The plotters had agreed that they would murder Caligula on the first day of the Palatine Games. But when the day arrived, most of the conspirators acquired cold feet, and the murder was put off, first to the next day, then to the next. And still the deed was not done. On the night of January 23, with just one festival day remaining, and with Caligula planning to sail soon to Alexandria for an inspection tour of Egypt, the frustrated Praetorian tribune Cassius Chaerea told the other conspirators at a secret meeting that they must act now or lose their opportunity forever. As he would be officer of the day on the twenty-fourth, commanding the Praetorian Guard cohort on Palatine duty, Chaerea volunteered to personally strike the first blow to eliminate the mad young emperor, if everyone else played their part.
A career soldier of about forty-five, Chaerea had served under Caligula’s father, Germanicus, during his German campaigns of A.D. 14–16, first as an officer cadet of one of the Rhine legions, and later as a prefect of auxiliaries. Chaerea had made a name for himself early, as a “high-spirited youth”¹ who had drawn his sword to protect the commanding general of the Army of the Lower Rhine, Aulus Caecina, at Cologne, during the army mutiny of A.D. 14. By A.D. 41, the tribune Chaerea had been commanding a one-thousand-man cohort of the Praetorian Guard for some time, and had come to be regularly teased by Caligula, who accused him of being a girl when he was unenthusiastic about torturing innocent victims of Caligula’s arbitrary moods. When, as officer of the day, Chaerea had asked for the next day’s watchword for the city’s guards, Caligula would scornfully give him watchwords such as “Love” or the names of goddesses and female mytholgical figures. For both personal and idealistic motives, Chaerea was determined to cut the cancer that was Caligula from the heart of Roman society.
Before dawn on January 24, tens of thousands of Romans flooded through the single public entrance to the temporary wooden drama theater erected in the Palatium grounds every year for the festival. Twenty-nine-year-old Caligula—tall, slim, pasty, and balding—also arrived, via a second entrance used by the theater’s players and musicians. This entrance connected with Caligula’s Palatium, a new palace built on the Palatine Hill separate from but connected to Augustus’s original palace, which was now called the Old Palatium, and a little above the palace built by Caligula’s father, Germanicus. Before the day began, Caligula, accompanied by an entourage of friends and servants, presided over the customary animal sacrifice at an altar. To Caligula’s great amusement, the priest conducting the sacrifice of a flamingo managed to spray the bird’s blood over the tunic of one of Caligula’s companions, the senator Publius Nonius Asprenas, a man in his forties who had been a consul four years before.
With his entourage—including Cassius Chaerea, the on-duty Praetorian tribune—Caligula then took his seat in the imperial box, on the right side of the tiers of wooden seats that were occupied randomly by senators, knights, freedmen, and slaves, a mixture of men, women, and children. In unusually good spirits, Caligula sat through the morning’s events, which culminated in a play about the crucifixion of a thief and a pantomime by a Greek troupe describing the assassination of a Greek king, both of which involved copious amounts of fake blood. Toward the middle of the day, as a performance was at its height, one of the emperor’s companions, Marcus Cluvius Rufus, a senator who would one day write his memoirs and decribe this day, looked around as a dwarf named Vatinius took a seat in the imperial box. The freedman son of a shoemaker, Vatinius had amused the emperor so much with his quick wit over the past few years that he had been made a rich man.
“Any news?” whispered Cluvius Rufus to Vatinius.
“Only that a game called ‘Slaughter of Tyrants’ is to be played today,” the dwarf replied with a knowing look.²
Rufus paled. He was one of the assassination conspirators, and he was suddenly afraid that Vatinius knew all about the murder plot. He tried to make a joke of it, cautioning Vatinius not to say anything to anyone else in case the actors heard they would have competition. As lunchtime arrived, the tribune Chaerea, sitting behind the emperor, came to his feet and left the box. The plan was for Chaerea and several other officers to jump Caligula outside the theater when he left for lunch. Now the senator Annius Minucianus, a particularly nervous party to the plot, who was sitting beside the emperor, began to worry that Chaerea might lose heart and fail to go through with the assassination. Deciding to go out and find Chaerea and ensure that he followed through on his resolution to strike the first blow, Minucianus came to his feet.
As he did, Caligula reached up and grabbed hold of Minucianus’s tunic. “Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded.³
Minucianus gulped and resumed his seat. There he sat, as nervous as a man whose wife was about to give birth, until, after a few minutes, he rose again. This time Caligula, apparently thinking Minucianus must be answering a call of nature, let him go. In the corridors outside the theater, Minucianus found Chaerea and a number of other officers of the Praetorian Guard congregated, and primed to act. As the middle of the day arrived, the assassins waited impatiently for Caligula to leave the theater. But the emperor failed to emerge, and Chaerea the tribune became increasingly agitated.
