Rome’s Most Infamous Emperor: Was Caligula Mad or Bad?

Today, pundits and psychiatrists furiously debate the definition of ‘madness’. Where do narcissism, self-delusion, and an apparent inability to conceive of consequences of actions cross the boundary between childishness and mental derangement? The story of Caligula offers some enlightening insights into the issue, and into the modern political debate.

Painting of a broken statue of Roman Emperor Caligula (Aaron Rutten/ Abode Stock)

Painting of a broken statue of Roman Emperor Caligula (Aaron Rutten/ Abode Stock)

Roman Historians: He Was Mad

Third-century historian Cassius Dio was convinced that Caligula was deranged and: “continued to act the madman in every way.” What else could explain his deadly rages and cruel whims? Seneca, who knew and crossed rhetorical swords with Caligula and survived to tell the tale, did write of Caligula’s ‘insane’ acts. Equally, as German scholar Aloys Winterling points out, Seneca also accused Alexander the Great of acting insanely at times, just as he accused Roman women of the ‘insanity’ of wearing too much jewelry. In fact, Seneca was of the opinion that Caligula was merely wicked. “I think nature produced (him) as an example of the effect of supreme wickedness in a supreme position,” Seneca told his mother.


Become a member to read more OR login here