The Insane Person that Declared and Fought a War with the Ocean

A person donning Roman sandals and holding a Roman shield, representing the ancient warriors of Rome.

The Insane Person that Declared and Fought a War with the Ocean

During its long history, Rome’s insane emperor Caligula has become shorthand for many things. However, the reality of the man makes truth look like fiction. Among his many misdeeds and bizarre antics, there is the persistent thought of declaring war on the sea. Thankfully, there is no shortage of historical documentation to validate this thought.

The Myth and the Reality

There’s a reason Caligula doesn’t make the best emperors list.
©"Gaius Caesar Caligula" by Louis le Grand is licensed under BY-SA 3.0. - Original / License

It would be easy to point at the insane emperor who took the throne at the age of 25 as a wild element. While Caligula was certainly by no means a stable person to be around, the truth is you have to look at his own life before putting things in the right order. Caligula spent much of his youth as a hostage. He was beholden to the whims of a depraved emperor.

Putting It in Context

Recent thought has led to a reevaluation of Caligula’s skills as a politician.
©"Marble head of Caligula, from Italy, 37-41 AD, Museo Civico Fossombrone, Italy" by Following Hadrian is licensed under BY-SA 2.0. - Original / License

Before we delve further into the invasion of the sea by the insane emperor, it helps to speak about Caligula a little more candidly. Now, Caligula likely was mentally unstable. Contemporary historians writing on his reign shortly after his assassination were quick to point to eccentric behavior. His somewhat sallow appearance was also mentioned. However, it is easier to point to his disdain for those in power, notably the Senate and other players in the Forum.

Understanding Rome’s Culture

The love of military conquest stretched all the way back to Rome’s time as a republic.
©iStock.com/frederic prochasson

Rome certainly had quite a few insane emperors, but that’s reductive reasoning. Rome as a culture was built upon military conquest. To be an emperor meant being a commander, a leader, and having victories to your name. This was a precedent started by Julius Caesar and carried on to Caligula’s time on the throne.

The Mad Emperor

Accounts of Caligula’s antics are colored by the fact that most historians were writing after his death and a dearth of propaganda slandering him.
©"Germanicus" by Unknown artistUnknown artist is licensed under BY-SA 3.0. - Original / License

Caligula certainly could have been an insane emperor, but he needed a win on the books. The British Isles were still steeped in mystery for the average Roman. A savage people lived there governed by a warrior queen. While there may be truth to the madness, it is easier to look at the pressure of conquest from the examples set by Caligula’s father Germanicus.

An Invasion of the Sea?

Recent thought by classicists point to the invasion of the sea as a means to humiliate his military.

The invasion of the sea by the insane emperor can seem somewhat outlandish at first blush. However, putting what we know of Caligula’s history in context, it comes across as a bucking of the social norms expected of an emperor. An invasion of the sea and reaping its bounties spits in the face of needless bloodshed for the sake of glory.

A Potential Mutiny

Roman soldiers weren’t about to go to war with the British Isles with an inexperienced commander.
©"Roman legion at attack" by No machine-readable author provided. MatthiasKabel assumed (based on copyright claims). is licensed under BY-SA 3.0. - Original / License

There is of course the other matter, the potential of mutiny from the legions under Caligula’s command. Rome’s legions were among the most formidable military forces in Europe at the time, but they were still living and breathing people. An invasion into the uncharted territory of the British Isles could have resulted in Caligula meeting the end of a blade far sooner.

Demystifying the Madness

Rome would have plenty of other terrible emperors.
©BAHDANOVICH ALENA/Shutterstock.com

While Caligula is judged by history as an insane emperor. There certainly is merit to that, you can see there is more nuance to things. By invading the sea, reaping the bounty of seashells, and erecting a lighthouse to commemorate it, Caligula may have bought himself time. In a vacuum, such an event seems like insanity. However, in a cutthroat environment like Rome, it was necessary.

The Short Reign of Caligula

Caligula’s successor, Claudius, would put the British Isles into Rome’s possession.
©"ROMAN EMPIRE, CLAUDIUS 41-54 A.D. b" by woody1778a is licensed under BY-SA 2.0. - Original / License

Caligula’s reign was quite short, lasting only four years. He took the throne at the age of 25, after spending much of his youth on the Isle of Capri. At the age of 29, it was over, and the man was dead. Whether he was an insane emperor is lost to the sands of time. However, at least we have decent accounts from the likes of historians like Suetonius and Cassius Dio to make sense of it.

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