The Roman emperor who tried to make his horse consul

 

When one thinks about Roman Emperors, two types frequently spring to mind: heroic generals and clever philosophers such as Caesar Augustus and Marcus Aurelius, and mad and depraved despots such as Nero and Commodus. The latter two are well-known for their numerous misdeeds; check out the link in the description below for a video on Nero’s famous violin incident and the truth behind it all. However, both Nero and Commodus were preceded by an Emperor who, throughout his three years and ten months as ruler of Rome, operated in a peculiar and eventually insane manner.

Caligula was born Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the great grandson of Caesar Augustus, the son of general Germanicus Julius Caesar, and the third man to hold the title of Roman Emperor. In his early infancy, he would accompany his father, Germanicus, on military excursions disguised as a little soldier. The soldiers mocked him and dubbed him Caligula, which means ‘little boot.’ His father was poisoned in Syria when he was approximately seven years old, presumably by an agent of his great-uncle, Emperor Tiberius, who viewed his nephew as a possible political competitor. Following this, the young Caligula was cared for by his mother until she and his brother Nero were banished to Pandateria for treason. From then on, he was raised by his Great-Grandmother Livia, Emperor Augustus’s wife, and later by his grandmother Antonia Minor. His brother and mother were tortured and emaciated while in exile, eventually dying in 31 and 33 A.D. Caligula’s anger against Tiberius grew as a result of their deaths, which was unsurprising.

Caligula was exiled to the island of Capreae, a prominent tourist destination off Italy’s western coast. He was under the cautious eye of his great-uncle, but he managed to dodge expulsion or execution with some deft maneuvering and acting. Caligula, for example, became friendly with Naevius Sutorius Macro, the commander of Tiberius’ guard, who would frequently speak favourably of him on his behalf.

In 33 A.D., he was awarded an honorary Quaestorship, a powerful political position, and married briefly, but his wife, Junia Claudilla, died in labor shortly after. Caligula and his cousin Tiberius Gemellus were named co-heirs to Emperor two years later, in 35 A.D.

Emperor Tiberius died in March of 37 A.D., only two years later, and it was thought that Caligula or the aforementioned Macro may have accelerated his death. Tacitus, a Roman historian, thinks Macro suffocated the 77-year-old Emperor with a pillow, while Suetonius claims Caligula did it himself.

Whatever the case may have been, Caligula and Macro were successful in removing Gemellus from Tiberius’ testament following the Emperor’s death, giving him exclusive claim to the Principate. Later that month, he was sworn in by the Senate, and the Roman people greeted him with great enthusiasm. According to all accounts, the first seven months of his reign were a lot of fun. He eased individuals oppressed by Imperial taxation, restored political exiles, and supported various public events in order to gratify the populace. He also collected the bones of his mother and brothers and ensured that they were buried in a dignified manner.

But something changed in October of his first year as Emperor. When Caligula became unwell, some historians speculate that he was poisoned, while others claim it was just an ordinary ailment. But, in any case, something changed right after that, at least based on his actions.

He began killing members of his family soon after, including his cousin Gemellus, his Father-in-law, and his Brother-in-law. His two younger sisters were deported, and only his uncle Claudius, the future fourth Emperor and Caligula’s successor, was spared, presumably to be used as a source of entertainment and scorn.

Furthermore, Caligula began to defame Emperor Augustus’ legacy, claiming that his own mother was the product of Augustus’ adulterous connection with his daughter.

Caligula’s reign will become increasingly unpredictable over the following three years. Initially, he advocated for tax changes to help an overburdened public, and he upgraded numerous Plebeians to the more prestigious Equestrian position. This endeared him to the common people, but enraged the Roman ruling class.

Aside from that, he oversaw a number of construction projects, including the enlargement of ports on the Italian coast and at Syracuse to accommodate larger grain imports. He finished his great grandfather’s temple, the now-deified Caesar Augustus, as well as the Pompey Theater. To properly distribute water across the city, he initiated construction of two huge aqueducts. And he went so far as to transport an obelisk from Egypt to use as the centerpiece of a circus he had constructed; the obelisk is still on exhibit near the Vatican in Rome today.

