Friday, 31 July 2020

What did Caligula think of his nickname?

He wasn’t called Caligula, he didn’t go mad after spending three months in a coma, and he didn’t make his horse a senator. There are so, so many myths about this emperor. Some are distortions, some are baseless, some are outright fabrications. Of the fabrications, some are ancient, some modern: even Suetonius’ lurid stories aren’t enough for modern TV and cinema writers.

We’ll stick to just two fabrications today:
  1. The nickname ‘Caligula’, little boot.
  2. The three month coma.
Left: Gaius (12–41 CE) as depicted in antiquity, copy with colour restored by Stiftung Archäologie, Munich, based on particles preserved in the marble (original: Archäologisches Institut der Universität Göttingen). Right: Gaius as reimagined by @royalty_now_ (Becca Saladin).

1. His name

‘Caligula’ rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn’t it? But he wasn’t called that. He was ‘Gaius’. Contemporary writers, later writers, they all called him Gaius. He wasn’t called anything else until three centuries after his death.

The nickname ‘Caligula’ was only when he was a toddler. His father’s soldiers used it when his parents dressed baby Gaius up in miniature military gear. Several sources mention the story —
Caligulae cognomen castrensi ioco traxit, quia manipulario habitu inter milites educabatur.

He got the nickname ‘Caligula’ as a bit of fun in camp, because he was brought up among the soldiers wearing military uniform.
Suetonius, Caligula 9.1 (tr. Gainsford)
There’s just one reported instance of someone using the nickname when Gaius was an adult. He didn’t like it.
At idem Gaius omnia contumelias putabat, ut sunt ferendarum inpatientes faciendarum cupidissimi: iratus fuit Herennio Macro, quod illum Gaium salutaverat, nec inpune cessit primipilari quod Caligulam dixerat; hoc enim in castris natus et alumnus legionum vocari solebat, nullo nomine militibus familiarior umquam factus, sed iam Caligulam convicium et probrum iudicabat cothurnatus.

The same Gaius took everything as an insult: those who are keenest on offering them are least tolerant of receiving them. He was angry at Herennius Macer when he greeted him as 'Gaius'. And he didn't let a chief centurion get away with it when he called him 'Caligula': he was born in an army camp and was regularly called that as a favourite of the legions, and that was the name by which he was always most affectionately known to the soldiers. But by now, wearing grown-up shoes, he took 'Caligula' as accusatory and belittling.
Seneca, On constancy 18 (tr. Gainsford)
Gaius may have been more tolerant when on campaign with the army, we don’t know.

But this story is even more striking for showing that he didn’t like ‘Gaius’ either. Probably for the same reason: his praenomen may have seemed just as over-familiar as a childhood nickname.

His own preference for a short-form name, I suggest, would probably have been ‘Germanicus’, a cognomen inherited from his father. That’s the name that takes up most space on his coins. And when Gaius renamed the month of September after himself (don’t worry, it didn’t last), ‘Germanicus’ is the name he gave it. But ‘Germanicus’ was too strongly associated with his father — the Germanicus — and Gaius’ reign was too short for him to succeed in co-opting the name for himself. (Suetonius opens his biography of Gaius with a mini-biography of Germanicus. Way to throw shade!)
An inscription dated to ‘the 17th day before the Kalends of Germanicus’, that is, the 15th of August. The inscription could be from Gaius’ lifetime, or from the reign of Domitian, who renamed September to ‘Germanicus’ too. (CIL xi.5745; photo: Bill Thayer’s website)
Contemporary writers invariably call him ‘Gaius’ (Philo, Seneca, Pliny), and it’s the same for the 300 years following his death (Josephus, Suetonius, Dio, Eusebius). ‘Caligula’ gets mentioned only in the specific context of the story of Gaius’ toddler uniform.

