The Horse That Almost Became a Senator, and Other Strange Tales of Caligula, the Mad Emperor

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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One summer, when I was a teenager, I had a job working construction for a thick party animal named Phil. Mostly, the job was just about sanding things and filling bung holes (look it up, it’s a thing). I barely remember the actual work. What I remember with crystal clarity, however, was the time that Phil told me he’s done enough cocaine in his life to fill a tool shed. Or the times he veered the work truck into the left lane just to f*ck with oncoming traffic.

Do these anecdotes tell the full story of my 2003 construction job? No way. Have I subconsciously embellished these stories over the last 15 years? Maybe. But it’s the crazy sh*t that sticks with you longest, growing larger than life over time.

Gaius Caesar Germanicus—also known as the notorious emperor Caligula—only ruled Rome from 37 AD to 41 AD. In the grand scheme of the history of the Roman Empire, this is just a blip, and Caligula isn’t well known for his accomplishments as a sovereign. Despite that, Caligula’s got a chariot-load of wild anecdotes to his name.

Why? In the spirit of his legacy, I won’t restrain myself: the dude was a real twisted f*ck who did a lot of crazy sh*t.

That said, all of the wild stories about him can’t be true—the man’s chroniclers hated him just as much as the Roman people did, so good luck finding any unbiased accounts. But hey, that’s how most of history goes.

The man, the myth, the notoriously unpopular emperor:
Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (Caligula).

Now that we’ve got our expectations sorted out, here are six (alleged) reasons for why Caligula was stabbed by conspirators over 30 times and dumped in a shallow grave after ruling for only four years.1

His Best Friend was a Horse

This actually sounds pretty endearing, until you consider that Caligula loved his horse as much as he hated other people (more on that later). Incitatus was Caligula’s prize racehorse, and he got special treatment for it. If you lived near his stable, your whole neighborhood had to keep silent the day before each race so Incitatus could concentrate.

Why is Caligula riding Incitatus in the nude in this sculpture?
Artistic license? Maybe. Or maybe he rode that horse naked.

Caligula loved that horse so much he’d invite him to dinner, drink to Incitatus’ health from golden cups, and feed him oats cut with gold flakes—Oatschläger, if you will. If peasants weren’t sifting through Incitatus’ sh*t for free gold while he and Caligula were off to the races, then I don’t know why.2

The most famous story about Incitatus is that Caligula made him a consul in the Roman Senate. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Records say Caligula wanted to appoint his equestrian bud to the Senate, but he was assassinated before he could make it happen. Plus, Incitatus’ political platform was too weak on the economy.3

He Drank Pearls and Swam in Gold

Caligula had a legendary lust for valuables. For example, he loved swimming in gold.  Not molten gold, mind you—that would have saved his assassins a lot of work. He wasn’t swimming in Oatschläger, either (that was Incitatus’ special reserve). Instead, he did it Scrooge McDuck style, pouring coins on the ground and wallowing in them for hours at a time. He also liked to walk over them barefoot. I’m not sure if that was a gold thing or a foot thing for him but, knowing Caligula, it was probably both.

His own head was on the gold coins he rolled around in, too.

And yeah, he drank pearls, but he wasn’t gargling them like a gumball hopper—that’d be crazy. Instead, he had the pearls dissolved in vinegar, then drank them. See? Not so crazy after all.4

He Decided He Was Jupiter, Talked to the Gods, and Tried to F*ck the Moon

OK, this one needs some parsing.

First, Caligula didn’t like his real name, Gaius. He also didn’t like his nickname, Caligula, which was given to him by the soldiers he met as a kid, during his father’s campaigns in Germania. Caligula means “little boots”—it was a riff on the cute little soldier’s outfit he wore. It stuck with him into adulthood, so, naturally, he hated that sh*t.

He instead declared himself “Jupiter.” That’s a bit like me saying “Don’t call me Alex. Call me God.” Jupiter is, of course, the king of the gods in Roman mythology. As you can see, since this article is about Caligula, and not “Jupiter,” the new nickname didn’t stick. If Caligula really wanted a new nickname, he should’ve transferred to a new high school and reinvented himself as a guy without tiny little soldier shoes.

He tried to make it work, though. In official documents and in the Senate, he went by Jupiter. He also ordered the great statue of Zeus (Jupiter’s equivalent, in Greece) moved from Olympia to Rome so he could have its head swapped out for his own. Caligula also liked to cosplay as Jupiter, wearing his golden beard and carrying a (presumably fake) thunderbolt.

Caligula’s head (not his real head). Just picture this on top of Zeus’ shoulders.

Caligula also believed he spoke to the gods, and saw himself as among their ranks. He’d threaten Jupiter, or just chat with him (he ran both hot and cold on Jupiter, I guess), and claimed to be crowned by the goddess Victoria. He’d also talk to the moon at night, trying to seduce her (the moon’s a lady, by the way) into coming down to his bed for a little celestial-meets-terrestrial hookup. She wasn’t into it.5

He Once Made the Senate Watch Him Dance

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a Roman consular—a senior-level politician, albeit one with little actual power under an emperor. Now imagine that your emperor is insane and wantonly cruel. You receive a summons in the middle of the night: the emperor wants to see you. Sounds like you’re about to be tortured and executed.

That’s what Caligula’s consulars probably thought when that happened to them. They must have been somewhat relieved (though very uncomfortable) when a robed Caligula arrived and started to dance for them. I don’t know about you, but I’m picturing that opening Buffalo Bill scene from Silence of the Lambs. When Caligula was finished, he left. Weird, right? 6

He Passed Laws to Prevent People from Seeing His Bald Spot

Caligula was, apparently, an ugly dude. While he didn’t live past the age of 28, he suffered from some congenital male pattern baldness. Rather than just becoming a hat guy, he passed some legislation barring Romans from standing above him or otherwise looking down at him while he walked by. If nobody can see a bald spot, is it really there?

