Was Caligula Mad, or a Man Ahead of His Time?

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Was Caligula Mad, Or A Man Ahead Of His Time?

The emperor Gaius is a very misunderstood man, who is often brandished with the label of being ‘Mad’ both by ancient and modern scholars. However, it is my belief, it was the absolute power given to him, at such a young age, which caused him to have a mental breakdown. As emperor, he had no one but himself to stop him doing whatever his heart desires, which explains his increasingly cruel and erratic behaviour between AD 37 when Caligula fell ill and AD 41 when the Praetorian Guard took matters into their own hands and assassinated the 29-year-old emperor. The immense power that Gaius was given is bet described by Ferrill, “The powers it had taken Augustus a lifetime to accumulate, Caligula received in a single moment” .

Caligula was born Gaius Julius Caesar in AD 12 to Germanicus and Agrippina, he sent his early childhood in Germany surrounded by the military, where the nickname ‘Caligula’ meaning ‘little boot’ originated as Agrippina would dress him up as a soldier. Gaius was only seven years old when his father died under highly suspicious circumstances, which must have greatly affected the rest life. Gaius was the first emperor to have never seen the Roman Republic, meaning that at the age of twenty-nine when he became emperor there were no restraints to his rule, meaning that he had absolute power to do whatever he wanted. He would also become the first Emperor to be openly assassinated .

“The new emperor began his reign under the most favourable conditions” as he was everything Tiberius was not and as such, “…he fulfilled the highest hopes of the Roman People” . Tiberius’ unpopularity was polarized due to his predecessor’s, Augustus, popularity and legacy, which proved impossible to supersede or even equal. Caligula was also a blood relative to Augustus and Julius Caesar, whereas Tiberius was only an adopted son of Augustus. So, the Roman people believed that after Tiberius’ death that Caligula would become another legendry emperor, as in Caligula “…the imperial house, so long divided, was united” , “So great was the rejoicing, that within the next three months… more than a hundred and sixty thousand victims are said to have been slain in sacrifice” , which undoubtedly he achieved but his rule would become infamous rather than a celebration of his greatness.

Alston says that Caligula’s popularity was, in part, inherited from his mother and brothers, “Gaius’ position on ascension was strong… [his] claim for the imperial position rested solely on his birth” , he also managed to keep the masses happy with “Lavish displays of generosity and through expensive and extended games” . When he first became Emperor he “Free[d] all the prisoners, granting amnesty to exiles everywhere. This…was immensely popular, since most Romans believed that political prisoners were victims of the tyranny of Tiberius” .

However, when in October AD 37 he suffered from a ‘serious illness’ which can be seen as pivotal to his fall from grace and there is a dramatic change in both his behaviour and the way in which he ruled Rome. After his illness, he became a very dangerous man to know, especially with his increasingly erratic and his antics have become legendary such as, making the entire army go to collect shells on a beach in Bologna, which Gaius later said they were a triumph offering from Neptune himself and his attempts to instate his horse, Incitatus, into the Senate. These stories have made Caligula one of the most famous and most interesting emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, however in the first century AD; Caligula’s popularity came and went very quickly “Within six moths his support was ebbing away from Gaius was acting like a tyrant. Within four years he was dead” .

Tiberius, it “… appears to have been unpopular with virtually everyone in Rome” and Baldwin says that “Caligula after Tiberius may be likened to Kennedy after Eisenhower” and was...
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