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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > January 2018 > Caligula: tyrant or troubled?

Caligula: tyrant or troubled?

The story of Caligula has long been about the corruption of absolute power, murderous madness and sexual perversion, but Philip Matyszak reveals how the Roman emperor’s reputation is far more seductive than the mundane reality


ALL BAD? Gaius Julius Caesar (known as Caligula), Roman emperor from AD 37 to AD 41, has a legendarily despicable reputation. But is it deserved?

The Roman Empire produced some spectacularly bad emperors over the centuries. There was the brutally egotistical Commodus, who moonlighted as a gladiator in the Colosseum, and the bizarre Elagabulus, who dressed in women’s clothing and got about the Palatine in chariots pulled by slave girls. Then there was Nero, whose orgies and tyrannical excesses were notorious.

No list of Rome’s worst emperors would be complete, though, without Caligula. Everybody knows, after all, of how he threw obscene orgies, had sex with his sisters and was an ingenious and sadistic torturer. And, of course, he was stark, raving mad. Yet most of what we think we know about Caligula comes from accounts (both ancient and modern) based on the authors’ highly active imaginations, rather than historical record.

IDYLLIC YOUTH Young Caligula is paraded in miniature armour


It is true that few lives have come close to the absolute heights and profound depths Caligula experienced in just 25 years. He was the youngest son of Germanicus, the rising star of the imperial dynasty, and part of a revered family, which combined celebrity glamour with monarchy and a cult of personality.

As the youngest in this Roman pantheon, he was the ‘chick’, the darling, the mascot. The name Caligula, or ‘Little Boots’, came from adoring soldiers to whom Germanicus liked to display his son dressed as a miniature Roman legionary. Uncomfortable with the moniker, Caligula later insisted on the given name he shared with a famous ancestor – Gaius Julius Caesar. (Many historians today use Gaius rather than the sensational alter ego of Caligula.)

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Imagine, if you can, a mystery bug appearing out of nowhere – one with no cure or treatment and that kills nearly everyone infected in just a matter of days. !en consider one-in-three people in Britain being struck down by it over the course of two years. Unthinkable, isn’t it? And yet that’s exactly what happened halfway through the 14th century. Where did this killer plague, Black Death, come from? How did it spread? And what was it like to live through these unutterable days? We reveal all from page 28. But don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom to see in the new year, as we celebrate some of history’s greatest pioneers this issue, from the extraordinary salvagers of Henry VIII’s favourite ship, the Mary Rose (p46", to those magnificent men who took their flying machines into the skies (p56", to the remarkable women whose mathematical genius allowed the US to send men to the Moon (p69". We’ve also given the magazine a bit of a spring clean, taking all your comments on board, and introduced a few new regular features. I hope you like what we’ve done – do write in and let us know. Happy new Year!