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David Remnick, in this piece for the New Yorker, is keen for us to consider the following hypothesis: “Chaotic, corrupt, incurious, infantile, grandiose, and obsessed with gaudy real estate, Donald Trump is of a Neronic temperament”.
Portrayals of the Roman Emperors of the Imperial period, and of Caligula and Nero in particular, are studies in self-abasement, folly, corruption, and personal excess, both in their ancient form (Suetonius and Tacitus) and more recently (‘I Claudius’ by Robert Graves and its enormously successful television adaptation).
And there are some compelling reasons for comparison with our very own boy-child-god-king-emperor: Donald Trump.
Caligula and Nero had incestuous relationships with close female relatives: Caligula slept with his sisters; Nero with his own Mother. Trump leers over his own daughter: “I’ve said if Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her” and “She’s so smart, so talented, and what a rack”.
Indeed, I have argued for Reaction that Woolf’s insider account of the Trump Presidency ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’ gives us just such a picture, with Steve Bannon posing as a latter-day Seneca to a latter-day Nero, and Trump himself presiding over a Roman Imperial court: “its rulers blinded by lust and desire, and their dependents jostling for favour, influence and power”.
But when we laugh at Trump and deride his proclivities and neuroses, we miss the real story. Although it’s great fun to make idle comparisons between the corrupted personalities of our own time and those from the past, there is also a serious case that Trump really is like Nero, which is precisely what makes him so dangerous. Cambridge University’s Professor David Runciman warns us, in his lecture ‘How Democracy Ends’ (available on his excellent podcast, Talking Politics), about the ways populist leaders ‘hollow out’ democracy.
Runciman fears “not that we will cease to trust in democracy … but that we will carry on trusting in it long after it has ceased to work”.
He continues: “What populism is, is not a direct assault on democracy. Populists do not say that democracy does not work … they say it has been stolen from us and we are going to take it back … We’re going to give you your democracy back. These people are not attacking democracy but they could well be killing it.”
Populism, and everything that comes in its wake, aspires to reclaim democracy from elite management: the cult of personality; the invocation of a unified ‘will’ of the people; the rubbishing of a free press – these are all framed as ‘real’ democracy. Corbyn’s Momentum affects to return democracy to an organic state, linking the emotions of the populace directly to the charisma of its leader. And it sort of looks like democracy, but not quite. The optics shift just a bit, making it harder to tell who is in charge, who elects whom, who really holds power.
And this is just what Nero did; and just what Trump does.
Neronian literature is full of dark prophecies and apocalyptic imagery. Writers of the time, like Seneca, Tacitus and Petronius, are obsessed with symbolic reversal, broken mirrors, and a pervasive sense of breakdown: in Neronian Rome, it was hard to tell what was true and what was false. These themes speak directly to modern anxieties about ‘fake’ news and a culture of fakery where entertainment and politics are inseparable.
One of the most important ways in which the early Roman emperors balanced the competing demands of the aristocratic elite and the common people was the holding of public banquets.
Augustus held regular such ‘gala dinners’, and he arranged the seating plan according to status and rank. Justin Goddard, a historian of the Imperial period, writes: “the guests were separated by location as well as by fare: the senate and the emperor dined on the Capitol, the rest of the people elsewhere.”
Suetonius, in his ‘Lives’ – historical accounts of the vices and virtues of each emperor – notes that, during Domitian’s reign, fifty years after Nero, food was distributed along lines of wealth and power: “In the course of one of his shows in celebration of the feast of the Seven Hills [Domitian] gave a plentiful banquet, distributing large baskets of victuals to the senate and knights, and smaller ones to the commons.”
Extravagant public banquets were a tool to show the emperor’s respect for the senatorial elite. These regular feasts helped to give clarity to the relationship between emperor, populace and the Senate. Suetonius, himself a member of the aristocratic equestrian order, praises ‘good’ emperors who used public banquets to give a sense of stability to the functioning of power.
For Nero, banquets were an opportunity to blur the distinctions between public and private morality, and to appeal directly to the people, ignoring the claims of the aristocratic governing elite.
He actively courted the populace, and ignored the aristocratic elite who had run Rome for hundreds of years.
Tacitus describes how “Nero, to win credit for himself of enjoying nothing so much as the capital, prepared banquets in the public places, and used the whole city, so to say, as his private house”. Notoriously, Nero organised a pleasure boat where “the crews were arranged according to age and experience in vice” rather than by senatorial rank and status.
Nero even stole a senator’s wife, Poppaea Sabina, married to Otho, through an invitation to a private banquet – another eerie similarity with Trump, who openly professes that one of the things that makes “life worth living” is sleeping with friends’ wives.
As a centre-piece to his banquets, with the masses invited, Nero would prance on stage, improvise with the lyre and give dramatic speeches.
Acting becomes the stuff of power itself, the very stuff of leadership.
Trump uses Twitter to commune with the people. He is simultaneously an entertainer, a joker, and a leader.
And Nero’s antics mirror the most terrifying extracts from Wolff’s book, the points where Trump uses traditional ways of mediating between the populace, power, and changes their emphasis: his address to the CIA, for example. Before a wall of the names of fallen heroes, Trump derides the fake news media and talks about how clever he is. He refuses to play the game, to balance the rights of the establishment with the people.
This is unsettling and strange. It throws us just a bit, makes us feel uneasy. We can no longer tell who rules and who serves. And the uneasiness seeps into everything we do. The American Republic is no longer quite what it was. The world is not quite what it used to be. Power makes a mockery of itself, and prances before us winking and grinning behind its painted mask, but outside the theatre, democracy fails, leaving us poorer and smaller than before.