This week in history: Caligula is assassinated; Claudius becomes emperor

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 22 2014 5:20 p.m. MST

Though the exact date is disputed, on or around Jan. 24, 41 A.D., the emperor Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy made up from members of the Praetorian Guards and the Senate. The same day, Claudius, Caligula's uncle, was proclaimed princeps, or emperor.

After the years of treason trials, bloodshed and uncertainty of Tiberius' rule, the Roman people and senate breathed a sigh of relief with his death in 37 A.D. The elevation of his successor, the 24-year-old Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, appeared to be just the thing to return stability and internal peace to the empire. Son of the popular Roman general Germanicus and nicknamed Caligula (which meant “little boots,” a reference to the small legionnaires' uniform he had worn as a child), the new emperor had shown deference to the Senate and advisers and appeared genuinely concerned about the state's welfare. If he occasionally proved a bit eccentric, most wrote that off to his youth and exuberance.

In their book, “The Romans: From Village to Empire,” historians Mary T. Boatwright, Daniel J. Gargola, and Richard J. A. Talbert wrote: “Yet within a year Gaius fell seriously ill, perhaps with a brain fever, and, although he recovered, his erratic behavior escalated. By 38 he executed Tiberius Gemellus (theoretically his co-emperor), and the Praetorian Prefect Macro. By 39 he had quarreled violently with the senate, and was ruling more and more autocratically. … Gaius appeared in public in the dress of various gods, notably that of Castor and Pollux. He had a huge golden stature made of himself, and he evidently wanted a special temple of his own.”

Caligula's claim to divinity also carried important foreign policy consequences for Rome. The princeps ordered that statues of himself be placed in Jewish temples in Palestine, a highly offensive move for the monotheistic Jews.

Caligula's contempt for the Senate exploded into open insults, and he even plotted to bestow the office of consul upon his horse, Incitatus. He turned the royal palace into a brothel, perhaps requiring some of the senators' wives to staff it. Supposedly he also engaged in an incestuous affair with his sister, Drusilla, which scandalized Roman society. Further insulting Roman social norms, Caligula also insisted that his sister be deified after her death in 38 A.D., the first woman to be given that honor.

His dealings with the army were inconsistent, and he often insulted that institution as well. While campaigning in Gaul, Caligula declared war upon Neptune and ordered his troops to walk into the sea and gather seashells, regarding them as “plunder from the ocean, due to the Capitol and to the Palace.” He also ordered an extremely lavish military parade for his victory back in Rome, and essentially stated that citizens' private property, not state funds, would pay for the celebration.

In the Robert Graves translation of Suetonius' “The Twelve Caesars,” the Roman historian wrote: “Such frantic and reckless behavior roused murderous thoughts in certain minds. One or two plots for his assassination were discovered; others were still awaiting a favorable opportunity. … On 24 January then, just past midday, Gaius, seated in the Theatre, could not make up his mind whether to adjourn for lunch. …” (after friends convinced him to eat, they passed along a covered walk where some boys were rehearsing a dance and Caligula stopped to watch). “Some say that (Praetorian) Chaerea came up behind Gaius as he stood talking to the boys and, with a cry of 'Take this!', gave him a deep sword-wound in the neck, whereupon Cornelius Sabinus, the other colonel, stabbed him in the heart.”

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