Caligula and Incitatus: History of Horses

Story of Incitatus and Caligula
Patricia Crane logo  A Roman Emperor and His Favorite Horse, written by John Reismiller
Incitatus         Caligula


 By John Reismiller

"But when the spur's point ever so lightly touches its flank, a thoroughbred breaks into a gallop, generously out of proportion to the impulse of the spur. The reaction of the horse, rather than a response to an impulse, is a release of exuberant inner energies. Indeed, a skittish horse, with its nervous head and fiery eye, is a splendid image of stirring life. Thus we imagine the magnificent stallion whom Caligula called Incitatus."

--Jose Ortega y Gassett
Spanish Philosopher

Much is lengendary about Incitatus, the favorite mount of  the Emperor Caligula. The chroniclers of his imperial rule written years afterward were biased toward the Julian/Claudian clan and wished to make his behavior toward Incitatus and otherwise the object of ridicule. Caligula undoubtedly was guilty of much cruel and bizarre conduct, even by Roman standards. He is thought by modern scholars to have become progressively worse as he continued on the throne. Caligula might have been the victim of a mental disease which was unknown in his day.

But if Caligula ever loved anything, it was his steed Incitatus. His often foolish treatment of this beautiful white stallion may have been an indication of his deteriorating mental soundness.

Whatever the reason, Caligula's Incitatus has passed into legend of both horses and man.

Some have indicated that Incitatus was attended to by eighteen servants, and was fed oats mixed with gold flakes; according to Suetonius, Incitatus had a stable of marble, with an ivory manger, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones. Suetonius wrote also that Caligula planned to make Incitatus a Consul. Caligula even procured him a wife, a mare named Penelope. It has also been said Caligula claimed his steed to be a 'combination of all the gods' and to be worshipped as such.

Incitatus would also "invite" dignitaries to dine with him, and had a house with full complement of servants to entertain such guests.

--Suetonius, Lives of The Twelve Caesars

Caligula used to invite Incitatus to dinner, where he would offer him golden barley and drink his health in wine from golden goblets; he swore by the  life and fortune of Incitatus and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.
--Cassius Dio: Book 69

Incittatus meaning "impetuous" in Latin, came from Spain to add to Caligula's stable of racehorses. The emperor adored Incitatus so much that after ordering a stable built of marble with a veneer of ivory , he later constructed a house and garden with servants so that this steed would lack nothing for the entertainment of his guests. There is a legend that before a race, Caligula slept by the side of his Incitatus to be sure that no one would disturb his rest under pain of death.

Caligula shared with most of the Romans a passion for horse-racing. His family owned most of the land where St. Peter's now stands and Caligula built there a private hippodrome, which is usually known as Circo Vaticano o di Nerone. He embellished this circus by placing at its centre an obelisk. Notwithstanding his private circus, he spent a lot of time at Circo Massimo watching the races in which Incitatus took part. No expense was spared although we do not know whether Incitatus was actually happy to be living in a marble stable or to be eating from an ivory manger. Incitatus was covered with fine cloths with red borders and from this detail historians claim that Caligula appointed him to the position of senator; we do know that he was the best dressed of all the horses in Rome.

Ruins of Circo Massimo

Notes of Interest:

All copyrights to "Hail to the Chief", written by Jack Reismiller, remain with the author.

"Tales of the Horse" is hosted by

Banner image above is from Trumpeter, plate from Carrousels, course de tetes et de bagues, Paris, 1727/43
© All Photos and Sculpture Copyright 2000 - 2018, Patricia Crane.