ROME—Donald Trump definitely is not the right model for Julius Caesar, stabbed to death by his beloved Brutus, the envious Casca, and others in the Bard of Avon’s classic play performed this year in modern dress at New York City’s annual Shakespeare in the Park festival.
Delta Airlines and Bank of America pulled their funding for the event after a Twitterstorm seized on the idea that this was all a plot against POTUS, and maybe even an incitement to violence.
Presumably none of those people tweeting away, including Donald Trump Jr., are familiar with the play, since Caesar is in essence its hero, and the assassins are the villains who defend the republic with murder—and thereby seal its doom.
But let’s not defend the producer and director too strongly. The choice to apparel Shakespeare’s Caesar as the GOP’s Trump—complete with blond wig, the too-long red tie, and the wife with the Slavic accent—is, in fact, an offense against history.
Trump has almost nothing in common with the Roman general who conquered Gaul, wrote a classic book about his campaign, and returned to Rome with his army to be proclaimed emperor.
Can anyone imagine that POTUS—who has no military experience or acumen, who can barely write coherent tweets, and who was as surprised as anyone else when he came to office—is in any respect a modern Julius Caesar?
That said, there are other caesars, successors to Julius and Augustus, whose examples might give us perspective on our modern-day Trumpus. And ever since he emerged as a serious contender for the presidency last year, pundits have been citing parallels with toga-clad tyrants.
One of the most articulate essays was by British art critic Jonathan Jones writing in The Guardian in January. Trump may not be “exactly” like a particular Roman emperor, he said, but “he is not exactly like a normal democratically elected leader either.”
“The problem lies in defining exactly what Trump is, exactly how he is likely to act and how dangerous he will prove to democracy,” wrote Jones. “This is where Roman art and history can help. We lack diversity in our examples of tyrants. Modern history has given us a stark, black and white contrast between totalitarianism and democracy. When something doesn’t fit into our democratic norms we reach for comparisons with Hitler, and when that doesn’t work we give up. Our historical memory is too short and leaves us without any analogies for someone as strange as Trump.”
With this in mind, one turns to the classics for insight, particularly to Suetonius, author of The Twelve Caesars, brilliantly translated by Robert Graves, the poet, novelist, and author of I, Claudius.
Of course, it’s necessary to pick one’s way delicately past the extraordinary violence and decadence of the early Roman empire. Not in Trump’s wildest dreams, or his critics’ wildest nightmares, could his performance as president be likened to the murderous, incestuous, sadistic reign of the paranoid caesars who succeeded Julius and Augustus.
But there are little tidbits.
Suetonius devotes several pages to the good things that Caligula tried to achieve, then writes one of the more abrupt transitions in classical literature: “So much for the Emperor; the rest of this history must deal with the Monster.”
As Caligula grew more insane—indulging his incestuous lust for his relatives, murdering anyone who irritated him, making his favorite racehorse a senator—he often quoted the axiom: “Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.”
But, no, young Caligula, killed before he was 30, is not quite the right analogy.
“Trump, in nature, has the potential to be as bad as some of the worst emperors,” says Matthew Kneale, a long-time resident of Italy and author of eight books including the forthcoming Rome: A History in Seven Sackings. “He wouldn’t be as bad as Emperor Caligula, who was an actual schizophrenic, but I would say he is a lot worse than many of them.”
Several of the worst emperors wanted to believe they were great entertainers. Indeed, they were obsessed with what today would be called ratings. And the most notorious, on that score, was Nero.
“He had the desire to be appreciated that Trump has,” says Kneale. “He didn’t have Twitter, but nevertheless he was very keen to perform and to be worshipped.”
Nero famously imported audiences from Egypt who’d been specially trained to applaud, some humming their approval, some clapping with hollowed hands, and some flat-handed.
The scholarly JStor blog drew a parallel in February between Trump’s visit to CIA headquarters with his own applause section and Nero’s claque of clappers: “a group of hired cheerleaders whose job is to spark enthusiasm and get the applause rolling, a sort of living, breathing laugh track.”
When Nero sang and played the lyre, “he had all the gates closed so even pregnant women giving birth couldn’t leave,” according to Kneale.
Nero also torched much of Rome because he didn’t like the way it looked, but that seems an unlikely precedent for the president.
“He may be more like Domitian,” said Kneale. “He had that anger at any slight, he never forgave a grudge.”
And, sure enough, there are some interesting parallels (putting aside all the people Domitian had torn apart by dogs and murdered in other savage ways). “He restored a great many important buildings,” Suetonius tells us, “but allowed no names to be inscribed on them, except his own.”
The emperor also was obsessed with his appearance. “Cannot you see that I, too, have a tall and beautiful person?” he wrote in a manual called “Care of the Hair.”
Domitian hated leakers, saying, “An Emperor who does not punish informers encourages them.” When he was offended by something published by one Hermogenes of Tarsus, he not only killed the author but had the slaves who copied the work crucified. His favored means of extracting confessions—torture that worked, by his lights—was “scorching his prisoners’ genitals.”
According to Suetonius, Domitian was not only cruel but cunning. “He summoned a Palace steward to his bedroom, invited him to join him on his couch, made him feel perfectly secure and happy, condescended to share a dinner with him—yet had him crucified on the following day!”
Any parallel with the way Trump treated former FBI Director James Comey is, of course, purely coincidental.
Barbie Latza Nadeau reported from Rome; Christopher Dickey reported from Paris.