An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors
Gaius (Caligula) (A.D. 37-41)
Garrett G. Fagan
Pennsylvania State University
A Bust of theEmperor Caligula
Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (b. A.D. 12, d. A.D. 41, emperor A.D. 37-41) represents a turning point in the early history of the Principate. Unfortunately, his is the most poorly documented reign of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The literary sources for these four years are meager, frequently anecdotal, and universally hostile.[] As a result, not only are many of the events of the reign unclear, but Gaius himself appears more as a caricature than a real person, a crazed megalomaniac given to capricious cruelty and harebrained schemes. Although some headway can be made in disentangling truth from embellishment, the true character of the youthful emperor will forever elude us. Gaius's Early Life and Reign
Gaius was born on 31 August, A.D. 12, probably at the Julio-Claudian resort of Antium (modern Anzio), the third of six children born to Augustus's adopted grandson, Germanicus, and Augustus's granddaughter, Agrippina. As a baby he accompanied his parents on military campaigns in the north and was shown to the troops wearing a miniature soldier's outfit, including the hob-nailed sandal called caliga, whence the nickname by which posterity remembers him.[] His childhood was not a happy one, spent amid an atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion, and murder. Instability within the Julio-Claudian house, generated by uncertainty over the succession, led to a series of personal tragedies. When his father died under suspicious circumstances on 10 October A.D. 19, relations between his mother and his grand-uncle, the emperor Tiberius, deteriorated irretrievably, and the adolescent Gaius was sent to live first with his great-grandmother Livia in A.D. 27 and then, following Livia's death two years later, with his grandmother Antonia. Shortly before the fall of Tiberius's Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus, in A.D. 31 he was summoned to join Tiberius at his villa on Capri, where he remained until his accession in A.D. 37. In the interim, his two brothers and his mother suffered demotion and, eventually, violent death. Throughout these years, the only position of administrative responsibility Gaius held was an honorary quaestorship in A.D. 33. []
When Tiberius died on 16 March A.D. 37, Gaius was in a perfect position to assume power, despite the obstacle of Tiberius's will, which named him and his cousin Tiberius Gemellus joint heirs. (Gemellus's life was shortened considerably by this bequest, since Gaius ordered him killed within a matter of months.) Backed by the Praetorian Prefect Q. Sutorius Macro, Gaius asserted his dominance. He had Tiberius's will declared null and void on grounds of insanity, accepted the powers of the Principate as conferred by the Senate, and entered Rome on 28 March amid scenes of wild rejoicing. His first acts were generous in spirit: he paid Tiberius's bequests and gave a cash bonus to the Praetorian Guard, the first recorded donativum to troops in imperial history. He honored his father and other dead relatives and publicly destroyed Tiberius's personal papers, which no doubt implicated many of the Roman elite in the destruction of Gaius's immediate family. Finally, he recalled exiles and reimbursed those wronged by the imperial tax system []. His popularity was immense. Yet within four years he lay in a bloody heap in a palace corridor, murdered by officers of the very guard entrusted to protect him. What went wrong? Gaius's "Madness"
The ancient sources are practically unanimous as to the cause of Gaius's downfall: he was insane. The writers differ as to how this condition came about, but all agree that after his good start Gaius began to behave in an openly autocratic manner, even a crazed one. [] Outlandish stories cluster about the raving emperor, illustrating his excessive cruelty, immoral sexual escapades, or...
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