Why was Caligula a bad emperor/biography/reign/death

Caligula (12 AD – 41 AD)

The history of Rome shows that it had emperors who made it prosper and turn it into a great empire . However, there are also records of Roman emperors abusing their power and causing great suffering to the Roman people. This was the case of Gaius Julius Caesar Augusto Germánico, who was known by the nickname Calígula . His government was marked by many cruel and unjust deaths, as well as various scandals. Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

Who was Caligula?

Caligula became the third emperor of Rome from AD 37 until January 24, AD 41 when he was assassinated. It belonged to the Julio-Claudia royal lineage established by César Augusto . He was a very cruel emperor who was characterized by the follies and atrocities he committed during his reign.

He is known for imposing a tyrannical state, indulging in excesses, instituting the deification of the emperor, torturing and killing people, and leading an incestuous life with his sisters. All these acts were due to his suffering from mental disorders.

Caligula Biography

His real name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augusto Germánico. He was born in Antium (present-day Anzio, Italy) on August 31, AD 12 . His father was Julius Caesar Germanicus , an important member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty , a general of the Roman Empire, who had been adopted by Tiberius. His mother was Agrippina, who came from noble lineage and was the granddaughter of Augustus.

At the age of three, he accompanied his father to different military campaigns where he used small military shoes. From there it receives the nickname of Calígula, diminutive of caliga (Roman military footwear). When he was seven years old, his father died poisoned by order of Tiberius the emperor, because he believed that he would take away his kingdom. Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

After the death of his father, his adoptive grandfather the Emperor Tiberius, imprisoned his mother and his two brothers, who died in prison. During some years of his youth he became a servant of Tiberius. Despite what happened to his mother and siblings, Caligula did not show any feelings and hid the resentment he felt towards Tiberius very well.

He managed to win the favor of the emperor and he was named his successor along with his grandson Tiberius Twin. After the death of Emperor Tiberius, he was appointed emperor in AD 37. The Romans were happy that Tiberius died, as Caligula would now rule them. The Roman people thought that they possessed the outstanding qualities of their late father and decided that Caligula would be their sole emperor . The Senate gave him all powers, although he had no experience in government, war, or diplomacy.

Caligula’s reign

The reign of Emperor Caligula was totally changeable, it can be said that they were two stages not only very brief but also suddenly opposite. Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

First stage

During the first 7 months of his reign, happiness and economic prosperity were experienced in the Roman Empire . He was generous to the people and the army . He awarded the Praetorian Guard a generous reward for their services. He eliminated the documents where the names of those who were accused of treason in the mandate of the Emperor Tiberius were written.

He helped those affected by the imperial tax method . He returned to the magistrates the full exercise of their rights and performed lavish shows, such as gladiatorial fights. In short, he momentarily fulfilled the expectations of the Roman people, who trusted him.

Second stage

Everything changed after suffering from mental disorders that turned him into a depraved tyrant . Among the first things he did was kill his cousin Tiberio Gemelo, Marco Silano his father-in-law, Macron, chief of the Praetorians, and his wife who had been his lover. He became cruel and ruthless to the people. It is said that, on one occasion, in a circus show due to the lack of criminals to execute, Caligula ordered that a part of the public be thrown at the beasts. Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

He promoted the divinization of the emperor , causing him to be worshiped as a god. Due to his mismanagement, he led Rome into an economic crisis, even so, he began numerous constructions. One of the most important was the expansion of the ports of Sicily and Regium. Trying to cope with the crisis, he took desperate measures such as asking the people for money .     

