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INCITATUS & Caligula

Incitatus and Caligula: History site section Logo of ancient snaffle bit. By Cheryl R. Lutring  (Horse History article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

Few horses have ruled an empire. Less have been considered as marriage partners by ancient emperors. But such was the fate of Incitatus. His owner, the Roman Emperor Caligula, (AD 37-41) infamous for his psychotic extremes, was consistent in at least one aspect his devotion to his horse. Albeit sometimes this particular passion took a turn that was not necessarily to the benefit of the animal. Just as his father, Tiberius, had favored a pet dragon, so Caligula s darling was his best racing horse.

 The original stable name of the stallion was Porcellus, which meant little pig but Caligula thought this unsuitable and renamed him in recognition of his swift-speeding as Incitatus.

Incitatus was a chariot racing stallion of no mean repute. It is said he never lost a race. Caligula was fanatical about the sport and favored the Green Faction team as opposed to the White, Red or Blue Factions. To ensure his favorite s best chance, the night before a race, Caligula would send his soldiers to impose silence in the neighborhood of the marble stable, so that the horse might rest peacefully. One of Caligula s main indulgences was to drive a chariot himself not an ability expected or required of an Emperor and he could be seen at the Circus Maximus pitting his horses with the best of them. However, his normal driver was Eutychus who had the onerous duty of steering the imperial team to a win. Once Caligula was so pleased with his daring skills that at a post-game triumphal feast he awarded him a fortune of 20,000 gold coins.

Chariots were raced by teams of horses harnessed in varying arrangements: a pair was a biga; three together was a triga; and the most popular, a team of four abreast was a quadriga. The latter were the most glamorous and most popular, and have been dramatically depicted in the epic film Ben Hur. Each race had to circuit the narrow 340 metre long oval of Rome s Circus Maximus seven times, negotiating its tight turns in a three-mile gallop. He also used him as a riding horse. Horses of the time were around 14hh and slightly larger ones were used by military officers and people of status, so Incitatus is considered to have been around 14.2hh; certainly in ancient times most horses that were ridden by people of status were gaited a great asset in the days before saddles and stirrups!

When it dawned on Caligula that if he was to create a dynasty to follow in his wake, he would have to marry and produce a son, he wavered long over whether such a momentous honor should be given to Incitatus or a woman called Caesonia. After much soul-searching, and probably much delicate advice from his household, Caesonia became the chosen one. It is a puzzle to know why he thought a stallion could bear an offspring of any description! But, Caligula thought Incitatus was feeling rejected and was fretting and petulant, so to appease him he gave the horse political power over the Empire. It was a requirement that Incitatus had to be consulted in the making of tactical decisions.

But even this was not enough. Caligula also had built for him a new palace of his own where he could hold state in suitable surroundings. This was situated alongside Caligula s own magnificent palace and was designed to incorporate many of Rome s more ancient buildings. Incitatus had a marble bedroom with a big straw mat for a bed, a fresh one every day, an ivory manger, a gold bucket to drink from, and pictures by famous artists on the walls. If he fancied a change of scene he could move into a different stall of ivory. He was draped in blankets of the royal purple and sported a gem-encrusted collar. He had his own slaves who attended to his every whim, and magnificent feasts were staged when senators and citizens of high rank were invited as guests of Incitatus.

In addition, whenever he won a race the horse was seated in the place of honor beside the emperor at the table of royal banquets and Caligula would ply him with fashionable delicacies such as sea urchin, parrot and dormouse. But Incitatus resisted such epicurean delights and would only take barley (dusted with gold in his honor!) from the golden bowl. At all such feasts, the assembled guests had to toast the health of Incitatus 20 times over. But even all this apparently did little to console the spurned and desolate horse. So convinced was Caligula that Incitatus was irrevocably grief-stricken by his marriage to a woman, that he continually tried to make recompense: he included his name in every sentence he spoke, and had his name used as part of the binding oath for legal documentation; when new temples were built in honor of the new god, Emperor Caligula, the loyalty of Incitatus was rewarded by appointing him deputy head priest, which meant he had great responsibility for supervising the rites of the temple, in consideration for which he received an excellent salary.

Caligula was so excessively fond of him that he made him first a Citizen of Rome and then a senator, and nominated him as a future candidate for the coveted Consulship. Maybe his perceived intention to so honor the horse was merely an ironic indication of his view of the unworthiness of the men in the government. Perhaps it is for this last distinction that Incitatus name has passed down through the historical record.

Some sources report that eventually Incitatus tired of his duties and privileges and, reverting perhaps to the implication of his original name Little Pig, turned on Caligula, savaging him severely. Caligula was swift with retaliation and beheaded his treasured Incitatus. Such can be the fate of the unwise favorites of the powerful.

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