How Suetonius would have loved Mr. Trump! As biographer of the Roman emperors, Suetonius had a sharp eye for the matching and mismatching of personal character with the exercise of supreme political power. Many of us today, both inside and outside the USA, may feel that we are entering uncharted territory when someone at an advanced age, wholly lacking in governmental or military experience, is unexpectedly elevated to the position of head of state and commander in chief of the most powerful nation on earth. This would not have fazed Suetonius, who could remind the world that nothing is quite as new as it seems. Claudius, emperor for thirteen years between 41 and 54 AD was in the same situation. True, Donald was elected by a type of democratic process whereas Claudius was discovered hiding behind the curtains after the previous emperor was assassinated and, as a result of what Suetonius calls a freak accident, was hailed by the soldiers as their leader. It just goes to show that neither system is foolproof.
The parallels do not stop there. Both Claudius and Donald were able to seize the chance to take advantage of constitutional systems that suffer from the same basic flaw in that they grant too much power to the head of state. Both were able to bypass the established governing elite and appoint their own favourites to key positions in the new administration. In Claudius’ case, these were imperial freedmen, from the ex-slave class, who quickly turned themselves into billionaires. No less than Donald, Claudius was dogged by scandal around his womanising, and his wives – of whom he went through four. Donald’s score so far is just three, and he has a slightly better claim to the moral high ground since he has not executed any of them (as Claudius did Messalina), nor has he been accused of incest (as Claudius was after marrying Agrippina, his niece). In fact the more one pursues the comparison the better Donald starts to look.
In appearance, Donald has come in for extensive mockery, especially in the hair department. But it has to be admitted that compared to Claudius he is a fine physical specimen. According to Suetonius, Claudius’ head wobbled, his knees gave way as he walked, he slobbered from the mouth and had a chronic runny nose. His own mother called him a monster left unfinished by Nature and she came up with the saying, for whenever someone did something especially stupid, “He’s an even bigger idiot than my son Claudius”. He was famously impulsive and inconsistent in his decisions and public pronouncements. In one day he made twenty proclamations, executive orders we might call them, including “The best cure to be used for snakebite is juice of the yew tree”. His most celebrated order was the one that added three new letters to the alphabet. It seems he was dissuaded with difficulty from introducing a public health provision to encourage farting at the dinner table, since he had been persuaded that excessive restraint could have fatal consequences. It is no surprise, perhaps, that both Claudius and Donald were taken up as a perfect subject for comedians. Seneca, the leading philosopher and author of the age, wrote the classic satire, The Pumpkinification of Claudius, still amusing today; Donald’s critics in the Arts community are equally vociferous and unforgiving.
The Trump administration seems to have embarked on a collision course with the judiciary. Claudius also had a reputation for being idiosyncratic in his interpretations of the law, but he had the advantage of the unclear separation of powers in the Roman constitution. He took it upon himself to sit as a judge, in which role he was notoriously unfair, often reaching his decision after listening to only one side of the case. He needed to be able to claim some sort of military victory to boost his credibility with the army and the general populace. He filled this public relations vacuum by the simple expedient of ordering the army to invade Britain. This is one model of self-validation we all hope Donald is too intelligent to follow. Residents of small remote island nations, though, might justifiably feel a little nervous.
Modern historians have sought to overturn Suetonius’ picture of Claudius as one that reflects the hostility of the Roman senatorial class. They point out that some of Claudius’ innovations in imperial administrative processes seem to have been salutary, and were unpopular only with the people who were sidelined from positions of privilege. It is argued that the caricature of the emperor as a fool reflects the propaganda of his political enemies and serves to validate the different policies of his successors in the imperial palace. Is there any possibility that history will judge Mr. Trump better than his contemporary critics have judged him?
In two respects Claudius was conspicuously unlike Trump. First, he was actually a very educated man. His exclusion from political office in early life had left him free to pursue his own intellectual passions. His greatest love was of history, particularly the very early history of Rome and of the Etruscans, and he wrote a number of books on historical subjects, plus a book on Cicero and an autobiography. One of the advantages of being emperor was that everyone had to listen to your speeches, and he seems to have delighted in making very long ones full of learned digressions on his favourite historical topics – one more reason for the senators to dislike him. The other aspect of his rule that contrasts with that of Trump was his policy on foreigners and immigrants. Claudius was a forceful advocate for admitting non-Italians to citizenship and to greater political representation. A speech survives in which he spells out the benefits for Rome in extending senatorial representation to Gauls. He points out that according to tradition Rome was founded by refugees and that its success as a society, in contrast to others that had failed, was due its extension of citizenship rights to other peoples. He defines the “Roman way” as essentially non-discriminatory and inclusive.
The Romans (unfortunately or fortunately) did not have Twitter. It has been observed that they might have taken to it enthusiastically, or – one might say – with a veritable Trumpian aptitude, since it is possible in Latin to compress a lot more meaning into fewer words than can be achieved in modern languages. Claudius was not the most succinct of ancient Romans, but even he was capable of coming out with some eminently tweetable comments on his experiences. During a debate in the senate on the regulation of butcher shops and wine outlets he exclaimed “I ask you, who could live without snacking?” Even his last words before he died, as reported by Seneca, should have been tweeted: “Bugger me. I think I just shat myself”. It’s better in the Latin: vae me, puto concacavi me. Let’s hope Donald can avoid the epitaph Seneca then sarcastically suggests for Claudius:
omnia certe concacavit
(“He certainly shat on everything else”)
Marcus Wilson is an Associate Professor in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in Roman history.