Caligula (31 August 12- 24 January 41) was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 until 41 A.D. He was assassinated by officers of the Praetorian Guard, senators and courtiers, who conspired to restore the Roman Republic.
Background: Caligula's Reign
Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus, also known as Caligula, was born on 31 August 12 A.D. His father was Roman general Germanicus, a grandson of Mark Antony, and his mother was Agrippina the Elder. When Germanicus died in 17, his family lost the favour of Emperor Tiberius, who saw the general’s eldest sons as possible political rivals. As a result, his mother and brothers were accused of treason. However, Caligula managed to avoid this fate and was adopted by Tiberius in 32. When he passed away in 37, Caligula was proclaimed emperor.
In the beginning, Caligula was highly popular among Roman citizens, as he announced several political reforms and recalled all exiles. However, according to historical sources, the situation soon took a turn for the worse when the emperor fell ill and came close to death on October 37. He then decided to indulge in the worst aspects of his nature and is described by historians as a cruel, sadist, sexual pervert and tyrant. Even though the reliability of these sources is questionable, it is known that he lavished money on ambitious construction projects for himself, instituted purges against suspected enemies, brought back Tiberius’ treason trials and condemned others to confiscate their property. Moreover, he led meaningless military campaigns in Germany to earn glory. Still, he managed to annex the client kingdom of Mauretania as a province.
By the end of his reign, Caligula had drained the Roman treasury and gained several enemies in the Senate, the nobility and the Praetorian Guard, whom he continuously disrespected. The situation escalated when in 40 the emperor announced that he was planning to move to Alexandria in Egypt, where he thought he would be worshipped as a god. This would leave Rome without an emperor and the Senate and the Praetorian Guard would be powerless to fight against Caligula’s repression. As a result, several offices of the Praetorian Guard, led by Cassius Chaerea, conspired to murder him. The plot was known and supported by many members of the Senate, army and equestrian order.
On 24 January 41, Cassius Chaerea and his men approached and stabbed Caligula during a series of games being held for the Divine Augustus. Cassius was the first to stab the emperor and was followed by the other conspirators. By the time Caligula’s guard responded, he was already dead. Caligula was buried within the Mausoleum of Augustus and his ashes were scattered in 410 during the Sack of Rome.
Whereas the Senate and Cassius aimed to use the emperor’s death as an opportunity to restore the Republic, the military supported an imperial monarchy. In order to diminish imperial support, Caligula’s wife and daughter were killed. However, they were unable to catch Claudius, Caligula’s uncle, who managed to escape. After gaining the support of the Praetorian Guard, Claudius was proclaimed emperor.
After Caligula’s death, the Senate set out to erase him from Roman history by ordering the destruction of his statues. Moreover, most of the contemporary histories of Caligula, which gave detailed facts and circumstances of his reign, are now lost. Only the works of Philo and Seneca. These served as the basis for secondary and tertiary histories written by the next generation of historians. In this regard, most of the information about Caligula comes from Suetonius and Cassius Dio, who wrote their histories 80 and 180 after the Emperor’s death respectively. Despite the lack of primary sources about his life and reign, Caligula remains one of the most famous Roman emperors, mainly due to the numerous accounts of his extravagancies.
- roman emperor
- praetorian guard
- roman empire
- the twelve caesars