The Roman Emperor Who Tried to Make His Horse Consul
When one thinks of Roman Emperors, often two kinds come to mind- the heroic generals and brilliant philosophers, like Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius, or the insane and depraved despots like Nero and Commodus. The latter two are well known for their long list of antics, for a video on Nero’s famous fiddle incident and the truth about all that, check out the link in the description below. But both Nero and Commodus were preceded by an Emperor who, in his three years and 10 months as ruler in Rome, acted in a manner that at first was bizarre and then descended into outright insanity.
Born Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the man better known as Caligula was the great grandson of the Caesar Augustus, son of general Germanicus Julius Caesar and the third man to assume the title of Roman Emperor. During his early childhood he would travel with his father, Germanicus, on his military campaigns dressed in a little soldier’s outfit. The soldiers took great humor in this and nicknamed him Caligula, meaning ‘little boot.’ When he was around seven years old, his father was killed in Syria, possibly poisoned by an agent of his great-uncle, the Emperor Tiberius, who saw his nephew as a potential political rival. After this, the young Caligula spent time in the care of his mother until she and his brother Nero were exiled to the island of Pandateria for treason. From then on he lived with his Great-Grandmother Livia, the wife of Emperor Augustus, and then his grandmother, Antonia Minor. While in exile his brother and mother were abused and malnourished, leading to their deaths in 31 and 33 A.D. Unsurprisingly from this, their deaths caused Caligula to harbor a rather large resentment towards Tiberius.
Caligula was relocated to the island of Capreae, a popular resort island off the western coast of Italy. Here he was under the watchful eye of his great-uncle, but with some maneuvering and acting skill, he managed to avoid banishment or execution. For example, he ingratiated himself with Naevius Sutorius Macro, the head of Tiberius’ guard, who would often speak well of Caligula on his behalf.
Ultimately he was given an honorary Quaestorship, an important political office, and briefly married in 33 A.D. but his wife, Junia Claudilla, died in childbirth shortly after. Two years later, in 35 A.D., Caligula and his cousin, Tiberius Gemellus were named co-heirs to Emperor.
A mere two years after that, Emperor Tiberius died in March of 37 A.D. and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it was rumored that Caligula or possibly the aforementioned Macro may have hastened his death. As for Macro, Roman historian Tacitus claims he smothered the 77 year old Emperor with a pillow, while Suetonius alleges Caligula did the deed himself.
Whatever the truth of that, after the Emperor’s death, Caligula and Macro successfully removed Gemellus from Tiberius’ will, and he then held sole claim to the Principate. He was inaugurated by the Senate later that month and was heralded by the Roman people with immense celebration. The first seven months of his rule were rather joyful by all accounts. Ingratiating himself to the masses, he relieved citizens overburdened by Imperial taxation, recalled political exiles, and funded many public spectacles. For his own part, he also retrieved the remains of his mother and brothers and ensured they received a proper place of honor.
But in October of his first year as Emperor, something changed. Caligula fell ill, some historians suggest he may have been poisoned, while others assert it was nothing more than a simple common illness. But either way, something changed directly thereafter, at least if his behavior is any indication.
Not long after, he began executing members of his family, including his cousin Gemellus, as well as his Father-in-law and Brother-in-law. His two younger sisters were exiled, and only his Uncle Claudius, the future fourth Emperor and Caligula’s replacement, was spared, simply to be kept around as an object for ridicule and amusement.
Further, Caligula began to slander the memory of Emperor Augustus, and stated that his own mother had actually been the result of an incestuous relationship from Augustus with his daughter.
Over the next three years Caligula’s reign would become more and more erratic. At first, he pushed for tax reforms to relieve an overburdened populace and promoted several Plebeians to the more esteemed Equestrian rank. This ingratiated him with the common people, but drew the ire of the Roman elite.
Beyond this, he conducted numerous building projects including the expansion of ports on the toe of Italia and in Syracuse to allow for more grain imports. He completed the temple of his great grandfather, the now deified Caesar Augustus as well as the Theater of Pompey. He began construction of two major aqueducts to better distribute water to the city. And went so far as hauling an obelisk all the way from Egypt to use as a centerpiece in a Circus he had built- the obelisk is still around today and is prominently displayed near the Vatican in Rome.
