The Madness of Caligula

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By Benjamin Lewis Price, Ph.D.

Delivered At 
“Ship of Fools, Throne in Bedlam: The Role of Madness in History,” 
Sponsored by the Department of History and Political Science Panel 
Madness in Art, Literature, and Society Symposium, 

Pottle Auditorium, Southeastern Louisiana University, Hammond, Louisiana,

October 27, 2009.


In the year 37, the Roman Senate conferred power over the state on Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, whom we know as the Emperor Caligula. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, his “accession seemed to the Roman people—one might almost say, to the whole world—like a dream come true.” Caligula was the popular grandson of the Emperor Tiberius. At first, the new princeps—Caligulaseemed to fulfill the hopes of the Senate and people of Rome that he would be as great and good as the first emperor, his grandfather, the Divine Emperor Augustus.

According to Suetonius, Caligula recalled all of those who had been exiled for political crimes under his predecessors, dismissing the charges against them. He ordered works of history and literature that had been banned by Tiberius found and republished, so that, again in the words of Suetonius, “posterity should be in full possession of all historical facts.” His many acts of generosity and kindness won him many honors from the people and Senate of Rome. 

Suetonius notes with favor some of Caligula’s early behavior that should have raised eyebrows. For instance, the historian reports that Caligula built a causeway across the Bay of Naples between Baiae and Puteoli, “a huge engineering feat” by ancient standards, and also the ancient equivalent of using state funds to build a bridge to nowhere. Suetonius gives three possible reasons for Caligula’s singularly useless engineering exercise:

Most people, I know, are of the opinion, that this bridge was designed by Gaius, in imitation of Xerxes, who, to the astonishment of the world, laid a bridge over the Hellespont, which is somewhat narrower than the distance between Baiae and Puteoli. Others, however, thought that he did it to terrify the Germans and Britons, with whom he was preparing to deal. But for myself, when I was a boy, I heard my grandfather say, that the reason assigned by some courtiers who knew him well, was this; when Tiberius was in some anxiety about the nomination of a successor, and rather inclined toward Caligula, a famous astrologer assured him, “That Gaius would no more be emperor, than he would ride on horseback across the gulf of Baiae.”


Perhaps this extravagant and rather ridiculous action perpetrated by the Emperor Caligula is the first hint that ought to lead us to question his sanity. It was an enormous and seemingly purposeless expenditure in time, treasure and manpower— again, virtually a “bridge to nowhere” that probably should argue that the relatively new ruler’s mind was not entirely sound. On the other hand we might peruse a few of the “earmarks” in the Congressional budget in any given year, or take a look at some of the uses that the 2009 “Stimulus” money went toward, before we cast stones in Caligula’s direction. 

It is difficult to get a handle on the extent of Caligula’s insanity for two reasons. First, we have pretty good reasons to doubt the trustworthiness of the historical sources available to us. Secondly, it is no easy task to frame a definition of insanity in the case of a Roman emperor, simply because the position, persona and role of the Roman princeps is unique.

Insanity may be defined as a spectrum of behaviors characterized by certain abnormal mental or behavioral patterns. Insanity may manifest itself as violations of societal norms, including behavior that poses a danger to the subject and others. Insane behavior must be judged based on the status, occupation or formal societal role of the subject. In other words behavior that is perfectly acceptable in one individual is evidence of insanity in another. For instance, if the president of the United States decides to go before Congress and request a declaration of war against, say Honduras, that act might be judged as wrong headed, but not insane. If I decide to do the same thing, my sanity will be brought into question. On the other hand, if the president asks Congress for a declaration of war against the Martians or the Isle of the Faeries, his sanity will most likely be brought into question. 

Insane behavior may be a matter of extremes; appropriate behavior taken to an extreme will likely be viewed as evidence of an unsound mind. If the elderly widow next door has three cats, no one is likely to view that with suspicion. If she has 300 cats, that will definitely raise some eyebrows in the neighborhood.

So, we might conclude that judgements of insanity may be based on societal norms, on the status and role of the subject, and on the extremity of the behavior. Herein lies the difficulty of judging the behavior of Caligula. How do we determine what behavior is appropriate in a person whose role is literally unique, and who holds a degree of power and authority that transcends that of any other individual in the ancient Western World? In order to approach the question of the sanity of Caligula, we need to have some understanding of the role and persona of the Roman emperor as it was understood by the Romans themselves and as it was created by the first emperor, Caesar Augustus over the first decade or so of his dominance over the Roman Empire. 

