Gaius Caesar, known as Caligula, succeeded Tiberius and served as Roman emperor from 37 to 41 AD, which made him the third emperor of Rome. The story surrounding him is a legacy that goes thousands of years back. In his short life of only 29 years he experienced horrific tragedies but also a great power as the Emperor of Rome, and eventually, a brutal death. While his reign as Emperor lasted only a few short years, the stories of Caligula have lived on for millennia. He was born on August 31, 12 AD in Antium, Italy (Anzio) by parents Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder. His siblings were named Nero, Drusus, Agrippina the Younger, Julia Drusilla and Julia Livilla. His father was a renowned Roman general. During his childhood, his family lived at his father’s posting on the Rhine, where the general’s troops gave the future emperor his nickname “Caligula” meaning “little boot” in reference to the miniature uniform in which his parents dressed him.

Early Life

At the time of Caligula’s birth, the rule of Augustus was coming to an end. Augustus’s health was failing and in need of naming a successor, he appointed his stepson Tiberius, a brooding, unpopular leader to his former position. His choice, however, came with one caveat. Knowing that the public would not be pleased by his decision, he compelled Tiberius to adopt Germanicus as his son, and name him his heir. On August 19, 14 A.D., Augustus died. Tiberius assumed power and, just as quickly, dispatched Germanicus to Rome’s eastern provinces for a diplomatic mission. In 19 AD he fell ill and soon died, which led to theories that linked Tiberius to his political rival’s death. Rumors spread that he ordered to get him poisoned. Agrippina the Elder blamed Tiberius for her husband’s death and craved revenge. She was soon accused of treason together with Caligula’s brothers, and all died in prison or exile. Because of his young age, Caligula was spared and forced to live with his great-grandmother, Livia, Augustus’s wife.


In 31 AD, Caligula was summoned to the island of Capri to live with Tiberius. Caligula was adopted by Tiberius, his father’s supposed killer, and Caligula was forced to hide his hatred from him. Soon, Caligula and his cousin Gemellus were made equal heirs to the throne. However, Upon Tiberius’ death in 37 AD, Caligula’s ally Marco arranged for Caligula to be named the sole emperor. Shortly thereafter, Caligula had Gemellus and Marco put to death.

Caligula as Roman Emperor

Caligula was only 25 years old when he became the Emperor of Rome in 37 AD. At first, his succession was welcomed in Rome. He granted bonuses to those in the military, eliminated unfair taxes and freed those who had been unjustly imprisoned. He hosted lavish events, including chariot races, boxing matches, plays and gladiator shows. He ordered the bones of his mother and brothers retrieved, and placed them in the tomb of Augustus. However, six months into his rule, Caligula fell severely ill. For nearly a month, he hovered between life and death. In October of 37 AD, he recovered, but it was quickly apparent that he was not the same person.

Tortured by headaches, Caligula wandered the palace at night. He often dressed as a woman. In addition, he started eliminating his political rivals and forcing parents to watch the executions of their sons. Most egregious, however, was Caligula’s declaration that he was a living God, ordering a bridge to be built between his palace and the Temple of Jupiter so that he could have consultations with the deity. He began referring to himself as a god when meeting with politicians and he was referred to as Jupiter on occasion in public documents. Caligula had the heads removed from various statues of gods and replaced them with his own in various temples. He pursued his pretensions to divinity further. In the summer of 40 AD he ordered his statue to be erected in the Temple at Jerusalem, but countermanded this potentially disastrous order. Caligula subsequently made it punishable by death for anyone to mention a goat in his presence. The reason for that was his extremely hairy body, which was often a subject of jokes. He threw money on bizarre building projects. One of those projects was moving hundreds of Roman merchant ships to construct a 2-mile floating bridge across the Bay of Bauli so he could spend two days galloping back and forth across it. As an expression of his absolute power, Caligula appointed a horse to the high office of consul. There were also rumors that he had committed incest with his sister Drusilla.


In 39 and 40 AD he led military campaigns to the Rhine and Gaul, whose inhabitants he plundered thoroughly. He marched his troops to the northern shoreline of Gaul, where he ordered them to plunder the sea and collect seashells there, which he called the spoils of the conquered ocean.

Caligula’s downfall

Caligula’s profligacy was draining the Roman treasury faster than he could replenish it through taxes and extortion. A conspiracy formed between the Praetorian Guard, the Senate and the equestrian order in late January of 41 A.D. Caligula was stabbed to death, along with his wife and daughter, by officers of the Praetorian Guard led by Cassius Chaerea. The Senate attempted to use the disastrous end of Caligula’s reign as a pretext to reestablish the Roman Republic, but Claudius, the heir designate, took the throne after gaining the support of the Praetorian Guard.
Some say that Caligula was insane, but historians have theorized that Caligula may have suffered from epilepsy and that he had lived with a constant fear of having seizures. This theory was supported by the fact that Caligula was known to speak to the moon since it was once believed that epilepsy was caused by the effects of the moon. Other historians theorize that Caligula may have suffered from hyperthyroidism due to his irritability and the way he would stare into the distance.