March 29, 2010

Metal History: Caligula

Metal History

Metal History is the brand new column here on Steff Metal. Don’t let the title fool you – I won’t be recounting endless discographies of influential bands from the 80s. Metal History profiles personalities, events and discoveries of ancient and modern history that are, essentially, metal. Some are immortalised in metal songs, others are simply people I felt would be metalheads if they were alive today.

I’ve always been fascinated with the life of Caligula – aka Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Emperor of Rome between AD 37-41. Although most metalheads are probably familiar with Rome’s most famous crazy Emperor – Nero – many people don’t know about Caligula – the Black Sabbath of crazy Emperors.


bust of Caligula

Few original accounts of Caligula’s reign survive. Those that do suggest the first two years of his reign were rather prosperous and sensible. The rest … you shall see.

To understand the situation at the time of Caligula’s rule, it might be useful to know a little of his history. Caligula grew up during the reign of Tiberius (Augustus’ successor). Tiberius was a great general, but he didn’t want to be Emperor, and although he made many sensible decisions, he also had a dark side. He liked sordid sexual acts (and for a Roman to say this, they had to be pretty sordid), and toward the end of his reign, he started holding treason trials and executing senators and important men left, right and centre. He collected the estates of the men he killed and hoarded the money in the treasury, building up quite a fortune.

Caligula was the son of Germanicus, the extremely popular general (nephew and adopted son of Tiberius, and brother of future emperor Claudius). Germanicus brought little Gaius on campaign with him, and the soldiers adopted him as a loveable mascot, giving him the nickname “Caligula”, which means “little boot”.

Germanicus died in Antioch in AD19 (under mysterious circumstances, likely poisoned at the orders of Tiberius), and Caligula’s mother Agrippina the Elder returned to Rome with her children. She detested Tiberius, and a series of events drove this wedge deeper till eventually she and all her children were also dead, save Caligula. Tiberius’ treason trials increased in number and cruelty, till he’d killed off all his trusted advisors and one day, in AD 26, he left Rome and went to live on the island of Capri, where he could live out his remaining days doing whatever the hell he pleased.

Untouched by the death of pretty much his entire family, Caligula followed his uncle to Capri, where they lived in debauchery and solitude until Tiberius died in AD 37.

On the 28th March, AD 37, Caligula returned to Rome, accepted the powers of Principate granted by the Senate and became Rome’s third emperor. He declared Tiberius’ treason trial illegal and recalled several exiles. He put on spectacular gladiatorial battles and chariot races for the people. He also began building two new and extremely important aquaducts into Rome (completed by his successor, Claudius). He was loved by everyone “in all the world, from the rising to the setting sun” (Philo of Alexandria)

He then ruined all by turning stark-raving bonkers.

Just seven months after his rise to power, Caligula fell ill. The doctors called it “brain fever” (modern historians believe it might have been epilepsy, neurosyphylis or lead poisoning). The entire empire fell into mourning and prayed for his recovery. Several prominent men pledged their own lives if only the Gods would decree to cure the emperor. Caligula recovered from the illness, but his mind was never the same.

He lopped off the heads of every loyal supporter who had pledged their life to save his. He banished his wife and forced his father-in-law and his cousin to commit suicide. Caligula tricked his friend Macro – the prefect of Caligula’s Praetorian Guard, and an integral figure in assuring his succession to the throne – into thinking he’d been made Prefect of Egypt, and instead had him arrested and executed.

Caligula doubled his spending on public shows and extravagences, sometimes holding two or three Games in a week. All of Caligula’s zany schemes, extravagent gladiator battles and generous gifts emptied the state treasury – all the money Tiberius had so callously hoarded. What was a mad Emperor to do?

He came up with several ingenius plots: he auctioned off Gladiators and Chariot drivers left over after the shows. At one such auction, a senator fell asleep, and Caligula counted each of his nods as a vote, so by the end of the night he owed the state several thousand gold coins for 13 Gladiators he didn’t want.

