The Horse Who Would Be Senator: Caligula and His Unconventional Appointee

Ancient History | May 8, 2019

Caligula: (12 A. D.) Roman Emperor. Bust. Source: (gettyimages.com)

In ancient Rome, the politicians were known for some of their wacky behavior, but Caligula has them all beat. The fourth emperor of Rome, engaged in deviant sexual behavior, extreme brutality, uncontrolled spending, and, finally, tried to make his favorite horse, Incitatus, a Roman senator. What his guy crazy? Corrupt by power? Or a maniacal genius? You can make up your mind after hearing about the life of Caligula, son of Emperor Tiberius

Caligula as a child. Source: (digitalsculpture.com)

A Tragic, Twisted Childhood

When he was born in 12 AD, Caligula was named Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus. He acquired the name Caligula, which means “little boots”, as a child because his parents often dressed him up in tiny military uniforms. Caligula was the youngest son of General Germanicus and his wife, Agrippina the Elder. Caligula was just shy of five years old when his father died. Suddenly, the family was no longer in the good graces of Emperor Tiberius. Agrippina and her two older sons were accused of treason and tossed into jail. All three soon died. Caligula was protected from Tiberius’s wrath by his grandmother. But after he became a young man, he went to live with Tiberius, who was now an old man. Tiberius enabled Caligula’s poor life choices and bad behavior. 

Emperor Tiberius. Source: (biography.com)

Caligula’s Reign of Terror

Emperor Tiberius officially adopted Caligula and named him and his cousin, Gemellus, both equal heirs to the empire. One of Tiberius’s closest allies, Marco, lobbied for Caligula to be the one to assume the leadership of the empire when Tiberius died. Once he was crowned emperor, Caligula had both Marco—his supporter—and Gemellus—his rival—executed. 

A young Emperor Caligula. Source: (history.com)

A Promising Start

Caligula became the emperor in 37 AD, just before his 25th birthday. It seemed that Caligula’s reign was off to a promising start. He initiated some political reforms that won him some early acclaim. He garnered additional favor with the citizens by allowing exiled citizens to return to Rome. According to the legends, though, all that changed in October of his first year as ruler after he fell ill with a serious sickness. After he recovered, the legends say, Caligula went from a spoiled, self-indulgent young man to an unhinged, deranged, and sinister leader. 

Source: (rome.net)

Immoral Relationships

Caligula was a young man who was used to bossing people around. A master manipulator, he often threatened people to follow his orders by saying, “I have the right to do anything to anybody.” One of his favorite forms a punishment for senators who displeased him was to force them to run for miles and miles while he followed closely on their heels in his chariot. His belief that he was immune to societal norms extended into his personal relationships as well. He had open sexual affairs with the wives of senators, allies, and prominent military leaders. No woman could refuse his advances and no man would deny Caligula if he fancied his wife. Not one to be confined by morals and tradition, Caligula even had incestuous relations with his own sisters. 

Roman aqueducts. Source: (nationalgeographic.com)

Lavish Spending

Caligula had a compulsive spending habit that put a drain on Rome’s coffers. Although he did spend grand amounts of money on beneficial construction projects such as theatres, aqueducts, harbors, and temples, many of his purchases were wasteful and frivolous. For example, he ordered thousands of his soldiers stage fake battles for theatrical purposes, many along the Rhine and the English Channel. Once he commissioned thousands of workers to build a two-mile-long floating bridge spanning the Bay of Bauli simply because he wanted to ride his horse across the water. He rode back and forth for two days and then grew bored with his floating bridge. It was said that he regularly drank pearls dissolved in vinegar. 

People thought Caligula looked like a goat. Source: (celsus.blog)

Caligula, the Cross-Dresser

Playing dress-up was one of Caligula’s favorite hobbies. He often dressed in women’s clothing and shoes, but also wore odd combinations of clothing, wigs, shoes, and accessories. Caligula was not a handsome fellow, so historians theorize that he dressed in weird costumes as a way to mask his true appearance. He was said to be so ugly and hairy, in fact, that he passed a law making it a capital offense to utter the word “goat” in his presence. 

Caligula and Incitatus. Source: (brewminate.com)

A Boy and His Horse

From an early age, Caligula loved horses. This was a love he carried with him his whole life. As emperor, Caligula had a favorite horse named Incitatus. Caligula built an ornate stable for Incitatus with marble walls and an ivory manger. The horse wore a jeweled bridle and was fed a diet of oats mixed with gold flakes. 

Source: (reddit.com)

Incitatus, the Senator

Incitatus the horse never actually became a senator. Caligula announced that he was going to make his horse a statesman and that appeared to be the last straw for his adversaries. Resentment had been brewing for a while over Caligula’s cruelty and his uncontrollable spending habits. A group of conspirators formed to take down Caligula. In January or 41 AD, just before Incitatus was to be sworn in as a Roman senator, they succeeded in stabbing Caligula to death, along with his wife and daughter. A witness noted, “Caligula learned by actual experience that he was not a god.” 

The assassination of Caligula. Source: (ancient-origins.net)

The Verdict?

Did Caligula suffer from a form of mental illness? Was he narcissistic egomaniac? Was he a victim of a traumatic childhood? Was he a classic example of how absolute power corrupts absolutely? Was his simply eccentric, quirky, and misunderstood? We may never know the answer, but we can be amazed at the wacky emperor and his horse, the would-be senator. 

Tags: Caligula | roman history | ancient rome

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.