I bade you! Gather the seashells and fill your helmets and the folds of your gowns, they are the spoils from the Ocean, due to the Capitol and Palatine. -Caligula
Probably one of my favorite antics of Emperor Caligula who reigned from 37-41 CE. Growing up he was an army brat and nicknamed by the troops Caligula which is the diminutive caligulae, “little soldiers boot.” His father Germanicus waged war in Germania and was the reason for his son’s association with the military at such a young age. His disposition was quite disturbed and in the sources he is frequently described as sexually depraved, violent, and insane (if you can even believe the sources).
So let us move on to address the background of this story. One must begin with the source called The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by C. Suetonius Tranquillus which was published in 121 CE. Although this source is questionable since it is burgeoning with racy gossip and a satirical account of Julius Caesar, the bulk of the work concerns the end of the Republic and the period of Roman history known as the principate, ending with the Emperor Domitian. Due to the nature of the source, it must be taken with a grain of salt. However, it still is a fascinating story.
So, the full story goes something like this:
Caligula decided to invade Britain, so he marched to the shore adjacent to the isle with his legions. While on the beach, he set up the artillery facing the ocean, his troops took his orders, confused but unwilling to question the strategic application of the ballistae facing the crashing waves. Then, without warning, when the soldiers were confused on what he planned to do next, Caligula gave the signal to attack the Ocean and plunder the sea of its shells as spoils of war.
Suffice to say, he was murdered by his praetorian guard shortly thereafter, the first to have been assassinated in this manner, but surely not the last.