He also constructed possibly the most ridiculous of his construction projects early in his rule, a massive pontoon bridge spanning the gulf of Baiae in southern Italy. He only did it to ride his favorite horse, Incitatus, over the bay and fulfill a false prophecy that said he had “no more chance of becoming Emperor than riding a horse across Baiae’s bay.”

Speaking of his horse, he supposedly tried to make him consul by building him a marble stable, an ivory manger, and lavishing the horse’s not-so-humble house with the richest purple adornments. Caligula also set aside a home, completely furnished and staffed by slaves, for the horse’s occasional supper parties.

Unfortunately for the comic value of the situation, he was unable to make Incitatus a consul. He did, however, succeed in making him a priest.

Caligula then began to refer to himself as Pater exercituum, the father of the armies, and Optimus Maximus Caesar, the finest and greatest Caesar, according to Roman historians. He allegedly had an incestuous connection with Drusilla, his sister, and kept her with him after she married. He ordered a time of public morning over her after she died. He then integrated the temple dedicated to the Castor and Pollux twin deities into his own palace.

Continuing his strange and potentially hazardous activity in an attempt to incite discontent between the commoners and the social elite, he would sell seats to Plebeians so that when Equestrians arrived to performances, all of their seats would be gone. This, understandably, did not go down well.

Furthermore, when the sun was at its harshest, the Emperor would remove the shade curtains from the top of the amphitheater and ban anybody from leaving, leaving only wounded or ailing creatures and elderly gladiators to fight for their “entertainment.” On occasion, he would even close the granaries, allowing the peasants to go hungry for a while.

Caligula began to execute suspected criminals without hearing their cases, even forcing parents to be present at their children’s deaths, as if it were a bucket list life ambition to enrage as many people as possible. Caligula’s personal litter was dispatched to retrieve one guy who claimed he was ill and unable to attend one of the executions. Caligula once had an Equestrian brought before him, cut out his tongue, and flung him back into the ring when he cried out that he was innocent. He also fed captives to the wild creatures he kept for his games, seemingly unconcerned about whether or not they were genuinely guilty of whatever crime they were accused of.

Caligula supposedly questioned a guy he’d brought back from exile how he spent his time away from home in order to keep up the craziness. “I prayed to the gods that Tiberius would die and you should become Emperor,” the guy said softly, fearful for his own fate. Caligula quickly delivered news that anybody he had previously exiled must now be executed.

Caligula’s maltreatment of others, however, did not stop with the destitute or his political opponents. He made his officials run alongside his litter in full togas—a heavy wool garment that isn’t ideal for sport—and then attend to him at dinner, handing napkins.

In one incident, the veteran gladiator with whom Caligula honed his combat talents purposefully flung himself at the Emperor’s feet in defeat during training. Caligula stabbed him to death and went about with a palm frond (the usual mark of triumph exhibited by gladiators) as if he’d just been in a real gladiatorial combat, rather than merely ending the training session as one might anticipate.

He eventually began taxing the Roman people harshly, even arresting affluent residents and taking their possessions, and once demanded presents be presented to him on New Year’s Day from every single person in Rome, reversing his early attempts to ingratiate the populace. Then, after receiving his gifts, he rolled about in a big mound of gold coins he’d gathered from the haul, presumably simply for pleasure.

Beyond the day-to-day running of the empire, Roman Emperors were known for their military operations, but Caligula was unique in this regard. During his reign as Emperor, he only embarked on one military campaign. In order to conquer Britain, he gathered a quick army and marched forward. He’d have the army march so quickly at times that his Elite personal guard had to stow their standard to keep up, and then so slowly at other times that he could order the towns ahead to clean the roads and damp them down to settle the dust.

