Caligula: the Emperor as Autocrat

For an emperor whose reign was insignificantly short, the emperor Gaius Caesar has become famous beyond his importance. [1] His fame (or infamy) is due not to important events but solely to his unpredictable personality. Today, the character and events of Caligula’s reign are epitomized by motion pictures. In The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators, Jay Robinson portrayed Caligula as a spoiled bad boy who snarls at everyone and is void of any intelligence. John Hurt in the I, Claudius television series, presented a self-indulgent, patently mad Caligula, whose every action is unpredictable and routinely violent. In searching for the real Caligula, we find that ancient sources are unanimous in their hostility, do not provide many details and are often contradictory. This article will relate the events of Caligula’s times and attempt to give as full a portrait of the "mad" emperor as possible.

The Politics of Childhood

Gaius Caesar was born on August 31, 12 CE, during the consulship of his father, Germanicus. The place of his birth has been the subject of some confusion (Cal. 8.1). A popular anonymous epigram that was circulated during Caligula’s reign suggests he was born in an army camp. [2] Pliny the Elder, based upon an inscription he observed at Ambitarvium, placed his birth in Germany among the Treveri. Contradicting this, Gnaeus Lentulus Gaetulicus (who later conspired against Caligula) wrote that his place of birth was Tibur. Tacitus accepted the idea that Caligula was born at a legionary camp (Ann. 1.41) but Suetonius was skeptical. Combing through the acta diurna the author of The Twevle Caesars discovered that Caligula’s birth actually took place at Antium (Cal. 8.2).

The inscription at Ambitarvium, that Pliny found convincing, merely referred to Agrippina giving birth to a child, most likely one of her daughters. Gaetulicus’ reference to a son born at Tibur is confusion over an earlier boy born to Germanicus and Agrippina who was also named Gaius but lived only into boyhood. He was said to have been a charming child and was immortalized by a statue depicting him as a cupid, a copy of which Augustus kept in his bedroom and kissed upon entering the room (Cal. 7). When Caligula was born he was given the name of the dead child.

Following his consulship, Germanicus became governor of the Three Gauls, giving him authority over eight legions, and went north later in 12. On May 18, 14, Caligula, several months short of his second birthday, was sent to join his father at Cologne with his mother, who was pregnant again. Suetonius quotes from a letter written by Augustus to Agrippina where he announces preparations to send little Caligula north. He used this information to support his claim to Antium as Caligula’s birthplace, because it made no sense to transport the baby to Rome and back to Germany (Cal. 8.5). When Caligula joined his father he became the favorite of the troops and was particularly endearing when Agrippina dressed him up as a soldier. His famous nickname was derived from the caliga, the hob-nailed sandals worn by the soldiers (Seneca On Firmness 18.5; Cal. 9.1; Dio 57.5.6; Ann. 1.41). It was reported to Tiberius by Sejanus that Agrippina asked the boy to be referred to as "Caesar Caligula" (Ann. 1.69.5).

Augustus died on August 19. Although Tiberius’ succession was clearly marked out, the death of the princeps had an unsettling effect on the legions, caused by unfulfilled promises and the harshness of military service. Germanicus hastened to the legions of lower Germany where riots had broken out and several centurions had been murdered. He appealed to the loyalty of the soldiers promising that their grievances would be given a hearing. When this failed Germanicus dramatically threatened suicide and was jokingly encouraged to do it. Eventually, Germanicus produced a forged letter, purporting it to be from Tiberius, that offered concessions to the soldiers and, using the money allotted for his personal expenses, was able to restore order (Ann. 1.35-37; Dio 57.5.3). Unfortunately, a delegation of senators arrived and the soldiers assumed that their newly won gains would be overturned and renewed their mutiny. Germanicus and the senators were subjected to various indignities and his own officers criticized their commander for his weakness in dealing with the mutinous soldiers (Dio 57.5.5).

At this point, the sequence of events becomes unclear. Agrippina and Caligula had apparently rejoined Germanicus in Cologne and he arranged for them to leave the camp for their safety. According to Dio, as Agrippina was leaving, clasping her young son, the soldiers seized her and Caligula. When it was discovered that Agrippina was pregnant she was released but the soldiers kept Caligula until they realized they could achieve nothing by kidnapping the boy (57.5.6-7).

