If immortality means that people remember your name, then the "mad Roman emperor" Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, more commonly known as Caligula, is definitely immortal. Everybody's heard of him even if they've never cracked a history book, which just goes to show that being a "good ruler" doesn't necessarily guarantee that your name will go down in posterity. Moral, competent leaders come and go, fading into obscurity, but villains like Caligula live on forever in movies, plays, novels and TV productions. The only problem is that most of what we think we know about Caligula -- the long litany of crimes that make him so famous -- probably isn't true.
Caligula is the most notorious Roman emperor, with a reputation for insanity, cruelty and sexual depravity based almost completely on his depiction in the media and in absurd sensationalized films like Bob Guccione's pornographic Caligula, one of the vilest, most degenerate and unhistorical movies I've ever seen. This image of Caligula as an insane emperor is so ingrained in popular culture that most people would automatically reject the idea that it's probably not accurate.
If you're interested in actual history instead of lurid Hollywood pseudo-history, you should read "Caligula: The Corruption of Power" by Anthony A. Barrett, a fantastic revisionist biography that I'm planning to review in more detail later. One of the interesting things you'll learn is that everything we know about Caligula is based on just a few biased and generally unreliable ancient sources:
"The quintessential mad despot, Caligula had inspired plays, films, several series for television. Yet while the public at large seems to find him irresistible, academic biographers have tended to give him a wide berth. Nor is this surprising. The loss of the relevant books of the most important ancient commentator on the Julio-Claudian period, the historian Tacitus, means that we have to rely for our information on markedly inferior sources, in particular the late historian Dio and the biographer Suetonius." -- Caligula: The Corruption of Power, Barrett, 1989, p. xv, Forward.
In other words, we don't know nearly as much about Caligula as we think we do. Most of his image is a masturbatory Hollywood concoction based very loosely on a few unreliable ancient sources. If you read those sources, then read Barrett, a hazy but very different picture of who he actually was starts to emerge.
Image based on period portraits and sculpture.
I don't have the time or space to get into all the details here, but if Barrett is correct, it would appear that Caligula was the victim of an ancient smear campaign designed to justify his assassination to the masses and bolster the reputation of his successor, Claudius. (Note: that's my own conclusion, not Barrett's). For instance, Suetonius' admittedly entertaining biography of Caligula is an obvious hit piece accusing him of the most outlandish crimes and atrocities, including incest with his sister, but as far as that last charge goes, it was common in Roman politics to accuse your political enemies of all kinds of sexual degeneracy. Spreading malicious rumors for political purposes isn't a modern invention.
Even Suetonius' biography isn't completely negative, however. Caligula is described as a fairly competent, though inexperienced, ruler who later turned into a "monster" for some unknown reason. The impression I get from reading Barrett and Suetonius is that Caligula wasn't really interested in running the empire; like Nero, he was much more interested in the arts, especially acting, music and singing, tastes which would have made him appear effeminate and decadent in the eyes of the elite. Early in his reign, he became seriously ill and Suetonius implies that his sickness may have unhinged his mind. Even if that's true, however, many of the crimes he is accused of are unbelievable and almost certainly never happened.
Caligula had his vices, no doubt, but even if they were exaggerated (or concocted) by ancient propagandists like Suetonius, that doesn't mean that he was actually a good emperor living a chaste and moral life. He wasn't, but it's doubtful if he would have been smeared so viciously if something else hadn't been going on. The fact that he was brutally assassinated by his own Praetorians after a few short years in power shows that he had made powerful enemies among the ruling elites.
A coin depicting Gaius Caligula.
Caligula was the victim of a political conspiracy. That's a historical fact. We'll never know for sure because of the scarcity and anecdotal nature of the sources, but it appears that he was murdered because he tried to eliminate the political enemies he suspected (with justification) were trying to get rid of him. In other words, they killed him before he could kill them, a common scenario in ancient and medieval monarchies. If Caligula was paranoid, he probably had good reason.
After his murder, his enemies had to justify his assassination to the people, who apparently had a great deal of affection for this "cruel tyrant:"
"Caligula began his reign as the darling of the masses--Suetonius speaks of the immensus civium amor ('the massive affection of his fellow-citizens'). It also seems clear that he stayed popular with the ordinary people right up to the end, and indeed their reaction to the news of his death seems to have caused the sources some embarrassment." -- Caligula: The Corruption Of Power, Barrett, p. 229
Caligula was popular with the masses (1). This is critical. His murder--and the murder of his family--had to be justified to the people and the best way to do that was to portray him as an insane monster who had to be put down like any mad dog. Politics back then wasn't so different than it is now. For example, look at the way Saddam Hussein or Gaddafi were demonized or the way the Germans were portrayed as inhuman baby killers during World War I. These days, the mass media handles the propaganda. Back in ancient Rome, they didn't have television or radio, but that's the only real difference.
(1) "Gaius' accession was greeted with widespread joy and relief, and his civility promised well." (Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. revised).
The popular image of Caligula isn't historical. His reputation as an insane monster was first created by ancient writers with a murder to justify and a talent for pandering to the decadent tastes of the mob, tastes that apparently haven't changed at all since the days of ancient Rome. The real Caligula, whoever he was, has been transformed into a sensationalized tabloid demon by the modern media and the mob laps it up, just like it did two thousand years ago.
The ironic thing is that if it weren't for this sensationalized image, most people wouldn't even know Caligula's name. It's one of those bizarre twists of history that his enemies, the very people who worked so hard to destroy him, ended up making him immortal.