The Emperor’s New Groove

The Players

Brutus Is Just As Cute As Caesar

Welcome back to our regularly scheduled programming! I wish I could say, “I hope you had a great summer”, but I think we all know how our summers went. As we enter into fall and gear up for election season, ULTC is going back to the empire that first brought us the concept of a republic. That’s right, we are taking this time machine back 2,000 years to the Roman Empire and this week’s subject is one of it’s most infamous rulers. You may not be familiar with the name ‘Caligula’, but you definitely know his family – the Caesars. Julius Caesar, the man who inspired my favorite salad dressing, was a Roman politician and general who ruled as dictator before being stabbed to death by a number of friends turned assassins (most notably Brutus, as we were all taught by Gretchen Wieners).

The murder of Julius fueled the fires of civil war in Rome, with his great-nephew/adoptive son Octavian taking up his mantle and squaring off against Marc Antony for power (this is the Marc Antony who killed himself upon incorrectly learning that his lover Cleopatra had died while fleeing Octavian’s invasion). Octavian was the last man standing, and took the name Augustus as the first Roman Emperor. Caligula, our focus this month, was Augustus’ great-grandson.

An important note for making sense of the family trees during this period (if you think incest was a prominent theme in our previous subjects…) – it was a common practice for Roman men, including emperors, to adopt male relatives as their “son” and heir. Unlike the monarchies we have explored up to this point, an heir didn’t have to be the legitimate son of the ruler, or really even blood related, as long as he was legally recognized as such. Hence how Octavian/Augustus was the great-nephew AND adopted son of Julius Caesar. 

These Little Boots Were Made For Walkin’

Caligula, or Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, lived a life in the spotlight from the moment he was born. He was given the nickname “Caligula”, which means “little boot”, by the soldiers his father commanded because of the cute little uniform he would wear. For the first years of his life he lived with his parents at military camps and traveled with his father Germanicus on official business. Germanicus was the nephew and adopted son of the then-emperor Tiberius, and was greatly loved by his soldiers and the people of Rome. He was respected not only because of his impressive heritage, but also for his fairness as a leader and for his military genius. It was widely understood that when Tiberius died, Germanicus would take the throne. 

Unfortunately, Germanicus’ life was cut short prematurely when he died at the young age of 33. His family believed he was poisoned at the behest (or at the very least, the encouragement) of his adopted father Tiberius, who was jealous of how popular Germanicus was. Caligula’s mother and brothers also died as a result of Tiberius’s jealousy, but Tiberius chose to keep Caligula alive and under his watchful eye. It may seem strange that Tiberius chose to keep one of Germanicus’s sons alive, but with no sons of his own, it behooved him to spare Caligula’s life and keep him as a possible heir, owing to the fact that he was family after all and the boy’s father was greatly loved even in death.

A painting depicting Tiberius’ court of debauchery on the island of Capri where Caligula spent much of his youth.

Although Caligula was undoubtedly grateful to be alive, growing up in Tiberius’s court of debauchery was not the ideal situation for any teenager. Tiberius’s vices included orgies and young boys, and ‘all indications point[ed] to Caligula being sickened by this lifestyle. [However Caligula] learned that, to survive, he must always be agreeable to whatever Tiberius wanted” (Dando-Collins). And apparently what Tiberius wanted was for his son/nephew to partake. Caligula lived in constant fear for his life – never knowing if Tiberius’ regularly changing mood would convince the emperor that Caligula was too much of a threat to keep alive. Then when Caligula was 24, Tiberius died (or was very possibly murdered – in Ancient Rome it was always a 50/50 toss-up). Before his death, Tiberius had officially named Caligula his successor and just like that, “little boot” was the leader of the most powerful empire in the world.

Are You Not Entertained?

For the first six months of Caligula’s rule, all signs pointed to a bright future for the son of the beloved Germanicus. The young emperor was ready to enjoy his life now that he was no longer suffocated by Tiberius. In particular, he had a great passion for the theatre and was often known to take the stage. To the dismay of his mentors and councillors, he sometimes even dressed as a woman to portray female characters. He also came out of the gates hot with a series of popular policies – he got rid of a law that made it easy to charge someone with treason on bogus grounds (this had happened to his mother and brothers), he made it legal to read books that Tiberius and Augustus had banned, and he added an extra day to the Saturnalia festival (what would eventually evolve into what we know as our Christmas holiday). It didn’t stop there. “Caligula restored democratic electoral procedures….[and] he also made it possible for more commoners to advance to the Equestrian Order (an aristocratic class), improved the legal system, and over-hauled the tax system” (Dando-Collins). Fun Fact: One of the prisoners pardoned as a result of Caligula’s popular measures was Pontius Pilate. Yes, that Pontius Pilate. The one who handed Jesus Christ over to the crowds for crucifixion. You hate to see it.

Then, seemingly overnight, Rome found itself led by a very different man. Caligula fell ill in October of AD 37 as a result of a pandemic that swept across the empire (some things never change!) When he recovered weeks later, the historians of the time recorded that the emperor was no longer the optimistic and enthusiastic leader who was so eager to use his power for good. He was mean, with a short temper and an inflated ego. It was at this point in his life that he began to insist that he be worshipped as a god. He took a series of wives after forcing their husbands to divorce them, only to divorce them himself after a matter of days or weeks. And then in a complete 180, Caligula reinstated the previously mentioned treason law and introduced new taxes.

