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Caligula – Just How Mad Was He?

Caligula – Just How Mad Was He?

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Caligula’s story is a fascinating dive into the life of a young man who, thrust into absolute power, shaped his reign with a mix of paranoia and cunning. Growing up amidst a backdrop of murder and mayhem, he learned early on how to navigate a world where trust was a luxury and survival a necessity. His ability to read the faces around him, distinguishing friend from foe, set the stage for a reign marked by suspicion and intrigue.

The tales of his rule are peppered with allegations of incest, extravagance, and a disregard for the sanctity of life, painting a picture of an emperor who epitomized the stereotype of a mad ruler. Yet, these stories, primarily based on hearsay, offer a glimpse into the complex character of Caligula, a man whose actions continue to captivate and perplex historians today.

The arch of Caligula

Caligula’s Complex Family History

Caligula’s lineage is steeped in the rich and tumultuous history of Roman legacy, painting a picture of a family interwoven with power, ambition, and tragedy. Born into the Julio-Claudian dynasty as Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, he was the third of six children to Germanicus, a prominent general, and Agrippina the Elder, a granddaughter of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. This connection placed Caligula at the heart of imperial power from a young age, surrounded by influential figures and political maneuvering.

From the beginning, Caligula’s life was marked by the shadows of his family’s storied past. His father, Germanicus, was hailed as a war hero and seen by many as the rightful heir to the Roman Empire.

However, Germanicus’s sudden death under suspicious circumstances left the family vulnerable to political enemies. Agrippina the Elder’s relentless pursuit of justice for her husband’s death and her unwavering ambition for her children’s future set the stage for Caligula’s eventual rise to power. But it also marked the beginning of the family’s misfortunes, as they became entangled in a web of intrigues and vendettas that defined the political landscape of Rome.

The early loss of his parents and two brothers under more than dubious circumstances thrust Caligula into a complex realm of power struggles and familial loyalty. His survival amidst the murderous politics of the Roman elite was nothing short of remarkable.

Orphaned and vulnerable, Caligula was hurled into the guardianship of his great-granduncle, Tiberius Caesar Augustus – an emperor known for his paranoia and reclusiveness. Despite Tiberius’s apparent indifference, Caligula managed to navigate the treacherous waters of the imperial court with astute cunning and charm. It was during these formative years that he learned to mask his intentions and bide his time, skills that would prove invaluable during his reign.

With Tiberius’s death in AD 37, Caligula was poised to assume the mantle of power, backed by the legions and the Senate. His accession to the throne was met with widespread jubilation, viewed by many as the dawn of a new era following Tiberius’s oppressive rule. The initial months of his reign seemed to confirm this hopeful outlook, as Caligula enacted popular reforms and restored the annual gladiatorial games.

His Early Reign

When Emperor Caligula ascended to the throne in 37 AD, his initial popularity soared to remarkable heights. The young emperor’s early reign was characterized by a series of actions and reforms that endeared him to the Roman populace. They had high hopes that Caligula’s rule would usher in a new era of prosperity and stability, following the tumultuous reign of his predecessor, Tiberius.

Coinage featuring Caligula and his sisters Agrippina, Drusilla, and Julia

One of the primary reasons for Caligula’s early popularity was his decision to grant financial bonuses to the military, the Praetorian Guard, and the populace of Rome. This move not only secured the loyalty of the military factions but also gained him widespread admiration among the common people. Additionally, Caligula released those who had been imprisoned unjustly and restored properties that were confiscated under Tiberius, positioning himself as a ruler who was attentive to justice and the well-being of his subjects.

Another significant factor contributing to his initial favor was Caligula’s commitment to public works. His ambitious construction projects were viewed as a means to beautify the empire and provide employment opportunities. From the repair of temples and city walls in Syracuse to the construction of new roads and the maintenance of existing infrastructure, Caligula’s efforts demonstrated his interest in the prosperity and stability of the realm.

Further cementing his popularity, Caligula embarked on lavish public games and spectacles, which captivated the citizens of Rome. These events were not only a display of the emperor’s generosity but also served to entertain and distract the populace from political and social issues. The construction of the Circus of Gaius and Nero and the transport of an Egyptian obelisk to Rome were seen as symbols of his power and his commitment to Rome’s cultural and architectural development.

Despite the promising start, criticisms of his rule began to surface. Reports of extravagant spending and erratic behavior raised concerns among the Roman elite and the Senate. However, during the initial days of his reign, these concerns were largely overshadowed by the emperor’s popularity and the tangible improvements he made to the empire’s infrastructure and public welfare.

Bust of Caligula

Descent into Darkness

What prompted a promising emperor to quickly descend into madness? Well, here is where the tales get a little tricky, and picking fact from fiction can be hard. One tale has it that a near brush with assination is what sent him down a darker path, whereas another has it that he changed immeasurably after a period of illness.

Illness Induced Madness?

Not long after taking power, he fell severely ill. This illness, which struck unexpectedly, had a profound impact on his behavior. Historical accounts suggest a marked change in Caligula’s demeanor and governance post-recovery, leading some historians to speculate about the nature of his illness and its effects on his mental health.

Scholars have proposed a range of possible conditions that might explain Caligula’s erratic behavior, including epilepsy, insomnia, encephalitis, lead poisoning, neurosyphilis, bipolar disorder, hyperthyroidism, anxiety disorder, and even schizophrenia. These medical conditions could account for the shift observed in his leadership style, from promising to problematic.

