The Roman emperor Caligula’s name has become a byword for depraved tyranny, used as a popular benchmark for everyone from Idi Amin to Jean-Bedel Bokassa. But was Caligula really mad and bad, or the victim of a smear campaign, asks historian Mary Beard.
Our modern idea of tyranny was born 2,000 years ago. It is with the reign of the Caligula – the third Roman emperor, assassinated in 41 AD, before he had reached the age of 30 – that all the components of mad autocracy come together for the first time.
In fact, the ancient Greek word “tyrannos” (from which our term comes) was originally a fairly neutral word for a sole ruler, good or bad.