The Roman Empire spanned from Europe, to Northern Africa, to East Asia, including Judaea where Pontius Pilate was governor and infamously handed Jesus over to be crucified.

It is also well-documented that during his short time on the throne, Caligula suffered from extreme insomnia and “never managed more than three hours sleep in any one night” (Barrett). He could often be found rome-ing (get it??) his palace in the middle of the night (I guess no one had told the Romans about the wonders of melatonin).

One of the most barbaric practices common during this time, and certainly not unique to Caligula, was forced suicides. Instead of executing someone for their crimes, elite members of society were often given the honorable choice to take their own life instead – and Caligula made use of this practice with special cruelty following his illness. Caligula had adopted his cousin, Gemellus, when he took the throne and now ordered him to death (it’s unclear if Gemellus was actually guilty of anything, or if the emperor was just paranoid that he was gunning for the throne). He was given a sword to kill himself with (and reportedly had to be shown how to use it to do the deed). In addition to Gemellus, the man responsible for helping Caligula to the throne, Macro, also met the same unfortunate fate. Again, it was not the fashion in which Caligula ordered these deaths that was brought concern, but the fact that these two men had once been considered close allies of the emperor.

Too Close For Comfort

With Caligula’s father, mother and brothers gone, his remaining family included three sisters – Agrippina the Younger, Julia Livilla, and Julia Drusilla. There are several ancient historians who claim that Caligula had an incestous relationship with his sisters, but this was never proven and could very well have been a product of gossip aimed at tarnishing Caligula’s reputation. But I wanted to mention it in case you are one of our readers who is here for that particular theme (no judgement!). Caligula did have an extremely close bond with Julia Drusilla. When she died at the age of 21 he was devastated and had Julia Drusilla declared a goddess, with temples and religious orders dedicated to worshipping her. He also named his only child, his beloved daughter, after her (Caligula had finally settled on marrying one woman and was dedicated to her for the short remainder of his life).

If you ask my brother, being surrounded by this many women was enough to drive Caligula crazy. And it seems like his relationships with Agrippina and Julia Livilla could have. Although he was close to both at the beginning of his reign, things (understandably) turned sour when it was revealed that Agrippina and Julia Livilla were plotting with their dead sister’s husband to overthrow Caligula. In other words, these hoes ain’t loyal…The sisters were banished to separate islands, where they stayed for the remainder of their brother’s life. We will explore Agrippina’s lasting mark on history at a later time in this series. 

Risky Business

As Emperor, Caligula was an absolute ruler backed by the force of the Roman military and paid foreign soldiers. However, there was also a Senate body made up of non-elected rich and powerful members of society who acted as legislative advisors. They had grown tired of Caligula’s dark humor and cruelty against members of their rank. At one point the emperor had threatened to make his favorite horse a consul, which was obviously a joke because consuls were the highest elected officials in Rome and were tasked with appointing members of the Senate. The Senate was not amused (tough crowd…) Caligula had also made a habit of randomly arresting wealthy members of society so that he could confiscate their assets for himself. As a result of their mounting discontent, a plot to eliminate him began to form. Rome was no stranger to the murder and assassination of important figures, but this was a risky move to say the least. Several times the co-conspirators lost their nerve and plans were abandoned. Finally, the opportunity presented itself during a week-long festival in the city. The Senators knew Caligula would be enjoying the theater performances. On the last day of the celebrations as he was leaving for a lunch break, he was ambushed in a tunnel and stabbed to death. Chaos ensued as the guilty men tricked Caligula’s guards into believing the murderers had fled, and a manhunt began to find the culprits. 

God forbid anyone enjoys the theater. Caligula was lured from his favorite pastime into a tunnel where he was stabbed to death.

While the wild goose chase was unfolding, government leaders turned their attention to the immediate future and what was to become of their empire with no ruler. The Senate wanted to revert back to the days when Rome was a true republic, afraid of being at the mercy of another emperor. Looking to eliminate anyone who could be a threat to this vision, they decided that Caligula’s wife and infant daughter were too much of a threat to leave alive. They were both brutally murdered. Meanwhile, the foreign soldiers in Rome who were historically paid by the emperor were now out of a job unless they could find a new master. They decided that the lucky (but reluctant) man would be Caligula’s Uncle Claudius (brother of his father Germanicus). The soldiers declared Claudius Emperor of Rome and the Senators, which were greatly outnumbered, were forced to accept. 

Roman coins depicting “the reception of the emperor”, Claudius, after Caligula’s assassination.

Caligual’s reign was brief and lasted less than four years, but that was all it took for the Roman elite to decide they had had enough of him. “Little boot”, the boy who had been so loved in his father’s military camp, became the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated. Although he would not be the last, he would go down in history as one of Rome’s most infamous leaders. Join us next week as Riley explores the possible reasons behind Caligula’s abrupt transition from idealistic leader to cruel tyrant. 


Barrett, Anthony A. Caligula: the Corruption of Power. Routledge, 2009.

Dando-Collins, Stephen. Caligula: the Mad Emperor of Rome. Ingram Pub Services, 2019.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Caligula.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 27 Aug. 2020,

Toynbee, Arnold Joseph. “The First Triumvirate and the Conquest of Gaul.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Nov. 2019,

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