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THE EMPEROR APPOINTS HIS HORSE

5/1/2003

Roman Emperor Caligula fascinated writers of his time. Even centuries later, Albert Camus wrote a play about him. (He also won a Nobel Prize as peers wondered what he actually did and how he got it.) He as a brilliant man, handsome and regal; the emperor who had everything. No one disputed him. Indeed everyone loved him. One day he saw the reflection of the moon on a palace pond. He wanted the moon. A real friend from earlier days advised him sincerely that the moon was unattainable at the time; maybe years later, like in the twentieth century. But they were still in 40 B.C. Caligula started disliking his friend. Disagreement was interpreted as disloyalty. There were of course others who agreed totally but were disloyal behind his back; going along to get along. But the boss liked that easy feeling. Disloyalty could be handled but not disagreement, however occasional. He mostly enjoyed one horse. Whenever uneasy or in self-doubt, he would take a ride on his favourite horse Incitatus. And the horse went wherever the boss wanted. He would also double as a court jester: a trick here and a jump there. Years before Shakespeare -- like years after him -- "the play was the thing to attract the attention of the king." And the king enjoyed the way his horse paraded him around, showing the world the splendour of the knight in shining armour while showing off the craftsmanship of the horse. It just happened that a senior seat in the Senate became vacant. The horse jumped around pleaded with his boss that he could do the trick; he could be even more agreeable and will display bolder moves if given a more visible spot. Thus Caligula appointed his horse to take over the vacant post. Those who loved him went along reluctantly, he must have had a compelling reason. Those waiting in the wings started a wave of quiet then noisier ridicule. The glorified emperor looked more vulnerable; other unhelpful stories would be recounted or even exaggerated. The horse became a symbol of how a trusted wise man could become weakened by obvious flattery. As the emperor was pondering the feedback, the horse made a surprising move. He was no more a horse, he claimed; not even a mere senior official. The horse wanted to become emperor and wanted to have his own horse. It was then that Roman observers agreed that "Quo Vadis" actually stood for "the mess we're in."