Gaius “Caligula” Caesar

Based on the paper titled “Gaius “Caligula” Caesar” by Misty Hamilton Smith. Originally published on July 02, 2017, for HIS-321 Ancient World of Greece & Rome at Southern New Hampshire University.

Gaius “Caligula” Caesar

There have been numerous important figures throughout Rome’s great history, including the emperors of the Julio-Claudian reign Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, and Nero. However, one name often stands out above the others for his “madness”, and that is Gaius “Caligula” Caesar, who reportedly suffered from a severe mental illness which often led to strange and even brutal actions. Even though Gaius “Caligula” Caesar is often a much-discussed person of interest in ancient Roman history, his accomplishment of putting into motion the vast expansion of the empire is often overlooked because of his speculated mental state and odd actions during his reign.

Gaius Caesar, the third emperor of Rome during the Julio-Claudian empire, was born August 31, 12 C.E. in Antium, Latium or modern-day Anzio, Italy.1 Inscribed to celebrate his birth on altars in the village of Ambiatinus, according to the historian Suetonius,

In castris natus, patriis nutritius in armis, Jam designati principis omen erat.

Born in the camp, and train’d {sic} in every toil Which taught his sire the haughtiest foes to foil; Destin’d he seem’d {sic} by fate to raise his name, And rule the empire with Augustan fame.2


The Four Emperors of the Julio-Claudian Empire.

His father was Germanicus Caesar and his mother was Agrippina, the granddaughter of Emperor Augustus, who ruled from 27 C.E. – 14 .A.D.3 Gaius Caesar gained the nickname of “Little Boots” or “Caligula” from the soldiers under the command of his father, Germanicus Caesar, because of the interaction between him and his father on the battlefields when he was just a young boy. It was the Roman historian Suetonius who wrote of how the nickname came into being, “It was to the jokes of the soldiers in the camp that he owed the name of Caligula 388, he having been brought up among them in the dress of a common soldier.”4

Caligula had a very troublesome childhood that revolved around murder and deadly plots.His father, while on a campaign in the year 19 C.E. in the Middle East under his uncle Tiberius’s orders, died under controversial circumstances.5 His mother, Agrippina, accused Tiberius of her husband’s murder via the hand of the governor of Syria,6 although she never could provide evidence to collaborate her claims. However, during that time, Sejanus, a soldier under Tiberius who wished to overthrow him and become emperor, had vowed to wipe out any heirs to the throne.7 Therefore, next to go was Caligula’s brother Nero and his mother. They were both accused of plotting to assassinate Tiberius in 27 C.E., and, as a result, were exiled where they stayed until death. Caligula’s other brother Drusus was accused of sexual depravity and died confined in a cell in 33 C.E.

After his family was removed from his life, the young Caligula was moved from place to place, and relative to relative, starting with his great-grandmother, Livia Drusilla, the widow of Augustus. Next, he lived with Antonia, the sister of Augustus, and his paternal grandmother.However, before Sejanus could get rid of the young Caligula, he himself was executed in 31 C.E. Eventually, Tiberius took in Caligula and prepared him to be his successor; according to Suetonius, Tiberius only selected Caligula because he showed the same vile of personality as himself:

He delighted in witnessing the infliction of punishments, and frequented taverns and bawdy-houses in the night-time, disguised in a periwig and a long coat; and was passionately addicted to the theatrical arts of singing and dancing. All these levities Tiberius readily connived at, in hopes that they might perhaps correct the roughness of his temper, which the sagacious old man so well understood, that he often said, “That Caius was destined to be the ruin of himself and all mankind; and that he was rearing a Hydra {sic} for the people of Rome, and a Phaeton for all the world.8

Tiberius died in 37 C.E., however, and according to Suetonius it was at the hands of Caligula and another, and which Caligula would often boast,

That, to revenge the death of his mother and brothers, he had entered the chamber of Tiberius, when he was asleep, with a poniard, but being seized with a fit of compassion, threw it away, and retired; and that Tiberius, though aware of his intention, durst not make any inquiries, or attempt revenge.9

By the time Tiberius had died, he had not only named Caligula as his heir, but also his grandson Tiberius Gemellus. Caligula had no intentions of sharing rule with Tiberius, so only a few days into his rule he had the Senate grant him supreme power, which left young Gemellus with no power.10

In the month of September in 37 C.E. Caligula fell ill; by the time he recovered in October of the same year he showed signs of mental illness, known now as “The Madness of Caligula”. It was then that his rule turned to the bizarre. First, he was in a state of constant fear and suspicion that everyone around him was out to kill him. As a result, he had many associates executed and divorced his wife, only to marry anew. Furthermore, he reintroduced the crime of maiestas which led to even more executions for treason, even if only libel.11 Caligula also started to claim himself to be God and demanded he be worshiped, he went as far as having statues of himself erected throughout the kingdom, including the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.12 He also sent the Roman legion, according to Suetonius, to the shores of the English Channel where he ordered them to strike the water with their swords in order to defeat the God Poseidon; he then had them collect seashells as proof of their victory.13

On the other hand, for his many strange deeds which are often the topic of all discussion of his name and rule, his short four years of reign also produced change that would be forever lasting. According to Suetonius,