Tacitus reports a different version. The soldiers were so filled with remorse upon seeing that the granddaughter of Augustus was forced to seek protection elsewhere with her son, the child of the legion, that they begged mother and son to remain with them. The soldiers allowed Agrippina to go but kept Caligula. After a short time, the anger of the mutineers faded and they began to punish their own leaders (Ann. 1.41-49; On Firmness 18.4). Suetonius followed this version of events, stating that it was the sight of the two-year-old Caligula, and him alone, that changed the mood of the soldiers; Agrippina is not to be found (Cal. 9).[3]  Tacitus’ account casts Agrippina in a major role with Germanicus in opposition to Tiberius, thus serving Tacitus’ broader political agenda. Suetonius gives us the pro-Germanicus propaganda that played off the childhood popularity of Caligula.

Dio’s account differs from Suetonius and Tacitus in that Germanicus is in control, not Agrippina or Caligula; this is probably closer to the way events unfolded. Suetonius and Tacitus put a better face on an episode that was an embarrassment for Germanicus.[4]   In any case, the soldiers relented and were allowed to punish the ringleaders of the mutiny, which they did with great brutality. Tiberius canceled the concessions that Germanicus had promised (Ann. 1.78.2; Dio 57.6.4). Had he followed the ambitions of his wife, Germanicus would have chosen to make a bid for the throne but he was disposed to wait for Tiberius to die, something Agrippina was unwilling to do. [5]

Germanicus rightly felt that action was the best way to allay thoughts of mutiny. In the autumn of 14, a raid over the Rhine into the territory of the Marsi was launched with successful results. Prudently, Germanicus withdrew before other tribes could come to their aide (Ann. 1.49.5 – 51.9; Dio 57.6.1). Perhaps hoping to act as a brake to Germanicus, Tiberius granted a triumph for his success, but his stepson had other ideas. Germanicus dreamed of emulating his father Nero Claudius Drusus, who had conquered Germania as far as the Elbe River. An ambitious campaign for 15 was devised and the Romans advanced far into Germany, eventually reaching the Teutoburg forest. There they found the remains of many legionaries from Varus’ defeat in 9 CE. They were given burial under a vast mound and Germanicus went in pursuit of Arminius, who had drawn Varus into the trap that destroyed his legions. Germanicus nearly fell into the same trap. He managed to extract his troops and in full retreat poured across the Rhine bridge where Agrippina stood given encouragement to the soldiers and distributing bandages and clothing.

Further campaigns followed in 16, and although Germanicus twice defeated the Germans Arminius eluded him. Germanicus probably planned to pursue his conquests to the Elbe but Tiberius knew better. He appreciated that even if Germania were to be conquered it would not be worth the effort of the necessary men and material to hold onto it. Tiberius allowed Germanicus two years in Germany (he had been appointed by Augustus) before recalling him. To Tacitus, the recall was an indication of Tiberius’ jealousy of Germanicus rather than his good sense (Ann. 2.26.6). Germanicus returned to Rome a hero and celebrated a triumph on May 26, 17. Riding with him in his chariot were his five children (Ann. 2.41). For Caligula, almost five years old, this must have been a vivid childhood experience. Perhaps his later penchant for dressing in triumphal clothes comes from the impression this event left on him. Tiberius had a plum to offer Germanicus: the leadership of an embassy to the East where he was to establish a king on the throne of Armenia who would be friendly to Rome. [6]

Germanicus possessed the qualities of a good negotiator and had much more experience than Tiberius’ son Drusus, and the emperor was too elderly for the journey. Tacitus, however, makes it appear that the emperor is trying to get Germanicus out of the way (Ann. 2.42). Germanicus set off in the autumn of 17 accompanied by Agrippina and Caligula and a large retinue. His journey became a triumphal progress as each successive city attempted to outdo the others in the richness of their welcome. When he visited Athens, Germanicus dressed in Greek clothes and sandals, praising the city and received extravagant honors in return. Caligula was as charming as his father. At the city of Assos, he made an address to the citizens even though he was only six years old. Caligula created an impression that the people never forgot and they recorded his visit in an inscription that dates to Caligula’s reign. This is the first recorded instance of Caligula’s considerable oratorical skills and suggests Germanicus may have encouraged his son’s talents.

Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the new governor of Syria, and his wife Munatia Plancina were also on their way east. Piso had been elected to his post by the Senate, but Tiberius may have thought him useful to watch his adoptive son and curb any excessive behavior. However, Piso went out of his way to insult Germanicus. Germanicus traveled to Armenia where he established Zeno, son of Polemo of Pontus, as king. Zeno was highly popular during his 16 years on the throne and was acceptable even to the Parthians. Cappadocia became a Roman province with the exception of a small portion that was allotted to the king. The revenues from the new province were so lucrative that Tiberius was able to lower the sales tax from 1 to .5 percent. Commagene was organized as a province and was later absorbed by Syria (Dio 57.17; Ann. 1.78.2, 2.42, 2.56.5). Germanicus visited Syria late in 18 where at a banquet given by Aretas, king of the Nabataeans, Piso was given a smaller gold crown than Germanicus. Piso threw his gift to the floor declaring the banquet seemed fit more for a king of Parthia than a Roman prince. (Ann. 2.57).

During the winter of 18/19, Germanicus took a break from his duties and visited Egypt. Although his initial purpose was to view the antiquities he also issued edicts. It is presumed that Caligula traveled with his father, which possibly explains his desire as emperor to visit Egypt. Germanicus was received with adulation at Alexandria, from where he sailed up the Nile to visit Thebes and the Colossi of Memnon. Tiberius sent a rebuke, which Germanicus received on his return to Alexandria, because his stepson had violated established policy that no senator could visit Egypt without the consent of the emperor (Ann. 2.59). Egypt was not within the limits of Germanicus’ imperium and in a speech he unwisely compared himself to Alexander the Great.

On his return to Syria, Germanicus clashed violently with Piso and the governor decided it was better to leave the province. Before Piso was gone, Germanicus fell ill and was convinced he was being poisoned by the governor and his wife. He died on October 10, 19 in Antioch at the age of 33 (Ann. 2.69-72). [7]  Germanicus asked that his presumed murderers be brought to justice and, significantly, he cautioned Agrippina to put aside her pride and avoid provoking those in power. Defiantly, Agrippina placed the body of her husband on display so all could see the signs of poisoning. When Germanicus’ body was cremated, the heart remained and was claimed to be additional proof of his murder (Ann. 2.73, Cal. 1.2). Later at his trial, Piso argued against this evidence with the fact that the hearts of heart attack victims do not burn either. The death of Germanicus caused an outburst of grief in Rome and fueled hatred of Tiberius and Livia who were suspected of plotting his murder. Remarkably, the grieving for this popular hero was keenly felt by the Germans, against whom Germanicus had fought, and even the king of Parthia suspended his favorite pastimes (Cal. 5; Ann. 2.72.2). Germanicus became a legendary figure, a consequence that Caligula and Agrippina the Younger would later exploit.

Sejanus and the Succession

Agrippina sailed for Rome during the winter, a season when travel by sea was usually suspended. She paused at Corcyra to make sure news of her arrival in Italy would precede her. When she disembarked at Brundisium, Agrippina was met by crowds of people in mourning for her husband. Agrippina stood before them holding the urn containing the ashes of her husband and clutching Caligula, who stood beside her. The grieving widow was accompanied to Rome by two cohorts of Praetorian Guards, who bore the ashes of Germanicus on their shoulders. The procession made a slow journey and was met at Tarracina by Claudius and the remaining children of Germanicus. At Rome, the consuls and members of the Senate met the procession and the ashes of Germanicus were laid to rest with great ceremony in the mausoleum of Augustus. The people, in an outburst of popular feeling for Agrippina, called her "the glory of her country, the last of Augustus’ line, an unmatched example of ancient virtue" (Ann. 3.1-4). This was hardly comforting for Tiberius, and the lines of future conflict were drawn between the emperor and Agrippina over the succession.