Early in his reign he also completed perhaps the most insane of his building projects, a giant pontoon bridge across the bay of Baiae in southern Italy. He did this just to ride his favorite horse, Incitatus across the bay and fulfil a mock prophecy saying he had ‘no more chance of becoming Emperor than of riding a horse across the bay of Baiae’.
Speaking of his horse, he also apparently attempted to make this horse consul and built the horse a stable out of marble, a manger from ivory, and filled the horse’s not-so-humble abode with the finest purple trappings. Caligula also designated a house, fully furnished and filled with attendant slaves, for dinner parties held by the horse on occasion.
Unfortunately for the humor of it all, he was unsuccessful in making Incitatus a consul. However, he did manage to make him a priest.
Moving on from there, according to Roman historians, Caligula began to refer to himself as Pater exercituum, the father of the armies, and Optimus Maximus Caesar, the best and greatest Caesar. He supposedly also had an incestuous relationship with his sister, Drusilla, and kept her with him even after she married. Upon her death, he ordered a period of public morning over her. He later incorporated the temple devoted to the twin deities Castor and Pollux into his own palace.
Continuing his trend of rather odd and seemingly dangerous behavior, attempting to stir up unrest between the commoners and the social elite, he would sell seats to Plebeians so that when Equestrians showed up to plays, all their seats would already be taken. Naturally this did not sit well.
Further, during public spectacles, the Emperor would withdraw the shade curtains from the top of the amphitheater when the sun was hottest and forbid anyone from leaving, then only provided wounded or sickly beasts and aged gladiators to fight for their “entertainment.” He would on occasion, also close the granaries so that the people could starve for a bit.
Apparently having a bucket list life goal to piss off as many people as humanly possible, Caligula also began to execute accused criminals without hearing their cases, going so far as to compel parents to be present at their children’s executions. One man, saying he was unwell and unable to attend one such execution was met with Caligula’s personal litter sent to fetch him. And once, when he heard an Equestrian crying out that he was innocent in the arena, Caligula had the man brought to him, cut out his tongue, and tossed him back in. He also fed prisoners to the wild beasts he reserved for his games, whether they were actually guilty of whatever crime or not didn’t seem to be of any concern.
Keeping of up the crazy, Caligula also in one instance apparently asked a man whom he’d brought back from exile how he spent his time away from home. Fearing for his own life the man replied carefully, “I prayed to the gods that Tiberius would die and you should become Emperor.” Hearing this, Caligula promptly dispatched word that anyone he had banished must now be executed.
But Caligula’s mistreatment of others did not end with the poor or his political rivals. He often forced his officials to run alongside his litter wearing full togas- a heavy wool garment which is perhaps not best suited for sport- then attend to him at dinner distributing napkins.
In one specific instance, it’s also noted that while training, the veteran gladiator with whom Caligula practiced his martial skills, purposely threw himself at the Emperor’s feet in defeat. Rather than simply end the training session as you might expect, Caligula stabbed him to death and ran about with a palm frond (the traditional signal of victory shown by gladiators) as if he’d just been in a real gladiatorial fight.
Reversing his early efforts to ingratiate the masses, he ultimately began taxing the Roman people heavily, even arresting wealthy citizens and confiscating their property and once demanded gifts to be given to him on New Year’s day from every single person in Rome. Then, once he’d received his gifts, apparently just for fun rolled around in a massive pile of gold coins he’d accumulated from the haul.
Beyond day to day management of the empire, Roman Emperors were often marked by their military campaigns, but Caligula was a tad different here too. He only went on a single military campaign during his tenure as Emperor. Wishing to conquer Britain, he assembled a fast army and made way. At times he would have the army move as such haste that his Elite personal guard had to stow their standard to keep up, and at others so slowly that he could order the towns ahead to sweep the roads and wet them down to settle the dust.
