statue of caligula

On this day in history: Emperor Caligula assassinated

History of Italy News

Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, commonly known as Caligula, remains one of the most notorious figures in Roman history. Caligula’s rule came to an end on 24th January 41 AD when he was assassinated.

Caligula reigned from 37 to 41 AD, and his emperor-ship was marked by extravagance, tyranny, and a series of bizarre actions that both fascinated and horrified the people of ancient Rome.

Early life and rise to power

Caligula was born on 31st August 12 AD, in Antium, Italy, to Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder. His early years were spent in military camps, earning him the nickname “Caligula,” which means “little boots” in Latin, due to the miniature military uniform he wore as a child.

Following the death of Tiberius, Caligula’s great-uncle, the Praetorian Guard proclaimed him the third Roman Emperor at the young age of 24.

In the initial months of his rule, Caligula enjoyed popularity among the Roman citizens due to his youth, charisma, and initial policies of generosity. He repealed oppressive taxes, released prisoners arbitrarily detained by Tiberius, and showcased a seemingly moderate demeanour.

However, it wasn’t long before his behaviour took a dark turn, revealing a tyrannical and unpredictable nature.

Reign of extravagance and cruelty

Caligula’s reign quickly became synonymous with extravagance and excess. He embarked on ambitious construction projects, including the construction of two massive ships, one of which was adorned with marble, gold, and precious jewels. Lavish spending, public games, and spectacles strained the Roman treasury, leading to increased taxation.

As Caligula’s rule progressed, his behaviour grew increasingly erratic and cruel. He engaged in acts of sadism, including ordering the torture and execution of citizens on flimsy grounds.

His relationship with the Senate soured as he openly mocked senators, demanding their worship and even considering appointing his horse, Incitatus, as a consul.

Deification and Personal Cult

In a bid for self-deification, Caligula claimed divine status, demanding he be worshipped as a god. He constructed temples dedicated to his own cult, fostering an environment of fear and sycophancy. Citizens and senators were forced to participate in his bizarre religious rituals, further alienating him from the people.

Caligula’s tyrannical rule fuelled discontent among the Roman elite, leading to a conspiracy to assassinate him. The conspiracy involved members of the Praetorian Guard, high-ranking senators, and even some of his own trusted servants.

The discontent among the people, coupled with the plotting within the imperial court, set the stage for the dramatic events that unfolded on 24th January 41 AD.

Related article: Emperor Constantine wins Battle of Chrysopolis



Caligula's dead body sprawls on the floor. Oil painting by L. Almatadema, 1871.
Oil painting by L. Almatadema, 1871, depicting the assassination of Caligula

On that fateful day, Caligula attended a series of sporting events at the Palatine Hill. The conspirators, led by Cassius Chaerea, a high-ranking officer in the Praetorian Guard, seized the opportunity.

During the events, Caligula was attacked by the conspirators, sustaining multiple stab wounds. The assassination marked the end of Caligula’s chaotic and despotic rule, but it also plunged Rome into a period of uncertainty.

The Senate moved swiftly to restore the Republic, marking the end of the Julian line’s direct rule. Caligula’s uncle, Claudius was declared the new emperor.

Caligula’s legacy is one of infamy, marked by tales of his extreme cruelty, erratic behaviour, and megalomania. While some historians argue that certain accounts of his actions may have been exaggerated for political reasons, the general consensus portrays him as one of Rome’s most tyrannical emperors.

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