Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know: 5 Things You Should Know About Caligula


Although he reigned as emperor for less than four years, Caligula is one of the most notorious rulers of the Roman Empire and was also the first to be assassinated. He is usually perceived as one of the worst Emperors Rome ever had and also one of the most tyrannical. The deeds of Caligula are carved into legend but how reliable are the sources?

Suetonius and Cassius Dio are the main historians responsible for providing us with the story of Caligula but how much of what they wrote is true and what is gossip? Modern historians have attempted to paint the mad emperor in a slightly more positive light. Is this warranted? Read on to find out.

Imgur - Incitatus for Consul
Imgur – Incitatus for Consul

1 – He Wasn’t Serious When He Threatened to Nominate His Horse as Consul

According to Suetonius, Caligula had a profound love for his horse, Incitatus which means ‘swift’ in Latin. The emperor ensured his steed enjoyed a life of luxury and gave him baubles such as a jeweled collar, ivory manger, marble stall as well as his own house! Cassius Dio claimed that Caligula ordered his servants to feed Incitatus oats mixed with gold flakes! Given the craziness the emperor is routinely accused of, the above is entirely believable.

Perhaps the most persistent rumor involving the emperor and his horse comes from the writings of Suetonius. The historian suggests that Caligula threatened to make Incitatus a consul and would almost certainly have done so only for his untimely death. The problem is, Suetonius lived decades after the emperor’s demise, so he is reliant on second-hand information. Suetonius is known to be a tremendous gossip who loved a tall tale.

The story of Caligula appointing his horse as consul is supposed to be a sure sign of his insanity. Even if it were true, there is a possibility the emperor had some method in his alleged madness. According to some modern historians, Caligula may have been trying to make a statement by threatening to make Incitatus consul. The emperor could have been attempting to undermine the Senate by saying they were so meaningless that a horse could do their job.

Caligula’s brief reign involved a bitter dispute with the Senate as the emperor tried to increase his personal power within the empire. Given this feud and his utter disdain for senators in general, it is far more likely that Caligula issued the threat about making his horse a consul to humiliate the Senate rather than believing Incitatus would do a good job!