Many Roman Emperors are now known for the more eccentric moments of their reigns than their actions as rulers. Caligula, consul and Emperor of Rome from 37 to 41 AD, is probably one of the more well known, and the more eccentric. Caligula’s short reign was characterized by a feud between himself and the Roman Senate, and efforts by the Emperor to increase his own personal power within the empire. Caligula also expanded Rome into northwest Africa. However, the accounts of his insanity are far more remembered, and one of the most well-known aspects of this is the story of his horse, Incitatus.
Incitatus, whose name means “swift” in Latin, was Caligula’s favorite horse. The emperor pampered him during his reign. According to the historian Suetonius, Incitatus lived in a stable made of marble, and slept in an ivory manger with purple blankets. In Roman times, the color purple was a very rare dye and was used to signify royalty and the greatest social status. Suetonius also says that Incitatus had an elaborate and jeweled collar. Another chronicler, Cassius Dio, writes that Incitatus was fed meals of oats mixed with gold leaf.
There are two significant incidences involving Incitatus during Caligula’s imperial rule. The first was in 39 AD. Caligula ordered grain barges to be assembled on the water in the Bay of Baiae between the cities of Baiae and Puteoli (today Pozzuoli). A bridge was constructed on the barges across the two mile wide stretch of water. Caligula, who could not swim, rode Incitatus across the bridge in a spectacular stunt wearing the breastplate of Alexander the Great. The stunt was to refute a prediction by Thrasyllus of Mendes, soothsayer for Caligula’s great uncle and predecessor Tiberius. Thrasyllus’ prophecy had claimed that Caligula had no more chance of becoming Emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae.
The second incident with Incitatus has also become what Caligula is most remembered for; naming the horse to the Senate and possibly proclaiming him consul alongside Caligula. There were also other rumors claiming that Caligula also appointed the stallion as a priest. The plan to appoint Incitatus as consul was used as a proof of Caligula’s insanity. However, if the story is true, it may not be one of insanity but rather an attempt to make a political statement. By making Incitatus a senator and a consul, Caligula could have been making the claim that the Senate was no better at their job than an animal, or that Incitatus was actually better at their positions that the senators were. Additionally, this affront may have been an attempt to outright provoke the Senate during Caligula’s feud with them. In the end, however, Caligula never could make Incitatus a consul as the emperor was assassinated in 41 AD, four short years into his reign.