A S Caligula was the son of virtuous parents, everybody expected that he would prove to be a good man. But he had lost both father and mother when he was very young, and had been brought up among wicked people. It is no wonder, therefore, that he followed the example he had so long had under his eyes, and turned out to be even worse than Tiberius.
Caligula, like his great-uncle, was a hypocrite, so at first he pretended to be very good; but, before many months had passed, the Romans discovered that he was as cruel and vicious as he could be.
Among his many other failings, Caligula was very vain. Not content with adopting all the pomp of an Eastern king, he soon wished to be worshiped as one of the gods; and he struck off the heads of their statues, so as to have them replaced by copies of his own.
Sometimes, too, he stood in the temple, dressed as Mars or even as Venus, and forced the people to worship him. He often pretended to hold conversations with the gods, and even to threaten and scold them whenever things did not suit him.
Sometimes he went out to woo the full moon, as if he had been its lover, and he treated his horse far better than any of his subjects. This animal, whose name was Incitatus, lived in a white marble stable, and ate out of an ivory manger; and sentinels were placed all around to see that no sound, however slight, should disturb him when asleep.
Caligula often invited Incitatus to his own banquets, and there the horse was made to eat oats off a golden plate and drink wine out of the emperor's own cup. Caligula was on the point of sending the name of Incitatus to the senate, and of having him elected as consul of Rome, when this favorite horse died, and thus put a stop to his master's extravagance.
Many historians think that Caligula was not responsible for all the harm that he did; for he was once very ill, and it was only after that illness that he began to do all these crazy things. Some of his courtiers had exclaimed that they would gladly die if the emperor could only be well; so as soon as he was able to be up again, he forced them to kill themselves.
As time went on, Caligula's madness and cruelty increased, and he did many more absurd things. For instance, he once started out with a large army, saying that he was going to make war against the Germans. But, when he came to the Rhine, he gave orders that a few German slaves should hide on the other side of the river. Then, rushing into their midst, he made believe to take them captive; and when he came back to Rome he insisted upon having a triumph.
Before going back home, however, he started out to conquer Britain; but when he came to the sea he directed his soldiers to pick up a lot of shells on the shore. These he brought back to Rome, as booty, and he pompously called them the spoils of the ocean.
An astrologer once told him that he was as likely to become emperor as to walk over the sea; and he wished to prove his ability to do both. As he was emperor already, he ordered that a bridge of boats should be built across an arm of the sea; and then he walked over it simply to show how wrong the astrologer had been.
An ordinary boat to travel about in would not have suited Caligula, so he had a galley built of cedar wood. The oars were gilded, the sails were made of silk, and on the deck was a pleasure garden with real plants and trees bearing fruit of all kinds.
The cruelty of this emperor was quite as great as his folly. We are told that he killed his own grandmother, caused many Romans to die in slow torture, and once exclaimed, "I wish that the Roman people had but one head so that I might cut it off at a blow!"
Caligula's tyranny lasted about three years. Unable to endure it any longer, some of the Romans formed a conspiracy, and Caligula was murdered by one of his guards whom he had taunted. The first blow having been struck by this man, the other conspirators closed around Caligula, and it was found later that he had been pierced by no less than thirty mortal wounds.
Such was the end of this monster, of whom Seneca, a Roman writer, has said: "Nature seemed to have brought him forth to show what mischief could be effected by the greatest vices supported by the greatest authority."