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Caligula "Little Boots"

Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus


Soldiers nicknamed the boy Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Caligula 'little boots' for the small army boots he wore when with his father's troops. More below.


© Trustees of the British Museum, produced by Natalia Bauer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Known as "Caligula" 'Little Boots', Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born August 31, A.D. 12, died A.D. 41, and ruled as emperor A.D. 37-41. Caligula was the son of Augustus' adopted grandson, the very popular Germanicus, and his wife, Agrippina the Elder who was Augustus' granddaughter and a paragon of womanly virtue.

When Emperor Tiberius died, on March 16, A.D. 37, his will named Caligula and his cousin Tiberius Gemellus heirs. Caligula had the will voided and became sole emperor. Initially Caligula was very generous and popular, but that quickly changed. He was cruel, indulged in sexual aberrations that offended Rome, and was considered insane. The Praetorian Guard had him killed on January 24, A.D. 41.

In his Caligula: The Corruption of Power, Anthony A. Barrett lists several consequential events during Caligula's reign. Among others, he developed the policy that would soon be implemented in Britain. He was also the first of the men who would serve as full-fledged emperors, with unlimited power.

Sources on Caligula

Barrett says there are serious difficulties in accounting for the life and reign of the Emperor Caligula. The period of Caligula's 4-year reign is missing from Tacitus' account of the Julio-Claudians. As a result, the historical sources are limited mainly to the late writers, the third century historian Cassius Dio and the late 1st century biographer Suetonius. Seneca the Younger was a contemporary, but he was a philosopher with personal reasons for disliking the emperor -- Caligula's criticism of Seneca's writing and his sending Seneca into exile. Philo of Alexandria is another contemporary, who was concerned with the problems of Jews and blamed the Alexandrian Greeks and Caligula. Another Jewish historian was Josephus, a bit later. He details the death of Caligula, but Barrett says, his account is confused and riddled with mistakes.

Barrett adds that most of the material on Caligula is trivial. It's even hard to present a chronology. However, Caligula fires the popular imagination far more than many other emperors with similarly short stints on the throne.

Tiberius on Caligula

Remembering that Tiberius did not name Caligula as sole successor, even though he recognized the likelihood that Caligula would murder any rivals, Tiberius made prescient remarks:
  • "You will slay this boy, and will be yourself slain by another."
    Tacitus Annals VI.
  • "'I am nursing a viper in Rome's bosom,' he once said. 'I am educating a Phaethon who will mishandle the fiery sun-chariot and scorch the whole world.'"
    From Robert Graves' translation of Suetonius' Life of Caligula.

For details of Caligula's sordid career, read Suetonius' biography of Caligula.

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