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.
History is full of megalomaniac despots and insane monarchs – so, let me select my top five most power crazed rulers in history!
POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER ONE: Peter the Great
Think of crazed Russian rulers and Ivan the Terrible or Stalin would come to mind immediately. But don’t neglect Peter the Great. The tsar who both modernised and terrorised Mother Russia simultaneously. Peter was seriously impressed by the 17th century naval technology of Britain and the sophisticated architecture of western Europe. But his interest in all things modern didn’t extend to democracy and the rule of law.
It also didn’t prevent him imprisoning and more than likely torturing to death his own son.
He assumed full power after an orgy of executions to cement his position. Not surprising given he’d witnessed more than his fair share of family intrigue and murder throughout his childhood – so he was simply dishing out what he’d witnessed all his life.
I appeared on an episode of Private Lives of the Monarchs to talk about Peter the Great and was especially amused by the story of him and his mates trashing the London home of the diarist Johny Evelyn during their stay in 1698. This involved using paintings as dart boards and priceless furniture broken up to keep fires going. There was also some game involving wheelbarrows that led to Evelyn’s well tended garden being churned up.
POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER TWO: Caligula
There were several Roman emperors whose sanity one would have to question. But Caligula has come down to us as a byword for imperial madness. He was only the third emperor of Rome, since the end of the Republic, and was truly an object lesson in the perils of one-man dynastic rule.
He seems to have been aware of the absurdity of his position – being able to wield vast power over millions of people. But instead of coping with that situation and turning to good advisers, he revelled in the madness of it.
At one point, Caligula declared that a horse was to be made a senator. Apologists for Caligula explain that he was mocking the powerlessness of the Roman Senate. But what did he expect them to do? Offer up their real opinions? Because the consequence under Caligula was certain death.
In my opinion, the late John Hurt’s portrayal of Caligula in the 1970s BBC series I Claudius has yet to be equalled.
POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER THREE: Henry VIII
If you want to get a child obsessed with history – I’d always recommend two periods to put in front of them: the Romans and the Tudors. The latter furnishes us with two of the most charismatic and rather frightening individuals to have ever sat on the English throne. They are Henry VIII and his strong-headed daughter, Elizabeth I.
I’ve discussed Henry VIII on several programmes including Private Lives of the Monarchs and Forbidden History. Plus I impersonated Henry VIII in full costume on ITV’s The Big Audition. And he’s a great figure to dress up as with his mighty frame, dressed to kill style and slightly psychopathic demeanour.
No monarch before or since – correct me if I’m wrong – got through six spouses in one reign. And to have two of his wives executed on trumped up charges doesn’t suggest a balanced mind. It’s a royal soap opera without equal and so Henry is definitely one of the power crazed rulers.
POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER FOUR: Hitler
Unlike Peter the Great, Caligula and Henry VIII – Adolf Hitler didn’t grow up in a murderous dynastic family. He wasn’t groomed for the top job and never saw family members murdered all around him. His family background was very unremarkable. Hitler was a petit-bourgeois, chip-on-the-shoulder small town operator who clawed his way up the greasy pole.
Talking about him on Discovery and UKTV’s Forbidden History, I mentioned the absence of a descended testicle – which seems to be true – but also his worrying penchant for very young girls. These are aspects of his character often ignored as trivial but I think Hitler was a deeply troubled and unpleasant man.
POWER CRAZED RULER NUMBER FIVE: Emperor Bokassa
Gone for somebody quite unusual who you may not have heard of for my fifth power crazed ruler. Born in 1921, Jean-Bédel Bokassa was an ambitious military officer in the former French colony, the Central African Republic. He’s been compared to another African ruler of the same era, Uganda’s Idi Amin. Both had a complex relationship with their respective country’s colonial and imperial heritage.
On the one hand, they wanted independence and respect for their countries. But on the other hand, they weren’t able to break free in their own minds from the colonial past. Both Bokassa and Amin revelled in wearing their medals from youthful military service with the French and British armed forces respectively. And they felt a strange affinity to the history and culture of their former colonial ruler.
In 1965, Bokassa seized power in coup d’etat and initially his rule had some progressive aspects. For example, he banned the appalling practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). However, like his hero Napoleon Bonaparte, Bokassa would begin as a revolutionary and end as a gilded dictator.
Bokassa hankered for the trappings of French imperial power. After a brief flirtation with Islam, he converted back to Catholicism in the 1970s and in 1976, announced his intention to be crowned emperor. The Central African Republic would now be transformed into the Central African Empire. In a US$20 million ceremony (a third of the country’s budget that year), he was proclaimed emperor on a huge golden eagle throne and with laurels on his head.
I remember seeing this on TV as a teenager. His attempt to get Pope Paul VI to come and crown him came to nothing. Wisely, the Pope found he had a diary clash that day! Bokassa’s imperial rule didn’t last very long and by 1979 he had been swept off his throne and the country was once more a republic.
The Colosseum was the largest arena of its kind in the Roman Empire – a place where spectators came to watch executions, animal hunts and gladiatorial combat. At the end of any major festival, the place was literally dripping blood.
I’ve visited a few times and I wrestle mentally trying to imagine what it must have been like for a Roman spending the day there. Arriving to this huge structure with a ticket and entering under one of the many arches.
The scale of the building is best appreciated in the corridors that took you to your seat. And I hope I’ve conveyed that with the images below taken in 2015. If you were a slave or a woman, you’d have made your way to the upper galleries. Equites and Senators were closer to the front. And the emperor in the imperial box.
A Roman would have been treated to public executions as spectacle but also a warning that – this could happen to you! Crucifixion, burning and being attacked by wild beasts were the main forms of execution. But contemporary accounts also say that criminals were killed by re-enacting gory scenes in Greek and Roman myths.
Then wild beast hunts. When the Colosseum was first opened, the Roman audience watched thousands of animals slain. What happened to all these lions, tigers and leopards? Quite possibly their meat was offered to the populace as this was a society where the poor had a protein-deficient diet.
Finally, gladiatorial games where trained fighters fought in armour depicting traditional enemies of Rome. The gladiators were often well-known personalities like footballers today but their social status was the lowest of the low. They were slaves though if they survived long enough could save enough money to buy their freedom – if their master permitted it.
One final point, the Colosseum earned its name not from the size of building the enormous statue next to it. There was a huge statue of the Emperor Nero, estimated to have been about 98 feet high, that had been in place before the Colosseum was built.
The site of the Colosseum had been Nero’s palace that covered about a fifth of the city. After his assassination, the palace was built over by the Flavian emperors: Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. They were making a public statement that Rome was a city for the people and not the play thing of one man.
But – for some reason – the statue stayed. And the Flavian amphitheatre was named after it. Some historians believe that the statue of Nero may have remained up to the seventh century AD. But at some point, it went. While the Roman Colosseum remained and despite being quarried and vandalised over two thousand years – it’s still with us.