Around the year 14 or 15, the youngest son of the Roman war hero Germanicus found himself growing up around the Legions. As a boy of just two or three, little Gaius Caesar accompanied his father on campaigns in the north of Germania. Centurions were amused to see him dressed in miniature soldier’s uniform, including the boots, the “Caligae”, and the segmented Roman armor – the “lorica segmentata”.
Soldiers of the Legions called him “Little Boots”, “Caligula” in Latin, after the little soldier’s boots the boy liked to wear in camp. The future dictator was said to hate the nickname, but it stuck.
On this day in the year 37, the Roman Senate annulled the will of the Emperor Tiberius, proclaiming 24 year old Caligula, Emperor. After years of purges and treason trials, Caligula’s ascent to the throne was as a welcome breath of fresh air. A period of relative peace and prosperity, the first two years of Caligula’s reign did little to dispel expectations.
The obelisk at St. Peter’s Square was originally erected in Alexandria, in 30-28BC. Caligula had it brought to Rome and erected in the year 40, where it stands to this day. The “Piazza San Pietro Obelisk” is the only such obelisk to have survived from Roman times.
In the year 39, Caligula suffered a protracted and severe illness, hovering between life and death for over a month. It may or may not have had anything to do with his subsequent behavior. The man who emerged from that illness was widely believed, insane.
The soothsayer Thrasyllus of Mendes had once prophesied that Caligula had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae”. Caligula had the last word on that with a spectacular stunt, ordering a temporary floating bridge to be built over the two miles of open water separating Baiae from the neighboring port of Puteoli. Despite not being able to swim, the young emperor rode his favorite horse Incitatus across the bridge, clad in the breastplate of Alexander the Great, no less.
In case you’re wondering, Incitatus was the same horse which Caligula appointed as priest and planned to make a Consul of Rome, the top official of the Roman government.
Before long, the emperor’s eccentricities became erratic…and terrifying. Caligula regularly made Roman senators run alongside his chariot. He would order executions on a whim. Caligula once had an entire crowd section at the Roman Games thrown into the arena, to be eaten alive by wild animals. He said he was bored.
Caligula began to appear in public dressed as various gods or demigods: Hercules, Mercury, Venus and Apollo. He’d refer to himself as a god when meeting with politicians. He built temples for his own worship, where the heads of statues were replaced by his own likeness.
Later stories of wanton hedonism, cruelty, and sexual depravity are probably exaggerated, but none seem without a grain of truth. Caligula was murdered by his own Praetorian guard in the year 41, after fewer than five years in power.
Most historians dismiss the floating bridge story as a myth, since no archaeological evidence has ever surfaced. Caligula’s two “pleasure barges”, extracted from the bottom of Lake Nemi in the 1920s and 30s, are a different story. Measuring 23 and 240-feet respectively, their lavish furnishings included marble décor, mosaic floors, statuary and gilded copper roofs. One wreck carried a lead pipe, bearing the inscription “Property of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus”. In 1944, Allied bombing resulted in a fire. Archaeological treasures both, these living connections to the ancient world were consumed, in the inferno.