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Gaius and the Imperial Family


A regime needs its people to accept its power. Acceptance can be achieved through various mechanisms, including the fear of violence. Most long-lasting regimes, however, acquire legitimacy in the eyes of their people. In the case of Augustus, acceptance was achieved by military success and legitimacy came with the later constitutional  and political arrangements. With Tiberius, he was the leading man of the state. With Gaius, his only claim to power was family.


Most notable, though, was the treatment of his family. Antonia, Gaius’ grandmother, was granted extensive honours, equal to those that had been enjoyed by Livia. She was given the title Augusta and enrolled as a vestal virgin.

Gaius himself journeyed to where his mother’s and brothers’ ashes were interred and brought them back to Rome. In a  major public ceremony, he placed their ashes in the Mausoleum of Augustus. The ceremony not only reinstituted their status within the family and the state,  but made a break with the past. Gaius, as the chosen successor of Tiberius, associated himself with those disgraced by the former emperor. Symbolically, it could be interpreted as marking an end to the rifts in the imperial family, or even as the ultimate victory of those surrounding Agrippina. More clearly, it marked Gaius’ personal association with the direct line of Augustus and further emphasised his ancestry.

Gaius issued coins on which he appeared alongside his father, Germanicus.


Coin of Caligula: Gaius Caesar on the left/ on the right, Germanicus Caesar, father of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (Commons)

His mother also appeared on coins, as did Augustus.


Caligula and the Elder Agrippina (AD40): RIC 21



Caligula and Augustus (AD 41) RIC 24






His late brothers were similarly honoured as were his sisters.


Nero and Drusus Caesar (left): RIC 49

Drusilla, Julia and Agrippina  appeared with Gaius at the games (Dio, 59 3.4–5) and, more remarkably, were included in the public oaths offering loyalty to the emperor. They appeared on early coinage in the depiction of goddesses of plenty, symbolising a return to fertility and plenty under the imperial family.



Coin of AD 37-38 showing the sisters of Caligula as goddesses. Oslo Museum

Gaius’ most senior surviving male relative was his uncle Claudius, the brother of Germanicus. Claudius had passed much of his life in obscurity, perhaps because of his physical disabilities. When Gaius took the consulship, he picked Claudius as his partner, honouring him above all others (Dio, 59 6.5).

The implications of this display ran deeper than just demonstrating Gaius’ familial loyalty: it was a claim to power. Gaius’ legitimacy could not rest on success in office or experience. All he had to offer was family. As a result, the regime had to be open and unabashed about being a hereditary monarchy. Overnight, the paradoxical Republicanism of the Tiberian period vanished.

The Changing Family

Gaius was said to have incestuous relations with all three of his sisters, but to have been particularly attached to Drusilla. Drusilla was named as Gaius’ heir. Her husband, Aemilius Lepidus, was a favourite of Gaius: he was also rumoured to be the emperor’s lover. He was allowed to stand for offices five years early, a privilege that had previously been accorded to imperial heirs. Gaius himself was in dubious health and it would seem that the preferred heirs were the putative children of Drusilla and Lepidus. To achieve this, Lepidus needed elevation and Drusilla marking as heir.

In AD 38, Drusilla died. Gaius responded with an out-pouring of grief, and required that the Roman people should also mourn his sister. Her funeral was marked by the performance of the Trojan Games. She received the same honours as Livia. A golden statue was placed in the senate house. A further statue was placed in the temple of Venus. Twenty priests were appointed to honour her. A senator, Livius Geminius, saw her image rising up to heaven, a sure sign of her apotheosis: he was rewarded for his sharp sight with 1,000,000 sesterces (Dio, 59.11). She was declared Panthea, a goddess of all, and Gaius took his own oaths by her name (Suetonius, Gaius 24). Coins to the goddess Drusilla were minted by several Greek cities. An inscription relating to a statue group from Mytilene reads (which is associated with an earlier statue to Marcus Agrippa) reads:

To Nero and Drusus and Agrippina and Drusilla, the new Aphrodite, the siblings of the emperor Gaius Caesar. (IG XII.2.172)

Gaius’ treatment of his sisters raises issues of imperial sexual behaviour and of the divinity of GaiusWhatever the truth behind the accusations of incest, associating his sister with Venus was not calculated to dispel any rumours.


Relations with his family soured. Antonia, Gaius’ grandmother, killed herself (Suetonius, Gaius 23.2). He would supposedly only see if Macro, prefect of the praetorians, was present.

In 39, while in Gaul, Gaius claimed to have discovered a conspiracy which involved the governor of Germany, Lentulus Gaetulicus. About the same time,  Marcus Lepidus, and his sisters Agrippina and Julia (Dio, 59 22.5–7; Suetonius, Gaius 24) were accused of conspiracy and adultery. Lepidus was killed; the women were exiled. Three daggers, one for each, were dedicated to Mars Ultor.

Gaius claimed it as a great victory and the senate chose Claudius to forward congratulations (Dio, 59.23). This was a mistake. Gaius had turned against his family. He marked Claudius’ arrival by having him thrown into a river (Suetonius, Claudius 9).

It is probably not a coincidence that Gaius was about to remarry. He put aside his wife and married Milonia Caesonia. She was heavily pregnant and although she was to bear him a daughter rather than a son, Gaius now had an heir and the prospect of further children (Dio, 59.23). He named his daughter Drusilla and declared the short space between the marriage and Drusilla’s birth as evidence of his divinity. He was by this time associating himself with Jupiter Latiaris and had established a cult to himself in this guise. Caesonia found herself priestess to her husband (Dio, 59. 28).

When the end came, the conspirators killed Caesonia and the infant Drusilla.

  • How can we explain Gaius’ policies in regard to his family?
  • What problems did Gaius face in representing his power to the Roman people?
  • How could Gaius lay claim to the legitimacy of his regime?
  • Why did the conspirators kill Caesonia and Drusilla?

Gaius Caligula                                                                                                              The Divine Emperor


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