Of course it is the Caligula of Robert Graves, portrayed so unforgettably by John Hurt in the classic BBC adaptation, that people have heard of, rather than the Caligula of history, about whom relatively little is known and that little may be unreliable. But it's surprising that, for example, Film 4 hasn't taken the opportunity to screen the 1979 film starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren and John Gielgud, which would not only provide an opportunity for showing some late-night filth but also serve as a tribute to Gore Vidal, who wrote much of the screenplay.
And even in debunking the myths one still has to retell them. Take the most famous Caligula legend of all, the consular horse. It offers a compelling image of the madness of power, and also a modern political cliché: that the preferment of an unpromising candidate represents "the strangest political appointment since Caligula made his horse consul". As far as I can tell, the phrase was first used on the appointment of Tom Inskip, rather than Winston Churchill, as defence minister in 1936 (though with "most cynical" rather than "strangest") and the originator was either Churchill himself or his friend Professor Frederick Lindemann. But it has since been used many times, for example of Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon's choice of running mate for the 1968 presidential election, and of John Redwood's appointment of Secretary of State for Wales.
The horse did exist. It was a famous racehorse named Incitatus. According to Suetonius,
He used to send his soldiers on the day before the games and order silence in the neighbourhood, to prevent the horse Incitatus from being disturbed. Besides a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones, he even gave this horse a house, a troop of slaves and furniture, for the more elegant entertainment of the guests invited in his name; and it is also said that he planned to make him consul.
That Caligula was said to be planning to make the horse Consul does not mean that he was, of course: it's more likely to have been a joke at the emperor's expense, the point perhaps being that he seemed more interested in pampering a racehorse than in the serious business of government. Or maybe it was Caligula's own joke, an ironic celebration of his autocratic power ("I could make my horse consul, and there's nothing anyone could do to stop me!") or aimed at the Senate ("My horse would make a better consul than any of you lot!"). He played a similar joke on a Senator who ostentatiously promised to give his life if the emperor recovered from an illness, hoping to rewarded for this extreme declaration of loyalty. Caligula recovered, and forced the senator to fulfil his vow. At any rate, Incitatus never did become consul, so far as anyone can establish. But sometimes fiction contains more "truth" than reality.
What Suetonius does say is alarming enough. He alleges that Gaius, whose father was the beloved general Germanicus, murdered his way to the throne, slept with all three of his sisters and demanded to be worshipped as a god. He forced the wives of senators to have sex with him, enjoyed watching prisoners being tortured to death and famously wished that the Roman people had only one neck. He was the third emperor, but the first who really experimented with the possibilities of autocratic power. Augustus was an adept politician who pretended that Rome was still a republic, while Tiberius seems to have been a reluctant despot. Caligula acted as though there were no restraints, constitutional or moral, on his behaviour, and eventually discovered that there were. He was murdered within four years by a conspiracy of senators and guards.
Being assassinated is not the best career endorsement, it is true. But the same fate befell Julius Caesar, and was later to befall Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy, without their posthumous repuations suffering too much harm.
Perhaps Caligula, too, deserves a more balanced assessment. Suetonius was writing, like all ancient authors, from the point of the elite, who observed his rock star behaviour at close hand and were forced to pay new and burdensome taxes to subsidise his extravagance. We are told that he emptied the treasury within a year, spending the money on entertainments for the masses but also on building projects such as aqueducts. Bread and circuses, but also bread and jobs. After twenty years of austerity under Tiberius, Caligula was wildly popular, and remained popular throughout his reign. So he must have been doing something right. It would be too much to suggest that he was a Robin Hood, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, but his "extravagances" were redistributive. He was a "tax and spend" emperor who managed to give at least a short term boost to the economy.
Happy birthday then to Gaius Caesar, Bootikins, mad, bad and a pioneering Keynesian.
Here's some more of John Hurt.