The ancient accounts on the reign of the Roman Emperor Caligula (r. 37-41) are so biased and filled with folklore and rumor that it is near impossible to know how perfectly or poorly the real Caligula fit with the written descriptions. Whatever the case, the scholars of Rome unanimously portrayed Caligula’s reign as one filled with savagery, debauchery, terror and madness. Yet, the emperor was not always violent. When Caligula was not decimating one of his own legions or assassinating a rival, he could be found heaping great affection on his friends or even dancing into the night with senators. Of his more peaceful mischiefs, Caligula seemed especially fond of pranks. Here are four pranks that Suetonius (c. 70-130+) claimed were orchestrated by Rome’s most insane emperor.
1) One time, when Caligula planned to attend a theatre performance, he was said to have preemptively scattered gift vouchers around the reserved seats of the equites (members of the equestrian order) in order to lure commoners into that area. When crowds of people rushed to grab the vouchers, Caligula giddily waited for the drama to occur; his attention, of course, was on the audience, not the stage. As the time of the performance neared, the fashionably-late equites arrived at the theatre, expecting to find their seats empty, as usual. This time, however, they found a mob of plebeians falling over themselves in the reserved seating area, a sight which undoubtedly caused a spectacle.
2) Caligula did not discriminate in his pranks—commoners were just as likely to be pranked as the nobility, and the amphitheatres of Rome were his favorite pranking grounds. On one hot day, while the Romans were enjoying a gladiatorial show under the shade of the amphitheatre’s canopy, Caligula supposedly had the cover rolled back, letting the hot rays of light pour down on the crowd. The prank, however, soon took a darker turn, for Caligula supposedly called in his military to keep the people from leaving their hot and uncomfortable seats.
3) In another instance, Caligula let hype grow and build around an upcoming gladiatorial show. When show time came, the Romans eagerly shuffled into the seats, expecting to see the battle of the century. Yet, it was not famous warriors and vicious beasts that were ushered out to the arena. Instead, the spectators watched with disappointment as the most elderly gladiators available and the lamest, slowest animals on hand wobbled out to fight, as Caligula mischievously had arranged.
4) Caligula would also single out individuals for pranking. One of the most elaborate targeted pranks that the emperor pulled off came at the expense of an unnamed soldier who made some disturbance while Caligula’s favorite performer was on stage. According to the tale, Caligula later called this disturber aside and gave him a very important, highly-confidential letter, which needed to be delivered to the king of Mauretania. Acting as a dutiful legionnaire, the soldier sailed across the Mediterranean and carefully hand-delivered the message to the Mauretanian king. According to Suetonius, Caligula’s top secret letter to Mauretania’s king read, “Do nothing at all, either good or bad, to the bearer” (The Twelve Caesars, Gaius Caligula, section 55).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Reconstruction of an original Roman portrait of emperor Caligula (r. 37-41), photographed by G. Dall’Orto, placed on top of a painting of Rome by J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851), both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.