President Donald Trump’s medical report has elicited no shortage of raised eyebrows this week. Multiple outlets have questioned whether or not the president’s doctor was entirely truthful about his weight, with more than one news outlet posting comparisons between Trump and famous athletes with similar stats. The question is quite clearly whether or not the report understates the president’s weight, but even if it does, he wouldn’t be the first politically powerful man to be ribbed by the public for his weight.
Two hundred years ago George, the Prince Regent of Britain, who (like Trump) weighed around 240 pounds for most of his life, was caricatured in the press as the most obese man in the country. The future George IV was so anxious about his reputation that he apparently had himself weighed in secret at the wine merchant’s Berry Brothers and Rudd. His efforts to conceal his true size were offset by his eating habits; a typical breakfast for the prince included several steaks, two pigeons, and 12 egg yolks baked in a pie accompanied by white wine, champagne, port, and brandy. There’s no telling if, like Trump, George preferred his steaks well done.
The phenomenon of portly monarchs is not only a modern one. The Bible mentions one Eglon, King of Moab (present day Jordan). Eglon was a successful ruler who conquered the Israelite tribes in the 12th century BCE. Apparently “Eglon was a very fat man” (Judges 3:17). When Ehud, an Israelite assassin, killed Eglon he had trouble extracting his sword from Eglon’s belly because “the fat closed over the blade.” In trying to get it out Ehud must have punctured Eglon’s bowel because the “dirt” came out of his body. It took some time for Eglon’s servants to notice that something was amiss; when they saw that the doors to the royal chamber were closed they assumed the king was relieving himself. Neither the stench nor the excessive wait seemed to alarm them. They waited so long that Ehud was able to escape, rally an army, and kill ten thousand Moabites.
The Roman emperor Vitellius is described by historians as an obese glutton. According to Suetonius, author of Lives of the Twelve Caesars, he turned breakfast into a banquet and had a “bottomless gullet.” One question we might have here is, how fat is fat in the ancient world? After, all cars, delivery services, elevators, and other modern technologies enable us to be slothful. When a ruler is ridiculed for his or her weight, what exactly do they mean?
The Roman-era physician Galen provided us with some hints when he divided the overweight into three groups; the fat, overweight, and obese (polysarkos, much-fleshed). Galen defined the obese as those who had “exceeding fat,” would sweat while walking; had trouble reaching a table while sitting because of the size of their stomach; has difficulty breathing; and is unable to clean themselves. All of which suggests that the Romans had the potential to get quite large. For the wealthy and powerful it was easier to become overweight; they had easier access to food and took less exercise than the average person.
For some rulers, their size became both their calling card and a moral failing; Charles the Fat (881-888 CE), the great-grandson of Charlemagne and ruler of (most of) modern-day France, Germany and Italy had a reputation for lethargy and spinelessness. When Vikings made incursions into northwestern France he paid them off rather than fight them. His perceived incompetence and cowardice probably contributed to his nickname, which was not used while he was alive. He is first called carolus crassus (Charles the Fat) in a twelfth century annal, but the title has stuck.
In the case of some monarchs their size was the subject of political propaganda. Itey, the queen of Punt in East Africa, was ridiculed by her Egyptian neighbors for her girth. Egyptian all carvings from Deir-el-Bahri record an encounter between the queen and the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut ca. 1490 BCE. Itey is depicted as overweight and much larger than her husband. Underneath the image of an accompanying donkey the Egyptians had inscribed, “This donkey had to carry the queen.” Given the political importance of the visit in establishing the authority of Hatshepsut’s authority, we should take these images with a grain of salt.
The Egyptians may have enjoyed mocking the size of their political rivals, but their chickens came home to roost in the form of Farouk, the last king of Egypt. While mostly a figurehead, the rotund Farouk wildly overspent and was eventually overthrown by a military coup in 1952. Farouk did not only figuratively steal from his own people, however, he is best known as a skilled petty thief who lifted items of value while on State visits. In 1943, he stole a valuable pocket watch from Winston Churchill. After being deposed Farouk spent the rest of his life in exile and died, weighing 300 pounds, at the age of 45.
Of course towards the end of their lives, many rulers started to pile on the pounds: Queen Victoria famously and quite understandably gained weight after the death of her husband in 1861. A pair of XL underwear that sold at auction in 2013 for £3,675 revealed that the five foot queen’s waist had grown to 37 inches. Henry VIII too grew horizontally in the later years of his life. Though slim and athletic in his youth, a wound received during a jousting match during his forties never properly healed and left him largely incapacitated. By the time of his death his waist was 52 inches and he had to be winched onto his horse.
By comparison, President Trump looks positively sprightly.