Among other things that marked his reign are mentioned:

  • The annexation of the province of Mauritania , ruled by Ptolemy of Mauritania, whom Caligula had to assassinate.
  • In the East, he granted the territories of Traconitis and Batanea to Herod Agrippa , his friend. In addition, he had a statue erected in the temple of Jerusalem in his honor .
  • On an expedition to invade Britain, instead of asking his army to attack, he sent it out to collect seashells. According to Caligula that was the tribute that the sea owed to the Palatine Hill and the Capitoline Hill.
  • He appointed his horse Incitatus consul and placed it in a marble stall. In addition, he provided him with a large servants to attend to him.
  • He maintained brothels and incestuous relationships with his sisters , falling in love with Drusilla.
  • He enjoyed torturing and killing his prisoners.

Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

The Roman Empire produced some spectacularly bad emperors over the centuries.

There was the brutally self-centered Commodus, who in addition to being a ruler was a gladiator in the Colosseum, and the strange Elagabulus, who dressed in women’s clothing and roamed the Palatine in chariots drawn by slaves, not forgetting Nero, whose orgies and tyrannical excesses were notorious. . Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

But no list of the worst Roman emperors would be complete without Caligula.

It is known from his obscene orgies, that he had sex with his sisters and was a witty and sadistic torturer. And that, of course, he was completely insane.

However, most of what we think we know about Caligula comes from accounts (both ancient and modern) based on the highly active imagination of the authors, rather than historical records .

It is true that few lives have experienced such absolute ups and downs as Caligula’s in just 25 years.

He was the youngest son of Germanicus, the rising star of the imperial dynasty and part of a revered family, combining celebrity glamor with monarchy and the cult of personality.

1-The threat

Almost the entire population of Rome came out to receive his ashes, but significantly the Emperor Tiberius was absent.

The sons of Germanicus were possible successors to the emperor, making the family a threat to Tiberius’ second-in-command, the sinister Sejanus , who had ambitions of his own.

By this time, Tiberius was older and had retired to his villa on the island of Capri, leaving much of the government of Rome in the hands of Sejanus.

However, Sejanus could do nothing against his rivals as long as his protector Livia, Tiberius’ mother, was alive. Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

2-Nervous attack

Caligula went to bed every night wondering if he would be awakened at dawn and taken to the cells for his summary execution.

Even as Tiberius lay dying, the wayward emperor might have abruptly appointed a different successor, which would have meant certain death for Caligula, for no other emperor could tolerate his claim to the empire.

Once Tiberius died, Caligula went literally overnight from being almost a hostage to the acknowledged master of Rome .

His return to the city was greeted with great enthusiasm. Soon after, he had a nervous breakdown .

Today, we are familiar with post-traumatic stress: the true psychological impact is felt only when returning to normality and security, and after experiencing total alienation from others who have not shared the same experience. Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

Caligula’s collapse left him bedridden in delirium as an anxious Rome prayed for his recovery.

Ancient biographers report that he rose from his sickbed like a madman.


Caligula, ruler of Rome, had been out of combat for weeks and nothing had happened.

The provinces had been governed as usual, the Senate met and passed decrees, and the praetorian prefects administered justice.

The empire had gone about its business peacefully. The way the imperial system worked meant that Rome didn’t really need a practical ruler.

Caligula wasn’t really necessary and, to someone with his upbringing, “unnecessary” meant “disposable.”

Like a headstrong young man with a survival instinct ingrained in every fiber of his being, Caligula set out to rectify what he saw as an unacceptable situation.

It would become necessary and would make the Senate and the people of Rome dependent on his government.

It turned out to be a failed and fatal strategy, but it was a logical continuation of what Caligula’s life experience had been up to then.

4-Caligula vs the Senate

He immediately dismissed the example of his predecessors, who had pretended to work in the Senate, even while massacring individual senators. Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

By explicitly taking direct control of the empire, Caligula was not only ahead of his time, but declared war on the Senate.

Caligula’s reign was not a string of antics by a mad young man, but the story of a political struggle for supremacy, told by the victors, for whom libel laws did not exist and the truth was optional .

The last ruler of Rome to openly rise above the Senate had been Julius Caesar, and it cost him his life.

Despite this, Caligula did the same by declaring himself God. What later became more usual, at the time seemed blasphemous and strange.