Next, he levied taxes on marriage, lawsuits and prostitution. He demanded the people of Rome lend money to the state. He started the treason trials again, and bribed, threatoned and executed his way through a large portion of the upper classes.


A Roman coin showing Caligula. The back depicts his three sisters, with whom he carried out incestuous relationships.

In AD 40, Caligula declared himself divine, and started appearing in public dressed as different gods and goddesses. He lopped the heads of various statues in temples throughout the empire and had them replaced with his own, and ordered two new temples built for him in Rome.

Other notable acts of the Emperor Caligula:

  • He invited senators to banquet, dragged their wives away to ravish, and then returned to table to discuss the performance of each wife.
  • He ordered a statue of himself erected in the sacred temple in Jerusalam. A riot from the Jews and swift talking from his friend Herod Agrippa (yes, that Herod) convinced him otherwise).
  • Once, he was attending one of his public games when an official informed him he’d killed all the men in prison and so they had no one to throw to the lions. Caligula ordered the guards to throw an entire section of the audience into the arena, where the lions made quick snacks of them all.
  • He committed incest with his three sisters, and turned the Palace into a brothel where senators were forced to pay huge sums to sleep with his sisters. He married one, Druscilla, but changed his mind and executed her.
  • He made his horse – Incitatus – a Senator, and built him a magnificent marble house complete with servents.
  • An infamous prophet, Thrasyllus, once gave Caligula a predictions “you will have no more chance of becoming Emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae”. In AD 39, Caligula built a temporary floating bridge, by lashing together thousands of ships. This bridge stretched from Baiae for two miles, ending at Puteoli.  Caligula trotted across on Incitatus all day.
  • He commanded a military campaign into Brittania, but abandoned it, instead ordering his troops to attack the ocean and pick up seashells to be taken back to Rome for his triumph against Neptune.

As exemplified by Metallica’s Load and onward, even the Gods must eventually fall. Caligula was assasinated by members of his own Praetorian Guard, along with his wife Caesonia and his infant son. The Senate had hoped to restore the Republic, but Caligula’s uncle Claudius had been spirited from the city by the German troops before he could come to harm, and the Senate reluctantly granted him the Principate. But that, my friends, is a story for another time.

Further Reading

  • I, Claudius. Robert Graves.
  • The Twelve Caesars. Seutonius (contemporary writer).
  • Caligula, 1979 historical film starring Malcolm McDonald and financed by Penthouse Magazine. WARNING: Certain versions of this film contains EXTREME sex scenes, orgies, masturbation, rape, incest, urination, the beheading of prisoners in a giant killing machine, fellatio, fisting, homotsexuality, infanticide and penile and testicular castration.
  • The character of Centuri Emperor Cartagia in Babylon 5 is modelled on Caligula.

If Caligula Were Alive Today …

  • His Favorite Band would be Lamb of God
  • He would have stabbed Euronymous before Varg even got in the car to drive to Oslo
  • He would be married to Simone Simons

Rest In Peace, Caligula, who makes history more fun.

5 Comments on “Metal History: Caligula

June 14, 2011 at 2:24 am

Oh Gaius!!! My favorite of all, far above Nero!

March 31, 2010 at 4:30 am

“He would have stabbed Euronymous before Varg even got in the car to drive to Oslo” haha!

If I had been an empress of a vast empire, I would have been just as extravagantly ridiculous. Why not?

March 30, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Don’t worry, I am “into” history too – I used to be an archaeologist, and I worked as a museum curator, too. I

I need to do more research into Germany history though – I mainly know German history as it relates to other countries – the Greeks, the Romans, medieval england … it’s one of the reasons visiting Germany was so interesting to us. Coming from a very “England-centric” education, it was refreshing to see history represented through different eyes.

March 30, 2010 at 2:17 pm

*squeee* “I, Claudius”, the reason because I had Latin as first foreign language at school…
Sorry, this had to be… I love memories coming back, especially as I was quite into history some time ago (but well, recently it was mostly German history as that was most important for my exams…)

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