In my new YouTube series Weird History Facts I’m taking one episode to look at how a horse became a Roman senator. What on earth possessed the Roman emperor Caligula to declare his favourite nag Incitatus both a priest and a member of the senate?
By all accounts, it had an unremarkable record of public speaking and legislative activity. Largely on account of being a horse. But it certainly got under the noses of the senators. Apparently by liberally defecating on the senate floor, according to one Roman historical source.
Caligula was, if we are to believe the historian Suetonius, besotted with Incitatus. The horse was part of his favourite chariot racing faction – the greens – and ahead of a race, the entire neighbourhood around his stable was ordered to be silent throughout the night. Incitatus was then able to get a good night’s sleep in a manger made of ivory housed in a stable constructed of marble, covered in purple blankets.
Suetonius, who loved to combine history with lashings of gossip, claimed that Incitatus had a staff of eighteen servants, was fed oats mixed with gold flakes and was allowed to invite guests to quite elaborate dinners. Caligula also declared that the horse had divine status.
This story was circulated to prove that Caligula was insane. And by the time historians like Suetonius and Cassius Dio were writing about Caligula, he had been assassinated and damned by the Senate. So – we are entitled to question the impartiality and veracity of this story. Was a horse really made a Roman senator? And if so, was it an insane act or was Caligula making some kind of statement?
The preferred theory these days seems to be that Caligula did indeed make Incitatus a member of the Senate and proposed him as Consul but the reason was to show his utter contempt for Rome’s senators. Of course they were in an invidious position. The emperor could ask all he wanted for better quality advice and guidance but when he executed people at a whim, it’s hardly surprising senators just kept their heads down – as opposed to losing them.
Incitatus somehow seems to have remained a senator until the reign of Claudius when he was removed on a technicality. He failed to meet the financial requirements for sitting in the Senate. And was later put down after injuring his leg.
Enjoy this episode of Weird History Facts!