With the death of Germanicus one would expect that Tiberius would select his own son as his heir but the emperor dutifully followed the intentions of Augustus and promoted the sons of Germanicus. This was a bitter blow for Livia and Livilla, Drusus’ wife. A blood connection with the line of Augustus was almost like having a quasi-divine right to rule, and obviously Agrippina and her sons were on better footing than Tiberius. [8] In 20, Nero, Germanicus’ eldest son, was allowed to seek the questorship five years before the legal age and was betrothed to Tiberius’ granddaughter Julia. Tiberius was willing to show goodwill toward Agrippina’s children and, had she been more tactful, it would have been difficult for the Prefect of the Praetorians, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, to manipulate events.

What Sejanus hoped to gain has been much debated. There was no chance of him rising to become emperor, so he may have aimed at becoming the power behind the throne as regent for a young prince. Sejanus exploited the unconcealed ambitions of Agrippina for her sons against the hopes Livia and Livilla. In 24, a blunder took place that exacerbated the situation. The priests who were charged with the traditional New Year prayers for the safety of the emperor included Nero and Drusus. The priests, we are told, thought this would please Tiberius. Instead, the emperor was furious and demanded to know if Agrippina had pressured the priests. Tiberius was embarrassed by the situation, which worsened the bickering between the factions for and against Agrippina. The incident allowed Sejanus to play off Tiberius’ fears that Agrippina would forcibly replace him with one of her sons (Ann. 4.12.5, 17.4). [9]

In 26, a charge of adultery and treason (using poisons and spells) was leveled against Agrippina’s second cousin Claudia Pulchra. Agrippina decided to intervene but did so by bursting in on the emperor while making a sacrifice to the god Augustus. Instead of seeking to resolve the charges against her cousin, Agrippina rebuked Tiberius for sacrificing to Augustus while persecuting his descendants. The remark was cutting, particularly given his lack of blood relationship to his predesesor. Tiberius threw back the famous line, "Just because you are not queen, my little daughter, do you think you have been wronged?" (Ann. 4.52; Tib. 53.1).

The anger over this event may have been responsible for Tiberius’ refusal to grant Agrippina’s request to marry. The man she had in mind appears to have been Asinius Gallus, the widower of Vipsania. This was a poor choice since it reminded Tiberius of his own happy marriage to Agrippa’s daughter, whom he was forced to divorce, and the marriage would further strengthen Agrippina’s faction.[10]  The emperor gave no answer in spite of Agrippina’s insistence (Ann. 4.53). To deepen this divide further, Sejanus convinced Agrippina’s friends that Tiberius was trying to poison her. At a family banquet an awkward incident occurred when Tiberius, alerted to Agrippina’s fears, offered her some fruit he had not tasted. When she declined, Tiberius observed to his mother that he could not be blamed for dealing harshly with a woman who accused him of trying to murder her (Ann. 4.54).

In 26, Tiberius left Rome for Campania, disgusted by the feuding factions. Eventually, he retired to Capri and never set foot in Rome again. Tacitus says Sejanus urged the emperor to leave (Ann. 4.57) and it certainly suited the Prefect to have the emperor out of the way. Nero was the first to come under Sejanus’ attack; he was to assume the questorship on December 5, which made his removal pressing. A freedman was bribed to report any ill-considered statements his master might make, and Nero was known to have a loose tongue. Even Drusus, Nero’s brother, went along with the plot out of jealousy for his brother being Agrippina’s favorite (Ann. 4.60.5-6). Caligula, only fourteen at this time, was protected by his youth but the turbulence of his family life must have affected him. During 27, Sejanus placed Nero and Agrippina under military surveillance, so every detail of their lives was reported to the Prefect (Ann. 4.67.6). The involvement of soldiers leads us to believe both were under house arrest. Agrippina owned a luxurious villa at Herculaneum (which Caligula later demolished) where she may have been held (Sen. On Anger 3.21.5).

