Whispered secrets in the chambers of power, the strong-armed roar aimed at the intelligentsia, generals with feral nick names appointed to head the emperor’s legions, and rumored tales of debauchery crowned with Golden Showers. So begins the Age of Trump.
How Fortuna has blessed The Donald, now crowned with the laurel of chief executive of the world’s mightiest republic. A loud bulldozer of a man, thin-skinned and dismissive of those opposed to his logic, Trump is both a product of our times but cloaked in an ancient shadow. It has become fashionable to compare the new president to the classic gallery of modern rogues, chief among them Adolf Hitler. But the image of Trump- as a jefe maximo minted in gold- has more of a Caesarian feel to it, complete with Melania, his own glittering Messalina at his side.
Dismiss the commentaries raving about Trump as a rebirth of Mussolini, instead look to Il Duce’s ancestors in both classical and contemporary sources chronicling the rule of the Caesars to understand the era now dawning in Washington. The history of Rome’s second, and most tyrannical phase, helps light the cavern of our times.
Already the analogy between the United States and Ancient Rome is easily identifiable. Like that long gone, glistening imperium, the U.S. now straddles the globe in both influence and military might. Unmatched in terms of sheer strength, it is still the United States which determines the direction of the world. The Caesars even dealt with the trouble of having a military presence in the restless Middle East.
Down below in the world of the plebs, the average Roman lived in a society not unlike that of modern Americans: Hypnotized by mass entertainment, relishing in scandal. As British historian Tom Holland writes in his recent Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, “Gossip was part of the air citizens breathed. Wherever people gathered, they would pause and swap the rumors that passed for news.” Perhaps a hint that the phenomenon of “fake news” is not as recent as we would like to imagine. Two thousand years before Twitter, in The Satyricon, Petronius laments the death of eloquence, writing “By reducing everything to sound, you concocted this bloated puffpaste of pretty drivel whose only real purpose is the pleasure of punning and the thrill of ambiguity.”
But from Rome the greatest warning to our age is how massive power can take a man and transform him into an omnipotent beast. Modern authors such as Holland and the ancients themselves such as Suetonius, chronicle this bloody opera in the lives of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
In his The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius catalogues profiles priceless in their human insights. Small moments reveal how even future tyrants were once all too human. He records how Tiberius was quite the shy, sentimental sort as a young man. Madly in love with Vipsania, a woman he was forced to leave for a more political marriage, Tiberius is reported to have “accidentally caught sight of Vipsania and followed her with tears in his eyes and intense unhappiness written on his face, precautions were taken against his ever seeing her again.” This is an agony understandable to anyone who has ever experienced unrequited love for an Italian. Yet once on the throne as master of the earth, Tiberius “succumbed to all the vicious passions which he had for a long time tried, not very successfully, to disguise them.”
Caligula, Tiberius’s successor, too began his career as ruler with some modest policies- such as releasing political prisoners- and soon descended into an abyss. Anyone puzzled by the evolution of the 2016 election should read Holland’s general description of the emperor’s connection to the masses: “What they adored most of all was the sheer blaze of his glamour. He might be prematurely balding, and possessed of large feet and his father’s spindly legs, yet Caligula knew how to thrill a crowd.”
Thrill them he did by staging grand spectacles such as chariot races from dawn to dusk, openly cheering a favorite racer. Caligula dismissed the old tradition of the emperor being a distant supporter of the games, instead firmly placing a box for himself above the audience, adorned with the symbols of the gods. “Far from veiling his own supremacy, he delighted in flaunting it,” writes Holland.
Reared in the ruling class, Caligula gleefully mocked it, sometimes with bloody gusto. When he fell ill and a sycophant vowed to fight in the gladiatorial arena if the gods restored Caligula’s health, the emperor promptly made him do it. In another instance, Senators were forced to run alongside the emperor’s chariot in the hot sun, dressed in togas for miles.
Suetonius’s chronicle shows us a man not unlike Trump in being thin-skinned- when two Consuls forgot to announce his birthday, an angry Caligula had them dismissed and left the country for three days. According to Holland, Caligula would later on inform the Senate that they would honor him “whether they liked it or not.” Dissent risked death as Caligula was convinced the masses would back him so long as they were entertained. One is reminded of Trump’s boast that he could shoot someone in public and not lose voters.
Before Trump, the emperor Nero would delight in staging massive spectacles, not least because he considered himself an artist. He insisted on an early version of today’s “reality television.” According to Suetonius, during one performance of Icarus, an actor in wings descended from his flight toward the sun, crashing next to Nero and splattering the ruler with his blood. Nero also participated in a kind of ancient version of American Idol, partaking in a singing competition and of course winning.
If not as a theatrical creature, then Nero does have one clear resonance with Trumpmania: Immigration as a tool to generate fear. Wishing to literally remake Rome, Nero set it on fire. When the results were less than popular, he immediately blamed a new, strange sect known as Christians. “The culprits turned out to be the embodiment of everything that decent citizens had always most feared about immigration: The adherents of a sinister, not to say sociopathic, cult.” It reads as a familiar case of an eastern religion, from Judea, sowing fear and curiosity among the imperial populace.
Those shocked by the recordings of Trump boasting about his sexual escapades would do well in reading Suetonius and Holland’s descriptions of these ancient men who also mingled sex and power. In an age as jaded as ours, the Caesars would find themselves truly at home. Sex for the Caesars seems to have lost even a natural and basic sense of pleasure, and instead transformed into a pure indulgence for its own sake. Too enthralled by debauchery to care much for the state, Tiberius never achieved any significant public works and ignored the imperial territories- at one point ignoring a German invasion of Gaul. Instead the emperor preferred to spend his time cavorting with young boys in his swimming pool or breaking the legs of incense bearers who rejected his advances.
Like the Trump recordings, the Caesars used sex as a physical example of their power. Granted absolute privileges and wealth, they didn’t bother with the concept of consent, because power alone granted them access to a subject’s body. Mastery of the world allowed them to access the darkest recesses of fantasy, with the hypnotic realization that fantasy could become reality.
Yet as deep and dark as the Caesars dove, one common feature in every portrait of these power-fueled men is a fear of the mob. Founded as a Republic, the emperors were aware their subjects still carried in them a democratic tradition. Not a single of the twelve original emperors new a reign without unrest, rioting and immense pressure from below. At times such pressure drove the emperors to wage wars of distraction, change laws or apply an iron fist. But the Roman people were the great shadow over the crimson throne.
How far will the American Republic allow a Trump presidency to go? As with Rome, that question is for the mob to answer. Even in the 21st century, where travel is now a quick affair and technology has made anything possible, we still glorify masculinity and revere the might of our legions in their worship of Mars. Donald Trump in hindsight is the president the immense breadth of American power was always setting the stage for. A figure who embodies power for its own sake. Ruling over a population always chasing “the dream,” he will offer promises dipped in the gold-colored rivers of our richest fantasies.
It is no surprise that moviegoers have found such an affinity for the Ancient Romans since the dawn of the medium. From Peter Ustinov’s mad and singing Nero in Quo Vadis to Russell Crowe’s militaristic hero in Gladiator, it is a history that provides an endless well of inspiration. This is possibly because we recognize something of ourselves in this history.
The reign of the Caesars comes down to us from a distant time. If we look into the mirror of this history, we will see the reflection of our own dark and modern heart.
Alci Rengifo is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.