what anyone said, elected official or not.
Remember Macro, the Praetorian Guard who helped make Caligula emperor? Well, as it turns out, no one was safe from the Caligula's wild mood swings. When it seemed as though Caligula might die of illness, Macro made some political maneuvers to try and save his own career. When Caligula recovered, he discovered Macro’s plans...and condemned his one-time ally to a horrifying fate.
Caligula forced Macro, whom he owed so much, to commit suicide.
Caligula’s first years in office were a wild ride, but nearly everything he did had one thing in common: they were expensive. Whether it was lowering taxes or buying extravagances for himself, none of these came cheap, and Rome started running out of money fast. So Caligula, who now had access to absolute power, discovered new ways to secure funds.
One of his favorites was to accuse someone of treason or some other crime, and have them fined, imprisoned, or even executed. Then, of course, all their estates and possessions were his for the taking.
Unfortunately for Caligula, falsely accusing people and stealing their stuff didn’t bring in nearly enough money to pay off his debts, so he had to resort to even more ridiculous methods. He introduced new taxes, and doctored legal documents so that he could lay claim to assets that were left to Tiberius. But by far his most devious get-rich-quick scheme took place at one of his favorite haunts—the gladiatorial arena.
Caligula started auctioning away the lives of gladiators during live events; tell me how you want to see him die, and we’ll see to it…for a price.
According to Suetonius, Caligula managed to blow 2.7 billion sesterces in just the first year of his reign. You’d think this would make him a historical laughingstock—but not everyone thinks the same way we do. His ancestor, Emperor Nero, felt two ways about Caligula’s spending habits: he admired how much Caligula managed to spend…and was jealous he didn’t inherit a nest egg that big.
When Caligula took the throne, Mauretania in North Africa was a client kingdom to the Roman Empire. They paid tribute to Rome, but they were self-ruled and not part of the Empire. Then Caligula hit the scene, and things changed fast.
Caligula invited the ruler of Mauretania, Ptolemy, to Rome. Ptolemy wasn’t about to anger the emperor, so he obliged—but he’d never see his homeland again. Soon after Ptolemy arrived in Rome, Caligula executed him without a trial and annexed Mauretania. Just like that.
Caligula didn’t just think of himself as a god—he resented the actual gods for being worshipped alongside him! He ordered the heads removed from statues of various gods all across Rome, and replaced them all with his own likeness. Because I’m sure that fooled everybody.
Caligula could be utterly monstrous in his dealings with humans, but that doesn't mean he disregarded all forms of life: He loved his horse Incitatus so much that he gave him his own house with a marble stall and manger made from ivory. Caligula even planned to make the horse a consul as an expression of his total power, but died before he had the opportunity.
Many historians, both ancient and modern, have tried to explain what made Caligula so mad. Some have speculated that he suffered from epilepsy—or, as Suetonius called it, “falling sickness.”
Some writers believe that Caligula lived in constant fear of having a seizure, and this made him paranoid and cruel. To further the epilepsy diagnosis, multiple sources confirmed that Caligula could not swim, despite the fact that swimming lessons would absolutely have been a part of his education. One reason for this might be that he was afraid he would have a seizure and drown while in the water.
By all accounts, Caligula wasn’t a particularly formidable figure. Writers describe him as skinny, pale, and sickly, with hollow eyes and thin hair. He also apparently suffered from “faintness” throughout his life—periods where he was incapable of almost any effort.
Even as a grown man, Caligula despised his nickname, so he did what any self-respecting emperor would do: he made a new one. And as you can imagine, his choice wasn't exactly humble. He called himself Jupiter, after the Roman King of the Gods, and made senators refer to him as such. He named himself a god, dressed himself like a god, and built a temple to himself—methinks the emperor doth protest too much.
In yet another of the famous stories about Caligula's megalomania, he once stood near a statue of Jupiter and asked a nearby actor who was more mighty—himself or the god. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place, the man took a moment to think of the right answer—which was evidently not the right move. Caligula's response was utterly chilling. He flew into a rage and had him viciously whipped. A little self-conscious maybe?
