To the Senate he showed no more mercy or respect. He allowed some who had achieved the highest offices to run alongside his chariot in their togas for several miles or to stand, dressed in a linen cloth, at the head or the foot of his couch as he dined. When he had secretly killed some others, he still persisted in sending for them as if they were alive, but a few days later lied and said they had taken their own lives. After the consuls forgot to make a proclamation about his birthday, he removed them from office, and the state was without the top magistracy for three days. When his own quaestor was implicated in a conspiracy, he flogged him, stripping off the man’s clothes and laying them under the feet of the soldiers so that they would have a firm footing when they beat him.
He treated the other groups in Roman society with similar arrogance and violence. Disturbed in the middle of the night by a loud roar in the Circus made by men grabbing free seats, he drove them all back with clubs: over twenty equestrians were struck in the fray, just as many high-ranking women, and a vast crowd besides. He sowed dissension between the people and the equestrians at theatrical shows by opening the seats early, so that all the lowest people would grab the equestrian section. At gladiatorial contests he sometimes would draw back the awnings when the sun was burning most intensely and refuse to let anyone leave; he also got rid of the usual elaborate arrangements and substituted emaciated animals, the sorriest, most worn-out gladiators, and, for mock-combat, heads of households of good reputation but who had some notable bodily deformity. Sometimes, moreover, he would seal up the granaries and inflict famine on the people.
Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Gaius Caligula 26.2-5
Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars offers a series of sensational biographies of Roman rulers from Julius Caesar to Domitian, highlighting moments of depravity, viciousness, scheming, and excess. In this passage, Suetonius (c.AD 70-135) regales the reader with the monstrous cruelty of the third Roman emperor Caligula (AD 12-41) and his abuse – even killing – of people across Roman society, from high-ranking politicians and members of the equestrian class to ordinary people on whom we are told he wilfully inflicted famine.
Writing decades after Caligula’s short reign (AD 37-41), Suetonius presents a picture of a personality whose already existing vices and flaws were left unchecked when he assumed power. Caligula, of course, was ultimately not left unchecked, and was assassinated by soldiers just a few years into his reign. Suetonius’ colourful – and not always entirely reliable – account of his life has remained popular and the emperor’s cruel nature notorious. His influential Lives indulge the public appetite for gripping details from the private lives of the powerful rather than solely focusing big events of state; they leave us with reminders of how not to rule, and how to write an enduringly popular biography.
Further information This passage from Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars comes from How to be a Bad Emperor: an ancient guide to truly terrible leaders, selected, translated, and introduced by Josiah Osgood. It is reprinted here by permission. The book is published by Princeton University Press as part of their Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series (ISBN 978-0691193991, price £12.99).