It happened today - January 24, 2016

On this day in history, Caligula bit the dust. We owe him a debt of gratitude.

You might not think so. You might think the conspirators who stabbed him in an underground corridor and pretty much anywhere else you could fit a blade on Jan. 24 back in 41 A.D. were absolutely right to do so. And you’d be absolutely right to think it.

Caligula had an impressive pedigree, son of the beloved Germanicus very possibly murdered by his jealous uncle, the Emperor Tiberius. Court intrigue swirled thick and fast in Imperial Rome, including Tiberius eventually choosing Caligula as his successor. But whatever his other vices or virtues, Tiberius certainly blundered horribly in this instance.

Caligula was wretched, rotten, tyrannical, and demented. We’re not entirely sure how much of the calumny about him is true, including Suetonius’s famous story that he planned to make his horse a consul (not a senator, as often claimed).

Suetonius is a highly entertaining writer. But his acid pen, and accusations that would today be regarded as homophobic against virtually every emperor, are very possibly propaganda or even a reflection of his own unbalanced mind. Still, enough was certainly wrong with Caligula, from having suspected rivals or opponents executed or assassinated to planning to proclaim himself a god, that he had to go, suddenly and hard.

The conspirators were hoping his death would restore the Roman republic, in which they were entirely frustrated. But they were removing a hideous tyrant. So what’s with my call for gratitude toward Caligula?

Very simply, he furnished an unforgettable example of bad rule: not just rapacious or cruel, but paranoid, vicious and apparently utterly mad and depraved. We study Rome, or used to, in the belief that it offered pointed lessons for our own day. Among these was the hair-raising minatory example of the tyrants Caligula and Nero, whose policy and character flaws seemed united in ways that would rightly echo down through the ages.

Perhaps all is now forgotten, as we discard history on the grounds that progress has rendered us immune to the failings of the past and vastly above its virtues. If so it’s not just a shame, it’s dangerous blindness.

We do not want a new Caligula. And the old one, by his various excesses, furnished us a useful warning against that sort of ruler. So stab him to death… then tip your helmet to him.