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Caligula: His Rise to Power and His Reign

Updated on April 30, 2018
Elijah DeVivo profile image

Elijah is a best-selling author and previous columnist for an award-winning blog.


Caligula's Childhood

On August 31st, 12 A.D., a boy by the name of Gaius Julius Caesar was born to Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder. Little did the Romans know that this infant would go on to becoming one of the most despicable, sadistic leaders in their history.

Roman culture and history is that of inspiration, but it is also that of brutality and cruelty. I think most people know of Rome’s dark history, but I do not think people understand the full extent of cruelty that existed within Rome. Caligula not only epitomized cruelty but he took it much further, and in the process appalled an empire who was no stranger to brutality.

Gaius Julius Caesar was born into one of Rome’s most powerful families. His father Germanicus was a war hero stationed in the upper region of the empire. Gaius’s mother was Agrippina the Elder, the granddaughter to Rome’s first emperor: Augustus Caesar. Gaius was given the nickname Caligula as a small child by soldiers, the name meant “little boots” in Latin. Many wonder how “little boots”, this child with a promising future, could become one of the most (if not the most) sadistic rulers in human history. One of the possible answers could be traced to Caligula’s childhood.

Caligula’s childhood was filled with strife. He was born into a family constantly fighting for power. His mother and father were extremely influential and their ties to Rome’s first emperor cemented them in the elitism of Rome’s political and social ranks. There was one man, whom in my opinion, molded Caligula into the monster he became, that man was Tiberius. Tiberius was Caligula’s stepfather and the emperor at the time of his childhood. Tiberius’s reign was that filled with corruption and rivalry, the entire family was at odds with one another. It’s hard to believe that family values were virtually nonexistent, especially in a time where society emphasizes how important the bond of family is.

Tiberius was a hated ruler, he was beyond paranoid of one taking his crown, and his sadism was horrific. He’d often have people thrown from the ledges of the island Capri (his residence) to the rocks below for fun and forced pre-pubescent boys into having sexual relations with him (mind you Tiberius was in his sixties and seventies during this time). Tiberius was extremely unnerved by the thought of Germanicus becoming ruler, and like the cunning tyrant he was, Tiberius had him poisoned to death. Germanicus was becoming too powerful which made him enemy number one.

Agrippina was warned by her husband to hold her tongue in the event of his death, but she did quite the opposite. Agrippina not only mourned the loss of her husband, but she accused Tiberius of the crimes vehemently. She publicly branded him as a murderer who plotted his death. She was known to have a bad temper, and that paired with her social status proved to be concerning to insecure Tiberius. When Caligula’s older brothers chimed in with their mother it became apparent that they had to be stopped. Tiberius labeled them enemies of the state, Caligula’s brothers were forced to commit suicide and Agrippina starved herself to death,

This is when I think Caligula ultimately started to turn perverse. He had lost his parents and brothers to a terrifying ruler and his fear consumed him. During his adolescence following the events Caligula began exhibiting shocking behavior. Caligula started having sex at a very young age with both of his sisters. Following the murders of his parents, Caligula and his sisters were sent to live with their grandmother who was a powerful matron. She was the one who discovered the sexual relationship between his sisters when she walked in on them during the act. She was mortified to say the least.

When Caligula was summoned to Capri by Tiberius himself he was struck by fear. He obeyed the wishes of the emperor and went regardless.

Whilst there, Caligula befriended the guard Macro, who was assigned to protect Tiberius. Their friendship became so close that Macro allowed his wife to sleep with Caligula!

Tiberius became ill under mysterious circumstances (probably due to poison) and had the succession made up: Caligula and his grandson, Tiberius Gemellus were to rule jointly. This was an odd request because the typical succession was only one emperor and not two. After Tiberius died the senate dismissed his request of a joint rule under grounds of insanity. Caligula was crowned emperor of Rome; the people of Rome rejoiced that Tiberius and his dark reign was over. However, the Romans were about to see an emperor far worse than Tiberius.

Caligula as a child

All photos contained within this article do not belong to me
All photos contained within this article do not belong to me | Source

Sexual Depravity and Cruelty

During Tiberius’s reign he opened cases against almost all the senators because of his paranoia. Caligula had all these cases closed, and the files destroyed. Unbeknownst to the senate Caligula kept copies so he could later use them to his advantage.

When Caligula fell ill and while at the same time had a major mental breakdown, his rule went from a joyful reign to a dark and disturbing reign. They say absolute power corrupts absolutely, and this was the case with Caligula.

After his breakdown he shifted his focus from gladiator games and entertaining the people, to blaming all the senators for his family’s deaths and reopening their cases. He not only turned against the senate but turned against Tiberius Gemellus and his once good friend Macro. He had them executed. After his breakdown he often suffered headaches and insomniac episodes which didn’t help his state of mind.

He became increasingly perverse, having giant orgies and sex parties. He’d have sex with his family members, prisoners and even senators. A male poet was once mentioned by Suetonius to have said publicly that the emperor had exhausted him because of his libido.

His sexual appetite was not the only thing that became more depraved: his violence increased. Caligula had more gladiatorial games and would even throw in random spectators if they ran out of prisoners/gladiators. The observers were now taking part in the games versus wild animals and skilled fighters. He had many people executed and would have them tortured over the course of days with small incisions. Once it was alleged that he tortured a prisoner so much and so long, that his brain was beginning to putrefy and smelt rotten. He’d often eat food and drink whilst watching the suffering and he reveled in it. He would also make families attend their loved ones’ executions and would have them seated for dinner and sadistically go into detail explaining their deaths.

His beloved sister Drusilla, whom he had a sexual relationship with in his adolescents fell to his savagery. He ended up impregnating her and then had her disemboweled because he did not want a child with her. He had the fetus removed and killed and she died as a result.

His Madness

His delusions were also spiraling out of control. He had his sister made a goddess even though he disemboweled her. His insecurities stemming from narcissism showed in odd ways. His hair was thinning and so he had men who had fuller heads of hair to be shaved in order to make himself feel more confident. His madness went so far that he even tried to make his horse consul.

On one occasion Caligula wanted to succeed militarily and restore support in the empire, so he tried to expand the empire’s borders. The attempt was not only in vain but was completely ludicrous. He ordered his men to remove their helmets and fill them with seashells to bring back to Rome as “spoils from his conquering of the sea”.

Caligula's Murder

There seemed to be no end in sight of his madness and evil, but the final straw was when Caligula wanted to go to Egypt and rule from afar. This was more than out of the question and stacked with every other thing he had done during his reign the Romans decided enough was enough. Caligula was stabbed over thirty times by members of his family, soldiers and even the guard assigned to protect him.

His wife would later go on to being stabbed and his young daughter was beaten to death to ensure that no conflict would later occur.

Whether the horrors of his reign were a product of his dysfunctional childhood or was traced back to his DNA (a product of incest) it is unknown. Perhaps it was a psychological disorder he suffered. Whatever it may be, Caligula was one of Rome’s worst emperors, and in my opinion one of the most evil men in history.


Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror

© 2018 Elijah DeVivo


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