A Close Escape From Death

Struggling with the shadows of treachery and betrayal, he slipped into what can only be described as madness and cruelty.

In his efforts to consolidate power and ensure loyalty, Caligula adopted increasingly harsh measures against real or imagined enemies. Rumors of plots against his life became rampant, leading to relentless purges within the Senate and the imperial court.

High-ranking officials, esteemed senators, and even close family members were not spared, as Caligula’s paranoia spiraled out of control. The emperor’s suspicion was not limited to political adversaries; he extended his mistrust to the general populace, seeing potential threats in every corner.

Caligula’s delusions of grandeur manifested in his public works and architectural endeavors, which he pursued with an obsessive zeal. He squandered vast sums of the state treasury, including the 2.7 billion sesterces amassed by Tiberius, on grandiose projects meant to etch his name into eternity.

Among these were the plans to rebuild the palace of Polycrates in Samos, finish the temple of Didymaean Apollo at Ephesus, and found a city in the Alps. His ambition even led him to propose the construction of a canal through the Isthmus of Corinth, a project so monumental it was viewed as a testament to madness.

In addition to his architectural dreams, Caligula’s reign saw a concerning fascination with divinity and a self-perception that bordered on considering himself a god. He demanded worship not as an emperor but as a living deity, ordering the construction of temples in his honor and the inclusion of his statue among those of the gods.

This deification of a living emperor was unprecedented and unsettling, further alienating him from the Roman elite and the common people alike.

Just How “Mad” Was This Mad Emperor?

One of the most significant actions that led many to question Caligula’s sanity was his claim of divinity – but how mad was he?

If you believe the histories written after his death, then he was very mad. He turned the palace into a brothel, slept with the wives of senators before rating their sexual prowess in front of said senators, hid his bodyguard while on campaign so he could capture them and play pretend hero, and even made plans for the invasion of Britain – only to instead have his army collect sea shells from the French shore before declaring a great victory, having never actually step foot in Britain.

But if we dig a little deeper, many of these tales could be explained away by a man seeking revenge – not suffering from madness. It is the senate that killed his family in horrible circumstances, many of those men would have still been in the senate when he became emperor.

Why would he not delight in antagonizing and humiliating the senate – the people responsible for the deaths of his family members? Maybe he just saw through the curtain, saw that the people who declared public affection for him were scheming behind his back, and thought, to hell with it all – I’m doing whatever I want.

There is one thing that stands out to me, however, the sea shells episode. That one is a bit strange and screams madness, to me at least.

Caligula’s Assassination

The assassination of Caligula on January 24, 41 AD, marked a dramatic end to his tumultuous reign. Orchestrated by members of the Praetorian Guard, the plot against him was fueled by a mixture of personal vendettas, political machinations, and a desperate desire for stability within the Roman Empire. The leading figures in this conspiracy were Praetorian tribunes Cassius Chaerea and Cornelius Sabinus, who, with the help of a contingent of centurions, executed the plan with precision.

The events leading up to Caligula’s assassination reveal the deep unrest and dissatisfaction among the Roman elite and military ranks. Caligula’s erratic behavior, dictatorial tendencies, and blatant disrespect for the Roman Senate had sown seeds of discontent across various sectors of Roman politics and society. His ambitions alienated not only the political leadership but also the military, a critical mistake that ultimately led to his downfall.

Josephus’s accounts provide a detailed narrative of the assassination, highlighting the conspirators’ motives and the broader political context. According to him, the conspiracy was limited in its members, a strategic choice aimed at minimizing the risk of betrayal. History tells us that previous plots against Caligula had failed due to leaks or second thoughts among the conspirators, driven by fear of retribution or hopes for reward.

In contrast to the often glorified portrayals of conspirators in similar historical events, the individuals behind Caligula’s assassination were driven by complex motives. Chaerea, for instance, is depicted by Josephus as a noble idealist, deeply committed to restoring dignity and order to a flagging empire. This portrayal, however, contrasts sharply with Cassius Dio’s and other sources, reminding us of the subjectivity and scarcity of historical sources when reconstructing events of this magnitude.

Primary sources

Delving into the primary sources sheds light on the enigmatic figure of Caligula, whose reign has fascinated historians and the public alike. The fragments of history that survive through the works of Philo and Seneca the Younger offer a lens through which to view the early years of his rule.

Philo’s accounts, primarily focused on the Jewish populations in Judea and Egypt, provide insights into Caligula’s governance and his interactions with these communities. Seneca, on the other hand, offers a glimpse into Caligula’s personality through anecdotes. This blend of perspectives from individuals who experienced his rule first-hand is invaluable for understanding the complete portrayal of Caligula.

In AD 39, Seneca almost faced execution, a testament to the palpable danger and unpredictability that characterized Caligula’s court. This incident underlines the volatile nature of the emperor’s relationships with those around him.

Philo and Seneca’s accounts, while invaluable, come with their own set of biases. Their narratives, colored by personal experiences and the milieu they were a part of, require careful analysis to separate fact from subjective interpretation.

Moreover, the existence of now-lost contemporaneous histories mentioned by Tacitus further complicates the picture. Tacitus describes these accounts as polarized, depicting Caligula as either a fiend or a hero with little room for in-between. This polarization highlights the difficulty in piecing together an unbiased account of Caligula’s reign.

Notably, historians like Fabius Rusticus and Cluvius Rufus, despite their works being lost to time, are known through Tacitus to have condemned Caligula, indicating the prevailing negative sentiment towards the emperor among later historians.

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