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the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated

bust of Caligula

Gaius Caesar Germanicus was born in 12 AD in Antium (now Anzio), Italy. The third of six living children born to Germanicus and Agrippina, he was the great-great-grandson of Julius Caesar and great-grandson of Augustus Caesar, and his father was a beloved general.

Beginning at about age two, Gaius began accompanying his father on military campaigns. His father often dressed him in a small suit of armor, leading the soldiers to nickname Gaius "Caligula," the Latin word for "little boots."

Emperor Augustus died in 14, and his step-son Tiberius assumed the throne. Augustus had named Tiberius as his successor on the condition that Tiberius adopt Germanicus and name him as his successor, and Tiberius had faithfully fulfilled both conditions. Soon after his accession, however, Tiberius had Germanicus sent to the eastern provinces, where Germanicus died of an unknown illness. When Agrippina publicly blamed Tiberius for her husband's death, the Emperor responded by having her and her two oldest sons imprisoned; all three subsequently committed suicide. Because of his young age, Gaius was spared imprisonment, but was forced to live with his great-grandmother, Livia, Augustus's wife. In 31, Gaius was summoned to Capri, where he was adopted by Tiberius and named successor to the throne. Gaius spent the next several years living with the man he believed had killed his father, mother, and brothers, during which time he began showing some of the depravities that later defined his reign as Emperor -- watching tortures and executions while dining, for example.

Caligula became Emperor upon Tiberius's death in 37, and was immediately as well loved by the people as his father had been. His popularity soared even higher after he eliminated some of the taxes implemented by Tiberius and freed all political prisoners. He also spent lavish sums of money on public entertainment and civic improvements, further endearing himself to the citizenry. Six months into his rule, however, Caligula was sidelined by an unknown serious illness. Although he recovered physically, his mental health apparently suffered.

Whether Caligula's physical illness caused insanity or some other mental disability has never been conclusively determined, but there is no question that his reign became known for his many eccentricities and cruelties. He began executing members of his family that he saw as threats, and had others exiled. Always at odds with the Senate, he became known for doing all he could to make sure the Senate knew who held the power in Rome, including making Senate members run in front of his chariot while he charged at them at full speed. Taking aim at Rome's religious traditions, he insisted on being treated as a god and made his favorite horse (Incitatus) a priest; he also built him a house, complete with marble stall and ivory manger.

Despite his actions against his family, the Senate, and the Roman religion, Caligula remained popular among the general population because he also loved to spend money on public building projects that benefited everyone (although there were some that benefited him alone). He also published an accounting of public funds, instituted programs to help people affected by fires and other disasters, abolished many taxes, elevated common citizens into the equestrian and senatorial orders, and restored the practice of democratic elections. Caligula's popularity began waning, however, as his actions became more and more eccentric, and costly.

In 39, Caligula ordered the building of a bridge of ships that stretched for more than two miles across the Bay of Baiae. He then planted trees and erected houses on it so he could claim to have crossed the sea on dry land. That same year he began a campaign in Germany that lasted almost a year, but which resulted in no gain of territory or resources. In 40 he led an expedition against Britain that ended at the eastern shore of the English Channel, where he reportedly made his men gather seasehells.

By 41 the Senate had had enough of Caligula and he was murdered by a tribune of the guard, as were his wife Caesonia and his daughter.


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The Robinson Library >> Italy >> Empire, 27 B.C. - 476 A.D.

This page was last updated on January 24, 2019.