Decline and fall: what Donald Trump can learn from the Roman emperors

Natalie Haynes
·9-min read
<span>Photograph: Ronald Grant</span>
Photograph: Ronald Grant

A lot of men have probably wished for four more years. A little under that time after assuming absolute power, Gaius Caesar was dead, assassinated by the men who were paid to protect him. We more usually know him as Caligula: a man who revealed himself to be every kind of monster soon after becoming emperor of Rome.

It probably wasn’t his depravity that did for Caligula, however: if our sources are to be believed, sexual deviance was pretty much par for Roman emperors. Abusing so much power must have been irresistible. Perhaps the reasoning was that when you’re a star, they let you do it. The real problem for the men surrounding him was his unpredictability. At the time of his death, he was pondering giving high political office to Incitatus, his favourite horse.

As the imperial biographer Suetonius tells us, Caligula was fond of teasing the chief of the Praetorian guard, a man named Cassius Chaerea. And Chaerea eventually bit back, stabbing Gaius in the neck. Other guards piled in and Gaius was soon dead of multiple stab wounds. More bodyguards then appeared on the scene and killed some of the assassins and various innocent bystanders. When an autocrat goes down, it seems, the damage can be indiscriminate.

Caligula's habit of issuing deceitful communications meant many people didn’t believe it when his death was announced

Intriguingly, the emperor’s habit of issuing erratic and deceitful communications meant that many people didn’t believe it when the news of his death was announced. They thought it must be a story Caligula had released himself, to find out what people thought of him. The assumption of falsehood had been embedded into Roman society in a surprisingly short time: you could judge the condition of the times from this, Suetonius adds, rather wearily.

The last few weeks in US politics have looked, to a classicist on the other side of the Atlantic, like an unnervingly familiar story wearing golfing clothes instead of a toga. How do you remove the most powerful man in the world from the position that bestows that power on him if he doesn’t want to lose it? The US constitution is full of checks and balances to make sure a president isn’t a king and that his power has limits. But that is how the Roman principate began too.

The Romans were at least as averse to the idea of kings as were the founding fathers, escaping the clutches of mad King George. They considered the very notion of kings to be suspect, which is why they had a proud republic. But during the first century BC, the fissures in their systems of governance became clear: if a power structure is pyramidal, you end up with a lot of people believing they have a right to the top job, because they’re as qualified as the next guy who happens to get it. Stable government collapsed into civil war: Julius Caesar grabbed power but was seen as a dictator, veering into dangerously king-like territory. The Ides of March (44BC) saw him stabbed to death on the steps of a theatre.

Caesar’s successor, Augustus, was exactly as ambitious as his adoptive father. But he was a great deal more cunning about his marketing. Rather than be seen to be accruing more and more power, Augustus presented himself as holding no unprecedented power: he merely held all available political posts at once. He was, so the saying went, primus inter pares – first among equals. And the republic had morphed into an empire.

Augustus was a popular man and a popular emperor. But not every emperor was so lucky. And when Caligula took on the role in AD37, our sources suggest things went from bad to worse. “Oderint dum metuant,” Suetonius quotes him as saying: Let them hate me, as long as they fear me. Caligula was killed because there was no other way of removing him from power. Whereas we can and do vote out our unwanted leaders today. But what happens when someone refuses to acknowledge that their popular support has ebbed away? When they have lost the votes they relied on to stay in power but fail to make way for their replacement? What is the difference then between an elected president and an unelected dictator?

US President Donald Trump depicted as emperor Nero at a carnival in Germany
Donald Trump depicted as emperor Nero at a carnival in Mainz Germany. Photograph: Michael Probst/AP

Nero was a teenager when he became emperor in AD54 but his grip on power slipped away during the 60s as one province after another rebelled. Chaos reigned in Britain, France, Spain. Nero behaved as any demented, overindulged autocrat might: desperately upset and angry at the rejection he was experiencing he nonetheless, as Suetonius tells us, made no effort to change his luxurious and lazy lifestyle. Suetonius then describes him frantically coming up with one horrifying plan after another.