The final move against Agrippina and Nero, according to Tacitus, did not come until Livia died in 29. Suetonius contradicts this by saying Caligula lived with Livia after his mother had been banished, which is supported by Pliny and Vellius (Ann. 5.3.1; Cal. 10.1; Pliny NH 8.145; Vellius 2.130.4-5). The conflicting testimony makes it impossible to be sure of events. As relations between the emperor and Agrippina worsened, Caligula could have been removed to stay with Livia for his own protection. Many scholars believe that with the death of Livia the last check on Sejanus’ ambition was removed, but it is highly unlikely (given the bad relations between them) that the old empress protected Agrippina. The main accuser against Agrippina is identified as Avillues Flaccus, who was appointed Prefect of Egypt in 32. The charges against her are sketchy, at best, but it is evident she was plotting rebellion. Agrippina and Nero were declared hostes and were banished to Pandateria and Pontia respectively. Because Caligula was still young and had not yet embarked on a career, he remained safe from political intrigue. He should have received the toga virilis by 26 but had still not received it at Livia’s death. However, the funeral of his great-grandmother marked another demonstration of Caligula’s rhetorical skill when he delivered Livia’s funeral oration (Ann. 5.1; Cal. 10.1). [11]

Following the death of Livia, Caligula was entrusted to his grandmother Antonia. His unmarried sisters, Drusilla and Livilla, were also probably present. The only event noted about Caligula at this time was that Antonia caught him in flagrantibus with Drusilla (Cal. 24). Suetonius does not give this story the status of fact and the purpose behind it exculpates Antonia of rearing the monster Caligula. Although it cannot be determined for certain if Caligula committed incest with any of his sisters, this piece of gossip represents a favorite slur against the imperial family, after charges of adultery. It should be noted that Caligula’s contemporaries, Seneca and Philo, not friendly sources, do not mention a single instance of incest.

Antonia may have been an important influence on Caligula. As a daughter of Marc Antony she would have made her grandson aware of the achievements of his famous ancestor. Antonia had close connections with eastern kings, particularly the family of Herod the Great. She was a half-sister to Cleopatra Selene, who married Juba II of Mauretania and a step-aunt to Pythodoris, wife of Polemo I of Pontus. Also, living with Antonia were the children of King Cotys of Thrace, who had been murdered around 19 CE. Rhoemetalces, Polemo and Cotys II probably knew Caligula well. The respect Caligula later felt for the client kings of Rome may stem from his years with Antonia. Among other members of Antonia’s circle were Lucius Vitellius and Valerius Asiaticus, who may have been amici when Caligula became emperor (Ann. 11.3.1).

With the fall of Agrippina, Sejanus consolidated his power and appointed his supporters to important positions. Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Gaetulicus, for example, was given the command of Upper Germany and his daughter was betrothed to Sejanus’ son. Drusus, Caligula’s brother, had foolishly allowed himself to be duped into the campaign against his mother and brother believing he had the support of Sejanus; Drusus was living with the emperor on Capri when they were condemned. However, he was not safe: Drusus’ wife, Aemilia Lepida, was suborned by Sejanus to bring false charges against her husband. Drusus was sent back to Rome by Tiberius to face the charges, where he was arrested and imprisoned beneath the imperial residence (Tib. 54.2, Cal. 7; Dio 58.3.8). Sejanus continued to gain power and was selected by Tiberius to be his colleague in the consulship of 31, despite his equestrian status. In honoring Sejanus Tiberius may have intended the Prefect to act as a guardian for Caligula or Gemellus, until they were of age to assume the principate.

The fall of Sejanus was as spectacular as his rise. Josephus says he plotted against Tiberius and Antonia alerted the emperor to the danger in a letter (AJ 18.182; Dio 65.14.1-2; Tib. 65.1;Ann. 6.8). However, the alleged conspiracy may not have been formed against Tiberius - charges were brought against Sextius Paconianus that he had conspired with Sejanus against Caligula (Ann. 6.3.4). [12] Suetonius, reporting what he read from Tiberius’ autobiography, says the emperor punished Sejanus for plotting against the children of Germanicus (Tib. 61.1). The concern was probably for Nero and Caligula since Drusus was not released from prison nor was Agrippina freed from banishment. Nero had perished under circumstances that made it appear he committed suicide (Tib. 54.2, 61.1).

Sometime after his 19th birthday (31 CE), Tiberius decided it was time to bring Caligula under his guidance and summoned him to Capri. The emperor may have been motivated by the knowledge that Sejanus was plotting against Caligula but he also may not have liked the influence of Antonia, who may have been filling Caligula’s head with ideas of family grandeur. Immediately on his arrival, Caligula was granted the toga virilis in an understated ceremony compare to his brothers (Tib. 54.1, Cal. 10.1; Dio 59.2.2). Dio says that Tiberius suggested to the Senate that they refrain from granting Caligula premature honors that would make him conceited. He was granted a priesthood and appointed to the questorship; Tiberius spoke of Caligula’s pietas, hinting that the prince would be his successor (Dio 58.8.1-2, 23.1). Various distinctions and minor offices were voted to him in Italy and the provinces, and the mints of Spain issued coins with his portrait.

