Known by his nickname “Caligula,” the notorious Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus was the third emperor of the Roman Empire. He was the great-grandson of Julius Caesar. If you ask any Game of Thrones fan, the actor who plays Joffrey Baratheon, a cruel and violent child king in the books and TV series, looks just like him, and his character’s actions don’t fall far from the Caligula trope tree.
Despite Caligula’s atrocious reputation, he was extremely well loved by the Roman people during the first six months of his reign, but the tide began to turn when he fell seriously ill. After Caligula recovered, his mental health drastically changed, and he would be remembered by history in his remaining three and a half years as a ruthless, sadistic and sexually perverse tyrant.
Allegedly, Caligula turned the palace into a brothel, took sexual liberties with his three younger sisters and talked to the moon. He also executed or exiled the people closest to him and anyone he perceived as a threat. Sometimes Caligula killed for fun and made a habit out of sleeping with other men’s wives and bragging about it.
Scholars suspect that his mental instability was induced by an illness, such as temporal lobe epilepsy, hyperthyroidism or Wilson’s disease. Others think the deaths of his parents and brothers unhinged him as a child. Another theory speculates that he was being poisoned. Regardless of the root cause, Caligula did some seriously looney things during his short, four year reign.
Before he was assassinated by officers of the Praetorian Guard, senators and courtiers at the age of 28, Caligula’s five craziest moments were:
1. Making his cherished horse, Incitatus, a senator and putting him on the list to become consul.
2. Ordering his guards to throw a section of the crowd at the Colosseum into the arena between gladiatorial games. Apparently watching people get eaten by wild animals alleviates boredom.
3. Declaring war on Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. He had his soldiers whip the waves and gather seashells to bring home as “spoils.” This ludicrous behavior arose after an unsuccessful campaign abroad in Britain. Caligula didn’t want to return to Rome without a victory.
4. Believing he was a living, breathing, tangible god and forcing the people of Rome worship him as such. He had the heads of deities on statues removed and replaced with his own. He also wanted a statue of himself constructed in the Temple of Jerusalem.
5. Hitting a priest over the head with a hammer when he supposed to do that to a bull in a sacrifice to the gods instead.
To learn more about Caligula’s special brand of crazy, check out episode nine of Remarkable Lives. Tragic Deaths, a Parcast Network podcast series.
Remarkable Lives. Tragic Deaths examines the lives and tragic deaths of people who changed history and influenced pop culture.