“There Once Was a Great Nation With an Unstable Leader”

“What happens when the people of a great nation gradually realize that their leader may not be, er, quite right in the head? When Caligula became Roman emperor in A.D. 37, the people rejoiced… Caligula was colorful and flamboyant, offering plenty of opportunities for ribald gossip… He was charming, impetuous and energetic, sleeping only three hours a night, and he displayed a common touch as he constantly engaged with the public. Initially, Caligula focused on denouncing his predecessor and reversing everything that he had done… But, alas, Caligula had no significant government experience, and he proved utterly incompetent at actually getting things done.” N. Kristof, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Excerpt: There Once Was a Great Nation With an Unstable Leader, By Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times

“On all sides, you could see nothing but altars and sacrifices, men and women decked in their holiday best and smiling,’ according to the first-century writer Philo.

The Circus of Caligula, 1901, from the magazine La Vie au Grand Air. Credit Art Media:Print Collector, via Getty Images

The Senate embraced him, and he was hailed as a breath of fresh air after the dourness, absenteeism and miserliness of his great-uncle, Emperor Tiberius. His early months as emperor brimmed with hope. Caligula also made popular promises of tax reform so as to reduce the burden on the public. He was full of grandiose pledges of infrastructure projects, such as a scheme to cut through the Isthmus of Corinth. Meanwhile, his personal extravagance actually increased the need for tax revenue. Suetonius, the Roman historian, recounted how Caligula’s boats had ‘sterns set with gems, parti-colored sails, huge spacious baths, colonnades and banquet halls, and even a great variety of vines and fruit trees.’

Romans initially accepted Caligula’s luxurious tastes, perhaps intrigued by them. But Caligula’s lavish spending soon exhausted the surplus he had inherited, and Rome ran out of money.

This led to increasingly desperate, cruel and tyrannical behavior. Caligula reportedly opened a brothel in the imperial palace to make money, and he introduced new taxes. When this wasn’t enough, he began to confiscate estates, antagonizing Roman elites and sometimes killing them.

A coward himself, Caligula was said to delight in the torture of others; rumor had it that he would tell his executioners: ‘Kill him so that he can feel he is dying.’

donald trump (aka Modern Caligula) stevemacqwark – DeviantArt

Caligula had a thing for generals, and he periodically wore the garb of a triumphant military commander…He offended practically everyone, he couldn’t deliver on his promises, his mental stability was increasingly doubted and he showed he simply had no idea how to govern.

‘If there’s a hero in the story of first-century Rome, it’s Roman institutions and traditional expectations,’ reflects Emma Dench, a Harvard scholar of the period. ‘However battered or modified, they kept the empire alive for future greatness.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and learning new vocabulary. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions: Analyzing headings and photos

Directions:  Have students  examine the titles of the post and of the actual article. After they examine the photos, ask students to create a list of  words and  ideas  that they think might be related to this article. 

II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. Emperor Tiberius was described as dour.
  2. He was full of grandiose  ideas.
  3. The man was incompetent as a leader.
  4. His personal extravagance increased with time
  5. Caligula had luxurious tastes.
  6. He demonstrated tyrannical behavior.
  7. He was a narcissist.
  8. Caligula became increasingly unhinged.
  9. He removed the breastplate of Alexander the Great from his sarcophagus.
  10. He offended practically everyone.

Reading Comprehension


Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences  taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.

Edward Champlin, a___ of Rome at ___University, says that Caligula pursued a love of ___that a 4-year-old might___and had a___ for___out whatever is on his mind.

WORD LIST:  blurting,disdain,pranks, penchant, historian, Princeton,


 Grammar Focus: Structure and Usage

Directions: The following groups of sentences are from the article. One of the sentences in each group contains a grammatical  error. Students are to identify the sentence (1, 2, or 3 ) from each group that contains the grammatical error.


  1. These rash statement rippled through Rome.
  2. Caligula wreaked havoc.
  3. He offended everyone.



  1. Rome survived Emperor Nero.
  2. Caligula  be a coward.
  3. Caligula was also a megalomaniac.


  1. He supposedly rolled around at a huge pile of gold coins.
  2. He engaged in conversations with the moon.
  3. He set up a temple where he could be worshiped.

III. Post Reading Activities

WH-How Questions

Directions: Have students use the  WH-question format to discuss or to write the main points from the article.

Who or What is the article about?

Where does the action/event take place?

When does the action/event take place?

Why did the action/event occur?

How did the action/event occur?

Discussion for Comprehension /Writing

Directions: Place students in groups Have each group list 3  questions they would like to ask any person mentioned in the article. Groups share questions as a class.

1-Minute Free Writing Exercise

Directions: Allow students 1 minute to write down one new idea they’ve learned from the reading. Ask them to write down one thing they did not understand in the reading.  Review the responses as a class. Note: For the lower levels allow more time for this writing activity.


Category: Political Issues