Tiberius struck against Sejanus on October 18, 31, calling upon Quintus Naeveus Cordus Sutortius Macro, the Prefect of the Vigiles, to play the key role. Macro entered Rome on the night of October 17, having secretly been appointed to replace Sejanus. He fooled the Prefect into entering the Temple of Apollo on the Palatine where the Senate was meeting. Macro ordered the Praetorians back to barracks replacing them with his fourteen cohorts of Vigiles. Sejanus, thinking he was about to be granted the tribunician potestas, was caught by surprise when Tiberius denounced him in a letter read before the senators. The senators, made bold by the absence of the Praetorians, condemned Sejanus, who was arrested and strangled in prison. The enormous confidence that Tiberius placed in Macro never wavered and he remained the sole prefect of the Praetorians.

Significantly, the death of Sejanus did not bring the release of Agrippina or Drusus, which appears to confirm the overwhelming evidence Tiberius possessed proving their guilt. Caligula, on the other hand, enjoyed the emperor’s full confidence. Caligula’s feelings toward Tiberius are unknown but from the fall of Sejanus he began to consolidate his position as his successor with the help of Macro.

The Making of an Heir

Macro tirelessly promoted his new protégé to Tiberius (Philo legatio ad Gaium 35-8). A few maiestas trials were held in the wake of Sejanus’ fall, at the instigation of Macro, in order to remove anyone who held a grudge against Caligula or were too close to Sejanus. Five high ranking senators were charged with treason but none of the accused were brought to trial, out of the reluctance of their colleagues. Macro had to content himself with forcing two of them to commit suicide. Among the survivors was Lentulus Gaetulicus who, although closely connected to Sejanus, also commanded the powerful legions of Upper Germany (Ann. 6.9.5-7). Gaetulicus had betrothed his daughter to the son of Sejanus, a connection that placed him in jeopardy. He was spared prosecution after he wrote to Tiberius reminding the emperor that his connection with Sejanus had been made at his insistence. Gaetulicus maintained that he was loyal to Tiberius and he was the only one of Sejanus’ supporters to survive the prefect’s fall (Ann. 6.30).

Tiberius saw to Caligula’s education and they may have shared similar scholarly interests. Josephus observed that Tiberius was inspired by Caligula’s achievements and began to apply himself to his own studies (AJ 19.209). There seemed to be no bitterness on Caligula’s part that his mother and brother had remained in prison, but he needed to suppress his feelings in these matters lest he let something slip that might be incriminating. Suetonius mentions that while at Capri someone tried to persuade Caligula to complain but he did not (Cal. 10.2). The time frame of this occurrence is not given but the unknown provocateur could have been an agent of Sejanus, possibly a bribed freedman, or a supporter of Tiberius Gemellus who wanted to secure the succession for him alone.

Tacitus believed that Caligula learned his deceit from Tiberius himself, concealing his true character under false modesty. This idea is reflected in the famous remark by Passienus Crispus that the world never knew a better slave or a worse master (Ann. 6.20.2; Cal. 10.2). The witticism probably hit the mark since Passienus moved in court circles and was in a position to know. Later, Caligula found it expedient to portray himself as tormented by rage over the treatment of his family, even to claim that he plotted to murder Tiberius. Implausibly, the emperor was aware of the plot and did nothing (Cal. 12.3). The story allowed Caligula to appear as the avenger of his family and be able to refute rumors that he murdered Tiberius. According to Suetonius, Tiberius indulged Caligula’s excesses to sooth his savage nature. He allowed him to watch tortures being conducted, to engage in sexual excesses and gluttony. Caligula also visited low dives in disguise, prefiguring his later licentious behavior. His ancestor Antony also went slumming and perhaps may be been a model for Caligula (Plut. Ant. 29.1-2). Philo, however, contradicts this informing us that Caligula lived a restrained and moderate life on Capri. (Cal. 11; Leg. 14).

In 33, just as rumors circulated that Tiberius would be reconciled with Drusus, the prince was deliberately starved to death. Tiberius provided the Senate with a verbatim account down to Drusus’ last delirious words; he was denounced as infestum reipublicae (Ann. 6.23-24; Tib. 54.2, 61.1; Dio 58.22.4, 25.4). Tiberius may have provided this account to prove Drusus was truly dead. Two years before, an imposter claiming to be Drusus had appeared in Achaea and Asia until exposed as a fraud (Ann. 5.10; Dio 58.25). Shortly after this, the stunning news arrived that Agrippina had died on October 18, having starved herself to death. Tiberius had no direct role in her death and attempts were even made to force feed Agrippina, although Dio implicates the emperor (Dio 58.22.4; Tib. 53.2; Ann. 6.25). Agrippina died on the second anniversary of the death of Sejanus. Tiberius dwelled on the coincidence in a report to the Senate, adding that he had shown clemency to Agrippina by not having her strangled or thrown down the Germonean Stairs, the usual fate of traitors. [13]

The same year saw the marriage of Caligula to Julia Claudia, daughter of Marcus Junius Silanus. The ceremony was held at Antium, with Tiberius in attendance (Ann. 6.20.1; Dio 58.25.2; Cal. 12.1). Caligula’s new wife probably returned with him to Capri. She became pregnant but neither mother nor her child survived the birth. Tacitus places her death in early 37 but Dio, in error, claims that Caligula got rid of her (Ann. 6.45.3; Dio 59.8.7;Cal. 12.2; Leg. 62-3). [14]  Macro is said to have made use of this tragedy to further ingratiate himself with Caligula by offering his wife, Ennia Thrasylla, as his mistress. Caligula seems to have happily gone along with this arrangement since Macro’s support could only benefit him (Ann. 6.45.5). Philo contradicts this version by suggesting that Ennia acted without Macro’s knowledge while Suetonius says Caligula seduced her (Leg. 39-40, 61; Cal.12.2). However, none of this may be true. Stories of the adultery between Caligula and Ennia possibly originated from the charges leveled at Macro during his later trial, so the entire episode could have been fabricated.

While on Capri, Caligula got to know Julius Agrippa (usually referred to as Herod Agrippa). Agrippa was a brilliant, extravagant and reckless man; a good diplomat and energetic in the defense of the Jews. He had been sent to Rome as a child and was brought up in the house of Antonia, who was on affectionate terms with Agrippa’s mother, Berenice. Agrippa was often in debt and was pursued by his creditors until Antonia rescued him, moved by her affection for Berenice and Agrippa’s friendship with Claudius (AJ 18.202).

Agrippa was so charming that Tiberius asked him to take Gemellus under his wing but Agrippa soon learned that the future lay with Caligula. To have the grandson of Herod the Great as his companion and mentor would have inflated Caligula’s self-importance. This influence was to be strong and long lasting and certainly not altruistic. Agrippa was soon in trouble. He made the mistake of speculating to Caligula on his good prospects when Tiberius died and he succeeded as princeps. The remarks were probably innocent but they got back to Tiberius. In September 36, Agrippa was summoned by the emperor, tried in camera and found guilty of wishing Tiberius’ death. He was sentenced to imprisonment but Antonia saw to his comforts through the connivance of Macro (AJ 18.143, 147-50, 165, 168-204).

The succession was a problem for Tiberius. Suetonius says that the emperor recognized the destructive temperament in Caligula (Tib. 55; Cal. 11). Philo also says Tiberius knew Caligula to be unreliable and that he would have all of Sulla’s vices but none of his virtues. Without a doubt, Tiberius felt anxiety over the future of Gemellus. Tacitus reports him saying to Caligula, "You will kill him and another will kill you." Philo further suggests that had Tiberius lived longer he would have executed Caligula but Macro held him back (Leg. 24, 33-4, Flacc 12; AJ 18.215; Ann. 6.46.9; Dio 58.23.3). Despite Tiberius’ hopes for Gemellus there were reservations about him. Dio reports that Tiberius felt he was illegitimate, and is echoed by Suetonius as grounds for plans to murder him along with Caligula (Tib. 62.3; Dio 58.23.2). However, questions about Gemellus’ legitimacy reflect the gossip about the conduct of his mother, Livilla, who had poisoned her husband Drusus with Sejanus in 23.

All Tiberius could do was appoint an heir since neither Caligula or Gemellus were old enough or had the experience to be associated with him in power. His decision was to bequeath his estate to both jointly. Philo says that Gemellus was given a share of power but no honors were bestowed on him (Leg. 23, Flacc 10). He had yet to receive the toga virilis. Also, ancient sources speak of him as being a child (perhaps indicating his mental age) even though Gemellus was 17 when Tiberius died. He had been brought up out of the public eye, somewhat like Claudius (Leg. 23, 30-31; Ann. 6.46.1). With the overwhelming popularity of Caligula, carrying the mantle of Germanicus, and the prestige of his direct bloodline to Augustus, Tiberius must have realized there was little chance of Gemellus being accepted as co-ruler. By naming him co-heir, he was probably hoping Gemellus might have been given a measure of protection. However, the only named supported of Gemellus was Avillius Flaccus, Prefect of Egypt, who had much to fear from his prosecution of Agrippina (Flacc. 9; Cal. 13.1).

Tiberius fell ill early in March, 37 in Campania. He fought his illness by engaging in physical activities but he grew worse and caught a chill. He traveled to his villa at Misenum, which had a commanding view of the sea, and continued his usual activities growing weaker and eventually taking to his bed. Tiberius’ doctor, Charicles, reported to Macro that the emperor had two days to live, and the Prefect hurried to arrange Caligula’s succession. Tiberius died on March 16, 37. A host of rumors suggest that Caligula had poisoned, starved or smothered the old emperor. Tacitus provides the famous account that Tiberius revived when thought dead, turning Caligula into a frightened coward and leaving Macro to smother the emperor alone. Perhaps the truth lies in the least complicated story that Tiberius called for his servants and no one coming, got out of bed when his strength failed him (Ann. 6.50.9; Tib. 73.2, Cal. 12.2; Leg. 25).

(C) David A. Wend 2001


1 - I will use the name Caligula to identify Gaius throughout this article. The emperor Gaius disliked his nickname but he also did not care much for being called Gaius. (Seneca On Firmness 18.4)

2 - A baby in the camp, a son in the line,

He was sure to be the next emperor,

It’s a very clear sign.

3 - Tacitus and Suetonius used a common source that glorified Germanicus and his family. This may have been the lost book of Pliny the Elder on the German wars. D. Hurley, "Gaius Caligula in the Germanicus Tradition", AJP 110(1989), 320.

4 - D. Hurley, op.cit., 322-8.

5 - R.S.Rogers, "The Conspiracy of Agrippina" TAPA 62(1931),149-50.

6 - Other problem areas included the settling of the status of Cappadocia, whose king, Archelaus, had been accused of treason by Tiberius and recently died. The king of Commagene had also died leaving his kingdom split between those who favored annexation to Rome and those who supported the ruling family.

7 - Syria was a notoriously unhealthy place and would later claim Trajan’s life. Agrippina also was ill before she left Syria for Rome and Martina, the suspected poisoner, died at Brundisium probably from an illness contracted in the province (Ann. 3.7.2).

8 - When Tiberius was married to Julia, Augustus’ daughter, she made a point to remind him of his unequal position (Ann. 1.53). W. Allen, Jr.,"The Political Atmosphere of the Reign of Tiberius" TAPA 22(1941),7-8.

9 - R.S. Rogers,op, cit.,151-2.

10 - W. Allen, Jr., op cit., 7; R.S. Rogers,op. cit.,154-5

11 - There was something of a tradition for the youngest member of the family to deliver the eulogy. Augustus was twelve when he spoke for his grandmother Julia and Tiberius was nine when he spoke at the funeral of his father (Aug. 8.1, Tib. 6.4).

12 - A. A. Barrett,Caligula: The Corruption of Power (New Haven 1989), 27-29.

13 - R.S. Rogers,op, cit.,146)

14 - D. Wardle, "Caligula and His Wives",Latomus 57(1998), 109-110.

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