Like Tiberius, Caligula too had shown great promise in his youth but unfortunately he is best remembered for his bizarre acts of madness. Modern critics suggest that his rapid change of mental health were in all probability due to some form of disorder such as schizophrenia. In his moments of lucidity he seems to have been good-natured, it is a shame that these moments were few and far between.
“Caligula” was not in fact his name but rather his nickname meaning “little boots”, by virtue of the soldier’s shoes (Caligae) he used to wear as a child on his father’s military camp. His nickname is not the only colourful accent and as already mentioned it is historically accepted that Caligula was absolutely mad and a number of unusual eccentricities recur in popular memory.
For example he is said to have started an invasion of Britain which he then decided interrupt at the last moment as he ordered his soldiers to collect sea shells to take back to Rome. In fact the evidence suggests that sham military operations were his forte, as was his love for sports and animals: He proclaimed his favourite white horse a consul and made a marble stable for it to live in. Whilst at the circus he ordered vast crowds of the public to be thrown into the arena with the animals so that the show might become more exciting.
Similarly colourful were his ideas to introduce Egyptian customs into Rome. Much in line with that culture he chose to take his own sisters as lovers and to marry one of them, Drusilla, whom he named as successor to the throne only to later repudiate her and take his other sister on the day of her marriage. Although singular, this wasn’t the only sign of his love for an oriental approach to absolute power where rulers were regarded to be closer to divinities than mortal men.
Caligula was a big, athletic man but unfortunately he developed a bald patch on the top of his head. One day he decided he was embarrassed by this and that bald people should be put to death. This was followed by a similar hate for philosophers who were also condemned to death or deportation. Amongst these was the millionaire-cum-stoic philosopher Seneca who was later to become Emperor Nero’s inspired tutor and advisor (during the years of sanity that is). It also seems Caligula meant to destroy the literary works written by the likes of Virgil.
Slowly Caligula was running out of scapegoats and victims (he never did run out). He decided to have his grandmother decapitated simply because whilst looking at her he decided her head albeit beautiful didn’t suit her shoulders. Finally he decided that Jupiter himself was usurping the place which rightly belonged to the emperor and so he had all the heads on statues of Jupiter replaced with his own image.
That’s what you get when you combine a hate for baldness, a love for decapitation and an Oriental approach to power. A less bloody approach might have been to demand that everyone be bald?
In spite of being mad he was very conscious of the possibility of following Tiberius’ fate and so he intensified the watchfulness of his personal bodyguards called the “Praetorians”. Irony of fate: his plans to do away with the greater part of the senate and any personal opponents soon led to a conspiracy being formed against him and he was murdered – by the captain of the Praetorian guards. The reign of Caligula lasted 4 years, 37-41AD. As with Tiberius, Suetonius’ pen made little positive concessions to Caligula but it is difficult to tell how much of it is fact and how much is quoting popular hearsay for the sake of bad mouthing him.
Having acquired great political strength the Praetorian guards proclaimed Caligula’s uncle Claudius emperor.
Caligula is remembered by Suetonius for having said “Utinam populus Romanus unam cervicem haberet”: Oh how I wish the Roman people had one head only (so I could decapitate it with a single stroke).