As far as historical work-related death and dismemberment go, it’s hard to beat the horrific odds facing the Roman emperors. Even if we’re just talking about the Western Empire – from Augustus to Romulus Augustulus, serving in such a position all but guarantees some sort of horrific ending. Sure, there were those who died of natural causes and a select few who successfully abdicated with all their limbs and organs intact, but chances were that a worse fate awaited you. Of the 90-ish emperors we’re considering, somewhere around the ballpark of 55 of them died as a result of either assassination, battle wounds, or at the hands of an enemy to the realm, which I’m guessing was neither quick nor pleasant.
When it comes to dramatic deaths, Caligula’s may seem tame by Roman standards; he was stabbed to death by a group of conspirators in an underground palatial corridor after becoming both tyrannical and debaucherous. He wasn’t poisoned by his own niece like his successor (and uncle) Claudius was. He didn’t die of a festering battle wound after showing off his bravery by riding into battle without armor like emperor Julian did. He wasn’t strangled to death in the bathtub by a gladiator or intoxicated from eating too many mushrooms and/or breathing in fumes from a charcoal fire – a fate that may or may not have befallen the emperor Jovian.
The only odd thing about the event itself is how closely resembles that of Rome’s first dictator-but-not-actually-an-emperor Julius Ceasar, who was, through a complicated series of adoptions, not only Caligula’s great-great-grandfather but also his namesake. Caligula, as it turns out, was born as Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, following the prominent Roman tradition of naming kids ridiculously long names and then calling them something completely different that was carried on by European royals for hundreds of years.
Caligula’s nickname goes back to his childhood habit of dressing in a little soldier’s uniform to imitate his father, Germanicus, a celebrated general. Caligae was the Roman name for the sandal-like boots soldiers wore, so the sight of little Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus marching around little a little soldier begat the nickname of Caligula, meaning Little Boot. Let’s all take a moment to reflect on how adorable that is because it’s really the last remotely heartwarming thing we’re going to discuss when it comes to your dude Caligula, ya heard?
To understand why Caligula was killed, you’d first have to understand how he lived. I’m going to assume that if you are a person of a certain age, you’ve at least heard of the eponymous film about his life, which is a confusing mixture of mid-70s avant-garde and surprisingly graphic unsimulated sex scenes. The crux of the film – and of common discourse- is that the emperor was an insane and cruel ruler, who not only liked his sister in an un-sisterly type of way, but turned the palace into a functioning brothel with a revolving cast of characters while his people starved.
Emperor Little Boot’s reputation for the eccentric doesn’t stop at his sexual appetite – the stories are were told about him range from the bizarre to downright extra bizarre, leading many historians and contemporaries to assume he suffered from some sort of insanity. It’s been said that he was so crazy that he appointed his horse to a government position, ordered his troops to invade Britain but once they were there just had them collect seashells from the beach and then go home with their “splendors of the sea”, and that he fed innocent spectators to the bears and lions of the Colosseum.
The problem with much of the recounting about Caligula’s dirty deeds is that much of it is either exaggerated, unsubstantiated, or told through thousands of years of filters like so much of pre-digitized history. Like a game of Telephone where one person relays a story that is then repeated to another, as we get further away from the source, we lose clarity and truth. In some forms of visual media reproduction, this term has a name; generation loss is what happens when a print is reproduced over and over again until the product is simply a copy of a copy of a copy, less clear and true than its original form. In history, we often don’t have the luxury of knowing when we’ve experienced generation loss. Is this story we’re hearing factual, or has it been intentionally or accidentally altered and embellished over the years?
That’s why Caligula’s death – and life – is a great place to start. Did the things we think we know about him really happen, or have they been lost in translation as his proverbial image was reproduced over the years? We’re dealing with just two major sources to relay most of the really juicy Caligula-related details: the writings of Roman historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, who wasn’t even born until years after Caligula died, and those of another historian named Cassius Dio, who wasn’t even born until years after Suetonius died.
Suetonius aligned politically with the Senate during his lifetime, and since there were often clashes between Senate and emperor, he had the motivation to paint the emperors of antiquity he wrote about in a bad light, thus providing a historical basis for his beliefs that all emperors sucked. He also intentionally wrote scandalous and salacious little vignettes like a regular old Iron Age TMZ. We need to take anything he said or anything he may have influenced (like Dio’s writings) with a grain of salt. To put it into modern terms, if there were only two major historians who wrote about Abraham Lincoln and one was a Southern sympathizer writing decades after the fact, we’d question the validity of their claims. We should be doing the same thing here.
It’s also important to remember that when we accept a one-dimensional portrayal of a complex historical figure, we’re choosing to ignore things like context, causality, and complexity. In short, it’s a historical cop out.
So, let’s start with the obvious – it’s plausible and probable that Caligula did a lot of the things attributed to him. Remember that aforementioned 60% violent death mortality rate that comes with the job title? That clearly had an impact on the psyche of those in power. The times were brutal, and life was short. Life was brutal and time was short. Most people surviving early childhood only lived into their late 40s or early 50s, and as the third emperor, Caligula surely understood that the absolute rule that his predecessors had established had led to their longevity – Augustus ruled for 40 years, and Caligula’s grandfather and predecessor, Tiberius, ruled for 22 until he was smothered with his own pillow to hasten his death by old age and misadventure.
Caligula was also known to have undertaken stunts – sometimes ridiculous – to prove a political point. When a prophecy declared that there was as much a chance of Caligula becoming emperor as there was of him riding a horse across a local body of water called the Bay of Baiae. Caligula defiantly staged his own “hold my beer” moment, as he ordered the construction of a floating bridge which he then rode his force triumphantly across. Speaking of horses, if he did indeed promise to make his horse a government official (and we’re not quite sure he did), it may have been in the same vein. To mock the ineptitude of the Senate he was constantly at war with, he threatened to symbolically appoint an animal as their equal. Don’t tell me you’ve never wondered if a beloved family pet may be able to do at least as good of a job as some of your co-workers.
But there’s also another layer to Caligula – one that makes it seem completely possible that there was some sort of underlying emotional issues. After his father’s death, Tiberius had Caligula’s mother, Agrippina, banished, and the youngster was basically held as ransom, bounced from one relative to another, in a game of mental chess. His mother and several siblings died in their captivity, and Caligula got to be well versed in playing the role of a dutiful grandson for his survival. Shortly after becoming emperor after Tiberius’s death, Caligula became deathly ill – possibly as the result of poison. While he physically recovered, he was never the same mentally, and his reign turned from generally pleasant to absolutely murderous. He exiled and murdered members of his own family with aplomb and began executing Roman citizens without trial. He aggrandized and deified himself and sometimes dressed in clothing invoking Jupiter and Apollo, putting statues of himself inside temples where Romans worshipped the Gods he emulated. Eventually, he proposed moving to Egypt, where he felt he would be worshipped the way he deserved. That suggestion proved to be the final straw.
Not quite four years after ascending the throne, Little Boot was dead. Later that day, his wife and one-year-old daughter were also killed, their icons destroyed to wipe any trace of them from the annals of history, and their memories left to the mercy of others, however they may see fit to use them.
So, there you have it. January 24th, 41AD: the death of Caligula, and the life he led.