Did Caligula Really Ban Goat Jokes?

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Was Caligula mad, misunderstood, or a little bit of both? Historians have had a hard time separating fact from fiction. Supposedly, this reviled Emperor slept with his sisters, declared war on Neptune the sea god, and made his horse a high-ranking political official. But some modern scholars question these stories, suggesting that they may be nothing more than ancient hearsay and propaganda.

Nevertheless, we do know a few things for sure, like, for instance, that he loved a good orgy. The young ruler built some gigantic, luxurious ships that’ve been called “floating palaces.” Also—much to his embarrassment—he suffered from premature baldness.

Caligula’s dome was just the cherry on top of a rather homely sundae. By his early twenties, he’d become covered with unruly hair that had sprouted from his neck all the way down his gaunt, pasty frame—it’s easy to see why the Emperor wasn’t often deemed attractive. One description, written by the Roman historian Suetonius, is especially harsh: “He was horribly pale, had the face of an old man, with gloomy, deep-set eyes. His head was ‘deformed’ and bald, except for a few scanty hairs. His neck was covered with bristles. He had… thin legs and enormous feet.” How flattering.

Apparently, Caligula—like Rodney Dangerfield—didn’t feel like he got enough respect. Many thought his unkempt appearance bore a striking resemblance to a certain farm animal. Soon, the goat jokes started flying. What’s a poor, self-conscious Emperor to do?

Our pal Suetonius alleges that Caligula made it a crime “for any person to look down on [him] from above or so much as to name a goat.”

Granted, Suetonius wrote this in The Twelve Caesars, a text released in 121 CE, which was 80 years after Caligula’s assassination. Ergo, it’s difficult to determine if he tweaked the facts a bit.

For the record, Emperor Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE), one of Caligula’s best-known forebears and relatives, had a very different attitude towards put-downs. In fact, he even put up with a joke (made to his face) about his own paternity.

While ruling, Augustus got to meet his own doppelgänger. Hearing that a traveler who looked almost exactly like him had arrived, the Emperor arranged for a meeting. “Tell me,” Augustus asked, “did your mother ever come to Rome?” “No”, the look-alike said, “but my father did, often!” Awww, snap!