Encountering no resistance along the way, he ordered some Germanic members of his guard to cross the Rhine and lie in wait. During his evening meal, he ordered a messenger to inform him that the enemy was advancing, then quickly captured the men and announced his great victory.
When he reached the northwestern coast of Gaul, (modern France), he declared war against Neptune himself. His soldiers were directed to stab the sea, and collect sea shells as war trophies. Then, gathering the best and tallest Gaulish men he could, he ordered them to dye their hair blonde and assume German names, so they could be presented as prisoners of war upon his return to Rome.
Continuing the crazy, as his reign continued he began to dress up as several gods, often bearing the tokens usually associated with them, such as a lightning bolt, trident, or caduceus. He is also described as affixing a golden beard to his face, wearing women’s shoes, or dressing in the habit of Venus.
He also began referring to himself as Jupiter on public documents. At one point, he even ordered that all statues of deities be brought from Greece so that he could replace their heads with his own. This included the 6th “wonder of the Ancient World”, the statue of Zeus at Olympia.
Not limiting himself to the Greek or Roman Gods, frustrated and mistrustful of the Hebrews for their stubborn displays of Monotheism, Caligula attempted to have his statue erected in the Temple of Jerusalem. As you might expect, fearing a revolt, the governor of Syria delayed completing the order by almost year. After advisors finally convinced him to reverse the order, Caligula quickly changed his mind, renamed the temple ‘The Temple of Illustrious Gaius the New Jupiter’ and built a colossal bronze gilt statue of himself to place within.
As you might imagine from all this, pissing off basically every person in his empire and more than a few beyond couldn’t last forever. Finally the Senators grew tired of his antics. Three men, led by an individual named Cassius Chaerea, began plotting to assassinate him.
As for Chaerea’s specific beef with the emperor, Caligula seems to have enjoyed making powerful people kiss his ring while he extended his middle finger at them. (Yes, people have been flipping people off for thousands of years, with the original implication seeming to represent the penis, as we’ve covered before on the origin of giving people the bird.) In any event, on a no doubt completely unrelated note on this, as mentioned, the chief organizer of Caligula’s assassination, and first to stab him, was Cassius Chaerea who Caligula liked to do this very thing with, as noted by Suetonius:
“Gaius used to taunt him, a man already well on in years, with voluptuousness and effeminacy by every form of insult. When he asked for the watchword Gaius would give him “Priapus” or “Venus,” and when Chaerea had occasion to thank him for anything, he would hold out his hand to kiss, forming and moving it in an obscene fashion.”
In any event, the conspirators’ plans were forced into motion when Caligula stated that he planned to move to the Egyptian city of Alexandria to be worshipped as a living god there.
And so it was that they, along with many other conspirators, cornered the Emperor in an underground tunnel beneath the palace and gave him the ol’ Caesarian treatment. It is reported that he made no sound of alarm when the assassins struck, and only attempted to flee out of the tunnels as he was stabbed to death.
After, members of his guard went on a bloody rampage, killing several of the conspirators as well as nearby senators who were uninvolved in the assassination. The Emperor’s body was half-burned on a hastily assembled pyre and buried on the spot. His wife and daughter were murdered along with him. Legend had it that the garden in which the Emperor was burned and buried became haunted by spiritual apparitions, until Caligula’s sisters, having returned from exile, finished the cremation and gave him a proper burial.
With his death, the Roman Empire saw the end of the Julian Caesars.
As to why he acted so bizarrely during his rule, this is a matter of debate. It is noted that during his life, Caligula often complained that the times he lived in were relatively peaceful, unmarked by famine, war, or natural disasters, and thus, he feared he may pass from memory if he was not associated with any noteworthy event. This may have led him to become so obsessed with putting on military shows, promoting himself as the very incarnation of several deities, and the constant self-promotion through trying to assert his image onto every statue in the empire- obsessed with being remembered as his forbears were.
Whether that was his motivation or not, in the end the man himself is indeed one of the most remembered of all Roman Emperors, though, of course, remembered not for any great achievements or with any reverence, but simply for his insane behavior and for establishing a precedent for instability that would follow, though never quite equaled, by Emperors to come.
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