My essay on the echoes of Caligula that surfaced in the election of Donald Trump, which appeared in the on-line journal Scoundrel Time.
Reconstruction of the original painted marble bust of the emperor Caligula, in the
Istanbul Archaeological Museum. On loan by the Glyptotek in Munich. Photo: Giovanni Dall’Orto
An arrogant, narcissistic, blond serial rapist attains the highest office in the land, abuses his power, and offends everyone personally: this is the subject of my newest novel, Quid Pro Quo, a behind-the-scenes look at the assassination of Caligula, the third Emperor of ancient Rome. It is impossible to ignore the many echoes of Caligula’s story that played out in the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump, a man whom the 2nd century historian Suetonius might have been describing when he wrote of Caligula, “there was nothing in his own character which he admired and approved more highly than…his shameless impudence.”
Here are a few more Caligulan themes that have surfaced in the DJT ascendency:
“All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me–consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.” –From Trump: How to Get Rich (2004) by DJT.
It is tempting to call Caligula a narcissist, but unlike with most narcissists, the world really did revolve around him. By the time Caligula ascended in 37 CE, the Roman Empire encompassed much of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. He thus had unlimited power over huge swathes of the globe.
Unlike the first emperor, Augustus–who used his power to enact wide-ranging political restructuring and legal revisions; changed the face of the city with splendid public spaces; and saw to the prevention of fires, floods, and famines– Caligula didn’t have much on his mind other than his own particular mood at the time. He was extremely sensitive about how he was perceived, spoken about, and treated. Caligula ordered that important statues of various deities have their heads cut off to be replaced with heads of his own. He erected a life-sized gold statue of himself in a temple in Rome, and ordered that the statue be dressed in clothing that matched the outfit he himself was wearing each day. When statues of him were defaced, he ordered a unit of the Praetorian Guard to be added in order to protect them.
“I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.” –DJT speech in Washington DC, September 2015.
Unlike his predecessor, Tiberius, who became emperor at the age of 56 after a long career in the Army and in public office, Caligula became emperor at the age of 24 with no practical experience in any area of life. “Caligula,” meaning “Little Boot,” was the nickname he received when his mother dressed him up in a soldier’s outfit and boots and paraded him around an army camp at the age of 2; this was pretty much the limit of Caligula’s military expertise. Yet he decided that Britain needed to be conquered, and sent his legions out on a confused, ill-planned expedition into the English Channel. When an invasion proved impossible, he ordered his soldiers to gather seashells to bring back to Rome for a parade to boast of his conquest.
- Populist rhetoric and the craven subservience of the Establishment
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth… The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country… That all changes starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment.” –DJT, inaugural address, January 20, 2017.
Caligula declared his enmity to the Senate early on, when he returned direct elections to the people of Rome. The Senate handled this and other bald moves to curtail their power by abasing itself with fulsome praise and tributes to the Emperor. Wiser senators noticed that Caligula was never satisfied with the honors that they voted him: either the honor was too small, implying that he was not worthy of something greater, or he was outraged that the Senate had the power to grant him any honor at all. From time to time, he tossed coins from his balcony down to his subjects below, although the historian Cassius Dio, writing in the late 2nd century, pointed out that Caligula mixed in bits of iron with the currency.
“I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” –DJT, Republican presidential debate, Manchester, N.H., Feb. 6, 2016.
Although violence was omnipresent in ancient Rome, from gladiatorial contests to the constant physical abuse of slaves, animals, and children, Caligula raised the bar on spiteful cruelty. Seneca the Younger, a popular writer in Caligula’s Court, reported that the Emperor once forced a nobleman to watch his son’s execution, and then insisted that he attend a banquet and sit by his side. He had another knight stripped and flogged in front of spectators; when the man’s family began crying, he had them put in a dog cage to watch on all fours. He accused a slave of stealing something at a party and demanded that his hands be cut off and hung around his neck and that he walk around displaying a placard detailing the crime he committed, written in his own blood. Even when Caligula wanted someone executed, he insisted that it be done slowly, and with great pain. “Strike him so that he feels he is dying!” he told his Praetorian Guards.
- Comfort with negative attention
“Good publicity is preferable to bad, but from a bottom-line perspective, bad publicity is sometimes better than no publicity at all. Controversy, in short, sells.” –From Trump: The Art of the Deal (1987) by DJT.
According to Suetonius, Caligula said, “Let them hate me, so they but fear me.”
- Sexual misconduct, promiscuity, and violence
“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful women, I just start kissing them, it’s like a magnet. You know when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” –DJT, talking to the host of Access Hollywood in 2005.
In the first year of his reign, Caligula attended a high-society wedding, liked the look of the bride, and took the groom’s place in the ceremony, tossing him a priesthood as a consolation prize. At official events, Caligula frequently examined the guests as they arrived at the Palace, and would choose one of the women for himself. He would invite her upstairs to his chamber to “view his cameo glassware,” have sex with her, with or without her consent, and then return to the party. At the banquet later on, he would announce to the party guests–including the woman’s husband, parents and friends–how she had performed in bed.
The 1st century historian Flavius Josephus reports that Caligula repeatedly teased his bodyguards mercilessly for being unmanly. Suetonius and Cassius Dio accuse him of having incestuous relationships with all three of his sisters, as well as dalliances with various gladiators, actors, comedians, and at least one of his brothers-in-law. However the historian Anthony A. Barrett, author of Caligula: The Corruption of Power, points out that, in ancient Rome, accusations of sexual misconduct often hid political conspiracy, especially when the imperial family was involved.
- Motivated by revenge
“My motto is: Always get even. When somebody screws you, screw them back in spades.” –From Think BIG and Kick Ass in Business and Life (2007) by DJT.
Caligula’s ego was so fragile that if he saw someone else enjoying attention or prestige–successful generals, advocates pleading their clients’ cases with wit, or writers enjoying public acclaim–he would call for their execution. According to Suetonius, Caligula had King Ptolemy of Mauretania executed because he roused general interest when making an entrance at the theater in a splendid purple cloak.
As Caligula’s paranoia flowered unchecked, the Court grew smaller and smaller. During his first year as emperor, he forced his father-in-law, his adopted brother, the Commander of the Praetorian Guards, and the Commander’s wife to commit suicide, on the pretense that they were conspiring against him. Bodies began to pile up as the Emperor had various senators and knights executed, perhaps without trials–the sources are unclear on this. He banished his sisters into exile on barren islands in the Mediterranean and had his brother-in-law and former lover executed.
“I alone can fix it.” –DJT, acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican Convention.
The humiliation and violence with which Caligula treated his family, household, and Court soon became his undoing when–spoiler alert!–his bodyguards finally had had enough of his taunting and stabbed him at the theater. The scene turned into a bloody free-for-all as members of Court and the Senate, all of whom he had offended personally over the years, jumped on top of him to take turns abusing his dead body.
It is tempting to draw parallels between the Little Boot and the Donald. Of course, reading about an ancient tyrant strutting, thieving, and beheading perceived enemies is entertaining in a way that reading about a contemporary bully stoking his ego, inciting violence, and sowing chaos on a world stage just cannot be.
Historians are quick to remind us that all we know about Caligula was written by the men he had harmed most, or the descendants of those he had stripped of all power. It is as if all we knew about Donald Trump were written by Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and the remaining survivors of the Boeing Corporation.
However, if his story of absolute corruption is even partially true, Caligula did untold damage to the state, institutions, and people of Rome. Yet it is important to recall that, although they surely must have suffered at the hands of this unstable tyrant, the people of Rome did not elect their emperors, and they did not vote for Caligula.
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