The Emperors of Rome had notoriously short lives. While there were a few exceptions, most emperors were doing well to last five years in the job. Perhaps it was job stress or perhaps just a natural proclivity for cruelty and excess that led Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus better known as Caligula to commit the outrageous acts that have solidified his place in history.
Caligula began his reign uneventfully. He he granted bonuses, declared that treason trials were a thing of the past and recalled exiles. He banished sex offenders from the empire and put on lavish gladiator battles. All went well in Caligula’s administration until a strange illness befell him. Philo an historian from Caligula’s time claims that the emperor’s increased bath-taking, drinking, and sex after coming to power caused him to catch a virus.
Whatever the cause the sickness provoked a pronounced change in Caligula’s personality. Shortly after recovery, he killed everyone who was close to him. Who wouldn’t after all? Anyone could have slipped a little poison into the ailing Emperor’s wine just to gain higher status. He even banished his wife and caused her father to commit suicide- just in case. In no time at all Caligula’s behavior went from a little eccentric to legendary.
Pretty woman, his own sisters included, and occasionally attractive men, proved an irresistible temptation for Caligula. Whenever he wished he would order the object of his desire to his bedchamber. Always the great orator, Caligula openly discussed his sexual escapades in detail, much to the dismay of the women’s husbands.
Caligula was an extremely excitable fellow who was prone to fits of temper. He was tall spindly and prematurely bald. So sensitive was he about the state of his hair, that he sometimes ordered a head shaving when he saw fellows with better heads of hair. He also made it a capital crime to look down on his bald spot from a balcony. Although the hair on top of Caligula’s head was sparse he made up for it with copious amounts of body hair. This too was a source of sensitivity. With the emperor’s fierce temper mentioning “hairy goats” in conversation could be dangerous.
Caligula believed himself to be a god. He once asked an actor whether he or Jupiter was greater. When the actor hesitated, Caligula had him whipped. Caligula praised the timbre of the actor’s voice as he plead for mercy. He remarked on the melodiousness of his groans. Caligula justified himself by saying: “Remember that I have the power to do anything to anyone.” His ego grew so large that he roamed the the halls of his palace at night and ordered the sun to rise.
Romans hated Caligula for needlessly spending money and making Rome the object of ridicule. Caligula was indifferent to the opinions of others. On one occasion he garnered a large army and marched them North to Britain. The soldiers endured great hardship and the march was costly. Upon reaching their destination Caligula had the soldiers gather seashells. These were, Caligula claimed, the “spoils of war” from the Emperor’s battle with Neptune. Another time, Caligula went to great lengths to prove his old adversary Thrasyllus the Roman astrologer, wrong. Thrasyllus had predicted that Caligula had no more chance of becoming Emperor than of riding a horse across the Gulf of Baiae.(bey-yee) In response to this Caligula rounded up ships from all over and sailed them in to the Gulf between Baiae and the neighboring port of Puteoli. This interrupted normal use of the bay for many months. Caligula anchored the ships in the harbor and had his men place wooden planks between them. He then covered everything with sand. Dressed in jewel encrusted robes he road his horse Incitatus across the bay. He showed that astrologer.
Caligula was a gifted speaker and an excellent mimic. He didn’t hesitate to speak his mind freely and humiliate people no matter their rank. Perhaps more than anything else this talent was, in the end, his undoing. Cassius Chaerea ended Caligula’s four year career as emperor with a dagger to the chest. Cassius a member of the Praetorian Guard hated the emperor because he had remorselessly imitated his high, effeminate voice. The murderer met with no resistance. Caligula was universally hated by the upper classes of Rome. Even though Cassius’ first well placed strike to Caligula’s heart did the job. He plunged in his blade twenty-nine more times. Caligula tended to have that effect on people. Cassius was heard to say Death’s too good for someone who calls me “darling” in public!