Over the last 2,000 years, the name Nero has become a synonym for a mad emperor. Nero held power in Rome from 54 to 68 CE as the supreme leader of a nation state that prided itself on its republican government. The Romans thought of themselves as some Washingtonians do in the 21st century: as inhabitants of an exemplary capital admired by all the world, a Shining City on Seven Hills, if you will.
It was all an illusion. With Nero’s ascent, the city burned and the republic fell. Nero was the last of the Roman emperors.
Fast forward to 2018. While some American pundits were still depicting Trump as a post-modern phenomenon or a “maturing” commander in chief, or a geopolitical schemer, psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster diagnosed him, not as a lunatic, but as a historically familiar character. Nero, she notes, was a builder of grand palaces “who began rather modestly in his plans, that is, until his participation in theater (his famous fiddling) and other sportsmanship gained him praise, which he appeared to become intoxicated on.”
His madness culminated in self-destruction.
“This eventually unloosed a kind of madness, from paranoia about threats to his life and the loyalty of his followers, to a false confidence in natural resources and excessive spending and sexual debauchery. All of which led him to the moment he burns down Rome as the spectacle of all spectacles. Trump, in his bizarre offhand comments, has touched on every one of these conceits.”
Hence the saying, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.”
Nero the Nutty
The fiddle had not been invented in the first century CE, replies one triumphant Trump supporter on Quora; the comparison is a liberal media myth, he proclaims.
Armstrong Williams (the Omarosa Manigault of Ronald Reagan’s presidency) senses a “Deep State” plot.
(The historical consensus is that Nero probably did party while Rome burned. Whether or not he plucked a lyre as the flames climbed higher was debated hotly by toga-clad talking heads on the Rachel Maddow Show.)
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, senses a precedent. He quotes the historian Suetonius (the Ron Suskind of the Roman Empire; that is to say, a popular biographer of great men of the past). Twenty years after Nero’s death, Suetonius reported that Nero had a “longing for immortality and undying fame, though it was ill-regulated.”
Sound like Trump?
Under the weight of such history, Remnick waxes doleful about the American predicament: “Future scholars will sift through Trump’s digital proclamations the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome—to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions, undo the collective nervous system of a country, and degrade the whole of public life.”
Caligula the Vile
Other historically minded pundits compare Trump to Caligula, who ruled as emperor two decades before Nero. From 37 to 41 CE, Caligula wielded power as a self-conscious populist. He didn’t kill the Roman empire, but he did disrupt it.
British historian Tom Holland notes that Caligula, upon taking power, ruled exactly the opposite of his predecessors. Emperors like Augustus and Tiberius (think George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively) relied on the Roman Senate to build consensus among the aristocratic clans who had long ruled the city/state.
“Caligula had no interest in, no stake in the traditional values of Rome,” Holland says. “He despised them. And he despised them because he saw them as entrenching the prestige and status of the aristocracy.”
“Caligula wanted to rule as an autocrat and he was contemptuous of the pretense that the senate had any power at all. What he did was to trample the dignity of the senatorial elite into the dirt and what he discovered in doing that was that the mass of the Roman people really enjoyed it.”
The parallels with Trump’s treatment of the Republican and Clintonian establishments are obvious.
Holland concludes: “Trump has said and done things that are utterly shocking by the standards of traditional political morality, but far from making him unpopular with the masses there is a sense in which he has become the toast of the people.”
In a Guardian piece, Thomas Frank frets that comparisons to Nero and Caligula are a self-indulgent exercise in futility. The man from Kansas has no patience for those who wail about history.
In my opinion, indulging in historical speculation is a not entirely futile way of warding off feelings of apathy and alcoholism induced by the non-zero chance that my life will end in a thermonuclear fireball triggered by Kim Jong-un’s little button.
If nothing else, history offers consolation. So we have a nutjob king? We ain’t the first.
In the end, the Nero v. Caligula bakeoff is a very close contest, which comes down to one story, at least for me. Trump may or may not be clinically mad (I don’t necessarily buy those diagnoses from a distance), but Nero acted nuttily in a way that Trump has not, at least not yet. Nero truly did burn down Rome. Trump hasn’t burned down Washington, if only because his hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue is making a lot more money than expected.
Caligula, on the other hand, was shameless and vile in a way that is now familiar. Before becoming emperor, Caligula staged pornographic spectacles. (Indeed, his life story was turned into a porn movie.) If you credit the Steele dossier and its all-too-believable story of Trump cavorting with creative Russian sex workers at the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow, that’s what our emperor did, too.
So I vote Caligula. How do you vote?