And unprecedented. In eastern Greece, rulers were almost routinely deified, and their Macedonian successors had adopted the divine status of the Egyptian pharaohs.

But the fact that Caligula granted himself the same status in Rome was insane in the sense that it was a political tactic that would surely fail.

5-Armed propaganda

Caligula the God had the support of the people and the army, but he was a political neophyte with a totally inadequate personality to fight a senate of relentless riggers experienced in savage, often fatal political battles. Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

Senators had connections and hidden control over the levers of power.

  • 29 yearswas all that Caligula lived, he was born in the year 12 and died in the year 41
  • 4 yearshis reign lasted, from March of the year 37 until his death in January of the 41
  • Murderedhe was killed by members of the Praetorian Guard, possibly in collusion with the Senate.

Both sides in this fight used all the means at their disposal, but Caligula was outmatched.

One of the weapons of the Senate was propaganda . In Roman political invective, mud was thrown in with gleeful disregard for the truth, just to see what would work.

As for Caligula, the Senate took advantage of his claim to divinity and interpreted it as madness.

They misrepresented every action of an emperor who was in any case young, stubborn and thoughtless, and simply made up other cases.

Even the fact that his wife loved him was seen as proof of his insanity (he allegedly threatened to torture her to find out why).

And his being a doting father was attributed to the fact that his daughter supposedly shared his sadistic leanings, which later justified Caligula’s assassins killing her by smashing her head against a wall.


Continuing with family relationships, the biographer Suetonius reports that Caligula enjoyed sex with his sisters during banquets while the guests stared at him in horror. Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

But Suetonius wrote a century later, when the legend of Caligula as a lunatic was well established. By then, some believed that he had gone crazy for sex because his wife had overdosed on a love potion.

Since many of the details of Caligula’s state of mind come from Suetonius, the incest claim raises doubts .

The historian Tacitus was born 15 years after Caligula’s death. Unlike Suetonius, he scrupulously reports accusations as just that, accusations, rather than facts, and does not mention any of those banquets.

Neither did the philosopher – and senator – Seneca, who knew Caligula.

Both writers mention the subject but referring to the incestuous relationships of Caligula’s sister, Agripina, only with her uncle and son, not with her brother.

7-Thirsty for blood?

As for the murderous side of Caligula, there is a distinct shortage of victims.

While Suetonius likes to say that the emperor had dozens of people killed, he is curiously reluctant to name them.

Caligula ordered the execution of Tiberius’ son and his praetorian prefect Macro (who seemed determined to emulate Sejanus in his ambition), as well as his cousin, the king of Mauritania.

But most of his other victims are dubious, like the gladiator who died of an infected wound after Caligula visited him. Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

In total there are less than a dozen names . Compare that to hundreds killed by Augustus, dozens by Tiberius, and many more by Nero and Claudius, in which cases most of their high-ranking victims were carefully named.

After Caligula’s assassination, four years after he assumed power, it became even more urgent to emphasize that he had been mad: he was still popular with the people and the military despite his war with the Senate.

The new emperor Claudius was insecure in his position and the senate was eager to justify the assassination of Caligula, so without Caligula present to retaliate, the condemnation of his name proceeded without restriction.

Death of Caligula

All the excesses to which Caligula devoted himself led the senators and praetorians to conspire against him. On January 24, 41 AD, at the age of 28, he was stabbed to death. Casio Querea, who led the conspiracy, intercepted him in an underground gallery while Caligula was walking and stabbed him in the neck. When Caligula fell to the ground he shouted “I’m still alive” and the rest of the guards stabbed him with their knives.

The goal of his assassination was to restore the republic. However, their plans were thwarted when Claudius, Caligula’s uncle, was declared emperor on the same day that Caligula was assassinated. Among the first actions that Claudio carried out was to order the execution of those who had murdered his nephew. Why was Caligula a bad emperor?

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