Gaius Caesar Germanicus (August 31, AD 12 - January 24, AD 41), also known as Gaius Caesar or Caligula, was a Roman emperor born in Antium (modern day Anzio) who reigned 37-41. Known for his extremely extravagant, eccentric, and sometimes cruel despotism, he was assassinated in 41 by several of his own guards.
He was the youngest son of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder. His great-grandfather was Augustus, his great-uncle Tiberius and his uncle Claudius. See Julio-Claudian Family Tree.
Gaius' life started out promising, as he was the son of extremely famous parents. Germanicus was loved as Rome's most beloved general and as Augustus' adopted grandson, which cemented his connection to the Julian Clan. Agrippina was Augustus' granddaughter and was the model for what the perfect Roman woman should be. When he was two or three years of age, Gaius became the mascot of his father's army. The soldiers were amused whenever Agrippina put on a miniature soldier costume on Gaius, and he was soon given his nickname "Caligula" (or Caligulae), meaning "Little Boots" in Latin for the small boots he wore that were part of his costume. He would end up hating this name, but he also hated the name "Gaius".
In 14 AD, when news of Augustus' death made its way across the Empire, the soldiers of Germanicus' camp almost started a mutiny, opposing the rise of Tiberius because they wanted Germanicus as Emperor. Germanicus sent Agrippina and Caligula away from the mess that was soon to brew and tried to calm his men down. The superstitious men became horrified at the prospect of losing their mascot. They promised to be good and so Caligula returned.
The new Emperor, Tiberius, made Germanicus his adopted son. But Tiberius was not too fond of Germanicus; jealousy over Germanicus' popularity may have been a factor. Either way, Germanicus died on October 10, 19 AD. The relationship between Tiberius and Agrippina didn't improve and Caligula, along with his sisters, went to live with their great-grandmother, Livia (widow of Augustus and mother of Tiberius) and then with their grandmother Antonia when Livia died in 27 AD. Livia or Antonia didn't have much time to watch Caligula, so the only comfort he had was with his sisters. Stories have been told of Caligula already beginning incest with his sisters (Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Julia Livilla) around this time.
Caligula's life was in constant danger. Tiberius' Praetorian Prefect, Sejanus, was in power now, doing everything he could to gain power over Tiberius. This wasn't too hard, as Sejanus had control of Rome while Tiberius retired to the island of Capri. Outrageous treason accusations floated around those closest to the Emperor, including most of Caligula's family. His mother Agrippina was banished to an island, where she starved herself. His two oldest brothers, Nero and Drusus, also died. Drusus' body was found locked in a dungeon with stuffing from his mattress in his mouth to keep off the hunger. Before Sejanus could kill Caligula, he was brought down and killed based on information given to Tiberius by Antonia.
By this time Caligula was already in favor with Tiberius. He was summoned to Capri to stay with Tiberius on one of the many villas on the island. Rumors have it of extreme perversions happening on Capri. Tiberius was without the people who managed to keep him in line (Augustus, Livia, his brother Drusus....) so he felt free to indulge in whatever perversions he wanted. Whether this is true or not is hard to say. Unpopular Emperors like Tiberius or Caligula rarely had the whole truth painted about them, and rumors are common throughout ancient texts.
What Caligula did on Capri is hard to say as well. He was extremely servile to Tiberius, acting nice to the old man who had killed his family off. Suetonius says that at night Caligula would turn around and inflict torture on slaves and watch bloody gladiatorial games with glee. In 33 AD Tiberius gave Caligula the position of honorary quaestorship.
On March 16, 37 Tiberius died and on March 18 the Roman Senate annulled Tiberius' will and proclaimed Caligula emperor. Suetonius writes how Caligula's guard Macro smothered him with a pillow, but in reality Tiberius probably died a natural death. Caligula was not Tiberius' only successor. The Emperor had made his young grandson, Tiberius Gemellus, joint heir. Gemellus was hardly an obstacle, and Caligula had him killed soon after becoming Emperor. Caligula's grandmother Antonia committed suicide around this time as well.
The first few months of Caligula's reign were good. He gave cash bonuses to the Praetorian Guards, destroyed Tiberius' treason papers, declared that treason trials were a thing of the past, recalled exiles, and helped those who had been harmed by the Imperial tax system. He was loved by many simply by being the beloved son of Germanicus, the young military mascot they all remembered. Plus, he was a descendant of Augustus, and therefore related to Julius Caesar. He was also a great-grandson of Marc Antony.
And then he became ill.
Recent sources say that Caligula probably had encephalitis. Ancient sources, like Suetonius and Cassius Dio, describe Caligula having a "brain fever". Philo reports it was nothing more than a nervous breakdown, as Caligula wasn't used to the pressures of constant attention after being out of the public eye for most of his life. Rome waited in horror, praying that their beloved Emperor would recover. He became better, but his reign took a sharp turn. The death of Gemellus and of Silanus, Caligula's father-in-law, took place right after Caligula recovered.
Was Caligula really insane? Many would agree that he was, but Philo of Alexandria, author of On the Embassy to Gaius doesn't seem to think so. The leader of an Embassy sent to Caligula to stop a giant statue from being erected on a cherished Jewish landmark, Philo seems to think that Caligula was just a vicious jokester. He was cruel, yes. But insane? Probably not. Philo is one of the few ancient writers to have actually met Caligula.
There are famous stories that he tried to make his beloved stallion, Incitatus, a senator. He probably meant this as a joke. Other stories are of his incest with his sisters (especially Drusilla), the orgy he held at the palace, his campaign in Britain ending with his soldiers collecting seashells as "spoils of the sea", his battle with the god Neptune, wanting to erect a statue of himself in Jerusalem ( his good friend Herod Agrippa put a stop to that), calling himself a "God", etc. The list goes on. Ancient sources label him as downright insane, a tyrant. Modern sources attempt to explain his insanity as the product of a messed up childhood or that he was simply misunderstood. One thing is for certain. He was extremely unqualified and unprepared to become Emperor.
He only ruled for three years and ten months. On January 24, 41 the latest conspiracy managed to end his life. While Caligula was in a corridor alone he was struck down by one Cassius Chaera, a man who had been with Germanicus' army long ago, and had become fed up with Caligula for personal reasons (Caligula liked to make fun of Cassius' voice). They also killed Caligula's wife Caesonia and their infant daughter, Julia Drusilla by smashing her head against a wall. After much confusion, as Caligula was the first assassinated Emperor, old uncle Claudius was made Emperor. Caligula was only 28 when he died.