One White House official said they intended to set so many fires it would be hard for the Biden administration to put them all out. Nero would surely have sympathised.

His first idea was to order the execution of military and provincial leaders, claiming that they were all conspiring against him. Then he decided he should have every Gaul who lived in Rome executed: demonising one group according to race or nationality is not new. He went on to consider turning his army loose in Gaul, poisoning Rome’s whole senate at a banquet, or simply setting the city on fire. But before the fire should be lit, he wanted to release wild animals into the streets, to make it more difficult to put it out.

Trump may not be murderous, but he seems in a destructive mood. “All he’s got now is breaking stuff,” Mary Trump said of her uncle after he lost the recent election. One White House official told CNN that they intended to set so many fires it would be hard for the Biden administration to put them all out. Nero would surely have sympathised.

Nero ditched his mad schemes, not because he had an attack of conscience, but because he despaired of being able to carry them out. He tried to come up with a military strategy, but couldn’t drum up sufficient funds with an emergency tax. A modern echo of this might be mailing your supporters in increasingly impatient tones to ask them to fund your lawsuits against the electoral process.

But it is in the description of Nero’s final hours that Suetonius captures the essence of falling from autocratic power into powerlessness. Nero knows his time is up and has already acquired poison. He thought about making a public speech and apologising for his earlier behaviour, but he was too afraid to make the journey to the Forum to deliver it, in case the people tore him apart. Do we see the same fear in the White House, where the president seems to be in hiding, his public engagements all but over?

Nero woke in the middle of the night and tried to call his bodyguards, but they had all abandoned him. He sent for his friends but none replied. He tried each door in his palace but all were locked and no one answered. He went back to his own room and found someone had removed his box of poison and even his bedding. He begged for a gladiator to come and kill him but even that wish went unanswered. It is a desperate scene: the pathos undeniable.

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Nero eventually managed to leave the palace in the company of a few slaves: were they loyal to him in spite of everything? Or just too afraid to run away? He wept as he prepared to take his own life, saying “qualis artifex pereo” – “What an artist! But still I die.” His delusions of himself as a great performer survived right to the last. This is in spite of tales of women pretending to go into labour and men pretending to be dead so they could be carried out of the theatre when Nero was singing.

We have no way of knowing the accuracy of this story. Suetonius worked in the imperial archives under the emperor Hadrian, so he had access to records that most writers did not. But he was writing decades after the events (he was probably born in AD69, the year after Nero’s death). Still, there is an emotional truth to his account. We feel the sense of desperation and solitude in those moments of Nero searching his palace for the men who used to jump to obey him, for the friends who have clearly taken advantage of his wealth and power but felt no loyalty to him. Ultimately, an autocrat can have no real friends, no real loyalty. Because he has too much power, his relationships are necessarily transactional: everyone around him is there because they want something.

I raised the question about what difference there is between an elected president and an unelected dictator, if the president refuses to step down when his time has come. In first century Rome, the answer is almost always an unnatural death: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero were all killed, or forced to kill themselves. This certainly resolves the issue of that particular dictator, but it doesn’t solve the problem of a system which allowed and enabled them. All of these emperors had men (and sometimes women) who helped them to become the monsters our sources claim they were.

One last emperor for you: Domitian, who became emperor in AD81. Domitian was the scourge of the senatorial – political – class. He established his authority by setting himself against the political elite, of which he was (of course) the most successful element. His mercurial cruelty was legendary: Suetonius tells us he used to sit alone in his office for hours at a time, stabbing flies with a pen. He was much mocked for his baldness, about which he was deeply sensitive. He was notoriously lustful (too much libido, says Suetonius, crisply). He didn’t play golf, although he was a keen archer. He was eventually assassinated in AD96, by a conspiracy of his friends and closest freedmen. There may be other ways to bring down a leader today, but the greatest threat to one who disdains the rule of law is – and perhaps always has been – those closest to him.