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  • Salsabil Mendoza

Caligula - Rome’s Most Misunderstood Emperor?


Caligula - The Roman Empire’s “Mad King”. In his brief four-year reign, he managed to unleash merciless terror amongst the Roman people, such as executing rivals along with senators who disagreed with him. How could the son of one of Rome’s most regarded generals end up down the path of tyranny and madness?

Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus or “Caligula” was born to the highly regarded general, Germanicus, in 12 C.E. He lived under the reign of Tiberius, a cold and insecure emperor. Emperor Tiberius lived in the shadow of his predecessor, Augustus, and was unable to live up to the same glory and prestige of his nephew, Germanicus. He was overwhelmingly paranoid of being dethroned, eventually sending troops to eliminate Germanicus as a possible contender for the throne. Caligula, at the age of seven, was deeply affected by his father’s death. His mother, Agrippina, was an elite socialite that posed an even greater threat to Tiberius, turning Rome’s elite against him.

One day, Roman soldiers arrived to remove Agrippina, sending her to exile and completely breaking apart the young boy’s family. At such a young age, Caligula was already familiar with trauma and tragedy. He grew up under the watchful eyes of Tiberius’s administration, always fearing the day that he would also follow in his father’s footsteps of being silenced by a repressive ruler, as he himself posed a threat as the male child of an influential general. 

When Drusus, Tiberius’s only son, passed away, the succession and future prosperity of the Roman Empire were at stake. Caligula was adopted by Tiberius, a common practice amongst Roman emperors to maintain succession within the Empire. Caligula inherited the throne in 37 C.E., becoming potentially one of the most powerful men in the world at the age of 25. He was seen as a beacon of hope and the end of the reign of such an unpopular emperor. However, the turning point of this was when Caligula fell severely ill, being comatose and bedridden for months. He awoke a changed man who would bring Rome to madness.

Caligula was known to live lavishly throughout his life, engaging in acts with courtesans and recklessly spending a tremendous amount of Rome’s money.  Eventually, Rome’s funds were diminishing along with the emperor’s popularity. To save face, he staged an invasion of Britain across the English Channel for prestige and war spoils, but he attempted to declare war on the sea after failing to convince his generals to cross. His erratic behavior ultimately led to his assassination through a plot amongst the Senate and Praetorian guard. 

Was Caligula the sadistic and impetuous emperor historians depict him to be, or was he really just a troubled young man who faced hardship his entire life that made him to be as dubious as his domestic policy?

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