The Madness of the Emperor Caligula

The Madness of the Emperor Caligula

By A. T. Sandison

Medical History, Vol.2:3 (1958)

Introduction: Throughout the centuries the name of Caligula has been synonymous with madness and infamy, sadism and perversion. It has been said that Marshal Gilles de Rais, perhaps the most notorious sadist of all time, modelled his behaviour. on that of the evil Caesars described by Suetonius, among whom is numbered Caligula. Of recent years, however, Caligula has acquired his apologists, e.g. Willrich; so also, with more reason, has the Emperor Tiberius, whose reputation has been largely rehabilitated by modern scholarship.

Our knowledge of the life of Caligula depends largely on Suetonius, whose work De vita Caesarum was not published, until some eighty years after the death of Caligula in A.D. 41. Unfortunately that part of Tacitus’s Annals which treated of the reign of Caligula has been lost. Other ancient sources are Dio Cassius, whose History of Rome was written in the early third century and, to a lesser extent, Josephus, whose Anhtitates Judaicac was published in A.D. 93, and Philo Jadaeus, whose pamphlet Legatio ad-Gaium and In Flaccum may be considered as contemporary writings. It seems probable that all these ancient sour¢es are to some extent prejudiced and highly coloured. Suetonius’s Gaius Caligula in De vita Caesarum is full of scabrous and sometimes entertaining stories, on some of which little reliability can be plated.

Nevertheless, the outlines of Caligula’s life-history are not in doubt, and a useful summary is given by Balsdon in the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Caligula was born in Antium on 3I August A.D. I2, the son of that popular prince, Germanicus Juliuls Caesar and of Agrppna. From the age of two to four years he was with the army on the Rhine frontier with his parents, and it is said that here he received his name ‘Caligula’ from the soldiers because of the miniature military boots that he wore. In A.D. i8-i9 he accompanied his parents to the East. There Germanicus died in Antioch in A.D. 19 in rather mysterious circumstances, and Caligula returned to Rome with his mother. After her arrest and banishment to Pandateria by Tiberius, he lived with Livilla and Antonia, his grandmother, until A.D. 32, when Tiberius sent for him to join the imperial household on Capreae.

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