About halfway through his reign, Caligula broke with the senate and started using 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. He would also reportedly force senators to run alongside his chariot dressed in their full robes. He laughed as he made everyone around them miserable—but he would eventually pay the ultimate price for it.
Caligula always had the best clothes that money could buy. He particularly enjoyed silks and ornately decorated items, but he also had some unusual tastes. As we mentioned, he liked to dress as Neptune and Jupiter, but that was just the beginning. 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.
As far as Caligula was concerned, fashion was fashion.
Despite his noted cruelty, Caligula did manage to complete some crucial building projects that his predecessor Tiberius had ignored. He completed construction on the Temple of Augustus and Pompey’s theatre, he started work on an aqueduct to improve Rome’s water supply, and he built a majestic amphitheater. He also rebuilt the walls at the temples of Syracuse and built a city in the Alps. But these were just warmups for his grandest goal of all.
Caligula's biggest dream was to cut a massive canal through the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece. He even sent an official officer of the Roman Army there to examine the site—but perhaps his reach exceeded his grasp. The project was never completed in ancient times.
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 to vicious beasts for entertainment—but apparently that wasn't enough for someone as bloodthirsty as Caligula. One day, the emperor allegedly found the day's activities to be a little dull, so he ordered his guards to throw an entire section of the crowd to the beasts to make up it.
Caligula seemed to be interested in anything that wasn't running the empire. Chariot racing was one of his great passions, and he would personally participate in races. He was so obsessed that sometimes he even slept in the stables with the horses! Hey, as long as he's not executing people on a whim, I'd say that's a good thing.
Caligula apparently also enjoyed performing 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 while barely dressed. When he went to actual performances, he also liked to sing along with actors. 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.
As Caligula’s behavior became more erratic and cruel, critics began to question his actions. He soon became one of the most hated people in the entire empire. And did this bother the man who thought himself a god? Not at all—he simply said: “Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.”
One of the most pervasive legends about Caligula claims that he once went to war with Neptune, the God of the Sea, 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 reign, based on what we know about him, is it really that far-fetched?
Caligula allegedly carried two notebooks with him wherever he went. One was "the Dagger," and the other "the Sword." They contained the names of people whom he wanted to prosecute, imprison, or execute.
According to Suetonius’s biography, lightning utterly terrified Caligula. To protect himself whenever he was afraid, he was said to have worn a crown of laurels on his head, because the leaves were from a tree that never got hit by lightning. Hey, I've got a ton of junk around that's never been hit by lightning, I wonder if he'd be interested in any of it.
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 they joined the Temple of Castor and Pollox. When archaeologists began digging, they made a surprising discovery. They found evidence of palace walls that actually joined directly to the sacred temple.
Such a thing would have been extremely taboo at the time—but Caligula figured himself a god anyway, so I doubt that would have stopped him.
Caligula spent a fortune having two massive barges built to be used on the volcanic Lake Nemi, about nineteen miles south of Rome. Even today, historians can't quite agree on 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.
Caligula’s largest pleasure boat was the luxury cruise liner of its day. It was almost 300 feet long and outfitted with ornate mosaics, heating, and plumbing. When archaeologists finally uncovered the wreck in 1932, they were shocked at just how advanced the ship was. It featured technology that most researchers figured the Romans wouldn’t develop until centuries later.
What can we say, when it came to hedonism, Caligula was way ahead of his time.
On the day of Caligula’s brutal end, the Senate and the Praetorian Guard pillaged and sank his fabulous Lake Nemi barges. In the years that followed, many fishermen swore they could see the outlines of the luxurious ships under the waves. For centuries, the citizens of Lake Nemi knew that the sunken ships were there, but it wasn’t until the era of Mussolini, when a ridiculous plan was finally hatched to locate the ships once and for all.
So how did explorers finally find the ships that had been lost for almost two millennia? Simple: they drained the lake! As the water level dropped, the outlines of the ships that had sat on the bottom for centuries finally revealed themselves.