The second half of the 300s is when his name changes. Eutropius introduces him as ‘Gaius Caesar, Caligula by nickname’. Aurelius Victor and the Historia Augusta call him ‘Caligula’ consistently; Orosius calls him ‘Gaius Caligula’. There’s no indication of what it was that prompted the change, other than a general trend of belittling him — the Historia Augusta treats him as a byword for a bad emperor — but someone must have started it.
Note. Eutropius, Breviarium 7.12; Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 3, epit. 3; Hist. Aug. Marc. Aur. 28.10, Avid. Cass. 8.4, Commodus 10.2, Heliogab. 1.1, 34.1, Aurelian 42.6.; Orosius, Hist. adv. paganos 7.5.5–7.
The dissonance is especially striking in Suetonius. If it had been a thing in Suetonius’ time to use a belittling nickname for Gaius, Suetonius would definitely have done it. And the surviving manuscripts of Suetonius do use the title ‘Caligula’ — but only in the headings. The main text always uses ‘Gaius’. It’s clear that ‘Caligula’ isn’t Suetonius’ own title for the biography.
The oldest extant manuscript of Suetonius’ Lives, showing the end of ‘Tiberius’ and the heading for ‘Caligula’. (Cod. Paris. lat. 6115, 9th cent.)

2. His coma

To decide whether Caligula was mad is a problem which requires a much fuller and more thorough discussion than it can be given here. For the moment, it is enough to recognize that the illness of September A.D. 37 was purely physical. Let us hope that the myth of Caligula’s ‘nervous breakdown’ can now be consigned to the oblivion it so richly deserves.
Morgan 1973: 329
Such sadly unprophetic words. If only it were consigned to oblivion. If only, if only.

But it isn’t. It has been revived bloody well yet again by a Netflix docudrama series, which determinedly ignores everything that actual historians have said about Gaius over the last half century, in favour of the most sensationalist nonsense they could find.

The series depicts Gaius becoming ill and falling into a coma for three months. This illness is what supposedly damages his sanity and turns him into a cartoon villain.
The death of Tiberius vaults Caligula to power as Rome’s new emperor, a role at which he initially excels — until an illness unhinges his mind.
Roman Empire, blurb for S03E02 ‘A new hope’ (2019)
All right, the illness was real. The coma and the unhinging ... were not.

No ancient source says that his supposed madness was caused by illness. No ancient source says that his illness provoked any kind of transformation of character. No ancient source says that he suffered from headaches. No ancient source describes any symptoms of his illness. No ancient source mentions a coma, let alone a coma lasting three months. It’s all 20th century supposition.
Caligula (John Hurt) begins having headaches, a symptom of his supposed mental illness, watched anxiously by his sister Drusilla (Beth Morris). BBC, I Claudius (1976), episode 9 ‘Zeus, by Jove!’ The story is based on Robert Graves’ novel (1934), but even Graves, creative though he was, didn’t make up the headaches: they were invented for the TV series.
Over the last century several candidates have been proposed for the disease of 37 CE, and for the cause of his supposed madness:
  • combination of alcoholism and epilepsy (Jerome 1923: 419)
  • schizophrenia, or ‘dementia praecox’ (Esser 1958: 134–136)
  • encephalitis lethargica, or ‘sleeping sickness’ (Sandison 1958)
  • psychopathy (Lucas 1967)
  • thyrotoxicosis (Katz 1972, 1977)
  • an anxiety disorder (Massaro and Montgomery 1978)
  • interictal temporal lobe epilepsy (Benediktson 1989)
  • herpetic encephalitis (Ferreira Camargo and Ghizoni Teive 2018)
The problem is that there is precisely zero evidence for any symptoms of the illness that struck Gaius in late 37 CE. All that the sources tell us — Philo, Suetonius, and Dio — is that he became ill, that the illness lasted long enough for news to spread all round the empire, that there was fear he might die, and that he got better.

That. Is. All. No coma. No epileptic seizures.

Everything else is a crumbly edifice built on a hodgepodge of details strewn across all the rest of Gaius’ lifespan. Suetonius mentions that he suffered from comitialis morbus as a child, a sickness characterised by lethargy: the phrase is sometimes translated as epilepsy, but it’s very inexact, and it was confined to his childhood in any case. Katz’ diagnosis of hyperthyroidism relies very heavily on Suetonius’ physical description of Gaius, a description that is demonstrably false (Morgan 1973; notwithstanding Katz’ denial of this when he revisited the subject in 1977). The headaches invented for the 1976 BBC series I, Claudius are surely based on Sandison’s theory of encephalitis: that must also be where the coma story comes from. (Though it’s also possible that the headaches are an attribution error: there’s some indication that the dictator Julius Caesar suffered from migraines.)

