The Roman Emperor Caligula Declared War on the Sea

The reign of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, commonly known as Caligula, is often cited as a period of bizarre excess and imperial insanity within the annals of Roman history.

Among the most curious and debated episodes of his rule is the incident where Caligula reportedly declared war on the sea, ordering his men to stab the waves and take seashells to upset the God Neptune.


Caligula’s Reign

Caligula, born Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus in AD 12, ascended to the Roman throne in AD 37 after the death of his great-uncle and adoptive grandfather, Emperor Tiberius. The transition of power marked the continuation of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, which had been established by Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Initially, Caligula’s ascension was greeted with widespread enthusiasm and relief. The Roman populace and the Senate were optimistic, hoping for a return to the stability and prosperity reminiscent of Augustus’s reign, especially after the latter years of Tiberius’s rule, which were marred by increasing paranoia and reclusiveness.

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Caligula’s early reign was indeed promising. He initiated several public works projects, provided generous games and spectacles to the Roman people, and recalled many who had been exiled during Tiberius’s reign. These actions endeared him to both the Senate and the general populace, who saw in him a young and energetic ruler. However, this period of goodwill was short-lived. According to historical accounts, Caligula fell gravely ill in the fall of AD 37, just a few months into his reign. Although he recovered, it is widely believed that his behavior changed dramatically after this illness.

A marble bust of Caligula in Copenhagen.
A marble bust of Caligula in Copenhagen. Image by Jamie Heath CC BY-SA 2.0

Post-illness, Caligula’s reign took a turn for the worse. Ancient sources such as Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and Tacitus describe a litany of erratic and cruel behaviors that began to emerge. He became increasingly autocratic, eroding the power of the Senate and concentrating authority in his own hands. His lavish spending and extravagant lifestyle drained the Roman treasury, leading to financial crises. Moreover, his purportedly bizarre and tyrannical actions – ranging from declaring himself a living god to allegedly appointing his horse, Incitatus, as a priest and a senator – painted a picture of a ruler who had lost touch with reality.

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However, it is crucial to approach these accounts with a degree of skepticism. The primary sources on Caligula’s reign were written by historians who were not contemporaries of the emperor and had their own political and moral biases. The Roman historians often portrayed Caligula as a tyrant to highlight the dangers of autocratic rule and to contrast him unfavorably with other emperors. Thus, while these accounts are invaluable, they must be critically analyzed to separate possible hyperbole from historical fact.

Caligula’s War Against the Sea

The event known as “Caligula’s War on the Sea” occurred around AD 39-40, during the emperor’s campaign in Gaul. Historical sources suggest that Caligula had initially embarked on a military expedition to the northern frontiers of the Roman Empire, with a particular focus on Britain. This expedition was intended to follow up on the efforts of his predecessors, who had considered but not fully realized an invasion of the island. The Romans had long been interested in Britain due to its resources and strategic location, and a successful campaign would have been a significant addition to Caligula’s military accomplishments.

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According to the ancient historian Suetonius, Caligula led his legions to the northern coast of Gaul, near the modern-day city of Boulogne-sur-Mer, facing the English Channel. Instead of preparing for an invasion of Britain as his troops and officers might have expected, Caligula ordered a peculiar and seemingly irrational military action. He instructed his soldiers to line up along the shore and engage in battle with the waves. This bizarre command involved the troops striking the sea with their swords and collecting seashells, which Caligula proclaimed as the spoils of war.

Artist drawing of a Nemi ship.
Caligula is also famous for building his Nemi ships, you can read about them here.

Suetonius recounts this episode with a tone of incredulity and mockery, describing it as a clear demonstration of Caligula’s madness. The historian suggests that the emperor had ordered his men to “attack” the ocean in a mock battle, symbolically conquering Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. The soldiers were then commanded to gather the seashells as war trophies, a gesture that was meant to be both a display of triumph and a means to humiliate the god.

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This incident is often highlighted in historical accounts as a prime example of Caligula’s purported insanity and eccentricity. The notion of declaring war on a natural element and collecting seashells as spoils seems absurd and irrational, reinforcing the narrative of Caligula as a delusional tyrant.

Reconsidering the Madness

The story of Caligula declaring war on the sea is traditionally framed as a clear indication of his madness, serving as a stark example of his irrational and despotic behavior. However, to fully understand this episode, it is crucial to reassess the historical context and the possible motivations behind his actions, considering the political and cultural nuances of his time.

Ancient historians such as Suetonius and Cassius Dio, who chronicled Caligula’s reign, often depicted him in an extremely negative light. These sources are invaluable for providing detailed accounts of his rule, but they must be critically analyzed for potential bias and exaggeration. Both Suetonius and Cassius Dio wrote their histories long after Caligula’s death and had their own agendas, influenced by the political climate and the prevailing attitudes towards the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Their narratives often emphasized moral lessons and the dangers of autocratic rule, sometimes at the expense of objective accuracy.

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When reconsidering Caligula’s so-called madness, it is essential to explore the symbolic and propagandistic aspects of his actions. Roman emperors frequently engaged in elaborate displays of power and divinity to reinforce their authority. Caligula’s war on the sea, while seemingly absurd, can be viewed within this tradition of imperial symbolism.

Caligula’s decision to “battle” the sea and collect seashells as spoils can be interpreted as an extreme assertion of his divine favor and authority. By challenging Neptune, the god of the sea, Caligula was symbolically demonstrating his supremacy over the natural world and the divine realm. This act was a way to reinforce his image as a god-like figure, a common theme in his self-presentation. Emperors often used religious and mythological symbolism to legitimize their rule, and Caligula’s actions, though unconventional, fit within this broader pattern.

Image depicting the assassination of Caligula.
Caligula would be assassinated on 24 January 41 AD.

The mock campaign against the sea may have served as a form of military theater, intended to display Caligula’s control over his legions. Roman military parades and mock battles were not uncommon and were used to maintain the morale and loyalty of the troops. By involving his soldiers in this bizarre exercise, Caligula could have been demonstrating his ability to command and control them, reinforcing his authority and the cohesion of his military forces.

Caligula’s actions might have also been aimed at sending a message to his political adversaries and the Roman populace. The unpredictability and apparent irrationality of declaring war on the sea could have been a strategic move to instill fear and uncertainty among his enemies. By showing that he was capable of such unconventional behavior, Caligula was signaling that he was not bound by traditional norms and could act in ways that were difficult to anticipate or counter. This unpredictability could have served as a deterrent against potential plots and rebellions.

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In the cultural and religious context of ancient Rome, acts that might seem bizarre to modern sensibilities were often rich with meaning. The collection of seashells, for instance, could have had symbolic significance related to Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, who was associated with the sea. By claiming these shells as trophies, Caligula might have been invoking the favor of Venus, further aligning himself with divine forces.

In light of these considerations, Caligula’s war on the sea appears less as an act of sheer madness and more as a complex interplay of symbolism, propaganda, and political strategy. While the traditional narrative portrays him as a delusional tyrant, a deeper analysis reveals a ruler who understood the power of spectacle and symbolism in reinforcing his authority.