Caligula

Caligula, famous for lunacy, narcissism, and sexual depravity. This page is lovingly dedicated to the Caligula nobody knew.

Yep, for five years Malcolm MacDowell was the most powerful man in the world.

Just The Facts

  1. Caligula was the third Roman Emperor.
  2. He did some really messed up stuff as emperor.
  3. Surprisingly, there's no evidence he was inbred. OK, that's a lie, but none of his married ancestors were any closer than first cousins, which is pretty good.

What's With the Name?

Caligula grew up in his father's military camp. See, the Romans had balls; they didn't just threaten to send their kids to military school. Anyway, he was embraced (/put up with so as not to get horse whipped) by the soldiers. They made a mini-uniform for him, including small soldier's boots. They liked it so much they decided to call him Caligula, which means little boots. Roman legionnaires were apparently the ancient equivalent to the valley girl; the first thing they noticed was shoes.

Supposedly when he got older he grew to dislike being called Caligula. He prefered Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Imagine you were the Roman Emperor and everyone was calling you booties.

All That Stuff He Did

Even those who don't know their Roman history have heard of Caligula's outrageous sex parties, his tendancy to murder his mistresses' husbands, and his boner for his sister. But this was just the tip of the iceberg.

So you're the undisputed ruler of the greatest Empire of the era and all is well. Everyone is worshipping the cult of your ancestors as they should be. But what's this? There's a group of people in Judea with a 3000 year old religion who only want to worship one god?! This won't do at all. So what did Caligula do in this situation? He commissioned a golden statue of himself to be put right in middle of the temple at Jerusalem. Seriously. Contemporary and near-contemporary writers speculate that this would've made the Jews revolt. Luckily the local governor realized what a terrible idea this was an successfully stalled until Caligula died. That's the thing about incestous, excessively violent, debaucherous, lusty tyrants; they tend to get assasinated pretty quickly.

As we at Cracked noted earlier, Caligula had his horse made a senator. Now, we fully support animal lovers, but this is excessive. In Rome, the senate made decisions on budgetary matters, foreign policy, and the like. And Caligula decided his horse should be involved in this! But that wasn't enough, Caligula also wanted his pet to become a consul (as with the golden statue, he died before he was able to make that happen). What did consuls do you ask? During their term, consuls pretty much had the authority to do whatever they dammed well felt like. They could veto any motion, raise armies without justification, and during war they had the right to arbitrarily murder anyone, even Roman citizens. A horse very nearly had those powers. Though, in fairness, rather exercising its powers, Caligula's horse probably would have just eaten oats and shit on the senate floor.

Caligula's predecessor as emperor (aka murderous sexual deviant) Tiberius was actually a pretty good economist. When Caligula came to power, he inherited a fairly prosperous empire. Four years later, all gone. Other than a palace for his beloved horse, most of the money went into Caligula's lavish public displays. Rome became party central, and everyone was invited. We mean it, everyone was invited; the guy loved to party. During these parties, he liked to play dress-up. He paraded around in Alexander the Great's breastplate at least once, and he also appeared as Hercules, Jupiter (father of gods), Apollo (sun god), and even Venus (erotica). We can see why somebody would dress up as Alexander the Great or Hercules, but Venus?! In Roman religion, Venus (who was a female deity if you haven't already guessed that) was the embodyment of sexual desire, normally depicted as a beautiful lady.

In one such lavish party, Caligula decided to build a bridge across the nearby harbor at Baiae so he could ride across it. Why did he do this? Because some guy said that he couldn't. That's right. A soothsayer (read: the crazy guy who writes newspaper horoscopes) once said that Caligula "had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae." Caligula actually spent the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars just to prove an astrologer wrong.

Was He Actually Crazy?

Maybe not. Pretty much every ancient source on Caligula calls him insane or mad or something to that effect. But who among the Cracked community has never said somebody was crazy? That's not necessarily meant to be taken literally. Every ancient historian who wrote about Caligula was a senator, and it's no secret that all of the senators hated Caligula.

