Sacred deformations: Caesar’s human-footed horse and the six-fingered saints

Sometimes nature plays strange tricks on its creations. Mutations, deformations, peculiarities are the material of which evolution is made. Often, however, the human being has attributed miraculous powers to these deformations. For instance, horses with cloven hooves were placed close to unicorns, and six-fingered humans had the makings of saints. The god Wotan even rode through the air on an eight-legged horse. But did such a thing really exist?

The wonder horse of Caesar

Suetonius, Cassius Dio and Pliny unanimously report that Julius Caesar’s horse had more hooves than a normal one. According to Suetonius, Caesar rode a horse with hooves that resembled a man’s feet, as they were so divided that they resembled toes. Suetonius adds that Caesar had bred the horse himself. Since the soothsayers interpreted the deformation of the hooves as an omen that its owner would become master of the world and Alexander the Great was supposed to have owned a similar horse, Caesar raised it with special care and rode it in himself. As in many similar legends, the horse supposedly did not tolerate anyone else mounting it.

A statue of the legendary horse was later erected on Caesar’s order in front of the temple of Venus Genitrix, the patron goddess of the Julii.

Cassius Dio adds that the horse instilled great confidence in Caesar as an omen of his good fortune. Pliny confirms the story.

Equestrian statue of Julius Caesar, seen from the front, with a scene of a naval battle on the pedestal below, from “Roman Emperors on Horseback.”

Eight-legged horses and six-fingered people

Polydactyly (from Greek πολύς polýs ‘much’ and δάκτυλος dáktylos ‘fingers’, literally “many-fingeredness”) refers to an inherited, congenital, anatomical peculiarity regarding the number of extra hand and/or foot limbs. The peculiarity can occur in humans, but also in animals.

One is tempted to suspect an evolutionary regression in horses, since horses originally had multiple visible hooves and these toes are still present in a vestigial fashion. However, it may also be a mutation in the genetic makeup, similar to conjoined twins, or a freak of genetics.

Prehistoric horse foot with still fully developed toes, Los Angeles (c) Ringuer

In most cases, such extra fingers and extra hooves are atrophied or immobile and are operated away immediately after birth or later. However, there are cases where people can control the sixth finger just as well as the other five. Cases of polydactyly in horses have so far shown no such advantage, except may be for the legendary eight-legged horse of Wotan – Slejpnir – which could fly. But prehistoric horses have moved forward on multiple toes for millions of years. So why not?

Multi-hoofed horses have been around on and off. Here is a picture from 1642 of Aldovrandi and a photo of such a horse.

In horses, this kind of extra hooves appears every now and then. The Shire Norfolk Spider became famous with it. Norman Pentaquad, the progenitor of many of today’s polo horses, also had to have an extra hoof removed when he was born in 1983. The horse was hardly successful on the racetrack, but because of his bloodline he was sold as a stud first to New Zealand and then to Australia and became the leading polo sire in the world.

Many famous people are known as polydactyl, such as the cartoonist Uderzo.

A good omen or even holy by deformation?

The augurs in ancient Rome, who interpreted the deformation of the hooves of Caesar’s horse as a sign of good luck, did so in a long tradition. Later medieval painters also frequently depicted saints or the Mother Mary with six fingers or toes.

See, for example, the painting of St. Sebastian (left) by Lorenzo Costa in 1480, in which the saint has six toes. This was considered a sign of fullness of grace, as it was assumed that this must be a special person who could do more with six toes or fingers than with five.

In the visual arts, there are many such depictions of people or gods with six fingers or toes. In the Gothic pilgrimage church in Maria Laach am Jauerling, Austria, an image of St. Mary with six fingers is venerated.

The founder Wenzeslaus Maller (14th century) is portrayed in the Regensburg Franciscan monastery with six toes on one foot. Raphael also depicts St. Joseph with six toes in the 1504 painting ‘The Marriage of the Virgin’ (left image). Unicorns were also usually depicted with cloven hooves.

And even the Bible speaks of polydactie. In the Old Testament, 2 Samuel 21:20 it says: “And again there was a battle at Gath. There was a long man who had six fingers on his hands and six toes on his feet, 24 in number […].”

Ancient pictures and runestones (here the one from Tjängvide) show Wotan on his eight-legged horse Slejpnir.

And Caesar’s horse?

It is said that Julius Caesar named his horse Genitor in honor of his father, who died in 85 BC when Caesar was 16 years old. The name means “creator,” “father” or “producer” in Latin. Others say its name was Asturcus. In any way, a powerful title for a powerful omen that would accompany the dictator for the rest of his life. The horse with the “human toes” was to become Caesar’s main steed, and to ensure his safety, he is said to have dismounted on one occasion in the middle of battle so as not to endanger his horse.

It is said that Julius Caesar had exceptional skills in riding. The historian Plutarch reports that since childhood he trained on horseback with his hands clasped behind his back to practice balance. He also relates that Caesar would have sat on horseback while dictating letters to two of his scribes at the same time. His ability to stand on a horse was also legendary.

Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon on the night of January 12, 50 AD to take power in Rome. He supposedly did so on the back of his horse Genitor, uttering his famous phrase “Alea jacta est” (the die is cast).

Neither Caesar nor the horse seem to have been hindered by the extra hooves.

The unicorn from the carpet ‘The Lady with the Unicorn’ in the Cluny Museum in Paris also has split hooves.

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