According to the ancient historian Suetonius, the Roman emperor known as Caligula loved one of his horses, Incitatus, so much that he gave the steed a marble stall, an ivory manger, a jeweled collar and even a house. Another chronicler, Cassius Dio, later wrote that servants fed the animal oats mixed with gold flakes. Famous for his madness and brutality, Caligula allegedly committed incest with his sisters, fed prisoners to wild beasts and had conversations with the moon—so coddling a beloved horse might seem among the lesser of his various evils. But did he really plan to make Incitatus a consul and only fail to do so because his assassination happened first, as Suetonius would have us believe?

Like much of what we think we know about Caligula, the story of Incitatus’ consulship comes from a writer who lived decades after the maligned emperor’s four-year reign. Historians think that Suetonius and Dio based their scathing accounts of his life on rumors and legends—or simply fabricated sensational tales that turned a not-so-great ruler into an epic villain. Many scholars reject the notion that Caligula terrorized Rome with his unbridled madness, arguing that his fellow lawmakers would likely have whisked him out of power for such conduct. So while Caligula might have had an unusual fondness for his horse, it’s unlikely the emperor went so far as to appoint the stallion.

But what if Caligula actually did plot to create Rome’s first equine official? According to historian Aloys Winterling, author of “Caligula: A Biography” (2011), insanity isn’t the only logical explanation for such behavior. In his book, Winterling makes the case that many of the emperor’s wackier stunts, including his treatment of Incitatus, were designed to insult and humiliate senators and other elites. By bestowing a high public office on his horse, then, Caligula aimed to show his underlings that their work was so meaningless an animal could do it.