Lurid tales of the Roman emperor Caligula have pervaded since he reigned from 37 to 41 CE. The “mad emperor” Caligula was rumored to have incestuous relationships with his sisters, built a bridge whose cost lead to starvation in Rome, and once ordered a section of a crowd during Roman games to be thrown to the wild animals below because no criminals were available. The man was so cunning that he, “wrote his laws in a very small character, and hung them upon high pillars, the more effectually to ensnare the people.”
The extent to which these stories are true has come into question recently, including the most famous story about Caligula involving his favorite horse, Incitatus. Wrote Suetonius, the Roman historian born around 69 CE:
“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.”
Even if this story was simply character defamation made up by Suetonius, the image of a horse becoming a high ranking politician has captured the attention of school children and scholars for ages. Animals belong in many places, but in the political spotlight? Surprisingly, it isn’t as uncommon as you may think.
While serving as Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII in 1515, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey kept a cat by his side while hearing cases. The English apparently saw the wisdom in keeping the cat around, and since that time, there has been a Chief Mouser at the residence of the Prime Minister. The primary duty of the officially employed cat is to keep mice and rats at bay. Scandal erupted in 2011 when rats were seen scurrying across the steps of 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister’s spokesman ruled out following tradition on acquiring a new cat. However, the “pro-cat faction” won and Larry the cat was hired.
In the vein of tyrant pets, Adolf Hitler was fond of his aptly named dog, Blondi. The German Shepherd was used prominently in Nazi propaganda and accompanied Hitler during much of the war. Days before his death, Hitler believed his cyanide pills were defective, so he forced his doctor to feed them to Blondi. The dog died. According to Erna Flegel, the Red Cross nurse who was with Hitler in his final days, the death of Blondi affected people more than Eva Braun’s suicide. Soviet soldiers, searching for buried Nazi treasure, came across the remains of Blondi, Hitler, and Braun in a hastily covered grave.
In Canada, from 1965 to 1993, Cornelius the First, a black rhino, was the nominal leader of the Rhinoceros Party. Though the party failed to win any elections, it did attract a number of voters. In the federal elections of 1984, the party’s major platform was based on declaring war on Belgium. That year, Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s character Tintin killed a rhino in a book. The party demanded beer and mussels be sent to their headquarters to avert war. Surprisingly enough, the Belgian embassy in Canada compiled and sent the beer and shellfish to the presumably overjoyed party members.
In 1968, a pig named Pigasus was nominated for President of the United States by the Youth International Party. He created a stir when unveiled in Chicago, but he was promptly arrested with nine supporters for being a public nuisance. Said one youth, “If we can’t have him in the White House, we can have him for breakfast.” No word on if he escaped the plate.
Perhaps the most successful animal in politics is Stubbs the cat. Since July 1997, he has been mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska. Though the town is too small to have an official mayor, Stubbs is a popular figure. According to one resident, “he doesn’t raise our taxes — we have no sales tax. He doesn’t interfere with business. He’s honest.” Stubbs also brings tourists to the town, by some accounts dozens daily, many of whom are headed to Mount McKinley.
Caligula was the first Roman emperor to be murdered in office. However, the legend of his horse lives on and will continue to inspire the dedicated few who desire the political spotlight for their beloved animals.