Inside the theater, fruit was being thrown by slaves to the audience, with the emperor’s compliments. As this was going on, the senator Asprenas, who was also in on the plot, leaned toward the emperor and asked whether he himself was ready for lunch. Caligula was feeling queasy after a large formal banquet the previous evening, and he was not yet all that interested in more food. Shaking his head, Caligula continued to watch the play in progress. With the time approaching two o’clock, Asprenas then suggested that the emperor would find his appetite again after a visit to the baths. The exact time is disputed— Josephus⁴ put it during the ninth hour, at about 2:00 P.M., while the less reliable Suetonius⁵ made it during the seventh hour, between noon and 12:45 P.M.
With a sigh, Caligula agreed to Asprenas’s suggestion. Coming to his feet, the emperor moved toward the theater door via which he had made his entrance. The members of his entourage all followed Caligula’s lead. As he lingered to chat with the ex-consul Lucius Paulus Arruntius, the others strolled toward the double doors. On the other side of the doors, the tribune Chaerea was about to reenter the theater with the determination to kill Caligula where he sat, but now word was passed from inside that the emperor was on his way out. On learning this, Chaerea and several colleagues hurried away down a passageway to prepare an ambush. The theater doors opened onto a large gallery, which was lined with waiting imperial servants, both freedmen and slaves, and several centurions of the Praetorian Guard. A narrow passageway led from the gallery, and off this there were a number of partitioned areas that served as dressing rooms and storage rooms for actors and musicians.
Caligula’s uncle, the fifty-year-old Claudius, was the first to emerge through the theater door. He went on ahead, limping as he favored his clubfoot, accompanied by Marcus Vinicius, husband of Caligula’s exiled youngest sister, Julia, and Publius Valerius Asiaticus, an ex-consul who had been a loyal and valued friend of Caligula’s grandmother Antonia. Caligula and Arruntius followed some distance behind, deep in conversation. As the emperor emerged from the theater with Arruntius, followed by a squad of bearded soldiers of his German Guard bodyguard, palace staff pressed forward to also follow, but they were held back by the waiting Praetorian centurions. Claudius and his two companions were out of sight by the time Caligula and Arruntius left the gallery and entered the passageway.
Ahead, Claudius, Vinicius, and Asiaticus had been met by the tribune Chaerea and a party of Praetorians. The three of them were hustled away, to a chamber in Caligula’s palace called the Hermaeum, dedicated to the god Hermes—the Greek equivalent of the Roman god Mercury, the messenger. Here, the three of them were told, the emperor would meet them. Behind Caligula, the Praetorian centurions had barred entry to the passageway, keeping out both imperial staff and the men of the emperor’s bodyguard. The German soldiers began to argue with the centurions, saying in their heavily accented Latin that they must be allowed to pass so they could catch up with the emperor, yet being hesitant to push their way by centurions, their superiors, who pretended not to understand the foreigners.
Caligula and Arruntius turned into a side passage that led to the palace of Germanicus, where Caligula intended to take his bath. Members of the emperor’s household staff, including the bearers of his litter, could be seen waiting ahead. Beyond them again, in the atrium of the palace of Germanicus, a boys choir from the province of Achaea in southern Greece stood practicing a hymn they were scheduled to sing in the emperor’s honor in the theater that afternoon. A voice called to Caligula from behind. Caligula half-turned, to see the tribune Chaerea striding toward him in company with several Praetorian centurions and Cornelius Sabinus, a former gladiator who had replaced Macro as prefect of the German Guard.
As the two parties joined, Chaerea asked Caligula for the watchword for the next day. A new watchword, or password, was distributed to all soldiers on sentry duty at Rome every day, the same way that watchwords were daily distributed in legion camps around the empire. Traditionally, in legion camps, the watchword for the next day was given at sundown by the senior officer present. At Rome it was always given by the emperor or, in his absence, by the consuls. In Caligula’s Rome, the formality of waiting until sundown was not observed—the officer of the day had to take whatever opportunity he could to ask the emperor for the next day’s watchword.
“Jupiter,” said Caligula with a smile.⁶ Jupiter was the principal male god of Rome. He was also the god responsible for the weather— storms in particular.
“So be it,” said the tribune Chaerea, who was primed to create a storm of his own.⁷
Weeks before, Caligula had received a warning from the Oracle of Fortune at the shrine at Antium in central Italy to beware of a man named Cassius. On the strength of that warning, Caligula had ordered the arrest of the wrong Cassius—the innocent Cassius Longinus, Roman governor of the province of Asia.
As Caligula turned to continue on, Cassius Chaerea quickly drew his sword.
