BBC History Revealed
Did Caligula really wage war on the sea?
SHORT ANSWER Yes, in a way only a mad Roman emperor could – but take the histories with a pinch of salt
The name Caligula and words LONG ANSWER
like ‘madness’, ‘tyrant’ and ‘sadistic’ often go together. Among his misdeeds as Roman emperor, he reportedly made his horse a consul, declared himself a god and killed for his own amusement. There’s a major problem with what we ‘know’ about Caligula, however: everything comes from biased histories and attacks on his character (he made a lot of enemies) so the truth is near impossible to ascertain.
Roman historian Suetonius – biographer of 12 rulers of Rome and no stranger to dramatic licence – claimed that Caligula led his army to the shores of northern Gaul (France) in c39-40 AD, intending an invasion of Britain. He lined up his soldiers on the beach and declared war on Neptune, god of the sea, and had the waves attacked. Once victory was assured, he ordered seashells to be collected as spoils of war.
Was this a sign of his insanity, or desperation for a military win? Or did Caligula contrive this watery war as a form of punishment against potentially mutinous troops, humiliating them by making them bend down to pick up shells? As with everything else concerning Caligula, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?