Judge Incitatus

Caligula did not make his horse a consul, but the story fits Trump and Kavanaugh.

You all know that the crazy Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula (ruled 37-41 CE) made his horse a consul. Right? Wrong. There is no evidence whatever he did.

The main source of the story – Google tells me the only one [update correction, see comments] – is the Roman historian Dio Cassius. Roman History, Book LIX, 14.7:

One of the [chariot-racing] 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.

So the source of the story claims that Caligula talked about making Incitatus a consul, the way Trump talked about assassinating Bashir al-Assad, but did not go through with it.

Even the watered-down version is fishy. Dio Cassius comes across as quite sober and was certainly very industrious, but he was writing 180 years later. The earlier historian Suetonius, whose gossipy Lives of the Caesars consists largely of lurid anecdotes, does not mention the incident mentions the consulship as a mere rumour. [Correction update, see comments]. Nor do the contemporary sources Seneca, Josephus, and Philo, writers of an altogether different calibre and reliability, and hostile to Caligula. So at most, Incitatus’ equine magistracy is something a mentally unfit four-year Roman Emperor may have joked about at drunken parties.

As a legend, it can still serve as an illuminating model. Fictional Caligula made his horse a consul. President Donald Trump is also clearly a work of dystopian fiction in progress, and the episode entitled “The Nomination of Brett Kavanaugh” is curiously parallel to Incitatus.

Judge Kavanaugh is accused of, or has rumours alleging, at least the following in his personal life :

- attempted rape of a minor female while drunk as a teenager at prep school
- indecent exposure to a female fellow-student at Yale, also while drunk
- lying about 1 and 2 today (if the allegations are true)
- frequent drunkenness in his youth, from high school through to law school (admitted)
- possible continuing alcoholism
- a significant gambling habit
- large credit card debts, possibly related to gambling, and their unexplained cancellation by parties unknown.

That’s independently of the normal questions over his professional career, especially his work at the Bush White House, on which proper documentation was blocked, and his judicial decisions and philosophy.

It’s quite a list. Recall that no similar charges of personal sleaze were laid against the previous SCOTUS nominees Merrick Garland and Neil Gorsuch, nor the reputed reserve candidate Amy Barrett.

The possibilities are:

A: Brett Kavanaugh is the victim of a coordinated progressive smear campaign whose only precedent is the conservative one against the Clintons, in which Kavanaugh was an active player.
B: Brett Kavanaugh is a man of low moral character with a variety of questionable habits and skeletons in his cupboard.

The first is not plausible. If you were Chief Smearer, would you give the publicity-seeker Michael Avenatti a part? Would you bother at all with Deborah Ramirez’ exposure allegation? It all looks chaotic and uncoordinated. So I’ll go with low moral character.

Which brings us to Incitatus. The legendary “Caligula”’s purpose in appointing him would have been to humiliate the Roman Senate and serve as a loyalty test of its scared surviving members. That fits Trump. His view of life is Manichaean: negotiation is a zero-sum game, with a gloating winner and a humiliated loser. Trump may have chosen Kavanaugh out of the long list supplied by the Federalist Society precisely because Kavanaugh is sleazy and unfit for the office. No wonder McConnell was reportedly opposed to the choice, and his fears are being proved right.

Coda: the rival theory for the bizarre choice is that while there are plenty of reactionary judges who are pro-business and anti-abortion, the same is not true on executive immunity. Few movement conservatives go with l’Etat c’est moi (another powerful false legend). Only Kavanaugh ticked all the boxes. This may well be part of the explanation, but Kavanaugh’s views on this are so extreme as likely not to be very influential in SCOTUS.


Image credit: Wikimedia. It’s a copy in the Campodoglio square in Rome of an equestrian statue of the upright Marcus Aurelius, the Barack Obama among the emperors.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

5 thoughts on “Judge Incitatus”

  1. Kavanaugh is a piece of Trump’s campaign to delegitimize the government generally, creating a power vacuum for him to fill by himself. It’s working well so far.

  2. Actually, Suetonius does mention Incitatus, and the possibility, but not the certainty, that Incitatus might have been named consul.

    I can’t agree that the man currently acting as US president is trying to stick it to the Senate. He is simply trying to please a disturbing group of people who give him adoration, in the belief that they will give him more adoration, something he has a constant, desperate need for.

    1. My bad. The complete passage:
      “He used to send his soldiers on the day before the games and order silence in the neighbourhood, to prevent the horse Incitatus 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.
      So Suetonius (not one to miss a good story) is even vaguer and less committal than Dio Cassius on the consulship.

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