The corruption, cronyism, and sheer incompetence of the Roman Senatorial oligarchy in the later years of the Republic led to a crisis of government that resulted in a series of civil wars from 50 down to 30 B.C. as one Roman general after another competed for ascendency over the Roman state. As a result of the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., one man emerged the victor, and, taking control of Rome, he set about the business of restoring order and stability to the Roman Empire. That man was Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the grand nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar. He was granted the name and title, Augustus Caesar by the Roman Senate in 27 B.C. He is the first Roman emperor.

Augustus Caesar maintained control over the Roman State for the rest of his life. He ruled from 30 B.C. to A.D. 14. During that 43 years he reorganized the Roman government to give permanent control to one man. 

Augustus used military power to put himself put in charge of the old city-state government of Rome. But the Roman ruling class would not tolerate a monarch or tyrant, so it fell to Augustus to create an autocratic system of government that could offer the fiction, the delusion if you will, that the older republican form of government still existed. To accomplish this political sleight of hand, Augustus maintained control by combining many powers of the traditional Roman magistrates into the largely informal and unofficial role of first citizen.

The chief executives of Rome were the consuls. Two were elected each year. After serving several consulships, Augustus got the Senate and Assembly to give him the power of a consul even in years when he did not actually hold the office. There continued to be regular annual consuls, but because consuls could not enact any policy without reaching a consensus, Augustus was able to guide the policies of the other consuls whenever he wanted. His enormous prestige made it impossible that any regularly elected consul would ever disagree with him. 

Augustus was given the power of a tribune of the people as well. The Roman plebeians elected ten tribunes each year to protect their rights. Augustus was a patrician, so he could not hold a tribuneship, so the powers of a tribune were given to him. Tribunes could forbid any action that threatened the interests of the Roman people. Augustus could use his tribunician power to veto any undesirable action of the Senate or Assembly. Moreover, all Roman leaders had to swear an oath that they would not harm a tribune in any way.  In all of these offices Augustus did not rule alone. Besides him, there were regular consuls, tribunes, etc. But his prestige and his military support enabled him to control who would be elected to serve in office with him. Moreover, since he held all of these jobs of once, he had more auctoritas (personal authority and prestige) than any other Roman. 

Augustus never took any special titles for himself. Our word "emperor" comes from one of the titles granted to him by the Senate—"imperator." But this title might be held by any Roman general. The title that Augustus most favored was princeps senatus, and it was very modest.  This title, given to Augustus by a vote of the Senate in 23 B.C., had been traditionally granted to the most senior or most distinguished member of the Senate, and it simply meant first citizen or first member of the Senate. Augustus made sure that all of the honors, and all of the titles that he received were officially conferred upon him by either the Roman Senate or the Assembly of the Roman People in such a manner that no one would accuse him of aspiring to autocratic power. He carefully avoided receiving titles that might be construed as inappropriately grandiose or tending toward royalty. 

Augustus began a crusade to revive temperance and morality among the Roman ruling class. He got the Senate to pass a series of laws against adultery, and promoting various aspects of what we would call family values. Augustus, himself tried to set an example by dressing without extravagance, by living in a relatively modest house, and by showcasing his family as exemplars of morality. This didn’t work out as well as he would have liked. Several family members became involved in affairs, so Augustus had to exile them to barren islands as punishment. Augustus lived a pious, humble, moral and moderate lifestyle to stress his suitability as the first citizen of Rome. This style of living became the model of appropriate behavior in an emperor — essentially the accepted norm.

 Augustus did not assume the trappings of a king or dictator, and he shunned any notion of personal divinity (at least in the West). He did not wear special clothes or crowns, in fact, according to Suetonius, Augustus always wore togas woven by is wife Livia and her household slaves, setting an example to the ruling class that, for a real Roman man, humble homespun was sufficient.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Augustus' reorganization of the Roman state into an imperial government is that it was generally accepted by the Romans as a desirable arrangement. Augustus did not abolish any of the older offices or institutions of government. He allowed them to continue, but only under his close personal supervision. The Roman ruling class valued the honor of holding military and civilian offices and sitting in the Senate, so Augustus made sure that such honors and offices were available to members of the old republican ruling class.

What Augustus created was, in effect, a delusion. Romans were willing to ignore the man behind the curtain, to believe, in spite of the reality of the autocratic authority of the emperor over the state, that the old Roman Republic was still the government of Rome. It is perhaps, Caligula’s greatest and most fatal flaw that his own instability made him incapable of sharing the grand delusion that Augustus had created.

