Trump's presidency has given rise to a depressing parlour gameby Charlotte Higgins / March 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
Illustration by Kate Hazell For classicists, the times we live in have given rise to an entertaining, if depressing, parlour game: which lunatic/depraved/autocratic Roman emperor does Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States of America, most resemble? Caligula might seem an obvious go-to. According to the scurrilous, highly unreliable and yet utterly enjoyable imperial biographer Suetonius, he made his horse a consul—which, frankly, Trump has all-but done, what with the series of donkeys on whom he has bestowed so many high offices. And yet in her book SPQR Mary Beard has offered the compelling, if not entirely convincing, notion that Caligula the depraved was really Caligula the cynical, poking fun at the innate absurdity of his role and of the Roman empire. Perhaps Trump is an arch-satirist, but that would seem to accord to the man too much intelligence and wit. Nero is a possibility. Like Trump, he adored performing—in his case in the gladiatorial arena, the reality television of its day, competing in chariot races, or otherwise singing or playing his lyre. Such was his obsession, writes Suetonius (the Michael Wolff of his day) that he forbade anyone to leave the theatre during his recitals. Women went into labour during these interminable sessions and gave birth. Men faked their own deaths, just to have an excuse to be removed from the scene. Then there was Nero’s Domus Aurea, the “golden house,” a stately pleasure dome of a palace that stretched out luxuriantly over acres of Rome, where the Colosseum now stands. A Trump Tower of its time, perhaps? Though it’s clear from the wall paintings alone that Nero had about 1,000 times more taste than the president. Who else? Hadrian, what with his enthusiasm for walls? It doesn’t quite wash: Hadrian’s wall was not about keeping migrants out, but rather a demonstration of Roman power to keep the natives suitably impressed, which admittedly does have a Trumpian echo. There is Commodus, one of the nastiest of the Roman emperors—he is instantly recognisable when you come across his likeness in museums, since he’s the only emperor whose dreadful chubby baby face stares at you through the actual jaws of a lion. (He identified himself, absurdly, with the mythical hero Hercules, whose emblem was the skin of the Nemean lion he killed.) The American scholar Jenny Davidson has compared Commodus’s weird, sinisterly over-the-top self image and personality-cult with the president’s, pointing to a most peculiar photograph consisting of Trump on a throne while Melania stands beside him dressed in a skimpy toga, and their son Barron sits astride a life-size stuffed-toy lion, the whole image set off by a background of the most disgusting gilded classical pillars. Still, Trump hasn’t yet renamed all the months of the year after himself. There’s always time. Maybe in the end, the honour ought to go to the thuggish, power-crazed, stonkingly wealthy aristocrats of the 1st century BC—Julius Caesar, Clodius, Catiline, take your pick—who cynically positioned themselves as on the side of the masses against the political elite, destroying the Roman republic and its institutions as they fought for power. The civil wars they engendered came to a bloody end only with the appearance of Augustus, who, having brutally removed all potential rivals, cleverly branded his own deeply autocratic rule as a return to traditional Roman values. He could easily have delivered his autobiography, the charmlessly named Res Gestae—“Things Achieved”—as a series of all-caps tweets.