From Hero to Nero

The Players

Out of Sight, Out of His Mind

Whether Caligula’s brain was permanently altered that day in October A.D. 37 when he fell critically ill, or the demons of his youth finally caught up with him, it is clear from the historical records available to us that there was a distinct difference in the infamous emperor before and after. According to the Ancient Roman historian Suetonius, who claimed that Caligula suffered from a “brain sickness”, the emperor “was aware of [his] mental illness and at one time spoke of taking a break to recover from it” (Dando-Collins). And even though Caligula’s reign was brief, less than four years, it was not without its mark on history.

By A.D. 41, influential members of the Roman government had grown to hate Caligula so much that murdering him seemed like the only way forward. However, historical records would suggest that their sentiments were not necessarily shared by the greater Roman population, as the ruling class seemed to be absorbing the brunt of the emperor’s cruelty. Following Caligula’s assassination, the people of Rome were distraught. When they heard the rumor that the murderers were loose in the city, citizens literally took up arms to avenge their emperor. When the military announced that Caligula’s Uncle Claudius would be his successor, they embraced him. After all, he was the brother of their beloved Germanicus and a member of the great Caesars. Immediately upon taking the throne, Claudius set out to erase any trace of his “mad” nephew, determined to validate his reign by making the people forget about the last four years with Caligula. He abolished the religious orders dedicated to worshipping the late emperor and his sister Julia Drusilla, and cancelled or knocked down the many building projects Caligula had funded to cement his legacy.

We’re Far From the Shallow Now

As we know, Caligula lived in the shadow of his father, who enjoyed the highest honor in Ancient Rome for his military accomplishments. Once emperor, Caligula set his sights on a prize that could cement his legacy – Britain, or Britannia in Latin. He marched his forces, made up of Roman soldiers and their allies, to what was mostly likely the shores of France. However, after extensive planning and effort, the emperor ended up abandoning his plans for invasion. He had tens of thousands of men march hundreds of miles, and in the end all they had to show for it was some seashells that he ordered his soldiers to collect. Understandably, historians like Seutonius have pointed to this incident as one of the examples of Caligula’s mental instability. But while Caligula and his army may not have executed on their plans for invasion, their mobilization did set the foundations for his Uncle Claudius to successfully invade Britain three years later. What had seemed like a manifestation of Caligula’s instability actually prepared Claudius’ forces to readily mobilize and invade the highly coveted island.

After marching his army to the shores of France and abandoning plans for a British invasion, Caligula apparently declared war against the god of the sea. The seashells were evidence of their victory.

The Roman Empire’s attempts to conquer Britain would continue for many more decades, but under Claudius (really under his military, there is no indication that he himself was anywhere near the military man that his brother Germanicus was) the Roman army and its allies celebrated some significant wins. Claudius was honored with the military prestige that Caligula had longed for.  

Monument-al Mistake

As Caligula was pursuing military glory, he was also seeking praise of a higher order – religious. After declaring himself to be a god, Caligula attempted to spread his new religious order throughout his empire “so the world could worship him” (Dando-Collins). He ordered a massive statue of himself to be built and installed in the Temple of Jerusalem, causing outrage among the Jewish population. This was seen as a huge slap in the face, “desecrating the symbolic center of the Jewish Diaspora” (Misano) and stoked the fires of anti-semitism throughout Rome. 

Historically the relationship between the Jews and the Romans had been complicated, but they managed to coexist. Romans were content to allow the Jewish people to worship their God without interference, as long as they continued to show loyalty to their emperor. But after his dramatic change in personality and policy, Caligula was determined that the Jewish people would not be an exception to any of his new rules. It took much convincing from the governor of Jerusalem to convince Caligula to abandon his plans for his statue. The emperor’s carelessness when dealing with the potential revolt of millions of his citizens set off alarm bells among Caligula’s peers who felt that his obsession with being worshipped was just one of the many indications that he was less of a leader and more of a tyrant. Caligula’s  “reign saw the first serious outbreak of anti-semitism in the Roman world,” (Barrett) surely not what he had in mind in the early days of his rule when he dreamed of leaving a lasting impression on his empire.

The Second Temple of Jerusalem was built in 515 B.C. Almost 600 years later, Caligula didn’t have any qualms about moving a giant statue of himself into the living room.