Now, let’s look at the case against Caligula. According to the sources, his first seven months in power went well, and made the young emperor very popular. In October of 37, he fell seriously ill. Most of the historians observe that, after his illness, his behavior changed markedly. Suetonius remarks, “So much for the Emperor; the rest of this history must deal with the monster.” According to Suetonius, the particular areas of bizarre behavior exhibited by Caligula smacked of impiety, sexual deviance, extravagance, and blood lust. Suetonius offers stories in each area that vary from extremes that tax our credibility to less egregious examples of the same kind of behavior.  

The first accusation that Suetonius levels against Caligula is impiety. The emperor claimed that he was a god. “He established a shrine to himself as God, with priests...and a life sized golden image, which was dressed every day in clothes identical to those that he happened to be wearing” He interacted with his fellow deities, indulging in whispered conversations with  the statue of the Capitoline Jupiter. Once, Suetonius notes, Caligula shouted to Jupiter, “If you do not raise me up to heaven, I will cast you down to hell!” He even shared Jupiter's home, connecting his palace to Jupiter's temple. 

Perhaps the weirdest “confrontation” that Caligula had with one of his divine colleagues took place in the late summer or fall of 39 A.D. Caligula brought his legions to the shore of the English Channel in order to invade Britain. When poor weather and choppy water made it impossible to load the ships, the emperor ordered his siege machines brought forward and had them fired at the water. Then, he ordered his troops to fill chests and their helmets and the folds of their garments with seashells from the beach — spoils and tribute from Neptune. The soldiers were given “bonuses” from the seashells, and the remainder was taken to Rome to the Senate as evidence of Caligula’s great victory over Neptune, the god of the sea. The invasion of Britain never happened.

Now, the Romans had nothing against elevating their emperors to gods, but they preferred to grant divinity only to dead ones. After the death of Augustus and Caligula’s successor, Claudius, the Senate granted them divine status. The problem is that Caligula took divinity upon himself, essentially cutting out the middle man, and also did so while still alive. This new, divine, status of the princeps was intolerable to the Senators, who were able to delude themselves that they were the equals in power and auctoritas to a man, but couldn’t compete with a god!  

All of the ancient historians who studied Caligula observe his bizarre sexual behavior.  The strongest indictment of Caligula rests in his relations with his sisters, with whom, according to Suetonius, “he lived in habitual incest.” His favorite, the sister he was most fixated upon was Drusilla, his middle sister. While we do not know if Caligula actually had sexual relations with any of his sisters, we can assume from the evidence that he had, what modern psychologists might call “unhealthy associations and fixations” on Drusilla. Caligula is reputed to have taken Drusilla from her husband, and openly treated her as his “lawfully married wife.” When she died of a fever in June of 38, Caligula refused to leave her presence and refused, apparently for several days, to allow anyone to move the body. He never really got over her loss. He had her declared a goddess the “Diva Drusilla,” and named his only daughter after his beloved sister, Julia Drusilla. After the death of Drusilla, the emperor’s relations with his other sisters soured to the point that he began to fear that they were involved in a conspiracy to kill him.

Other odd sexual behavior mentioned by the historians revolve around Caligula’s marital activities. “It would be hard to say,” Suetonius states, “whether the way he got married, the way he dissolved his marriages, or the way he behaved as a husband was the most disgraceful.” He attended the wedding of Gaius Piso and Livia Orestilla, but had the bride carried off to his own home and married her himself. After a few days he divorced her. He abducted, or otherwise took several of the wives of other important Roman Senators in addition to Piso’s. Sleeping with them, parading them around before the army and members of the Senatorial class, sometimes nude, his bizarre behavior toward his wives, and the wives of others (and sometimes that distinction becomes blurred) had to have aroused anger and indignation among the leaders of Roman political society.  Suetonius notes that:

there was scarcely any woman of rank whom he did not approach. These as a rule he invited to dinner with their husbands, and as they passed by the foot of his couch, he would inspect them critically and deliberately, as if buying slaves; then, if the fancy took him he would leave the room, sending for the one who pleased him best, and returning soon afterwards with evident signs of what had occurred, he would openly commend or criticise his partner, recounting her charms or defects and commenting on her conduct. 