He completed the works which were left unfinished by Tiberius, namely, the temple of Augustus, and the theater of Pompey. He began, likewise, the aqueduct from the neighborhood of Tibur, and an amphitheater near the Septa; of which works, one was completed by his successor Claudius, and the other remained as he left it. The walls of Syracuse, which had fallen to decay by the length of time, he repaired, as he likewise did the temples of the gods. He formed plans for rebuilding the palace of Polycrates at Samos, finishing the temple of the Didymaean Apollo at Miletus, and building a town on a ridge of the Alps; but, above all, for cutting through the isthmus in Achaia; and even sent a centurion of the first rank to measure out the work.14

However, his biggest accomplishment is often overlooked, which can be attributed to the writing of Suetonius, who in fact never met Caligula and was writing decades after his death, stories based upon rumor and myth. What accomplishment is often missed upon? It was Caligula who may have been the one who opened the door to the invasion of Britain and expansion of the Roman Empire itself. In fact, there is another version of the seashell story15 that paints a much different tale,




He gathered a great army and marched from Italy right through France till he reached the coast. There news came to him that Guilderius, the king of Britain, had heard of his coming and had also gathered his soldiers together. Caligula must have been afraid when he heard that the brave Britons were ready to fight him, for this is how he conquered Britain.

But there was no enemy there. In front of the soldiers, there was nothing but the blue sea and the sandy shore covered with shells. They could not fight against the waves and the sand, and the brave Britons, whom they had come to fight, were far away on the other side of the water and quite out of reach.

Then Caligula ordered them to kneel down upon the sand and gather as many shells as they could. The first thing a Roman was taught, was to obey. So now the soldiers did as their general commanded and gathered the cockle shells which lay around in hundreds. It must have been a curious sight to see all these strong soldiers, armed with sword, shield, and helmet, picking up shells upon the sea- shore.

When they had gathered a great quantity, Caligula made a speech. He thanked the soldiers as if they had done him some great service. He told them that now he had conquered the ocean and the islands in it and that these shells were the spoils of war. He praised the soldiers for their bravery and said that the shells should be placed in the temples of Rome in remembrance of it. Then he rewarded them richly and they marched home again.16

As to which story holds the most truth, we may never know. Caligula was brutally murdered a short time later in 41 C.E., after only reigning for four years.17 However, after Caligula’s death his successor, his aged uncle Claudius, did indeed invade and conquer Britan. According to the historian Nagle on the invasion of Britan under Claudius, “To gain military prestige and consolidate his support with the army, he decided to annex Britain using two new legions raised by Caligula.”18 According to New World Encylopedia, it was Caligula’s earlier short-lived invasion upon the English Channel that made this possible, “Certainly this invasion attempt readied the troops and facilities that would make Claudius’ invasion possible 3 years later (e.g., a lighthouse was built by Caligula at Boulogne-sur-Mer, the model for the one built soon after 43 at Dubris).”19

In conclusion, while history does indeed generally remember Caligula, it is most often for his madness and the stories of bizarre actions as described by ancient writers. However, Caligula was responsible for several things that helped shaped ancient Rome, including finishing architectural projects, and the building of the Rome’s legions. Furthermore, his greatest accomplishment may have very well been setting up the invasion of Britan by his successor Claudius.


  1. Christopher E. Guthrie, “Caligula.” (Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017).
  2. The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars. Translated by Alexander Thomson, M.D. (The Project Gutenberg, [2006?]), Chapter 5.
  3. Christopher E. Guthrie, “Caligula.” (Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, January 2017).
  4. Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Chapter
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, “Sejanus,” (Encyclopædia Britannica, October 28, 2016).
  8. Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Chapter
  9. Ibid.
  10. Brendan Nagle, The Ancient World: a Social and Cultural History, 8th ed. (New Jersey: Pearson, 2013), 242.
  11. Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Chapter
  12. Writers of New World Encyclopedia, “Caligula,” (New World Encyclopedia, [?]).
  13. Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Chapter
  14. Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Chapter
  15. Nagle, The Ancient World: a Social and Cultural History,
  16. Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, An Island Story: A History of England for Boys and Girls (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1920), Chapter
  17. Nagle, The Ancient World: a Social and Cultural History,
  18. Nagle, The Ancient World: a Social and Cultural History,
  19. Writers of New World Encyclopedia, “Roman conquest of Britain,” (New World Encyclopedia, [?]).


Guthrie, Christopher E. “Caligula.” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia (January 2017): Research Starters, EBSCOhost (accessed June 07, 2017).

Marshall, Henrietta Elizabeth. An Island Story: A History of England for Boys and Girls. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1920. Accessed June 29,


Nagle, D. Brendan, and the University of Southern California. The Ancient World: a Social and Cultural History. 8th ed. New Jersey: Pearson, 2013.

Suetonius. The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars. Translated by Alexander Thomson, M.D. The Project Gutenberg, [2006?].

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Sejanus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. October 28, 2016. Accessed June 18, 2017.

Writers of New World Encyclopedia. “Caligula.” New World Encyclopedia. Accessed June 29, 2017.

Writers of New World Encyclopedia. “Roman conquest of Britain.” New World Encyclopedia. Accessed June 29, 2017.

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