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Gaius (Caligula)

2. Sources, Family and Reign

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In this lecture, we think about the sources available for modern historians of Gaius’ reign, his background and route to the succession, and what he did in his short reign. In particular, we focus on: (i) the importance of Tacitus’ Annals, as well as the various biographical anecdotes concerning Gaius; (ii) the extent to which later historians had an interest in undermining Gaius; (iii) Gaius’ descent from both the Julian and Claudian branches of the imperial family; (iv) the enormous popularity of Gaius’ father, Germanicus, who died young in 19 AD; (v) the deaths of all the other possible heirs to Tiberius, leaving only the young and inexperienced Gaius; (vi) Gaius’ life and political career up to 37 AD, including his possible role in Tiberius’ death; and (vii) his accession on 16 March 37 AD, and the events of his reign: his repeated consulships (37, 39, 40 and 41 AD); his acceptance of the title Pater Patriae (September 37 AD); his illness (October 37 AD); the deaths of Macro and Gemellus (before May 38 AD); his restoration of treason trials (39 AD); his expedition to the Rhine (winter of 39-40 AD) and his execution of Gaetulicus, commander of the upper Rhine army, for conspiracy; his ‘invasion’ of Britain; his attempt to set up a statue of himself in the Temple of Jerusalem; his increasingly erratic behaviour; his assassination (41 AD).


In this course, Dr Matthew Nicholls (University of Oxford) explores the reign of the third Roman emperor, Gaius, also known as Caligula. After a brief introductory module, we begin by thinking about the sources for Gaius’ short reign, his family background and the events of his reign itself. In the third module, we think about some of the positive aspects of Gaius’ reign (e.g. his investment in public buildings such as the Aqua Novus and the Theatre of Pompey) before turning in the fourth module to the more negative aspects. In the fifth module, we try to get to the bottom of one of the most infamous moments in Gaius’ reign – his decision to appoint his horse as consul – before turning in the sixth module to explore Gaius’ religious self-presentation, another aspect of his reign which drew heavy criticism in the later sources. In the seventh module, we consider the impact of Gaius’ reign in the provinces, before turning in the eighth module to think about his relationship with the senate, in particular whether the senate should be blamed for handing supreme power to “a personable but totally inexperienced young man” (Barrett 1989, p. xiv). In the ninth module, we consider the end of Gaius’ reign – his assassination and the appointment of his successor, Claudius.


Matthew Nicholls is a visiting professor of classics at the University of Reading and Senior Tutor at St John's College, Oxford, specialising in the political and social history of the Romans, and the way the built environments of Rome and cities around the empire expressed their values and priorities. In 2014, Matthew was presented with a Guardian Teaching Award for his 'Virtual Rome' project, a digital model of the city of Rome, showing the city as it appeared in c. AD 315.

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APA style

Nicholls, M. (2022, August 01). Gaius (Caligula) - Sources, Family and Reign [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Nicholls, M. "Gaius (Caligula) – Sources, Family and Reign." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 01 Aug 2022,

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