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Cruel Caligula was murdered by his own Imperial Guard

Posted in Ancient History, Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Royalty on Wednesday, 29 January 2014

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This edited article about Ancient Rome first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 531 published on 18 March 1972.

Caligula is offended,  picture, image, illustration

"To the health of the goat!" cried a foolish onlooker as Caligula passed; he was seized by guards and put to death on the spot, by Clive Uptton

The people of Rome were celebrating. And with good cause. Their emperor, the infamous Tiberius, was dead at last. Now they would have a new ruler, the young prince Gaius, known affectionately to everyone as Caligula, or “little boots,” because he was in the habit of stomping around the city in caligae, the boots that were worn by all the soldiers of Rome.

Gaius was a pleasant fellow, unlike the morose Tiberius, who had suspected everyone and whose spies had been everywhere, reporting everything to their master, brooding over his empire like some baleful eagle from his eyrie on the island of Capri. Gaius was no potential tyrant. Gaius was no man to destroy people on the hearsay of others. Gaius would be a kind emperor bringing joy and contentment to Republican Rome.

The populace were soon to learn to their cost just how much they had fatally misjudged their new emperor.

When Caligula assumed the “Imperium” in A.D.37 he was only twenty five. He was to reign for less than four years, but in that short space of time he was to prove himself one of the most outrageous tyrants the world has ever known.

Yet to begin with, the people of Rome were certainly happy enough under his rule. In the time of Tiberius, living in Rome had been a joyless business. But now there were festivals, horse races, and games almost daily to amuse the people. What Roman could ask for more?

Then the terrifying rumours began to seep through and the people of Rome began to realise that a monster was now ruling their city. It was said that Caligula was demanding that the members of his senate should kiss his feet when they came into his presence. There was a terrible story going about concerning Caligula’s cousin, the young Gemelles, Tiberius had named as joint heir to the throne. Caligula, they said, had ordered the young man to commit suicide and he had meekly complied.

They said, too, that he was spending a fortune on frivolities, that at one banquet alone he had spent eighty thousand pounds, and that all the meals at which Caligula presided, were a nightmare for his guests who were constantly baited with threats of being executed. They said, too, that the dignified members of the senate were made to caper about like buffoons and that everyone had to be merry at meals, including on one occasion, a father who had been forced to watch his son tortured to death.

If the people of Rome were under the illusion that Caligula’s cruelty was to remain confined to those around him, they were soon to be disillusioned. A foolish man with more courage than sense toasted him as he was passing a tavern, crying out “To the health of the goat.” He was seized and put to death on the spot. Another commoner who had unwisely sworn to commit suicide if the emperor recovered from an illness which had temporarily laid him low, was summarily thrown in the waters of the Tiber. Those who had done nothing to the emperor, also walked in daily fear of their lives, and with good cause. Caligula’s thirst for blood was insatiable, and the poor were just as likely to suffer as the rich. Caligula was likely to strike them down at any time, even at the games where spectators who had come to enjoy themselves were liable to find themselves thrown, unarmed into the arena, to fight against the wild beasts. But then what else could you expect from an emperor who hated his people so much he had openly stated that he wished the whole Roman people had only one head that he might cut it off with a single blow? As a final insult he elected his horse to be a consul! The senators did not dare to protest.

Such a monstrous tyrant was almost inevitably doomed to be assassinated. What is surprising is that he was not eventually murdered for all the horrors he had inflicted on the people of Rome, but merely because he had chosen to insult in public an officer of the guard named Chearea.

Chearea swore that he would not rest until he had killed Caligula. The best time he decided would be at the forthcoming games when he would rush into the emperor’s box and slay him before the multitude. His friends, however, persuaded him that such a wild scheme could only end in disaster. But Chearea remained firm on one detail. If it was at all humanly possible, Caligula would die at the games.

The murder occurred on the last day of the games. Caligula, everyone noted, was not in his usual high spirits, though he had been assured that as a fitting climax to the games the events would be even more spectacular than usual. The reason for the emperor’s depression was soon forthcoming. The previous night, he morosely informed his attendants he had a dream which was a portent of death.

The death that had haunted Caligula’s dream was already very near to hand. Deciding in a rare moment of graciousness to bestow his approval on some youths from Asia who had been engaged to perform before him, he left his box and went into an underground passage where the youths were waiting for him. Seeing that his opportunity had come at last, Chearea and some of his friends followed Caligula into the passage where they savagely cut him down.

The tyrant was dead, and all Rome rejoiced. There were some though who remembered that when Caligula had ascended to the throne not one voice had been raised against him. They remembered, too, that for eight months he had not disappointed popular expectation. What then had changed him into a monster, who had been feared by all? Only those who had been close to him had an inkling of the truth. After those first eight happy months of his reign, Caligula had been struck down with an illness from which he had eventually recovered. The only thing was that it had left him stark, raving mad.

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