“Divine” Madness


Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (12-41CE), nicknamed Caligula “little boots”, was the third Roman emperor. Everyone was delighted when the young man came to power in 37, but the dream soon became a nightmare. So what was wrong with Caligula?

Childhood traumas he had many. His father Germanicus died when he was 7; then his mother Agrippina was exiled then killed, along with two brothers {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p316}. The teenager lived with Tiberius on Capri, believed responsible for their deaths. He had a “truly disastrous youth, likely to affect his development in the worst possible way” {Grant, p109}.

The ancients were not so sympathetic. Tiberius described his great-nephew as having all of Sulla’s faults and none of his virtues {Tacitus, p224}. Caligula was careful to speak no treason, leading to a later comment: “There had never been a better slave or a worse master.” {Tacitus p209}

Later in 37, the young emperor fell ill. Some blamed this on unhealthy luxuries {Philo}. Maybe this was brain fever, and his erratic behaviour began after recovery. {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert p317}  Modern historians attempt to diagnose Caligula with some mental illness, difficult to do. {Grant, p111} Suetonius mentions epilepsy and chronic insomnia. “He tired of lying awake the greater part of the night. . .invoking the day which, seemed as if it would never break.” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVv}

Perhaps a good diagnosis for Caligula is psychopath. “Everything that Caligula said or did was marked with equal cruelty, even during his hours of rest and amusement and banquetry.” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVxxxii} The first casualties were co-heir Tiberius Gemellus, then Praetorian Prefect Macro and his wife Ennia, who helped him to power {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p317}.

Many innocent people would meet their deaths, sometimes gruesomely, “not necessarily for major offences, but merely for criticising his shows, failing to swear by his genius, etc.” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IV} Their confiscated estates were sold to boost the treasury, Caligula called this: “I am clearing my accounts” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVxxix.} He even made parents attend their own son’s executions. {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVxxvi}

His sexual behaviour was also psychopathic. Caligula had homosexual affairs with Valerius Catallus and actor Mnester {Grant, p114}; but seems to have preferred stolae. This was unfortunate for the women of Rome, from meretrices to senator’s wives. He loved cuckolding other men, therefore showing his power, particularly senators. The ladies were told: “This beautiful throat will be cut whenever I please.” {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVxxxii}

He committed incest with his sisters, especially Drusilla, who were put on coins {}. After her death in 38, Drusilla was made a goddess {Boatwright Gargola Lenski Talbert, p317}. Julia Livilla and Agrippina were later banished by their brother, not such a terrible fate. Caligula later had himself deified, dressing as various god and goddesses and putting his statue in temples.

We can question whether these tales are true? “The consistent tone of the stories suggests a kernel of truth” {Grant, p114}.

Perhaps a more contemporary diagnosis for Caligula is tyrant, who Plato compares to a werewolf that eats human flesh {Plato Republic VIII}.  After looking at the means by which they stay in power, he adds: “A man becomes strictly tyrannical whenever by nature, or by habit, or by both together, he has fallen under the dominion of wine, or love, or insanity. {Plato Republic IX}

Whatever was wrong with Caligula was permanently cured on 24 Jan 41, when he was stabbed to death in the theatre, by Cassius Chaerea and his own Praetorian Guard {}. This tyrannicide was somewhat heroic, unlike the murders of his wife Caesonia and infant daughter. After his assassination the Romans wished to restore the Republic {Suetonius Gaius Caligula IVlx}, but it was too late for that.


Barber, Stephen & Reed, Jeremy. Caligula: Divine Carnage. Creation Books, 2000.

Boatwright, Mary & Gargola, Daniel & Lenski, Noel & Talbert, Richard. The Romans: From Village to Empire, Second Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Cassius Dio. “Roman History: Book LIX.” Loeb Classical Library edition, 1924. Retrieved from: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/59*.html

Grant, Michael. The Twelve Caesars. London: Phoenix Giant, 1997.

Philo of Alexandria. “ON THE EMBASSY TO GAIUS” The Works of Philo. Retrieved from: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/yonge/book40.html

Plato. The Republic. London: Wordworth Classics of World Literature, 1997.

Suetonius Tranquilis, Gaius. The Twelve Caesars. Middlesex: Penguin Classics, 1957.

Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. The Annals of Imperial Rome. London: Penguin Classics, 1956.


2 thoughts on ““Divine” Madness

  1. Interesting article you have written. Agrippina became a Christian and was very vocal in opposition to her sons behaviour. This is why she was banished from his courts. You say he preferred “Stolae”? Is that a reference to transvestites? as a stola is a garment worn by a roman woman.
    Boatright… was this his name or his title? was he a master of boatbuilding? forgive my ignorance.
    Gargola… is this where we get the word and figures of Gargoyles? Ok now I have made you laugh with my stupidity.
    Im going to bed.

  2. Stola was a Roman woman’s dress, so I use it like skirt in the modern sense. Caligula was bi, I’d say, but mostly preyed on women, like senator’s wives. That’s why I can call him a POS.

    As for Agrippina, it was too early to be a Christian, then.

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