Like Tacitus (sine ira et studio), I normally strive to keep this blog a partisanship-free zone, but Richard Cohen, in an op-ed about the selection of Sarah Palin, invokes a Classical exemplum worthy of note:

It’s a pity Gingrich was not around when the Roman Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known by his nickname Caligula, reputedly named Incitatus as a consul and a priest. Incitatus was his horse.

Since I’m not a pundit but a professor, I will leave the politics to others and stick to the pedantic. I don’t think there is a “Julius” in Caligula’s nomenclature. As we can see from the coin below, Caligula (“little boots”) was named C(aius) CAES(ar) AUG(ustus) Germanicus. Lesson? If you are criticizing someone, probably best not to use wikipedia as your source…


The vignette about Incitatus appears in two sources: Suetonius’ Life of Caligua and Cassius Dio’s Roman History. In Suetonius, we hear about the desire to make Incitatus a consul:

He used to send his soldiers on the day before the games and order silence in the neighbourhood, to prevent the horse Incitatus101 from being disturbed. Besides a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones, he even gave this horse a house, a troop of slaves and furniture, for the more elegant entertainment of the guests invited in his name; and it is also said that he planned to make him consul.

Dio reveals the tidbit about the priesthood:

One of the horses, which he named Incitatus, he used to invite to dinner, where he would offer him golden barley and drink his health in wine from golden goblets; he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer… He also consecrated himself to his own service and appointed his horse a fellow-priest; and dainty and expensive birds were sacrificed to him daily.

Now Caligula was by all accounts a monster (incest, senseless killings, debauchery–the usual “bad emperor” trifecta), although I always saw him as at least as much a figure of pity as scorn. Imagine you are the son of an incredibly popular political figure and war hero. You are sent to live with your weird, old uncle on a secluded island–by the way, everyone thinks your uncle had your father killed–during which time most of your remaining family are killed in various horrific ways. Then, when you are 25, said uncle dies and, with no experience at all, you are suddenly made the absolute ruler of the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. Not a prescription for administrative success.