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This Week In History

The Murder of Caligula. January 24, 41 AD.

Formally known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), but better known as Caligula, the third Roman emperor, from 37 to 41 AD, was born to the Julio-Claudian dynasty.

He was son of Germanicus, one of the greatest generals of Roman history and adoptive son of Emperor Tiberius. His mother was Agrippina the Elder, a fiercely independent woman, who was married to Germanicus by order of Tiberius in order to bring him closer to the Julian family.
As a child he accompanied his father on campaigns in the north of Germania, where he received the nickname of Caligula meaning “little (soldier’s) boot” in Latin, after the small boots (caligae) he wore… a nickname he grew to hate.

Germanicus died in Syria, possibly poisoned by order of Tiberius, who saw him and his descendants as political rivals. After years of intense feud with Agrippina, the conflict led to the destruction of her family, leaving Caligula as the sole male survivor.

In 31, when he was 18 years old, he accepted an invitation of Tiberius to live under his personal care in Capri, and remained there for 6 years, his life not only being spared, but being also appointed as joint heir to Tiberius´s estate, together with Tiberius Gemellus. Finally, backed by Macro, Caligula was declared sole emperor, alleging that Tiberius was demented, and so, his testament was nullified.

In March 37, Caligula was hailed by the people of Rome, and is said to have been loved by everyone, in “all the world, from the rising to the setting sun”. His first acts as emperor where generous with the people and the army, although possibly he was only moved by political interests.

In October 37 he fell terribly ill, maybe poisoned. The Empire stagnated by Caligulas´ illness, as they had never since Augustus lived such a prosper period. After his recovery, the Emperor was never the same again. He ordered the executions of his closest friends and allies, fearing they would at some point turn to be a threat, as well as massive killings of the exiled.

Few surviving sources remain of his reign, and none of them are positive. The sources highlight his cruelty, extravagances and sexual perversities, appointing him as a demented tyrant. These sources´ veracity is difficult to evaluate, but we do know that during his reign he worked incessantly to increase the authority of the princeps and because of this, he had to face several conspiracies and reduced the Senate´s powers, crushing all existing opposition. He was the first emperor to declare himself a God.

While contemporaries describe his personality as compulsive, demented, vicious, sexually depraved, compulsive and cruel, modern sources speculate that Caligula´s personality could probably coincide with that of a psychopath.

Suetonius highlighted yet another feature of Gaius´ personality: his verbal abuse and violence. “The ferocity of his words made the cruelty of his actions even more odious”, stated the writer. In the end, he had to pay dearly for this dreadful feature. Eventually, officers within the Praetorian Guard led by Cassius Chaerea succeeded in murdering the emperor. Chaerea was an old man, with a robust complexity, although he had a shrill voice, probably caused because of an old wound in his genitalia. Caligula harshly laughed at him, calling him Priapus or Venus and making him sing, or offering his hand for Chaerea to kiss it while making obscene gestures, according to Suetonius. Tired of these ofences, Chaerea finally managed to kill Caligula, his wife and their daughter in January 24, 41 AD.

 

 

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