The idea of a transformation in Gaius’ character comes from Philo’s report that he became licentious upon becoming emperor, and that he returned to licentiousness and savagery after recovering from the illness. That is, as far as Philo is concerned, the illness was an interruption to the licentiousness: and the licentiousness caused the illness, not the other way round.

If you want a reliable account of Gaius, don’t rely on Netflix. I don’t particularly recommend Stephen Dando-Collins’ 2019 book either: he at least doesn’t make things up, but it’s still terribly sensationalist. For a balanced treatment, which doesn’t play up Gaius’ supposed insanity, and which doesn’t downplay his corruption either, the best is still Anthony Barrett’s Caligula: the abuse of power (2015, 1st edition 1989).

Here’s Philo’s description of the illness. This is as much detail as we get. Take a look and see if you think it justifies a diagnosis of rare forms of encephalitis or epilepsy.
But in the eighth month Gaius was struck down by severe sickness. He had exchanged the recent more homely and, therefore, healthier way of life which he had followed while Tiberius was alive, for one of extravagance. Hard drinking, luxurious feeding and appetites still unsatisfied when the cavities were stuffed full, hot baths, ill-timed, and acting as emetics, followed at once by renewed toping and gormandizing in its train, lasciviousness venting itself on boys and women, and everything else that can destroy soul and body and the bonds in both which keep them together, joined in the assault. Self-restraint is rewarded by strength and health, incontinence by infirmity and sickness bordering on death.
Philo, Embassy to Gaius 14 (tr. Colson)
Now, there are plenty of lurid things to say about Gaius that are solidly grounded in Philo’s and Suetonius’ testimony. Maybe at a later date we’ll come back and look at the business of Gaius’ horse Incitatus, or his supposed declaration of war on the god Neptune. Suetonius’ stories aren’t remotely trustworthy, but still, he does at least attest these things.

But you can’t base any kind of sensible diagnosis on Philo’s vague description. Reading through these articles by modern pathologists feels like watching one of the crazier episodes of House, M.D. Real life isn’t like that.

Or if it is, then I’ll finish by offering my own diagnosis: clearly, it must have been lupus. It’s always lupus.


  • Barrett, A. A. 2015 [1989]. Caligula. The abuse of power (orig. Caligula. The corruption of power). Routledge.
  • Benediktson, D. T. 1989. ‘Caligula’s madness: madness or interictal temporal lobe epilepsy?’ Classical World 82.5: 370–375.
  • Esser, A. 1958. Cäsar und die julisch-claudischen Kaiser im biologisch-ärztlichen Blickfeld. Brill.
  • Ferreira Camargo, C. H.; Ghizoni Teive, H. A. 2018. ‘Searching for neurological diseases in the Julio-Claudian dynasty of the Roman empire.’ Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria 76.1: 53–57.
  • Jerome, T. S. 1923. Aspects of the study of Roman history. G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Katz, R. S. 1972. ‘The illness of Caligula.’ Classical World 65.7: 223–225.
  • —— 1977. ‘Caligula’s illness again.’ Classical World 70.7: 451.
  • Lucas, J. 1967. ‘Un empereur psychopathe. Contribution à la psychologie du Caligula de Suétone.’ L’antiquité classique 36: 159–189.
  • Massaro, V.; Montgomery, I. 1978. ‘Gaius — mad, bad, ill, or all three?’ Latomus 37.4: 894-909.
  • Morgan, M. G. 1973. ‘Caligula’s illness again.’ Classical World 66.6: 327–329.
  • Sandison, A. T. 1958. ‘The madness of the emperor Caligula.’ Medical History 2.3: 202–209.


  1. You're absolutely right when you say that there are lot of misconceptions to debunk about Caligula. He's definitely one of the most mythologized emperors. I've been meaning to write an article about him for a long time.

    As far as names are concerned, my opinion is that the name Caligula is useful for historical purposes—even though he was certainly not known by this name while he was emperor—simply because the name is unique and it can only refer to one specific person.

    Gaius, by contrast, was an extremely common praenomen. (There's already a far more famous Gaius Julius Caesar.) Likewise, the name Germanicus is much more closely associated with Caligula's father. It's easier to just call him "Caligula" to avoid the confusion that using the other names might bring.

