Have you ever loved your pet so much that you wanted to see them accomplish great things? Win a ribbon, be Best in Show…hold political office? A lot of bizarre things happened in ancient Rome, and a horse holding office was one of them.

An unfavorable history

Emperor Caligula ruled the Roman Empire for nearly four years. During most of that time, he gained an unpleasant reputation for being a cruel man with an affinity for extravagance and a disturbing personality. Some records claim he was insane, though it is difficult to determine whether this description was meant figuratively or literally. His decisions, however, do lend credence to the idea that the man was a disturbed tyrant. During his reign, Caligula attempted to expand the powers of the Emperor, and he spent much of his effort on commissioning the building of large structures, including two massive aqueducts and several opulent palaces and retreats for himself. Stranger than possibly any of his other actions is the legend that Caligula once appointed his horse, Incitatus, to the Roman Senate.

Stranger than truth

Stories say that Caligula had planned to appoint Incitatus as a consul, the highest elected position in the Empire. The horse supposedly invited dignitaries and other distinguished guests over to dine with the Emperor and his horse at their house, complete with entertainment and servants. His stables were said to have been made of marble and his manger, of ivory, with vibrant purple blankets and a collar of precious gems.

Another story claims that servants attended Incitatus and fed a rich mix of oats and gold flake. Supposedly, Caligula also had, at one point, made his favored horse a priest.

All against, say “neigh”

While plenty of sources claim that the Emperor was mad, historical records show that the act of appointing his horse to positions of power may have been more of a joke than anything. As historical documents clearly state that there was never a horse named as consul, it is far more likely that the legend sprang from an elaborate prank or attempt at satire. Caligula, it is speculated, may have been expressing that he thought the job of the Senate was so easy, a horse could do it.

As for the horse being made a priest, that legend likely came from a combination of fact and falsehood about Caligula’s warped sense of humor. There are doubtful accounts that suggest the Emperor sometimes raised a glass to Incitatus’ health, joking that he ought to make the creature a priest.