And, like so many men before and after him, he suffered from a harsh conundrum: as his pate lost hair, his body gained it. Hairiness was frowned upon in Rome, and Nair didn’t exist yet. So, naturally, Caligula made it illegal to talk about goats in his presence. Seems like a bit of a backfire, because now we pretty much have to assume Caligula looked a lot like a goat and had it up to here with all the goat jokes.7

He Was an Asshole, Generally Speaking

While items one through five illustrate Caligula’s insanity via narcissism pretty well, they don’t really give you an idea of how malignant the guy was.

Caligula really enjoyed watching other people suffer. That includes a boilerplate fascination with torturing and murdering people, sure. But he was also a disturbed, antisocial prankster.

“Close the arena awnings! Also, raise concession prices by 500 percent!”

He’d have new laws written in tiny letters, then hang them up very high, so people couldn’t read them. He did this so he could punish people for breaking laws that were technically posted, but that they could not have known about.

During games at the arena, on especially hot days, he’d order the awnings retracted and forbid spectators from leaving, just so he could watch them sweat. Another favorite pastime: shuttering the granaries so he could watch his own people starve. As you can see, Caligula liked to punch down, probably so his victims couldn’t see his bald spot.8

What Was Caligula’s Problem?

That’s hard to say, but he might have lost it following an illness. For the first six months of Caligula’s reign, things seemed pretty good, or at least status quo. He even freed unjustly imprisoned political prisoners, which is far from his later M.O.

The sea change arrived after his six month as emperor, when Caligula became deathly ill. He spent a month teetering on the edge, but made a physical recovery. His mind, however, was rewired.

It looks like he suffered some kind of brain damage from this extended sickness—maybe a prolonged high fever, but that’s just my guess. He emerged a very different person and would wander his palace throughout the night, his head pounding.9

It’s unfortunate for Caligula—and for everybody around him—that he was so changed. Without the illness, maybe he would have been a great emperor?

Instead, he was numbed to empathy and tortured his people until they united to murder him. For Cassius Chaerea, in particular, his hatred for Caligula was personal.

Chaerea was a distinguished warrior and member of the Praetorian guard. Normally this would garner respect, but Caligula instead mocked Chaerea mercilessly over his voice and supposed “effeminacy.” The chronicler Suetonius said that, when he would have Chaerea kiss his ring, Caligula would move his hand around in an “obscene fashion,” and would make him use degrading watch-words, like “priapus,” meaning “erection.”

“Ah, oops! I think I’m supposed to be somewhere else . . .”
-Guy on the far right in this picture.

Remember when I said Caligula was stabbed to death 30 times? Chaerea did the stabbing. Coincidentally, Chaerea was joined by several other groups of conspirators who wanted Caligula dead, too. That’s why you don’t treat people worse than racehorses.10

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. TheFamousPeople.com. (Accessed May 18, 2018). Caligula Biography. Retrieved from https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/caligula-6283.php
  2. Linnea, Lewis. (2016, December 17). 10 Weird Things You Didn’t Know Caligula Did. Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/10-Weird-Things-you-Didnt-Know-Caligula-Did
  3. History Buffed. (2017, June 3). Incitatus: Caligula’s Horse Who Would Be Senator. Retrieved from http://historybuffed.com/weird/incitatus-caligulas-horse-senator/
  4. Linnea, Lewis. (2016, December 17). 10 Weird Things You Didn’t Know Caligula Did. Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/10-Weird-Things-you-Didnt-Know-Caligula-Did
  5. Linnea, Lewis. (2016, December 17). 10 Weird Things You Didn’t Know Caligula Did. Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/10-Weird-Things-you-Didnt-Know-Caligula-Did
  6. Linnea, Lewis. (2016, December 17). 10 Weird Things You Didn’t Know Caligula Did. Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/10-Weird-Things-you-Didnt-Know-Caligula-Did
  7. Linnea, Lewis. (2016, December 17). 10 Weird Things You Didn’t Know Caligula Did. Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/10-Weird-Things-you-Didnt-Know-Caligula-Did
  8. Linnea, Lewis. (2016, December 17). 10 Weird Things You Didn’t Know Caligula Did. Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/10-Weird-Things-you-Didnt-Know-Caligula-Did
  9. Biography.com. (Accessed May 18, 2018). Caligula Biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/people/caligula-9235253
  10. Revolvy. (Accessed May 18, 2018). Cassius Chaerea. Retrieved from https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Cassius+Chaerea

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Biography.com. (Accessed May 18, 2018). Caligula Biography. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/people/caligula-9235253
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Accessed May 18, 2018). Caligula: Roman Emperor. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Caligula-Roman-emperor
  • History Buffed. (2017, June 3). Incitatus: Caligula’s Horse Who Would Be Senator. Retrieved from http://historybuffed.com/weird/incitatus-caligulas-horse-senator/
  • Linnea, Lewis. (2016, December 17). 10 Weird Things You Didn’t Know Caligula Did. Retrieved from https://owlcation.com/humanities/10-Weird-Things-you-Didnt-Know-Caligula-Did
  • Revolvy. (Accessed May 18, 2018). Cassius Chaerea. Retrieved from https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=Cassius+Chaerea
  • TheFamousPeople.com. (Accessed May 18, 2018). Caligula Biography. Retrieved from https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/caligula-6283.php

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