We can get a pretty good idea that Caligula had what we might call sexual issues. I suspect that some of the anecdotes were made up or at least hyperbolized, but there was, nonetheless, some basis for them in fact for them. Note that many of these activities involve Caligula in insulting and demeaning activities with the wives and daughters of members of the Senatorial class, and this challenge to the great  familiae and to the honor of the husbands and respectability of the matrons of the Roman ruling class was too much for that class to bear. 

All of the ancients complain of Caligula’s extravagance. Suetonius notes that:

... he outdid the prodigals of all times in ingenuity, inventing a new sort of baths and unnatural varieties of food and feasts; for he would drink pearls of great price dissolved in vinegar, and set before his guests loaves and meats of gold, declaring that a man ought either to be frugal or Caesar. He even scattered large sums of money among the commons from the roof of the basilica Julia for several days in succession. He also built galleys with ten banks of oars, with sterns set with gems, multi-colored sails, huge spacious baths, colonnades, and banquet-halls, so that on board of them he might recline at table from an early hour, and coast along the shores of Campania amid songs and choruses. He built villas and country houses with utter disregard of expense... To make a long story short, he squandered vast sums of money, including the 27,000,000 gold pieces which Tiberius Caesar had amassed, in less than a year.

Always in need of funds, Caligula became imaginative to a fault in finding new ways to raise revenues. In his most extreme example, Suetonius accuses Caligula of opening a brothel in the palace and staffing it with respectable married women and freeborn boys (we assume Roman citizens), and, playing the pimp himself, inviting men to use his facilities. “Those who appeared were lent money at interest, and clerks openly wrote down their names under the heading ‘contributors to the Imperial Revenue.’”  

Whether Caligula ever went this far, is open to speculation among modern scholars, but Caligula’s spending appears to have been out of hand, and some of his methods of replacing lost revenues required him to suspend laws without going through the important formality of consulting the Senate. His new taxes weighed heavily on members of the Senatorial class. He also used the Praetorian Guard, in effect his own private army, to collect taxes instead of the tax collectors, depriving members of the Roman business class of a traditional source of income. We may suspect that he allowed his soldiers to employ far more heavy-handed methods of collection than had existed before. The Romans might not yet believe in “no taxation without representation,” but the upper classes were prepared to resist the idea of “pay this tax, or private Publius here will strike you repeatedly until you do!” 

The last accusation that has been leveled at Caligula is blood lust. I have to say that for a people like the Romans to make this accusation is something in and of itself. By our standards the Romans were a pretty bloodthirsty lot. So, what is said about Caligula that people who could eat a picnic while watching gladiatorial combat could call over the top? Well, first, Suetonius complains that the young emperor’s arrogant violence was directed at all of the orders of society. He especially concentrated his wrath on the upper classes of the city. He made parents attend the executions of their sons; he watched the manager of his gladiatorial shows flogged with chains over several days, having him killed only when the smell of suppurating brains became unbearable; he frequently had people tortured in his presence “while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself.” 

Worst of all, perhaps, he constantly informed the leaders of Rome that their lives were in his hands. On one occasion he cried out in public, “I wish all you Romans had only one neck!” Once while presiding, in the robes of the pontifex maximus, as the high priest of Rome, at an official sacrifice, he swung the mallet, as if at the victim, but instead felled the assistant-priest. At one particularly extravagant banquet he burst into sudden peals of laughter. The Consuls, who were reclining next to him, politely asked if they might share the joke. He answered. “It occurred to me that I have only to give one nod and both of your throats will be cut on the spot!” He never kissed the neck of his wife or mistress without saying: “And this beautiful throat will be cut whenever I please!” 

And here, perhaps is the madness of Caligula in a nutshell. The young emperor’s licentious, bloodthirsty and extravagant behavior was often to the detriment of the rights, privileges and auctoritas of the Senatorial class, the class with whom the princeps theoretically shared power and prestige. Many of the worst elements of Caligula’s madness flew directly in the face of the great Roman Republican delusion— the shared hallucination that the Republic still endured, the Senate and people of Rome still ruled the Empire, merely in concert with a beneficent, generous, moral and kind first citizen. In short, the madness of Caligula threatened the republican delusion, the conventional madness, that was, in essence, the constitution of the Early Roman Empire. The prescribed treatment for Caligula’s malady took place on January 21, A.D. 41, as the emperor was leaving the games held for the divine Augustus. He was set upon by his own body guard and, according to Suetonius, like his namesake and great grandfather, Julius Caesar, stabbed thirty times. This cure was, for Caligula, complete and final.