Did Caligula Really Make His Horse Consul?

So asks the Ask History (TM) thing (yes, they’ve trademarked that) at the History Channel and they give a really ambiguous answer. After citing Dio and Suetonius, here’s how their first paragraph ends:

But did he really plan to make Incitatus a consul and only fail to do so because his assassination happened first, as Suetonius would have us believe?

… the next paragraph ends:

So while Caligula might have had an unusual fondness for his horse, it’s unlikely the emperor went so far as to appoint the stallion.

… so far, so good … but then we get the concluding paragraph:

But what if Caligula actually did plot to create Rome’s first equine official? According to historian Aloys Winterling, author of “Caligula: A Biography” (2011), insanity isn’t the only logical explanation for such behavior. In his book, Winterling makes the case that many of the emperor’s wackier stunts, including his treatment of Incitatus, were designed to insult and humiliate senators and other elites. By bestowing a high public office on his horse, then, Caligula aimed to show his underlings that their work was so meaningless an animal could do it.

… now I haven’t read Winterling’s book, but I’d be curious to know if he does actually suggest Caligula followed through with the appointment or if he’s just as much a victim of this academic bait and switch as we are. If so, it goes against our ancient sources, of course, which the History folks do mention. But since they seem to have problems, here’s a blast from the past … an excerpt from something I posted when the entertainment people were telling us that Oliver Stone’s Alexander flick was an allegory for the war in Iraq or some such. I pointed out how the repeating of the story was starting to turn it into ‘fact’ a la Caligula’s horse, but then we cited what the ancient historians actually said:

[…] Just as a point of comparison, a good chunk of folks reading this, no doubt, think they know the story of Caligula making his favourite horse Incitatus a consul or senator or something. Our first mention of the story — from Suetonius Vit. Cal. 55 (ca. 120 A.D.) goes like this:

He used to send his soldiers on the day before the games and order silence in the neighborhood, to prevent the horse Incitatus from being disturbed. Besides a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones, he even gave this horse a house, a troop of slaves and furniture, for the more elegant entertainment of the guests invited in his name; and it is also said that he planned to make him consul.

A generation or so later, Cassius Dio (59.14.7) writes:

One of the horses, which he named Incitatus, he used to invite to dinner, where he would offer him golden barley and drink his health in wine from golden goblets; he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.

And now, of course, it is ‘well known’ that Caligula actually did make his horse a consul or senator or something — a fact which is regularly mentioned in the press when someone unqualified gets a prize political appointment. So, in case I’ve lost you … Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Great is a movie criticizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The entertainment columnists have spoken. I’m sure Dio and Suetonius are wryly smiling from on high …

… and, no doubt, they continue to smile, if not burst into laughter.

Classical Words of the Day


This Day in Ancient History: ante diem v idus octobres

ante diem v idus octobres

  • Meditrinalia — a somewhat obscure festival in terms of origins which involved tasting old wine and new wine, apparently with the goal of being cured of diseases old and new.
  • ludi Augustales scaenici (day 7 — from 11-19 A.D. and post 23 A.D.)304 A.D. — martyrdom of Tharacus