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His name is a Latin adjective meaning "swift" or "at full gallop".
According to Suetonius, in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars (121 AD), Caligula planned to make Incitatus a consul, and that the horse would "invite" dignitaries to dine with him in a house outfitted with servants there to entertain such events. He also wrote that he had a stable of marble, with an ivory manger, purple blankets, and a collar of precious stones.
The accuracy of the received history is generally questioned. Historians such as Anthony A. Barrett suggest that later Roman chroniclers such as Suetonius and Dio Cassius were influenced by the political situation of their own times, when it may have been useful to the current emperors to discredit the later Julio-Claudian emperors. Also, the lurid nature of the story added spice to their narratives, winning them additional readers.
One suggestion is that the treatment of Incitatus by Caligula was an elaborate prank, intended to ridicule and provoke the senate, rather than a sign of insanity, or perhaps a form of satire, with the implication that a horse could perform a senator's duties.
Barrett notes that "Many stories were spread about Incitatus, originating most likely from Caligula's own humorous quips." "Possibly out of perverted sense of humor Caligula would pour libations to Incitatus' salus [health and well-being], and claimed that he intended to co-opt him as his priest."
Ancient sources are clear that the horse was never actually made a consul.
In art and metaphor
- Incitatus has for centuries been an allegorical figure when referencing examples of political ineptitude, going back at least to 1742.
- Act III of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (1904) Pishchik says that his family is "descended from that very nag Caligula inducted into the Senate."
- Aleister Crowley's Liber VII Chapter 4, v. 28-30, suggest Incitatus had a deeper significance, reading, "Who wast Thou, O Caesar, that Thou knewest God in an horse? For lo! we beheld the White Horse of the Saxon engraven upon the earth; and we beheld the Horses of the Sea that flame about the old grey land, and the foam from their nostrils enlightens us!"
- The life of Incitatus is the subject of Zbigniew Herbert's poem "Caligula" (in Pan Cogito, 1974).
- In I, Claudius, Robert Graves wrote that Incitatus was made a senator and was put on the list to become a consul; that eventually, Claudius removed the governmental stipend for Incitatus and his status as senator for lacking the monetary requirements; that later, Incitatus was slaughtered after injuring his leg at a race; and that the mate of Incitatus, Penelope, was used by Claudius during his war with Britain.
- In the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged, a mention of Incitatus is overheard by the newly wed wife of James Taggert, Cherryl. She overhears the conversation of two men apparently discussing her wedding and her husband.
- The 2000 BBC Radio 4 comedy Me and Little Boots, by Shaun McKenna, told the story of Caligula (Latin for "little boots") from the point of view of Incitatus, who was played by Leslie Phillips.
- In the 2006-2011 comic Jack of Fables, Incitatus talks so much that he risks giving away his status as a fable and frequently mentions his former status as a Roman senator.
- Suetonius. De vita Caesarum, Caligula, 55: "consulatum quoque traditur destinasse" eng.: "it is also said that he planned to make him consul".
- Cassius Dio, Roman History LIX.14.
- Cassius Dio, Roman History LIX.28.
- Did Caligula really make his horse a consul?, Elizabeth Nix, History Channel, June 21, 2016
- Barrett, Anthony A. (1990). Caligula: The Corruption of Power. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Mythbusting Ancient Rome – Caligula’s Horse, Shushma Malik and Caillan Davenport, The Conversation, May 4, 2017
- English translation of "Caligula Speaks", by Zbigniew Herbert, translated by Oriana Ivy
- Radio Times listing for Me and Little Boots from March 2000.
- Jack of Fables #22-24