The tales of Caligula’s reign over Rome are so rich with gore, sadism and opulence that few bother even to check if they’re true. That blithe disregard for factual accuracy is hard not to excuse, what with stories like this: one contemporary, writing in the first century A.D., wrote that the Caligula once had the father of a man he was executing watch his son die. Then, he had the father eat with him at dinner. Other contemporary sources tell of Caligula’s alleged madness: he is said to have talked to horses, and insist that his own be installed in the Senate. When the wild beasts he kept as pets were hungry and he ran out of feed, others wrote, he fed the beasts criminals instead.

But a new biography urges us to get past all that. In “Caligula: A Biography” by Aloys Winterling, reviewed here by Mary Beard, we get a historian’s skeptical view. Winterling argues that Caligula wasn’t mad, and perhaps not even as wicked as original sources suggest (though recent excavation of Rome suggests he was perhaps as opulent). The direct evidence that might offer rational explanations of Caligula’s behavoir is slim, Winterling admits, but so is the evidence to back up the most salacious bits of writing that serve as any historian’s chief source. All those gory tales could just as well be the result of embittered contemporaries peddling gossip, or inventing shear lies, in the wake of Caligula’s death—he was executed after a mere four years of rule, which ended in 41 A.D.

Winterling doesn’t attempt to construct a narrative of what Caligula was actually like. But he does offer what Beard—one of the world’s leading Roman scholars—considers a compelling explanation for all those gaudy tales. He suggests that Caligula fought against the prevailing way of playing politics in classical Rome, where you were never to speak honestly, and where good stewardship was mastered by the art of dissembling. You were never to tell the truth, only tell it slant.

But Caligula, Winterling suggests, wanted to do away with all the political double-speak, and the price he paid (aside from assissination) was that most things he was said to have said were taken literally by his contemporaries. For instance, the famous rumor of him appointing his horse to the Senate may have been true—but he meant it as satire, a way to mock the Senate. Because the Senate, which was supposed to counterbalance the emperor, could not quite grasp that honesty in political speech did not necessarily mean the end of innuendo or irony, they later took down everything Caligula said as being exactly literal.

The Jews have a surprising role to play in all this. In an attempt to recapture a bit of Caligula’s ironic disposition, as well as his wit, Winterling digs up one of the rare bits of evidence that doesn’t cast Caligula as a sadist monster. The Jewish community in Alexandria, which fell under Caligula’s rule, had sent an envoy to the Roman palace to discuss their issues with the emperor. Recorded by Philo, the conversation shows Caligula a bit miffed that the Jews wouldn’t worship him as a god: “You are haters of god,” Caligula tells the Jewish envoy, “as you do not think that I am a god, I who am already acknowledged to be a god by every other nation.” He then asks why the Jews don’t eat pork, to which their envoy replied, For the same reason “some people don’t eat lamb.” To which Caligula ripostes, “They’re quite right, it’s not very nice.”

But rather than murder the Jews—that would fall to Caligula’s successors, thirty years later, who ultimately massacred hundreds of Jews as they destroyed the Second Temple, in 70 A.D.—he adopted a tone of resigned pity. “These men,” Caligula said of the Jews, as their envoy left, they “do not appear to me to be wicked so much as unfortunate and foolish in not believing that I have been endowed with the nature of god.” Better he mete out only pity on the Jews, and not deadly wrath.