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Gaius (Caligula)

4. The Bad

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About this Lecture


In this lecture, we think about some of the negative aspects of Gaius’ reign, focusing in particular on: (i) his reputation for dark humour and nasty comments: his advocation of slow methods of execution (‘make him feel that he is dying’); his claim that he could have his consuls killed on the spot; his threat to abolish the legions, the senate, the legal profession; (ii) some modern explanations for Gaius’ behaviour: a grim, ironical sense of humour arising from his cruel upbringing; a belief in the right of the princeps to exercise absolute power; a strong desire to promote his own family/dynasty; (iii) the ancient explanation for Gaius’ behaviour – his madness; (iv) the causes of Gaius’ madness, according to the ancient sources: an illness (Philo); bereavement (Cassius Dio); drinking a magic potion (Juvenal); (v) the symptoms of Gaius’ madness, according to the ancient sources: destruction of the consular fasces; execution of Macro and Gemellus; incest with his sisters, especially Drusilla; wild spending on games and buildings.


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.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Nicholls, M. (2022, August 01). Gaius (Caligula) - The Bad [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Nicholls, M. "Gaius (Caligula) – The Bad." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 01 Aug 2022,