He instructed some Germanic members of his guard to cross the Rhine and lie in wait after encountering no resistance along the way. He dispatched a courier to notify him that the enemy was approaching during his evening meal, then quickly caught the troops and hailed his great triumph.

He declared war on Neptune himself when he reached Gaul’s northern shore (modern-day France). His troops were told to stab the sea and gather sea shells for war souvenirs. After that, he gathered the best and tallest Gaulish men he could find and ordered them to color their hair blonde and take German names so that they might be portrayed as prisoners of war when he returned to Rome.

As his rule progressed, he began to disguise himself as other gods, frequently wearing the symbols connected with them, such as a lightning bolt, trident, or caduceus. He’s also depicted as having a golden beard, wearing women’s shoes, and clothing in the Venusian fashion.

On public records, he began referring to himself as Jupiter. He even ordered the importation of all deity sculptures from Greece so that he might replace their heads with his own. The statue of Zeus at Olympia was the sixth “wonder of the Ancient World.”

Caligula tried to have his statue placed in the Temple of Jerusalem, not restricting himself to Greek or Roman Gods, irritated and distrustful of the Hebrews for their obstinate displays of Monotheism. As you can guess, the governor of Syria put off fulfilling the order for over a year, anticipating an uprising. Caligula rapidly changed his mind when advisors persuaded him to revoke the decree, renaming the shrine ‘The Temple of Illustrious Gaius the New Jupiter,’ and erecting a massive bronze gilded figure of himself within.

As you might expect given all of this, pissing off virtually everyone in his empire and a few outside couldn’t endure indefinitely. Senators eventually became weary of his pranks. Three guys, led by a man named Cassius Chaerea, began arranging his assassination.

Caligula appears to have relished having strong individuals kiss his ring while extending his middle finger at them, which is Chaerea’s particular problem with the emperor. (Yes, humans have been flipping each other off for thousands of years, with the original connotation appearing to depict the penis, as we’ve previously discussed.) In any case, on a completely unrelated issue, as previously said, Cassius Chaerea, Caligula’s primary organizer and first to stab him, was Cassius Chaerea, who Caligula liked to do this same thing with, as Suetonius noted:

“Gaius used to mock him, a man well into his senior years, with voluptuousness and effeminacy through all kind of insults. When Chaerea needed the watchword, Gaius would offer him “Priapus” or “Venus,” and when Chaerea needed to thank him for something, he would extend his hand to kiss him, shaping and moving it in an obscene manner.”

In any case, the conspirators’ plans were set in motion when Caligula announced his intention to relocate to Alexandria, Egypt, to be revered as a living god.

So they cornered the Emperor in an underground passage beneath the palace, along with a slew of other conspirators, and gave him the Caesarian treatment. When the assassins struck, he reportedly made no sign of alarm and just sought to run out of the tunnels before being stabbed to death.

Following that, members of his security detail went on a deadly spree, murdering some of the conspirators as well as uninvolved senators in the assassination. The Emperor’s body was half-burned and buried on the spot on a hurriedly constructed pyre. Along with him, his wife and daughter were slain. The area where the Emperor was burnt and buried was said to be haunted by spiritual apparitions until Caligula’s sisters returned from exile and completed the cremation and gave him a befitting burial.

The Julian Caesars came to an end with his death in the Roman Empire.

It’s a point of contention as to why he acted so strangely during his reign. Caligula frequently complained throughout his lifetime that the periods he lived in were comparatively tranquil, devoid of hunger, war, or natural calamities, and that he dreaded fading from memory if he was not involved with any notable event. This may have contributed to his obsession with putting on military spectacles, marketing himself as the embodiment of multiple deities, and relentless self-promotion by attempting to impose his image on every statue in the empire—obsessed with being remembered as his forefathers were.

Whether that was his motivation or not, the man himself is one of the most remembered of all Roman Emperors, though not for any great achievements or reverence, but rather for his insane behavior and for setting a precedent for instability that would be followed by Emperors to come, though never quite equaled.

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