Mussolini personally ordered the Lake Nemi excavation project, but he wasn't the first person to get his hands on the wreck. One man, Francesco De Marchi, went down to the ships in a diving bell way back in 1535.
Strangely enough, in order to drain Lake Nemi and uncover Caligula's ancient barges, engineers reactivated a centuries-old Roman irrigation channel that had once been used to connect the lake to nearby farmland.
Caligula insisted that every Roman take an official oath of allegiance, not just to himself, but also 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!”
Those rumors are starting to sound a whole lot more likely...
Not only did Caligula want to be a god, but 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. All of this sounds like totally normal behavior for the most powerful person on Earth...
Rome didn't let Caligula’s cruel and disturbing behavior go unnoticed. Resentment grew in nearly every level of government, but in 40 AD, Caligula finally went too far—and in doing so, sealed his dark fate.
So, after years of cold-blooded killings and extravagant spending, what did Caligula do that finally led to his downfall? He decided to move. This may not seem like that big of a deal after all the disturbing things he had done, but had Caligula survived, his plans would have altered history forever.
Caligula saw himself as a god, but no matter how hard he tried, most people still “only” saw him as an emperor. However, right across the Mediterranean in Egypt, people had spent millennia worshipping their rulers as divine. For someone as megalomaniacal as Caligula, that idea was too good to pass up. In 40 AD, he began making plans to permanently move to Alexandria, taking the capital with him.
Caligula’s plan was the last straw for many powerful people in Rome. If he moved to Alexandria, Rome, and the people who lived there, would lose their political influence. This would completely neuter both the Senate and the Praetorian Guard. Cassius Chaerea, one of Caligula’s own guardsmen, knew this better than any, so he hatched a dark plan to put an end to Caligula’s madness once and for all.
Aside from the obvious political motivations, Chaerea had a personal vendetta against the emperor as well. Reportedly, Caligula often mocked Chaerea for his feeble voice and called him derogatory names in public. I’m sure Caligula did this and worse to countless people in Rome—but this was one man he never should have crossed.
On January 22, 41 AD, Caligula was busy speaking to a group of young actors in the corridors beneath his luxurious palace when Chaerea and his fellow conspirators appeared out of nowhere. According to reports, Chaerea struck first, but soon the entire crowd swarmed the Emperor, viciously cutting him down where he stood.
Strangely enough, the final moments of Caligula (real name Gaius Julius Caesar) looked a whole lot like the final moments of his ancestor, Gaius Julius Caesar. Both were dictators with absolute power and they were both stabbed 30 times by a group of conspirators led by a man named Cassius.
Though the Praetorian Guard had turned on Caligula, his personal Germanic Guard was still rabidly loyal to him right to the end. When they arrived on the scene, the emperor already lay dead—but that didn’t stop them from getting their mad revenge. They brutally attacked everyone around, conspirator or otherwise.
In 2008, archaeologists managed to find the actual corridor in Caligula’s palace where the killing took place.
After killing Caligula, his assassins tracked down his wife and their young daughter, determined to eliminate any trace of the emperor’s bloodline. In a moment of utter cruelty that would have made George R.R. Martin proud, they allegedly killed Caligula’s child, Julia Drusilla, by dashing her head against a wall.
Next, the conspirators went looking for Caligula’s sickly uncle Claudius. Claudius wasn’t exactly the most able combatant, so his response to his nephew’s murder was to hide in a curtain. Luckily for him, a sympathetic soldier found him, and a faction of the Praetorian Guard quickly took him out of the city to safety.
If the Senate had gotten its way, Caligula’s ruinous end would have been the end of the Roman Empire. To their credit, his rule had been a pretty good example of why giving one man absolute power might not be the best idea. The senators set about restoring the Roman Republic, but there was one glaring problem…
Caligula had been a total disaster of an emperor—but the Roman military still liked the idea of an empire. They rallied around Claudius and declared him the new emperor. Claudius wasted no time in executing the men who had killed his nephew, and the Empire continued on, finally rid of its most deranged ruler.
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?!
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.
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