Can’t Be Tamed

The Senate also learned some valuable lessons from Caligula’s brief stint on the throne. Although he was not the first emperor (that honor belonged to his ancestor Augustus), “he was the first Roman emperor in the full sense of the word, handed by a complacent senate almost unlimited powers over a vast section of the civilized world” (Barrett). Caligula was young when he came to power and had no leadership experience, having spent the majority of his young adult life under the debaucherous thumb of Tiberius and confined to the island of Capri. As emperor, he was (perhaps unintentionally) handed unlimited power and funds. Caligula ran roughshod over the same governing body of Rome that had provided past emperors with necessary checks and balances. Once he was forcefully removed from the throne (and from Earth…), the senate wanted to “revert back to a republic” (Dando-Collins). This was why they murdered Caligula’s wife and child – to eliminate legitimate heirs that could pose a challenge to their plans. Ultimately the senate lost that battle to Claudius’ supporters.

Caught In a Bad Rome-ance

Perhaps the biggest consequence of Caligula’s untimely death was that it opened the door for his sister Agrippina the Younger to pursue her lofty ambitions – it seems she was a little salty from the years she spent in exile after she was involved in a plot to overthrow her brother. In A.D. 48, Claudius had his wife executed for planning to overthrow him (women and their plotting….am I right?) and the search began for a new wife. How convenient then that Agrippina should find herself newly single after her second husband had mysteriously died (it’s believed that she poisoned him). But wait, you say – Agrippina was Caligula’s sister, and Claudius was Caligula’s uncle. So, wouldn’t that make Claudius Agrippina’s uncle as well? Ding ding ding! Emperor Claudius received special permission to marry his niece Agrippina and subsequently adopted Agrippina’s son Nero.  

One of the most famous stories of Nero is that he played music as he watched the city of Rome burn. Although most likely fictional (the music part, not the fire), it emphasizes how history has not been kind to Nero’s reputation.

Claudius also had a son, Britannicus, from one of his previous marriages. Agrippina had Britannicus poisoned, clearing the way for her son Nero to be named Claudius’ heir. Then, she supposedly had her uncle-husband poisoned as well. Nero would go on to become the only Roman emperor perhaps more infamous and cruel than his Uncle Caligula. He grew to resent his mother’s meddling and had her executed in A.D. 59. Whereas Caligula was hated predominantly by the upper echelons of society, Nero’s cruelty actually earned him the title  “enemy of the people”. When it became clear that Nero would no longer be able to hold his throne, he took his own life, ending the nearly 100 year reign of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

If You Ain’t First You’re Last

The Julio-Claudian dynasty was certainly a dynasty of firsts, both good and bad. Augustus was the first emperor of Rome. Caligula was the first emperor to be assassinated and his nephew Nero was the first emperor to commit suicide. Both Caligula and Nero are remembered two thousand years later for their exceptional cruelty and perceived madness. But it is the opinion of this particular historian that Caligula has been largely misrepresented throughout history. There is no denying his inflated ego and his cruelty, but as we explored last week there are several possible factors that worked in concert with one another that can explain his behavior. It is not as simple as saying “Caligula was a madman”. Everyone had high hopes for Caligula’s reign when he took the throne, including the young man himself. And although he spent his entire life with the poor example of Tiberius as emperor, he had seen in his father what endeared a leader to his people. 

The five emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty are highlighted with a bold line. The complicated nature of Ancient Roman family trees is evident by the additional cast of characters.

In the beginning Caligula made a strong effort to emulate Germanicus and leave a lasting positive legacy. He entered his reign with the same idealistic and wide-eyed ambition that Henry VIII embraced when he took the British throne 1,500 years later. But, as with Henry, that sadly did not last. As Riley proposed, a combination of Caligula’s troubled childhood, his sudden illness, and the nature of Roman society likely culminated to create a ruler that his father most certainly would not have been proud of. 

We also should not ignore the fact that the few short years of Caligula’s reign were not actually a tragedy of the magnitude that his reputation would suggest. When Claudius was handed the throne after the death of his nephew, he inherited a strong Roman Empire. With all of the resources we have at our fingertips today, we must approach history with a discerning eye. Who are the sources and what was their relationship to the subject? Did they know the subject or are they writing with second-hand knowledge? Can any of the subject’s actions be understood in the context of the time period? Remember, what you see is not always what you get.


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

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

Marcomisano. “Ancient Rome and Judea: Caligula and the Temple of Jerusalem.” Jewish Rome Tours by Marco Misano (RomanJews), 21 Dec. 2019,

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

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Julia Agrippina.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1 Jan. 2020,

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

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