The emperor Caligula (37-41 CE) has gone down as one of Rome’s worst.
During his short reign, the mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know emperor caused mayhem among the Roman elite. He demanded senators worship him as a god, brazenly took their wives as concubines, and ordered the arbitrary executions of many of those around him. (In the case of his co-ruler, for the crime of regularly ingesting an antidote to protect himself from poison).
Such was Caligula’s hatred for the Senate that he joked about making his horse a consul (Rome’s most senior office) rather than offer the role to one of them.
Suffice to say Caligula didn’t last long. Just four years into his reign, at the age of just 29, Rome’s third emperor was hacked to pieces on his way out of the theatre. Assassinated by disgruntled senators under the leadership of the Praetorian Prefect.
All bore personal grievances against him, not least the Praetorian Prefect’s, Cassius Chaerea. (Though being mocked for his apparent effeminacy might render assassination a slight overreaction)!
The conspirators even put Caligula’s wife and baby daughter to the sword to rid Rome of his bloodline.
But among Caligula’s litany of misdeeds, there is one episode that puzzles everyone: his declaration of war on – and declaration of victory over – the Sea.
Our main source for this curious episode is Suetonius, the ancient biographer of the first 12 emperors.
Recording the event in 40 CE, Suetonius writes:
At last, as if resolved to wage war, he drew up his army on the shore of the ocean [the English Channel – Northern France], with his ballistas and other war machines. And while no one could imagine what he intended to do, he suddenly commanded them to gather up seashells, and fill their helmets and the folds of their tunics with them, calling them ” the spoils of the sea due to the Capitoline and the Palatine.”
As a monument to his success, he erected a lighthouse, upon which, as at the Pharos of Alexandria, he ordered lights to be burned in the nighttime for the direction of ships at sea. Finally, promising the soldiers a reward of a hundred denarii each, as if he had surpassed the most eminent examples of generosity, he said “Go your ways and be merry; for now you are rich!”
(Suetonius, Life of Caligula, 46)
The 3rd-century historian Cassius Dio goes even further. He reports the Caligula sailed a little out to sea in a trireme before returning to shore, climbing a platform, sounding the battle trumpets, and ordering his men to collect sea-shells so they could display them back in Rome as spoils of war in a victory parade we know as the triumph.
We have a good idea where this took place – on the coast of Northern France near the present town of Boulogne-sur-Mer.
And while nothing depicting the event survives outside the ancient literature, he is returning from the campaign in the BBC series I CLAUDIUS (which, if you haven’t yet seen it, is a must-watch before visiting Rome!)
Most explain Caligula’s behavior as symptomatic of his madness.
Caligula’s mental degeneracy is well attested among the ancient sources. Suetonius describes him as a hollow-eyed insomniac who would regularly converse with the moon. The biographer also tells us that Caligula shunned regular Roman dress for eccentric costumes, including Apollo, Venus, and even the Macedonian conqueror, Alexander the Great.
Caligula allegedly had a bridge built between his palace on the Palatine Hill and the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline so he could cross above the Roman Forum to consult the god of god’s in safety. According to the Jewish ambassador Philo of Alexandria, who had an audience with the emperor in Caligula’s Palace on the Esquiline Hill, Caligula intended to erect a statue of himself in the Temple of Jerusalem.
But buying into the idea that Caligula was mad is too easy.
Calling Caligula mad oversimplifies his behavior. It takes away any blame from the senators who offered to worship him as a god, and who scraped to bend the knee and appease him. And we should always remember that it was precisely the people Caligula delighted in persecuting – the senatorial class – who left us the surviving history.
It could be that there was another reason behind Caligula’s actions; one that hasn’t survived in the official histories, but which makes perfect sense in the context of ruling as a Roman emperor.
Caligula was responding to a mutiny.
Being Roman emperor meant being a military man, and if you weren’t you at least had to pretend you were.
Julius Caesar had his victories in Gaul. Tiberius Caesar enjoyed an illustrious military career in Germany. And Germanicus – Caligula’s father – was considered a golden prince of the Roman people and a darling of the legions.
Caligula was only 25 when he came to power, and although 25 was more than old enough for most aristocratic Romans to gain valuable military experience, Caligula had spent his teens and early twenties shut away on the island of Capri with Tiberius.
There he’d been forced to keep his head down, trying to survive the toxic environment of paranoia, executions, and the emperor’s increasingly twisted sexual degeneracies. What Caligula needed more than anything was a military victory.
Which is what he hoped to gain in Britain as he massed his forces on the shores of Northern France.
What happened next is lost to history. But we can piece it together if we read between the lines.
Britain held a special place in the Roman imagination. It was a mysterious, frightening island, home to Druids, warrior queens (Boudica), and fierce savages. The Romans – just like any other human culture – had a great fear of the unknown and had serious reservations about embarking on a potentially disastrous campaign with a boy prince with little to no experience.
Roman legionaries had mutinied once before against Caligula’s vastly experienced father Germanicus on the German River Rhine. It’s not hard to imagine them doing so again against his inexperienced son.
This might explain why Caligula declared war on the sea – as an enraged outburst of sarcasm:
“You won’t cross the Ocean to expand the glory of the Roman Empire? Then you shall have your victory here, over Neptune, and over his terrifying forces – the shells of the sea”
(Or something like that).
Could it be that Caligula ordered his men to pick up seashells as a form of punishment? Of humiliation? This wouldn’t be too out of line with other mocking aspects of Caligula’s character – like threatening to make his horse a consul or obliging a senator who offered to give his life to save the emperor to follow through on his offer.
Ultimately, we’ll never know. But it does answer another question the ancient sources raise:
Why else would Caligula order the construction of a lighthouse if not to plan for an invasion at a later date?
It’s probably no coincidence that it was his successor, Claudius, who finally conquered Britain in the 40s AD.
Finishing a job that Julius Caesar started and Claudius’ predecessor had hoped to emulate.
What do you think? Was Caligula mad or was there more to it than meets the eye? Let us know in the comments below!
Written by Alexander Meddings