The third emperor of the Roman Empire was a restless youth named Gaius Julius Augustus Germanicus. We know him better as Caligula or “The Boot”, a mad and depraved tyrant who ruled for four short years. Believing himself to be a living God, he indulged in perverted and strange behavior that shocked the Roman populace. According to everything we read about him, he slept with his sisters – Agrippina, Drusilla and Julia Livilla – and with everyone he really liked. He also invented gruesome new methods of torture, murdered prominent Romans for no good reason and, according to legend, fed his beloved horse Incitatus at his dinner table. He allegedly even threatened to raise his horse to the consulate. (The myth that he actually did it was an invention of those who hated him.)
It would seem that Caligula’s strange and short-lived reign came to an end at the hands of members of his own Praetorian Guard. At the end of January (presumably 24th) 41 AD, after repeated humiliations (Caligula apparently began to mock members of his imperial guard), two members (or maybe more) of the Praetorian guards slipped into a remote part of the private apartments of the imperial palace. and stabbed him to death. They also killed his wife and young daughter.
Immediately after this, the Praetorian Guard began to plunder the Imperial Palace. Enraged, a soldier (possibly Gratus) noticed a pair of legs behind the curtain. When he pulled back the curtain, he saw that the uncle of the late emperor Claudius was cowering in fear. With his life in the balance, Claudius begged the soldier not to kill him. What probably saved Claudius was the fact that he was less of a threat than his murderous predecessor. (For most of Claudius’s life, he was ignored or punished by his family for being was born with a deformity that resulted in lameness. He also suffered ridicule from Caligula due to his terrible stammer.) However, this is where the power of the Praetorian Guard was born to make or break the emperor. They welcomed Claudius as their new sovereign on the spot without the blessing of the senate.
In the historical painting The Roman Emperor (Claudius), the fateful moment when Claudius was found cowering in horror is recreated on canvas by the Dutch artist Lawrence Alma-Taedema (1836–1912). While our eye is immediately drawn to the Praetorian Guard bowing their heads to the white-robed figure of Claudius, there is much more going on elsewhere as well. In the center, the artist (Alma-Taedema) shows the murdered bodies of Emperor Caligula and his family. Bloody handprints on the herm, in particular, indicate the violent nature of the murder. But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the painting is the small group of soldiers and women (left) who greet the new Emperor Claudius at the crime scene.
Interestingly, all these elements equally help convey the drama and subsequent ascension to the throne of one of the most unexpected emperors. Certainly, over the next thirteen years, Claudius would prove many of his critics wrong. He would conspicuously win over Britain and even win the respect of the Senate, who, after his death, deified him for service to the empire.
This painting appears in the public domain.
Note. This featured article was originally published in 2019. It has been updated and moved to the front pages to further highlight the original content of this site.