“Take this!” Chaerea yelled before plunging the gleaming, twentyinch blade into the back of Caligula’s neck. The blade passed through the lower part of Caligula’s skull, splitting his jawbone, just as he was turning back to Chaerea.⁸
Chaerea removed his bloodied sword. Caligula staggered, but remained on his feet. “I’m not dead!” he said with a gasp, as blood coursed from his mouth. He looked at his assailant in wonder, almost as if to say that he could not be killed.⁹
The German Guard’s prefect Sabinus, who had been in on the murder plot with Chaerea from the beginning, now grasped Caligula by the shoulders and forced him down onto his knees “Strike again!” Sabinus called to Chaerea, as he also drew his own sword.¹⁰
Chaerea did strike again, this time plunging his angled sword into Caligula’s back, between the shoulder blades and the neck, aiming for the heart. The blow missed its target, with the tip of Chaerea’s sword hitting Caligula’s breastbone.¹¹ Out came the blade again. Yet still the emperor did not die. Yelling almost maniacally, Sabinus and the centurions all plunged their swords into Caligula. According to Suetonius, the emperor received a further thirty wounds, including thrusts to the genitals.¹² As he lay writhing in agony on the floor, the fatal blow, Josephus wrote, was delivered by the centurion Aquila, ending “this virtuous slaughter.”¹³ So it was that the emperor Gaius Caesar Germanicus, third and last remaining son of Germanicus, was brutally murdered. And as he died, says Dio, Caligula “learned from personal experience that he was not a god.”¹⁴
At the time of the commencement of the attack on Caligula, the emperor’s terrified companion Arruntius had run back toward the theater to summon the German Guard. As he came down the passage yelling that there was murder afoot, the waylaid German Guards drew their swords, pushed their way by the centurions in their path, and came dashing to the fallen Caligula. By the time they reached their emperor, they found their own prefect Cornelius Sabinus standing over the bloodied corpse. Chaerea and the centurions with him had meanwhile run into the palace of Germanicus. Sabinus told the Germans that the assassins had gone in the opposite direction. The tempers of the shocked guardsmen flared; Caligula had paid them well, and now they were potentially without a job. All they could think of was vengeance. Led by Sabinus, whom they failed to connect with the assassination, they ran toward Caligula’s palace, swords in hand and yelling angrily in their native tongue.
The first person of note encountered by the enraged Germans was the conspirator Publius Asprenas, who had heard the ruckus and was coming from the Hermaeum to find out if the assassination had been successful. Seeing blood on Asprenas’s tunic—from the sacrificial ceremony that morning—the Germans assumed that this was the blood of the emperor and that Asprenas had been one of the assassins. German sword blades flashed. Asprenas was cut to pieces. Next, in their fury, the Germans came on the elderly ex-consul Lucius Norbanus Balbus. Despite his age, he had great strength, and when a German Guard took a swipe at him, the senator sidestepped the blow, then grabbed the man’s sword arm. As he strugggled with his opponent, the other Germans plunged their swords into the senator’s back, and he fell down dead on the spot.
The Germans’ next victim was a young senator, Publius Anteius. He had come hurrying quite deliberately from the theater to see for himself that Caligula was dead, and to gloat, for he hated the young emperor after Caligula had banished and then executed his father, who had served as a general under Germanicus on the Rhine. Unarmed Anteius and several freedmen with him paid with their lives at the hands of the bloodthirsty Germans.
The prefect Sabinus had meanwhile sent a soldier to summon all the men of the German Guard in Rome at that time—up to four of the unit’s ten cohorts were always stationed at the Palatium, with the balance rotating around several towns outside Rome. As many as two thousand Germans came at the run, and, on Sabinus’s orders, the Germans surrounded the temporary Palatine theater. There, Sabinus assured his men, the emperor’s assailants must be hiding. Most of these German troops believed that Caligula was still alive, and so would reward them well if they found those who had attacked him. The majority of the people in the theater, meanwhile, had remained in their seats, not knowing for certain what was going on. Conflicting reports had reached the theater; some said that Caligula was dead, others that he had survived the attempt on his life and was in the hands of a surgeon. As German Guards flooded in through the two doors to the theater with their swords drawn, panic seized the thousands of members of the public inside. Wailing pitiously, men and women begged the Germans to spare their lives.
At the same time, the ex-consul Arruntius, who had been with Caligula when he was cut down, climbed up on the plinth of a pillar so he could be seen and called to the German troops to put up their swords, as the emperor was dead and nothing could be accomplished by indiscriminately killing people. Civil tribunes in the theater followed his example, and the city crier Euaristus boomed out the same message in his loud voice. The German troops finally realized that their emperor and employer was indeed dead. With no one to reward them, the Germans, lost and confused, desisted from harassing the theater audience. In a sudden rush they departed the theater, and swept through the Palatium in disorder. Some Germans paraded the severed heads of Asprenus, Norbanus Balbus, and Anteius around the corridors. Others began to loot the palace. Fighting even broke out in the Germans’ own ranks.
Caligula’s uncle Claudius, meanwhile, had been deserted in the Hermaeum, and had waited patiently there for Caligula to come. But now, hearing the uproar throughout the palace and realizing that murder was in the air, he looked for somewhere to hide. Seeing a nearby balcony, he drew the curtains in front of it and hid behind them. Soon after, a group of soldiers of the German Guard came into the room. One of them, a common soldier named Gratus,¹⁵ spotted Claudius’s feet beneath the curtains. Throwing back the curtains, Gratus revealed the terrified Claudius, who dropped to his knees and clasped the soldier’s knees. Sobbing, Claudius begged to be allowed to leave.¹⁶
Gratus, recognizing Claudius as the brother of Germanicus and uncle of Caligula, turned to his comrades. “This is a Germanicus!” he exclaimed. “Let’s make him our new emperor!”¹⁷