The Roman Emperor Caligula declared war on the sea.

  • Bust of Emperor Caligula
Bust of Emperor Caligula
Kizel Cotiw-an/ Shutterstock

To say that Caligula was not well liked in his time is putting it lightly, as the first historians who wrote of him are said to have been so biased against the eccentric Roman emperor that it’s difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. Nevertheless, his erratic behavior is well documented, including the fact that he once declared war on the sea. He appears to have done so in order to declare a symbolic victory on the vast ocean. Roman historian Suetonius wrote of the incident in 40 CE, “And while no one could imagine what he intended to do, he suddenly commanded them to gather up seashells, and fill their helmets and the folds of their tunics with them, calling them ‘the spoils of the sea due to the Capitoline and the Palatine.’”

The seashells were then brought back to Rome, though historian David Woods has suggested that “seashells” is a mistranslation of the word “conchae,” which was also used to denote British ships captured in the English Channel. To celebrate his triumph, Caligula had a lighthouse built, gave his soldiers 100 denarii (Roman silver coins) each, and told them, “Go your ways and be merry; for now you are rich!” 

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