The circumstances of the death of the third emperor of Rome are seemingly clear. Caligula was assassinated on January 24, 41, after reigning for less than four years. The very fact of the murder of the emperor is beyond doubt, although some details remain obscure.
Suetonius gives a fairly short but concise description of the murder itself and I see no reason to question the most important information he indicates.
Caligula died on the Palatine during the so-called Palatine Games. In those days, a temporary wooden theater was erected next to the imperial palace, where performances were held during the Games. The theater was connected to the palace by a covered gallery. During the break in the performance, a real drama took place in this gallery. Caligula was going to the palace, he encountered members of the Praetorian Guard – participants in the conspiracy. They had previously made sure that the emperor separated himself from his entourage. The conspirators detained the emperor and asked for the password of the day. This was the signal to attack. The praetorians led into the plot and struck Caligula with thirty blows. Apparently, they aimed not only at the neck and chest but also at the genitals.
The murder of Caligula was only the beginning of the slaughter in the imperial palace. The conspirators also caught up with his wife Cezonia and his little daughter Drusilla – the latter had her head brutally smashed against the wall. But in the confusion that then arose, the conspirators also killed other people. Members of the Germanic guard responsible for the immediate protection of the emperor searched the palace for anyone they considered guilty. Those who had the misfortune to fall into their hands ended up dead. Josephus gives in his “Jewish History” a colorful and detailed picture of what was happening on Palatine Hill at that time. Many of the details he describes are probably due to the writer’s need to add drama to the whole story, but even if they are exaggerated, they still give some idea of the panic that must have reigned both in the palace itself and in the theater where the spectators had gathered and conflicting messages that circulated among the people about the fate of Caligula. Many Romans refused to believe that the emperor had been killed, some thought he was merely wounded.
Suetonius mentions that the main conspirator was a praetorian tribune, a certain Cassius Cherea – a brave man, but with a laryngeal defect that made his voice squeaky and unmanly. The immediate reason why Cherea would want to assassinate the emperor, was precisely because Caligula was mocking the unfortunate praetorian. When Cherea was on duty in the palace, Caligula allegedly gave an erotically colored and “witty” (in his opinion) password of the day, which was supposed to further humiliate Cherea: e.g. “Priapus” or “Venus”. When he was giving Cherei a ring to kiss, Caligula obscenely straightened one of his fingers at the last moment. It is these circumstances that make Cherea have reasons not only to kill the emperor but also to torment his corpse and massacre his genitals.
If Suetonius is to be believed, the conspiracy would be tied to a small group of people who are relatively low in the political and military hierarchy of Rome, which is why the historiography focuses on the personal motives of Cassius Cherea. According to the historian’s account, neither the Roman Senate nor Claudius (Caligula’s successor) was stained with blood. The senators’ hands were clean. However, Suetonius does not seem to be objective here, and to put it bluntly – he has reasons to write like this. After all, although in “Lives of the Caesars” Caligula is described as a depraved monster, the use of murder would violate Roman law and would be unworthy of the Senate brothers. From a Senate PR perspective, it would be much more convenient to put the blame on the praetorian rank and file…
Are we really to believe that Caligula was killed in a plot by a few praetorians? Could it be that the Senate, which had every reason to hate Caligula, knew nothing about it? I am afraid that the image presented by Suetonius sins with naivety.
Flavius Josephus has fewer qualms in describing the participation of representatives of the Senate in the murder, who repeatedly emphasizes in his work that many people from the strict elite of Rome were initiated into the conspiracy against Caligula, including the praetorian prefect himself, as well as Caligula’s palace freedmen. By a strange coincidence, the three most important dramatis personae of that day: Valerius Asiaticus, Marcus Vinicius and Claudius (the future emperor) separated from Caligula at the crucial moment to stay at a safe distance from the bloody events. It so happens that all three of them, immediately after the murder of Caligula, claimed the throne: Valerius and Vinicius in the Senate, which met in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, and Claudius in the praetorian camp. Case?
In the bewitching romantic tradition, the terrified Claudius was found hidden behind a curtain by the soldiers and forced almost by force to assume imperial power. But the course of events seems to suggest that Claudius was by no means unprepared for what was to come: he correctly guessed that the source of imperial power was not the Senate, but the Praetorian Guard, and that the support of the Praetorians (additionally encouraged by him with a suitable bribe…) who will be the next emperor.
Moreover, Josephus also half-heartedly mentions that even before the assassination of Caligula, one of his freedmen betrayed the emperor, believing that Claudius would be the new ruler. This would suggest that the script of what would happen after Caligula’s death was written much earlier, and finding Claudius hidden behind the curtain was much less accidental than Suetonius would like us to believe.
Whoever was involved in the plot ultimately only Cherea and his immediate accomplices paid with their heads for killing the emperor. Others, probably many higher-ranking conspirators, made sure that history did not remember them as murderers.
By the way: sometimes attempts are made to identify the crypto portico where Caligula was murdered. Today, a dark gallery is shown on Palatine Hill, which some describe as the place where the emperor died (pictured). But is it the correct identification? We’ll never know that.