    When I get around to writing my article, I'm probably going to primarily focus on debunking the widespread idea that he was just off-the-walls insane. I particularly want to address the story that he made his horse a consul, the story that he once declared war on Neptune and made his soldiers repeatedly stab the sea before collecting sea shells as "loot," the story that he liked to drink pearls dissolved in vinegar and eat food covered in gold leaf, the story that he had sex with all three of his sisters, and the story that he literally turned a portion of the imperial palace into a brothel and forced his own sisters to work as prostitutes.

    The main reason why I've been holding off writing the article for so long is because I honestly haven't seen any of the movies or television shows about Caligula yet and I only know about them from reading about them. I keep figuring that, since these films and shows are such a wellspring of historical misconceptions about the man, I should probably watch at least some of them before I write an article on the subject.

    I suppose I'll start by watching the Netflix series, since I know exactly where to find it. I hear that the 1976 I, Claudius series is actually supposed to be really good as far as entertainment value is concerned, but I don't know where I would be able to find it.

    I can't say I have any excitement to watch the 1979 Caligula film after everything I've read about it, but I might have to at least see if I can find parts of it online, just because it's so notorious and it's played such a significant role in shaping Caligula's reputation for depravity.

    1. Yes, I was wondering about coming back to those stories at a later date -- but debunking those means showing why you can't trust Dio or Suetonius, and that makes it a little thornier.

      I do recommend I, Claudius for an informed viewer. It's mostly not very different from the novel. Most of the distortions are Robert Graves', taking the Julio-Claudians and making them even worse than Suetonius makes out, but it's still a good story, kind of like a low-budget Game of Thrones only with a good ending, and it's the source of an awful lot of popular misconceptions. And I say low budget, but the production values are all right considering it's 1970s BBC. Plus it's got Patrick Stewart, Brian Blessed, and John Hurt all chewing the scenery no end. (I have to admit Derek Jacobi's appeal has dwindled for me since he started getting vocal about Shakespeare authorship.) Not to mention, it's all on YouTube.

      I sat through the 1979 film as a student and I still regret it.

    2. Thanks for pointing that out! I finished watching the Netflix series this morning. Boy is it a mess. The worst part is that it's neither a drama nor a documentary, but rather some twisted hybrid in which they keep the freedom to make stuff up that comes with a drama, but yet have experts (and some non-experts) talking throughout the whole thing to make it sound authoritative.

      The whole thing about the three-month-long coma is obviously nonsense. (How could someone even survive in a complete coma for three months in the ancient world without the ability to swallow or modern feeding tubes? Caligula would have been dead of starvation or dehydration within a week!)

      Then there's also the whole fantasy about Agrippina seducing Caligula, the fictional elaboration surrounding the Plot of the Three Daggers, and the bizarre alt-history in which Claudius not only coordinates Caligula's murder, but is (for some reason) present at the scene of the crime itself.

    3. Go cheer yourself up with I, Claudius then! You've earned it. It takes a quarter hour or so to get going, but after that it's non-stop for 13 episodes.

    4. I finished that article about Caligula I was working on. (I actually finished it about a week ago, but I've been so busy the past week that I haven't had time to reply here.)

      Unfortunately, I was not able to watch I, Claudius on YouTube because the entire series is blocked in the United States for copyright reasons. (Apparently the U.S. has stricter copyright laws—or at least stricter copyright enforcement—than New Zealand does.) I was, however, able to find the episodes pertaining to Caligula's reign on Dailymotion, where they were not blocked, presumably because it is a French website.

  2. I think that the episode with the chief centurion, who called him "Caligula" in his face, is enough to prove the phrase "he wasn’t called anything else until three centuries after his death" technically incorrect.
    One could assume that, despite his objections, his nickname was widely known, and possibly used, even if only behind his back.

  3. I think that the episode with the chief centurion, who called him "Caligula" in his face, is enough to prove the phrase "he wasn’t called anything else until three centuries after his death" technically incorrect.
    One could assume that, despite his objections, his nickname was widely known, and possibly used, even if only behind his back.

  4. I would read that text like was pissed at being called Gaius or Caligula rather than being addressed by his title. Either could be a name his dearest and dearest would address him by.