In the early days of his time as Emperor in AD 37, Caligula was hugely popular but his increasingly unpredictable and sadistic behaviour saw his treatment of the Senate, people and even the gods worsen.


Here are five facts about Rome’s tyrant, with some of the strangest incidents in his short rule:

What's in a name?

Caligula was a childhood nickname that stuck – much to his chagrin. The young Gaius Julius Caesar would be brought along with his father, Germanicus, on his military campaigns, decked out in a miniature soldier’s uniform made especially for him.

Troops, seeing him in toddler-sized armour and boots, started calling him ‘Caligula’, meaning ‘Little Boots’. Despite his dislike for the moniker when he grew up, he was forevermore known by it.

More like this

A splitting headache

Writings about Caligula are rich with accounts of his wicked sense of humour and how little he considered human life to be worth. One such story is of a failed sacrifice to the gods when Caligula was to ceremoniously kill a bull by hitting it over the head with a mallet. At the last minute, he turned and hit the priest instead. As the priest lay dying, Caligula laughed at the hilariousness of his ‘prank’.

Getting the crowd involved

While bored during the intermission of gladiatorial games, Caligula ordered his guards to throw dozens of people from the crowd into the arena so he could watch them being eaten by the deadly animals.

His mane friend

He may not have had a great love for his people, but Caligula was very fond of his horse, Incitatus. According to Roman historian Suetonius, the horse lived a stable carved out of marble, with an ivory manger, purple blankets, a collar made of precious stones and even slaves. Suetonius claimed that Caligula tried to make Incitatus a consul – a powerful position in government – as an insult to the Senate.

Sea battle

Whether this actually happened is debatable, but considering everything else written about Caligula, would it really be that surprising? As the story goes, Caligula led an ill-conceived campaign to Britain, which made it to the furthest shores of Gaul before being aborted. As returning to Rome without a victory was unthinkable, Caligula declared war on Neptune, god of the sea, and had the waves whipped. His soldiers were ordered to collect seashells as prizes of war.


This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine