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Jacob Abbott

The Assassination of Caligula

The emperor Caligula came to his death in the following manner:

Of course his wanton and remorseless tyranny often awakened very deep feelings of resentment, and very earnest desires for revenge in the hearts of those who suffered by it; but yet so absolute and terrible was his power, that none dared to murmur or complain. The resentment, however, which the cruelty of the emperor awakened, burned the more fiercely for being thus restrained and suppressed, and many covert threats were made, and many secret plots were formed, from time to time, against the tyrant's life.

Among others who cherished such designs, there was a man named Cassius Chærea, an officer of the army, who, though not of high rank, was nevertheless a man of considerable distinction. He was a captain, or, as it was styled in those days, a centurion. His command, therefore, was small, but it was in the prætorian cohort, as it was called, a sort of body-guard of the commander-in-chief, and consequently a very honorable corps. Chærea was thus a man of considerable distinction on account of the post which he occupied, and his duties, as captain in the life guards, brought him very frequently into communication with the emperor. He was a man of great personal bravery, too, and was on this account held in high consideration by the army. He had performed an exploit at one time, some years before, in Germany, which, had gained him great fame. It was at the time of the death of Augustus, the first emperor. Some of the German legions, and among them one in which Chærea was serving, had seized upon the occasion to revolt. They alledged many and grievous acts of oppression as the grounds of their revolt, and demanded redress for what they had suffered, and security for the future. One of the first measures which they resorted to in the frenzy of the first outbreak of the rebellion, was to seize all the centurions in the camp, and to beat them almost to death. They gave them sixty blows each, one for each of their number, and then turned them, bruised, wounded, and dying, out of the camp. Some they threw into the Rhine. They revenged themselves thus on all the centurions but one. That one was Chærea. Chærea would not suffer himself to be taken by them, but seizing his sword he fought his way through the midst of them, slaying some and driving others before him, and thus made his escape from the camp. This feat gained him great renown.

One might imagine from this account that Chærea was a man of great personal superiority in respect to size and strength, inasmuch as extraordinary muscular power, as well as undaunted courage, would seem to be required to enable a man to make his way against so many enemies. But this was not the fact. Chærea was of small stature and of a slender and delicate form. He was modest and unassuming in his manners, too, and of a very kind and gentle spirit. He was thus not only honored and admired for his courage, but he was generally beloved for the amiable and excellent qualities of his heart.

The possession of such qualities, however, could not be expected to recommend him particularly to the favor of the emperor. In fact, in one instance it had the contrary effect. Caligula assigned to the centurions of his guard, at one period, some duties connected with the collection of taxes. Chærea, instead of practicing the extortion and cruelty common on such occasions, was merciful and considerate, and governed himself strictly by the rules of law and of justice in his collections. The consequence necessarily was that the amount of money received was somewhat diminished, and the emperor was displeased. The occasion was, however, not one of sufficient importance to awaken in the monarch's mind any very serious anger, and so, instead of inflicting any heavy punishment upon the offender, he contented himself with attempting to tease and torment him with sundry vexatious indignities and annoyances.

It is the custom sometimes, in camps, and at other military stations, for the commander to give every evening, what is called the parole  or password, which consists usually of some word or phrase that is to be communicated to all the officers, and as occasion may require to all the soldiers, whom for any reason it may be necessary to send to and fro about the precincts of the camp during the night. The sentinels, also, all have the password, and accordingly, whenever any man approaches the post of a sentinel, he is stopped and the parole is demanded. If the stranger gives it correctly, it is presumed that all is right, and he is allowed to pass on,—since an enemy or a spy would have no means of knowing it.

Now, whenever it came to Chærea's turn to communicate the parole, the emperor was accustomed to give him some ridiculous or indecent phrase, intended not only to be offensive to the purity of Chærea's mind, but designed, also, to exhibit him in a ridiculous light to the subordinate officers and soldiers to whom he would have to communicate it. Sometimes the password thus given was some word or phrase wholly unfit to be spoken, and sometimes it was the name of some notorious and infamous woman; but whatever it was, Chærea was compelled by his duty as a soldier to deliver it to all the corps, and patiently to submit to the laughter and derision which his communication awakened among the vile and wicked soldiery.

If there was any dreadful punishment to be inflicted, or cruel deed of any kind to be performed, Caligula took great pleasure in assigning the duty to Chærea, knowing how abhorrent to his nature it must be. At one time a senator of great distinction named Propedius, was accused of treason by one of his enemies. His treason consisted, as the accuser alledged, of having spoken injurious words against the emperor. Propedius denied that he had ever spoken such words. The accuser, whose name was Timidius, cited a certain Quintilia, an actress, as his witness. Propedius was accordingly brought to trial, and Quintilia was called upon before the judges to give her testimony. She denied that she had ever heard Propedius utter any such sentiment as Timidius attributed to him. Timidius then said that Quintilia was testifying falsely: he declared that she had heard Propedius utter such words, and demanded that she should be put to the torture to compel her to acknowledge it. The emperor acceded to this demand, and commanded Chærea to put the actress to the torture.

It is, of course, always difficult to ascertain the precise truth in respect to such transactions as those that are connected with plots and conspiracies against tyrants, since every possible precaution is, of course, taken by all concerned to conceal what is done. It is probable, however, in this case, that Propedius had cherished some hostile designs against Caligula, if he had not uttered injurious words, and that Quintilia was in some measure in his confidence. It is even possible that Chærea may have been connected with them in some secret design, for it is said that when he received the orders of Caligula to put Quintilia to the torture he was greatly agitated and alarmed. If he should apply the torture severely, he feared that the unhappy sufferer might be induced to make confessions or statements at least, which would bring destruction on the men whom he most relied upon for the overthrow of Caligula. On the other hand, if he should attempt to spare her, the effect would be only to provoke the anger of Caligula against himself, without at all shielding or saving her. As, however, he was proceeding to the place of torture, in charge of his victim, with his mind in this state of anxiety and indecision, his fears were somewhat relieved by a private signal given to him by Quintilia, by which she intimated to him that he need feel no concern,—that she would be faithful and true, and would reveal nothing, whatever might be done to her.

This assurance, while it allayed in some degree Chærea's anxieties and fears, must have greatly increased the mental distress which he endured at the idea of leading such a woman to the awful suffering which awaited her. He could not, however, do otherwise than to proceed. Having arrived at the place of execution, the wretched Quintilia was put to the rack. She bore the agony which she endured while her limbs were stretched on the torturing engine, and her bones broken, with patient submission, to the end. She was then carried, fainting, helpless, and almost dead, to Caligula, who seemed now satisfied. He ordered the unhappy victim of the torture to be taken away, and directed that Propedius should be acquitted and discharged.

Of course while passing through this scene the mind of Chærea was in a tumult of agitation and excitement,—the anguish of mind which he must have felt in his compassion for the sufferer, mingling and contending with the desperate indignation which burned in his bosom against the author of all these miseries. He was wrought up, in fact, to such a state of frenzy by this transaction, that as soon as it was over he determined immediately to take measures to put Caligula to death. This was a very bold and desperate resolution. Caligula was the greatest and most powerful potentate on earth. Chærea was only a captain of his guard, without any political influence or power, and with no means whatever of screening himself from the terrible consequences which might be expected to follow from his attempt, whether it should succeed or fail.

So thoroughly, however, was he now aroused, that he determined to brave every danger in the attainment of his end. He immediately began to seek out among the officers of the army such men as he supposed would be most likely to join him,—men of courage, resolution, and faithfulness, and those who, from their general character or from the wrongs which they had individually endured from the government, were to be supposed specially hostile to Caligula's dominion. From among these men he selected a few, and to them he cautiously unfolded his designs. All approved of them. Some, it is true, declined taking any active part in the conspiracy, but they assured Chærea of their good wishes, and promised solemnly not to betray him.

The number of the conspirators daily increased. There was, however, at their meetings for consultation, some difference of opinion in respect to the course to be pursued. Some were in favor of acting promptly and at once. The greatest danger which was to be apprehended, they thought, was in delay. As the conspiracy became extended, some one would at length come to the knowledge of it, they said, who would betray them. Others, on the other hand, were for proceeding cautiously and slowly. What they most feared was rash and inconsiderate action. It would be ruinous to the enterprise, as they maintained, for them to attempt to act before their plans were fully matured.

Chærea was of the former opinion. He was very impatient to have the deed performed. He was ready himself, he said, to perform it, at any time; his personal duties as an officer of the guard, gave him frequent occasions of access to the emperor, and he was ready to avail himself of any of them to kill the monster. The emperor went often, he said, to the capitol, to offer sacrifices, and he could easily kill him there. Or, if they thought that that was too public an occasion, he could have an opportunity in the palace, at certain religious ceremonies which the emperor was accustomed to perform there, and at which Chærea himself was usually present. Or, he was ready to throw him down from a tower where he was accustomed to go sometimes for the purpose of scattering money among the populace below. Chærea said that he could easily come up behind him on such an occasion, and hurl him suddenly over the parapet down to the pavement below. All these plans, however, seemed to the conspirators too uncertain and dangerous, and Chærea's proposals were accordingly not agreed to.

At length, the time drew near when Caligula was to leave Rome to proceed to Alexandria in Egypt, and the conspirators perceived that they must prepare to act, or else abandon their design altogether. It had been arranged that there was to he a grand celebration at Rome previous to the emperor's departure. This celebration, which was to consist of games, and sports, and dramatic performances of various kinds, was to continue for three days, and the conspirators determined, after much consultation and debate, that Caligula should be assassinated on one of those days.

After coming to this conclusion, however, in general, their hearts seemed to fail them in fixing the precise time for the perpetration of the deed, and two of the three days passed away accordingly without any attempt being made. At length, on the morning of the third day, Chærea called the chief conspirators together, and urged them very earnestly not to let the present opportunity pass away. He represented to them how greatly they increased the danger of their attempts by such delays, and he seemed himself so full of determination and courage, and addressed them with so much eloquence and power, that he inspired them with his own resolution, and they decided unanimously to proceed.

The emperor came to the theater that day at an unusually early hour, and seemed to be in excellent spirits and in an excellent humor. He was very complaisant to all around him, and very lively, affable, and gay. After performing certain ceremonies, by which it devolved upon him to open the festivities of the day, he proceeded to his place, with his friends and favorites about him, and Chærea, with the other officers that day on guard, at a little distance behind him.

The performances were commenced, and every thing went on as usual until toward noon. The conspirators kept their plans profoundly secret, except that one of them, when he had taken his seat by the side of a distinguished senator, asked him whether he had heard any thing new. The senator replied that he had not. "I can then tell you something," said he, "which perhaps you have not heard, and that is, that in the piece which is to be acted to-day, there is to be represented the death of a tyrant." "Hush!" said the senator, and he quoted a verse from Homer, which meant, "Be silent, lest some Greek should overhear."

It had been the usual custom of the emperor, at such entertainments, to take a little recess about noon, for rest and refreshments. It devolved upon Chærea to wait upon him at this time, and to conduct him from his place in the theater to an adjoining apartment in his palace which was connected with the theater, where there was provided a bath and various refreshments. When the time arrived, and Chærea perceived, as he thought, that the emperor was about to go, he himself went out, and stationed himself in a passage-way leading to the bath, intending to intercept and assassinate the emperor when he should come along. The emperor, however, delayed his departure, having fallen into conversation with his courtiers and friends, and finally he said that, on the whole, as it was the last day of the festival, he would not go out to the bath, but would remain in the theater; and then ordering refreshments to be brought to him there, he proceeded to distribute them with great urbanity to the officers around him.

In the mean time, Chærea was patiently waiting in the passage-way, with his sword by his side, all ready for striking the blow the moment that his victim should appear. Of course the conspirators who remained behind were in a state of great suspense and anxiety, and one of them, named Minucianus, determined to go out and inform Chærea of the change in Caligula's plans. He accordingly attempted to rise, but Caligula put his hand upon his robe, saying, "Sit still, my friend. You shall go with me presently." Minucianus accordingly dissembled his anxiety and agitation of mind still a little longer, but presently, watching an opportunity when the emperor's attention was otherwise engaged, he rose, and, assuming an unconcerned and careless air, he walked out of the theater.

He found Chærea in his ambuscade in the passage-way, and he immediately informed him that the emperor had concluded not to come out. Chærea and Minucianus were then greatly at a loss what to do. Some of the other conspirators, who had followed Minucianus out, now joined them, and a brief but very earnest and solemn consultation ensued. After a moment's hesitation, Chærea declared that they must now go through with their work at all hazards, and he professed himself ready, if his comrades would sustain him in it, to go back to the theater, and stab the tyrant there in his seat, in the midst of his friends. Minucianus and the others concurred in this design, and it was resolved immediately to execute it.

The execution of the plan, however, in the precise form in which it had been resolved upon was prevented by a new turn which affairs had taken in the theater. For while Minucianus and the two or three conspirators who had accompanied him were debating in the passage-way, the others who remained, knowing that Chærea was expecting Caligula to go out, conceived the idea of attempting to persuade him to go, and thus to lead him into the snare which had been set for him. They accordingly gathered around, and without any appearance of concert or of eagerness, began to recommend him to go and take his bath as usual. He seemed at length disposed to yield to these persuasions, and rose from his seat; and then, the whole company attending and following him, he proceeded toward the doors which conducted to the palace. The conspirators went before him, and under pretense of clearing the way for him they contrived to remove to a little distance all whom they thought would be most disposed to render him any assistance. The consultations of Chærea and those who were with him in the inner passage-way were interrupted by the coming of this company.

Among those who walked with the emperor at this time were his uncle Claudius and other distinguished relatives. Caligula advanced along the passage, walking in company with these friends, and wholly unconscious of the fate that awaited him, but instead of going immediately toward the bath he turned aside first into a gallery or corridor which led into another apartment, where there were assembled a company of boys and girls, that had been sent to him from Asia to act and dance upon the stage, and who had just arrived. The emperor took great interest in looking at these performers, and seemed desirous of having them go immediately into the theater and let him see them perform. While talking on this subject Chærea and the other conspirators came into the apartment, determined now to strike the blow.

Chærea advanced to the emperor, and asked him in the usual manner what should be the parole for that night. The emperor gave him in reply such an one as he had often chosen before, to insult and degrade him. Chærea instead of receiving the insult meekly and patiently in his usual manner, uttered words of anger and defiance in reply; and drawing his sword at the same instant he struck the emperor across the neck and felled him to the floor. Caligula filled the apartment with his cries of pain and terror; the other conspirators rushed in and attacked him on all sides; his friends,—so far as the adherents of such a man can be called friends,—fled in dismay. As for Caligula's uncle Claudius, it was not to have been expected that he would have rendered his nephew any aid, for he was a man of such extraordinary mental imbecility that he was usually considered as not possessed even of common sense; and all the others who might have been expected to defend him, either fled from the scene, or stood by in consternation and amazement, leaving the conspirators to wreak their vengeance on their wretched victim, to the full.

In fact though while a despot lives and retains his power, thousands are ready to defend him and to execute his will, however much in heart they may hate and detest him, yet when he is dead, or when it is once certain that he is about to die, an instantaneous change takes place and every one turns against him. The multitudes in and around the theater and the palace who had an hour before trembled before this mighty potentate, and seemed to live only to do his bidding, were filled with joy to see him brought to the dust. The conspirators, when the success of their plans and the death of their oppressor was once certain, abandoned themselves to the most extravagant joy. They cut and stabbed the fallen body again and again, as if they could never enough wreak their vengeance upon it. They cut off pieces of the body and bit them with their teeth in their savage exultation and triumph. At length they left the body where it lay, and went forth into the city where all was now of course tumult and confusion.

The body remained where it had fallen until late at night. Then some attendants of the palace came and conveyed it away. They were sent, it was said, by Cæsonia, the wife of the murdered man. Cæsonia had an infant daughter at this time, and she remained herself with the child, in a retired apartment of the palace while these things were transpiring. Distracted with grief and terror at the tidings that she heard, she clung to her babe, and made the arrangements for the interment of the body of her husband without leaving its cradle. She imagined perhaps that there was no reason for supposing that she or the child were in any immediate danger, and accordingly she took no measures toward effecting an escape. If so, she did not understand the terrible frenzy to which the conspirators had been aroused, and for which the long series of cruelties and indignities which they had endured from her husband had prepared them. For at midnight one of them broke into her apartment, stabbed the mother in her chair, and taking the innocent infant from its cradle, killed it by beating its head against the wall.



Atrocious as this deed may seem, it was not altogether wanton and malignant cruelty which prompted it. The conspirators intended by the assassination of Caligula not merely to wreak their vengeance on a single man, but to bring to an end a hated race of tyrants; and they justified the murder of the wife and child by the plea that stern political necessity required them to exterminate the line, in order that no successor might subsequently arise to re-establish the power and renew the tyranny which they had brought to an end. The history of monarchies is continually presenting us with instances of innocent and helpless children sacrificed to such a supposed necessity as this.