… or a modest proposal for Venezuela
(A guest post by friend-of-the-blog Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez)
The Emperor Gaius Caligula Caesar enjoys a hallowed a place within popular imagination. With the possible exception of Nero, whose alleged stint at fighting fire with music has historically received mixed reviews, it is Caligula’s reign that is remembered as the very apex of Ancient Roman lunacy. On one occasion he is said to have “declared war” on the god Neptune, ordering his legions to march into the sea in fully armored formation, and triumphantly bringing cartloads of seashells and dead crabs to Rome as “plunder.”
I won’t even begin to get into his legendary reputation for sexual sadism.
Yet by far the most celebrated of Caligula’s ancient eccentricities, is the story of Incitatus: the Emperor’s favorite horse, whom he elevated to the Roman Senate, and eventually made Consul.
While modern experts are quick to dismiss the historicity of such outlandish tales – likening their author, Suetonius, to a modern yellow journalist – I believe that we should give it the report the benefit of the doubt. After all, we weren’t there, and should we choose to lend it credence, we may well glean some useful context, and mayhap even a potential solution, to the many problems facing our beloved Venezuela today.
Let us assume then that Suetonius was right about the facts, but he still may have erred a bit as to their interpretation. Perhaps the assisted rise of history’s first great equine politician –or “hippoconsul”– was not an irrational act by a schizophrenic Caesar but instead a highly symbolic, and politically calculated, illustration of the prevailing institutional power dynamic. Such a move would certainly make for a stark, and very public, illustration as to the importance of vestigial republican institutions in the era of empire.
“Gentlemen, I have decided to promote an animal from within my household to join you in your illustrious political body. Clearly, he can fulfill your vaunted responsibilities much the same as any of you can and the announcement will be made public tomorrow morning at daybreak. You can bitch and moan if you like, but my mind is made up. Rome has spoken.”
Even the horse’s name, Incitatus, is provocative, quite clearly derived from the Latin “incit?re”: root to the English word “incite” and one that carries an identical meaning. In inciting the Roman Senate into an understandable bout of righteous indignation at being disrespected, their inability to stop him would highlight just how helpless and irrelevant the institution had become. The humiliation would be absolute, and the message so powerful that, over twenty centuries later, we remember it.
Venezuela’s current government likewise shares a fondness for state actions aimed at symbolically degrading those they perceive as foes, and that will in turn illustrate the victim’s utter helplessness to do anything in response. Don’t believe me? Just ask Antonio Ledezma.
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