Ancient Fake News Still Dominates the Classroom

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COMMENT: Hi Martin,

Things have gotten so bad in governments around the world that I am starting to sympatise with Caligula who appointed his horse as a minister and staff member. A horse can not possibly be dumber than what we see operating as world rulers at this time.


REPLY: You may not be so far off the mark. The story may not be true, but there was a tension where indeed Caligula (37-41AD) most likely felt his horse could do a better job than the contemptuous senators. Caligula is an interesting character who we are also told participated in incest with his three sisters. The problem with history is that the author is typically the victor. Nevertheless, there were still people who dreamed of restoring the Republic during his reign. The conspirators who murdered Caligula did not champion a replacement for Emperor. There were senators who were so unanimously determined to restore the Republic that the Consuls summoned the first assembly to the Capitol building rather than the Senate, which was named as the Julian Building after Julius Caesar. Many wanted all memory of the Caesars obliterated, and their temples destroyed.

We must actually put that story in its true context. Caligula’s comments concerning Proculus reveal this tension between those who still championed the Republic behind Caligula’s back. Thus, Incitatus, who was the horse of Emperor Caligula, was his favorite. We are told that Caligula loved him so much that he wanted to make him a consul (lawmaker) or at least a senator. The comment comes from the biased historian Suetonius (c. 69–122 AD) who wrote of Caligula:

To prevent Incitatus, his favorite horse, from being disturbed he always picketed the neighborhood with troops on the day before the races, ordering them to enforce absolute silence. Incitatus owned a marble stable, an ivory stall, purple blankets, and a jeweled collar; also a house, a team of slaves, and furniture – to provide suitable entertainment for guests whom Gaius invited in its name. It is said that he even planned to award Incitatus a consulship.

Later writers were keen to demonize Caligula, and he was hardly the most ‘balanced’ of emperors, so it is difficult to know whether he really meant it. Suetonius wrote, “The Lives of the Caesars” in 121 AD, some 80 years after Caligula was assassinated at age 28. On the contrary, there are earlier chroniclers who actually lived under Caligula, namely Seneca and Philo. Neither made any mention of this type of behavior despite their harsh criticism of the emperor. Even the historian Tacitus, during a lengthy diatribe against Caligula’s sister Agrippina, who became the wife of Emperor Claudius and mother of Nero, talks of her incest with her son but makes no mention of incest with Caligula.

So you see, fake news has been around for a very long time. Suetonius wrote “The Twelves Caesars” in 121 AD and dedicated it to his friend Gaius Septicius Clarus, who was a prefect of the Praetorian Guard in 119 AD. Curiously, perhaps he was inspired by the restoration of the coinage of the Twelve Caesars undertaken by Emperor Trajan.


This has always left a question in my mind given some of the slanderous comments in Suetonius’ text that he was perhaps trying to disparage the Twelve Caesars who were celebrated on the coinage by Emperor Trajan (98-117 AD). Was this his real motive since Trajan issued this commemorative series a few years before Suetonius’ publication?