Roman Emperor Caligula: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Kathleen Halecki

Kathleen Halecki possesses a B.A. and M.A. in history, and a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on early modern Scotland. She has been teaching for over a decade in subjects such as history, philosophy and anthropology.

This lesson will look at the life of the Roman emperor, Caligula. Perhaps one of the most infamous of all of the emperors who ruled, his name over the centuries has become synonymous with Roman corruption and debauchery.


Old Hollywood movies tended to show Roman emperors lounging around, drinking wine from a golden goblet, and plotting the downfall of their enemies. In this particular case, this image hits close to home and is supported by the Roman author, Suetonius, who wrote an account known as ''The Lives of the Caesars'' which provides us with a description of the more notorious aspects of some of these men including Caligula. Suetonius describes Caligula as someone who even in his youth, ''could not control his natural cruelty and viciousness.''



Emperor Caligula's full name was Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus. In his name we see his family roots. He was a great-grandson to Emperor Augustus Caesar who was a great-nephew to Julius Caesar. The dynasty that Caligula belonged to was known as the Julio-Claudian line for it produced a series of emperors starting with Augustus Caesar and ending with Caligula's uncle, Claudius. Caligula's father was Germanicus and his mother was Agrippina. Caligula was the third son and born in Atium on August 31 in 12 A.D.

While his full name is certainly a mouthful, he was given the nickname ''Caligula'' by his father's soldiers. As a small child he would wear the uniform of a soldier, including the boots known as caliga while his father was on campaign in Germania. The name Caligula actually means ''little boots.'' He reigned briefly from 37 to 41 A.D.


When just a small child, Emperor Augustus died leaving the empire to his step-son, Tiberius. It was rumored that Tiberius had Caligula's father poisoned and when his mother spoke out, he had her and her eldest sons imprisoned on charges of treason. This left Caligula in the hands of his great-grandmother, Livia.

In 31 A.D., Tiberius called for Caligula to join him at his palace on the island of Capri. Although Tiberius adopted Caligula, he was a virtual prisoner. Caligula engaged in vile habits to the point where Tiberius declared he was ''nursing a viper in Rome's bosom.'' When Tiberius took ill, it was said that Caligula smothered him to hurry his death along.


Caligula became the emperor in 37 A.D. when he was only twenty-four years old, and he was welcomed by the Roman people and backed by the Senate. The Roman Empire at this time extended from northern Africa, the Near East, and most of western Europe including modern day England. The Romans looked to their emperor to provide peace and stability. They were relieved that a new emperor was in charge and for the first six months of his reign, Caligula seemed to do a great job. He freed the people that Tiberius had imprisoned, he eliminated taxes that strained the people's pockets, repaired decaying city walls, and he built aqueducts, harbors, theaters and temples. He also provided free gladiatorial games and plays for the citizens who enjoyed entertainment.

Unfortunately, Caligula became seriously ill, and he was never the same person afterwards. Scholars are still not sure what could have happened to him, but when he recovered he exhibited extremely violent behavior that included eliminating all perceived enemies, torturing people, throwing lavish parties that included inappropriate behavior, and declaring himself to be a god.

On January 24, 41 A.D., Caligula was assassinated. An elaborate plot had been hatched by the Praetorian Guard, members of the Senate, and the upper class known as the equestrians. Caligula was stabbed multiple times, and his wife and child were put to death.


Suetonius provides us with some alleged quotes made by Caligula. If they are true, they are very telling and give us a great deal of insight into Caligula's state of mind.

When he told his grandmother, who had just given him some advice, to ''remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody,'' he was not bluffing.

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