A.D. 12-41

Roman emperor

Gaius Caesar Germanicus, known as Caligula, was the third emperor of the Roman Empire. His short reign, from A.D. 37 to 41, was marked by cruelty and bizarre behavior. The Roman biographer Suetonius called him a monster. The son of Germanicus, a popular military leader, Caligula received his nickname—which means “baby boots”—because his mother dressed him in full military uniform, including boots, when he was a small child. Caligula became emperor at the age of 25 after the death of his great-uncle, the emperor Tiberius, who had made Caligula his grandson by adoption so that he might succeed him to the throne.

Much was expected of the new emperor. He was young and the son of a great military leader. At first, Caligula seemed to meet these expectations, restoring some power to popular assemblies and spending money freely on games for the public to enjoy. But early in his reign, tin illness struck that, according to some writers, left Caligula mentally disturbed, possibly insane. It was said that the emperor wanted to appoint his horse, Incitatus, to be a Roman consul. He tortured and executed his enemies and treated his friends brutally. Once, at a dinner with some high officials, Caligula burst out laughing. When asked what struck him as so funny, he replied that he had just realized he could have all his guests’ throats cut right at the dinner table.

Caligula had an extreme affection for his sister, Drusilla. After her death, he took steps to have her worshiped as a goddess. Caligula thought he should be treated like a god as well. When a circus crowd once cheered for a team he did not like, Caligula announced that he wished the people of Rome had a single neck—so that he could choke them all in one stroke. Caligula’s cruel, twisted rule came to an end when he was assassinated by a member of the Praetorian Guard, a special brigade assigned to protect the Roman emperor. {See also Rome, History of: Roman Empire.)

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