Guest Post ~ Ursula Rothe: Prince Philip May Well Be Caligula’s Horse

A guest post by Ursula Rothe (Baron Thyssen Lecturer in Classical Studies at the Open University):

The Prime Minister of Australia Tony Abbott has awarded a knighthood to Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. The Australian public and the world media have reacted to the news with a mixture of incredulity and dismay. Incredulity, because it is nonsensical to award a title to a man who is already a prince and a duke, and dismay because for many, Prince Philip is a symbol above all of privilege and bigotry (the latter on account of his numerous racist gaffes over the decades).

The whole story has an air of Caligula and his horse about it. The early 2nd-century biographer Suetonius and the early 3rd-century historian Cassius Dio record the story that the Roman emperor Gaius (AD 37–41), known to us by his nickname Caligula, planned to appoint his favourite horse, Incitatus, consul of Rome (Suetonius, Life of Caligula 55; Cassius Dio, Roman History 59.14). The habitual literary embellishment of accounts of ‘bad emperors’ like Caligula means the story may have been invented or at least exaggerated. But what is interesting is what Roman and later historians have made of it. For some, it symbolised the madness of the emperor and the extent of his self-indulgence; Incitatus was not just any horse, but his favourite, and was said to have been put up in a marble stable with a manger of ivory (Cassius Dio, Roman History 59.14). Others have thought that it stems from either a passing comment or a manifest intention on the part of the emperor that was designed to insult the order of senators from which consuls were usually appointed; it was a statement to them both that they were useless and that he, the emperor, held the ultimate power.

So how does this help us to understand Tony Abbott’s decision to knight Prince Philip? The more charitable among us will see it as an act of ill-informed self-indulgence. After all, monarchism is very much Abbott’s hobby horse: he previously served as director of Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy; the knight- and damehoods were introduced by him in 2014 without consultation with his own senior party members, let alone parliament or the Australian people; and now he has given a knighthood to an aging and unpopular member of the British royal family. But others will see a darker side to the decision, and interpret it as a show of power and a deliberate insult both to Australians (honours are usually given to citizens of that country) and the meritocratic principle that is supposed to lie at the heart of the honours system. Both scenarios show the Prime Minister in a very worrying light.

But perhaps there is even more to the Roman emperor analogy. Some commentators are already questioning whether the Prime Minister is still entirely in touch with reality. Here the comparison is less than flattering: After all, Caligula may have been joking, but Tony Abbott is deadly serious.


The views expressed are those of the author and may or may not reflect the views of rogueclassicism.

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