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Gaius Caesar, known as Caligula, succeeded Tiberius and served as Roman emperor from 37 to 41 A.D.

Who Was Caligula?

Gaius Caesar, nicknamed Caligula or "Little Boot," succeeded Tiberius as Roman emperor in 37 A.D., and adopted the name Gaius Caesar Germanicus. Records depict him as a cruel and unpredictable leader. He restored treason trials and put people to death. Cassius Chaerea murdered him in 41 A.D. at the Palatine Games.

Early Years

Roman leader Gaius Caesar Germanicus was born on August 31, in the year 12 in Antium (now Anzio), Italy. The third of six living children born to Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder, Gaius hailed from Rome's most distinguished family, the Julio Claudiens. His great-great-grandfather was Julius Caesar and his great-grandfather was Augustus, while his father, Germanicus, was a beloved leader in his own right. Later, Gaius' rule as a Roman emperor would be shaped by lunacy and lust.

Gaius was close to his father and, at the age of 3, began frequently accompanying Germanicus on his military campaigns. In keeping with tradition, Gaius wore a uniform with a small pair of boots, earning him the nickname of "Caligula," the Latin word for "little boots." The name stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Family Tragedy

At the time of Gaius' birth, the rule of Augustus was coming to an end. Augustus' health was failing and, in need of naming a successor, he appointed his stepson Tiberius, a brooding, unpopular leader, to his former position. His choice, however, came with one caveat: Knowing that the public would not be pleased by his decision, he compelled Tiberius to adopt Germanicus as his son, and name him his heir.

On August 19, in the year 14 A.D., Augustus died. Tiberius quickly assumed power and, just as quickly, dispatched Germanicus to Rome's eastern provinces for a diplomatic mission. There, he fell ill and soon died, which invited theories to swell up that linked Tiberius to his political rival's death.

Agrippina the Elder fanned the flames. She publicly blamed Tiberius for her husband's death and craved revenge. Tiberius struck back. He imprisoned Agrippina the Elder on a remote island, where she starved to death. The emperor then imprisoned her two older sons, one of whom killed himself; the other starved to death.

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Because of his young age, Caligula was spared and forced to live with his great-grandmother, Livia, Augustus' wife. It was during this time that Caligula, who was a teenager at the time, is believed to have committed incest with his sister, Drusilla.

In the year 31, Caligula was summoned by Tiberius to the island of Capri, where he was adopted by the man presumed to be his father's killer and treated like a pampered prisoner. Forced to suppress his anger and show Tiberius respect, despite his hatred for him, Caligula was likely mentally traumatized by the situation, according to many historians. Instead, Caligula took his emotions out on others. He delighted in watching torture and executions, and spent his nights in orgies of gluttony and passion. Even the unstable Tiberius could see that Caligula was unhinged. "I am nursing a viper for the Roman people," he said.

Reign of Power

In March of 37 A.D., Tiberius fell ill. He died a month later, and rumors swirled that Caligula had smothered him. It didn't matter. Romans were ecstatic over his death, in part because the empire now fell into the hands of Caligula, whom citizens believed packed the same qualities as his esteemed late father. The Roman Senate fell right in line, naming 24-year-old Caligula, who had no experience in government, diplomacy or war, as sole emperor of Rome.

For a time, Caligula's efforts met with their enthusiasm. He freed citizens that had been unjustly imprisoned by Tiberius, and eliminated an unpopular tax. He also staged lavish events, including chariot races, boxing matches, plays and gladiator shows. However, six months into his rule, Caligula fell severely ill. For nearly a month, he hovered between life and death. In October of 37 A.D., he recovered, but it was quickly apparent that he was not the same person.

Tortured by headaches, Caligula wandered the palace at night. He abandoned the customary toga for silken gowns and often dressed as a woman. In addition, Caligula flaunted his power, eliminating his political rivals and forcing parents to watch the executions of their sons. Most egregious, however, was Caligula's declaration that he was a living God, ordering a bridge to be built between his palace and the Temple of Jupiter so that he could have consultations with the deity. Not even marriage and the birth of a daughter seemed to change him.


Rome soon grew to hate its leader, and citizens began a secret push to get rid of him. On January 24, 41 A.D., Caligula was attacked by a group of guardsman, following a sporting event. During the assassination, Caligula was stabbed 30 times, and killed. His body was dumped into a shallow grave, and his wife and daughter were murdered.

Caligula's death pushed the Senate to immediately order the destruction of his statues in hopes of eradicating him from Rome's history. Still, more than two millennia since his rule, Caligula's legacy is deemed a fascinating piece of Roman history.

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