Let's consider how Caligula got to where he was. Rome was founded as a Republic. Then, Augustus made himself emperor (OK that's a simplified version, but give us a break, there's only so much bandwidth to go around at Cracked). This was purely a merit-based appointment; he earned it. The problem was that if it was merit-based, how could Augustus justify to the senate making his heir his sucessor? Luckily for him, his stepson Tiberius was not only an experienced politician, if he wasn't the best general and diplomat of his generation, he was pretty close. So Tiberius' succession went pretty smoothly. But when Tiberius died, (due to his tendancy to murder everyone close to him) there was only one male member of his family left, Caligula (Tiberius' grand-nephew). Caligula didn't have any of Augustus or Tiberius' street-cred with the senate. He was 23 and had never held political office. Needless to say the Senate didn't approve of him being their leader.

Here's the thing, why would an all-powerful 23-year old give a rats ass what a bunch of uptight, rich, socially and fiscally conservative, middle-aged/elderly white men thought of him? The writers of the era say that Caligula took every oppritunity to disrespect the senators. It has recently been theorized that since he disliked the senate, he sided with the commoners. Remember, all of the surviving literature from the time was written by senators. They all report that Caligula was beloved by the commoners and the army. While the senators disapproved of what Caligula was doing, the average person probably would have been cool with it. Now, let's look at all the examples of his alleged insanity with the assumption that he was on the level. Every one of them can be explained either as him just not giving a fuck, or as him messing with the senators he so despised.

Caligula drained the Imperial treasury. The Roman Senators were basically the John McCains of the time, so obviously they thought Caligula was a dumbass, and that's the characterization that got into the record. But what did he spend all the money on? Lavish public displays, mostly. When you look at the events from John McCain's perspective, you think yes, bankrupting the Empire on big parties was the action of a madman. Now consider it from the perspective of the average Roman. You're a poor farmer who eats almost nothing but bread. This was before weekends had been introduced in Rome, so you seldom got a day off from manual labour. Then your so-called tyrannical ruler starts throwing week-long parties where you get free meat. You'd support that guy.

Caligula dressing up as gods in public falls into the same category. The ultra-conservatives who wrote the history books figured hubris=insanity, but the commoners would've been down with that. Not only did they get to see a good show, if they stayed until the end, they got free meat. If you believe the ancient historians, then Caligula presented himself in the way he did because he was crazy. The new theory is that he figured the support of the masses was better than the support of the top 1% of the wealthiest citizens. While we're on the subject, aside from throwing sexy parties 24/7, what the hell else would a 23-year old with access to billions of dollars (in modern funds) do?

As for building an unnecessary bridge to spite a soothsayer, he was distancing himself from the previous regime. The guy who said that Caligula would never pull that off was employed by Tiberius. Tiberius was known as a fine man of the senate. There may have been some personal aspect to the bridge stunt, but it also clearly sent the message that Caligula did not have the same reverance toward the old guard as did his predecessors. He fancied himself a man of the people.

Everyone's favorite example of Caligula's insanity is that he made his horse a senator and then tried to get him a consulship. This may have been Caligula's way of telling to Roman people that he was on their side. The senators were just a bunch of guys who figured that because their ancestors had cultivated larger tracts of land than everyone else's, they had the right to push people around. The masses didn't appreciate this. So Caligula making his horse a senator may have just been an act of satire. And truly, it is a pretty good burn. If somebody sucessfully got a horse elected to the US Senate, we at Cracked would lol, yes we would.

Finally, there's the matter of incest. OK, critics of this topic have us there. You'd have to be fucked in the head to do that.

Further Reading

The theory that Caligula was sane is described well by Barrett.

Here's some links to the source material. The great thing about ancient authors is they're all public domain.

Cassius Dio was a Roman consul who wrote a history of empire.

Josephus was a Jewish aristocrat who grew up during the reign of Caligula and mentioned him in his two books.

Suetonius was the emperor Hadrian's secretary.

Tacitus was a prominent Roman politician in the late 1st century CE.