The historian Tacitus probably sums up the reasons why contemporary biographies of the Caesars are always a bit suspicious in so far as the truth (or lack thereof) is concerned: “Tiberii Gaique et Claudi ac Neronis res florentibus ipsis ob metum falsae, postquam occiderant recentibus odiis compositae sunt.”1 (The things related of the reigns of Tiberius, Gaius (Caligula), Claudius and Nero while they were alive were fraught with lies, and afterwards what was written was clouded by then raging enmities.)
In other words, while they were alive, given the absolute power they had over their subjects, nobody had a bad word to say about the reigning Caesar, for fear of his terrible retribution. After the death of a Caesar, one still had to contend with possible retribution from influential people allied to the dead Caesar, or possibly even from his successor who may (as the spirit moves him) decide that he is the incarnation of the Caesar vilified by your history. In the result, contemporary accounts are not entirely reliable, and what we know must be seen against the background of historians who were not willing to pay the ultimate price simply to write history as it really happened. Anyway, publishing was a dangerous business in imperial Rome, and there was little point labouring over a work of perfect historical truth to later see it going up in flames simply because it incurred the wrath of the Caesar, or worse, see yourself the victim of the Caesar’s contempt.
Unfortunately, Tacitus’ narrative breaks off at the death of Tiberius, and only resumes several years into the reign of Gaius’ successor, his uncle Claudius. Gaius has probably been immortalised in I, Claudius by Robert Graves, a book well worth reading if you like a dramatised version of events, but one which also seems to be factually fairly accurate. The reality is that there is much in the classical literature that came down to us about this period in history, but interestingly enough the emperor Gaius’ life is surprisingly little documented. The Romans were so obsessed with their own greatness and their desire to ensure that future generations would know exactly how great they were, that it is strange that about this emperor so little was written. Much of what we know comes from a source entirely un-Roman: The Jewish historian Josephus has left us a fair account, probably as a result of the emperor Gaius’ instruction that a statue of himself be placed in the temple at Jerusalem in order for the emperor to be worshipped, which incurred the anger of the Jewish people. Consequently, despite a lack of detail, a fairly accurate picture can be gleaned from the historical sources. It must be said, though, given Josephus’ background that the version he gives is probably ever so slightly tainted to the point of placing Gaius in a light not entirely good.
Gaius Iulius Caesar Germanicus was born on 31 August 12 CE at Antium (modern Anzio), while his father, Germanicus, was stationed there with his legions. He was a precocious child, obviously talented and highly intelligent (he famously spoke the funeral oration of Livia, the widow of the divine Augustus from the rostra at the age of seventeen) and soon became a favourite playmate of the soldiers, who made him a small suit of armour (Suetonius tells us he grew up among the soldiers in the dress of the “common soldier”) and particularly a pair of soldier’s boots, caligae, the wearing of which gave rise to his nickname, Caligula, the little boot, caligula being the diminutive form. After the death of his father in 19, he lived at Rome with his mother, Vipsania Agrippa, until she incurred the displeasure of the emperor Tiberius, and was arrested in 29 after Tiberius complained to the senate of her other son (Nero) behaving in a sexually depraved way, and she herself being guilty of haughty behaviour in respect of himself, the emperor. Gaius went to live with his grandmother Antonia, and afterwards his great-grandmother Livia, the widow of the late emperor Augustus, mother of Tiberius. While living with Antonia, this worthy matron caught Gaius (aged 12) committing incest with his sister Drusilla (aged 13).
In 31, Tiberius summoned Gaius to Capri, whence Tiberius had exiled himself in order to engage in his passion for magic and adolescent men. No doubt Gaius here graduated to perversions he and Drusilla had not taught themselves earlier on. He nevertheless suffered greatly at the hands of his great uncle Tiberius, and himself indulged in all sorts of illicit pleasures such as fornication and gluttony, and disguising himself as a woman and dancing and singing. He also indulged in vicious acts of severe cruelty and showed an obvious enjoyment in seeing people brutally tortured and punished. Suetonius thinks that this was the reason why Tiberius put up with Gaius’ prancing and theatrics – in the hope that it would cool the fever in his blood, so to speak. Nevertheless, Gaius patiently pretended indifference to the ill-treatment, and in what could only have been a desire to survive, did not even protest the methodical elimination of his family as Tiberius one by one had them removed.
In 35 Tiberius named Gaius and Gemellus (Tiberius Iulius Caesar Nero), one of Gaius’ cousins, his joint heirs. On 16 March 37, Tiberius was killed by the praetorian prefect, Macro, by all accounts with Gaius directing the entire operation after he had seduced Macro’s wife and wormed his way into Macro’s favour. Gaius is proclaimed emperor, and two days later on the 18th of March, the senate hails him imperator.
The emperor became increasingly despotic in his behaviour as his reign continued. Where he initially curried favour with the masses, he later took no account of what anyone thought or said. He proclaimed himself divine, appearing in public dressed as a god or goddess, generally doing exactly as he pleased, living in open incest with his sisters (while married to his third wife).2 When his sister Drusilla died of a wasting disease some time later, he created her a goddess and henceforward whenever it was required for the emperor to take an oath, he did so by the godhead of Drusilla. His other sisters did not stand in such high favour with him, and he regularly prostituted their services to high paying men, and later used this against them, as proof, he said, of their complicity in conspiring against him. They were banished, only to return after Gaius’ death.
He married at whim and divorced within days, often simply instructing a man to divorce his wife in order to enable the emperor to marry her, only for the poor woman to be cast off a few days later when the emperor had tired of her. He eventually married Caesonia, neither young nor beautiful, and even exhibited her to his friends in a state of total nudity. Suetonius tells us that Gaius respected neither his own chastity, nor that of anyone else. He would invite couples to dinner, then inspect the women as though he was buying a slave. Suddenly during the course of the proceedings he would leave and instruct one or more of the women to attend upon him in the imperial chambers, later returning with obvious signs of what had occurred there. Then he would proceed loudly to criticise the intercourse publicly while continuing with dinner.
Within less than a year, Gaius had succeeded in emptying the treasury, all of 2,700,000,000 sestertii, which as very rough estimate today would equate to as many pounds sterling, or some US$ 4,050,000,000. In order to generate more income, he would devise all sorts of tricks, even to the point of taking over the law courts, without more condemning all the men there, setting aside their wills and simply laying claim to their estates. He started arranging auctions and auctioning off valueless items to rich Romans for enormous amounts. At one auction, a sleeping Aponius Saturninus woke up to find that his somnolent noddings had bought him thirteen gladiators at 9,000,000 sestertii, all of which went to the emperor’s privy purse.
Even after Gaius had been assassinated by Cassius Chaerea, one of the tribunes of the praetorian guard, people refused to believe that this was not yet another ploy of the emperor’s to find out what people felt about him, and that he had put the rumour of his death about himself. In this way people thought, if they spoke out and criticised him, Gaius would have their necks, and everything else besides.
Gaius ruled three years, ten months and eight days. Rome heaved a collective sigh of relief when it was established that he was in fact very dead.
1 Annalium Libri I:i
2 In the sense of really married, not simply married at whim like so many others.