The third Emperor of the Roman Empire was a troubled youth named Gaius Julius Augustus Germanicus. We know him better as Caligula or “Little Boots”, a mad and depraved tyrant who ruled for four short years. Believing that he was a living God, he indulged in perverse and bizarre behavior that shocked the Roman populace. If we are to believe all that we read about him, he slept with his sisters – Agrippina, Drusilla and Julia Livilla -and anyone really who caught his fancy. He also devised awful new methods of torture, killed prominent Romans for no good reasons and according to legend fed his favourite horse, Incitatus, at his dinner table. He allegedly even threatened to elevate his horse to the consulship. (The myth that he actually did do it was a fabrication by those that hated him.)
The seemingly strange and short lived rule of Caligula came to an end at the hands of members of his own Praetorian Guard. In late January (presumably 24th) of 41 AD, after being repeatedly humiliated (Caligula apparently took to mocking members of his imperial guard), two members (maybe more) of the Praetorian Guards slipped into a remote part of private apartment of the Imperial palace and stabbed him to death. They also went on to murder his wife and baby daughter.
In the immediate aftermath, the Praetorian Guard began looting the Imperial Palace. In the frenzy, a soldier (possibly Gratus) noticed a pair of feet behind a curtain. When he pulled back the curtain he saw the late emperor’s uncle Claudius shrinking in fear. With his life in the balance, Claudius begged the soldier not to kill him. What likely saved Claudius was the fact that he was a lesser threat than his homicidal predecessor. (For most of Claudius life he was ignored and or chastised by his family because he was born with a deformity that resulted in a limp. He also suffered ridicule particular from Caligula because a terrible stutter.) That said, it was here that the power of the Praetorian Guard to make or break an emperor was born. They hailed Claudius their new sovereign on the spot without the blessing of the Senate.
In the history painting ‘A Roman Emperor (Claudius)’ that fateful moment where Claudius is found cowering in terror is recreated on canvas by Dutch-born painter Lawrence Alma-Taedema (1836-1912). While our eye is immediately drawn to the Praetorian Guard bowing his head towards the white robed figure of Claudius, there is also quite a lot more happening elsewhere. In the centre the artist (Alma-Taedema) shows the murdered bodies of Emperor Caligula and his family. The blood stained handprints on the herm in particular indicates the violent nature of the assassination. But maybe the most surprising aspect of the painting is probably the small group of soldiers and women (on the left) who all hail Claudius the new emperor at the scene of a crime.
Interestingly, all these elements in equal measure help convey the drama and subsequent ascension of one of the most unlikely emperors to sit on the throne. Of course, over the next thirteen years Claudius would prove many of his critics wrong. He would notably conquer Britain and even gain the respect of the Senate who upon his death deified him for his service to the empire.
This painting appears in the public domain.
Note: This featured article was originally published in 2019. It has been updated and moved to the front pages to further highlight this site’s original content.
I can never see Caligula as anyone other than John Hurt now, thanks to I Claudius. But who’s crazier? Caligula or Nero?
Nero was a narcissist, but we can safely assume Caligula was crazier. Both were terrible emperors with Caligula probably narrowly beating Nero as the worst.
At least we have a winner 🙂
I believe history is terribly unfair towards Caligula. Most of the slander comes from Suetonius, the queen of gossips in Ancient Rome, and judging by his style, rather unprofessional and unreliable. Considering many of the slander against Caligula was recycled over and over again with other Emperors, it’s is difficult to believe all that was said against him. Although one thing was clear, he recklessly made enemies amongst the nobility and the senate. But people seemed to have liked him. I did a little research about him for my post: