It began as a parlour game, without a parlour. We – a friend and I – attempted over a drink to match each of Suetonius’ twelve Caesars, from Julius Caesar to Domitian, with an American president. We played the game only briefly, pairing Abraham Lincoln with Julius Caesar, Richard Nixon with Caligula, before giving up. There were too many American presidents, and we had had too much to drink.
Nonetheless, I continued the game in my mind. How could we make this experiment fair? Suetonius’ history ends three-emperors’ removed from Hadrian, the reigning emperor at the time whom Suetonius served as imperial secretary. Suetonius’ scholarship was therefore at a safe distance from the ruling dynasty that had nurtured him. My project, then, would have to begin with Hoover and end with Clinton. But it was too late before I had discovered this fact; the game of parallels that I played in my idle moments had already begun with Eisenhower and ended with our current president. And Hoover, after all, is far less interesting to us than Donald Trump and, as I hope to show, the scheme I have chosen is produces much better parallels; parallels which are at best an amusement, and at the worst, all too convincing.
Before we begin, then. I require a guide, a Virgil: I am not an historian of either Roman or American history, and am qualified only in the sense that I am writing an ‘essay’ – meaning ‘trial, attempt, endeavour’ – in which failure is built into the form. Still, that this project should be left to an essay by an amateur is unnerving. Gore Vidal, the American novelist and man of letters, the self-styled ‘biographer’ of the nation, was a resident of both Washington and Rome, and wrote novels about Roman emperors and American presidents. He reviewed with admiration Robert Graves’s translation of Suetonius, and was himself oft-compared to Suetonius by those who reviewed his historical novels, and, like Suetonius, was something of an insider to Washington D.C., and knew, like Suetonius, an emperor personally. But Vidal, alas, could not write this essay. This is not because he is dead. No, Vidal could not write this essay because he would not want to write it; it is too frivolous a task for the great man. Instead, Vidal’s writings, about Kennedy, about Nixon, about Reagan, will serve me as a guide, sparing me from the saccharine biographies of presidents. Of Kennedy and his legacy, for example, he once wrote: ‘the rise of the signori is about to begin, and we may soon find ourselves enjoying a strange new era in which all our lives and dreams are presided over by smiling, interchangeable, initialed gods’. Let us begin that new era.
The early lives of the Caesars are more fascinating than that of twentieth-century American presidents, coming as they did from aristocratic households reared in the arts of war and empire-building even before they acquired power; the presidents, for the most part, were sons of farmers, grocery storekeepers, salesmen, drunks (a reminder that America remains an agrarian nation). Julius Caesar almost certainly descended from high lineage, and engaged downwards to a woman ‘only’ from equestrian ranks. During his consulship, he broke off the engagement and chose to marry Cornelia and, as a result, invoked the fury of the dictator Sulla, and was pursued by his secret service. Caesar at this time was only in his teens. Dwight Eisenhower’s father worked in a local creamery in Abilene. Young Dwight was a mediocre student; liked baseball and football, coached it, and was, like most American presidents in their youth, a jock. He was soon to be commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the infantry. Caesar was captured by pirates, swore revenge on his captors, and revenge was duly meted out as soon as he gained his liberty.
When from regular deployments away from home his marriage was under strain, Eisenhower told his wife: ‘My country comes before you’. Yet he spent much of the First World War training infantry in Kansas and Austin, and was disappointed that he did not fight for his country after all. As a Roman civic official, Caesar was discovered in a plot to overthrow the republic (he did not care for the republic, Suetonius says: ‘It was nothing’ to him). Caesar won back popularity by staging gladiatorial shows for the people at his own expense. Eisenhower, now Lieutenant Colonel, complained self-pityingly that he seemed back to coaching football again. Caesar became governor of transalpine Gaul.
As Caesar led his armies across the wild west of Europe, conquering Gaul and invading Britain, he too experienced serious reverses, including the death of his mother, daughter, and grandson, a reverse he shares in common with Eisenhower, whose son died aged three.
Neither man looked alike: Eisenhower was 5’10, plain-faced and plainly dressed. Caesar was tall, broad-faced, and something of a dandy, brushing what was left of his hair forward and fashioning a lasting hairstyle. Dwight, in our more puritanical era for masculine self-expression, simply shaved what was left of his hair while stationed in the trembling heat of Philippine jungles. He was, by this time, Brigadier General, and desperate not to land another desk-job. He was awarded the title of Major General during the Second World War, and was tasked with overseeing the European Theatre of Operations from London. Caesar conquered Gaul.
Eisenhower was almost passed over for the post of Supreme Allied Commander of Operation Overlord, but was chosen for his political as well as militaristic qualities. Both Eisenhower and Caesar, then, conquered Europe; but only the latter would have used such language to describe his achievement. It is our consensus that Eisenhower’s armies liberated Europe from a conquering enemy.
Suetonius suggests that Caesar loved wielding power, while a certain amount of humility — a certain amount of hypocrisy — is required of American leaders. As President, Eisenhower sought peace, ‘human betterment’, and the de-escalation of Cold War hostilities. At the same time, his administration overthrew the government of Iran, the democratic government of Guatemala (engendering decades of atrocity), and backed military coups across Indonesia. Caesar, at the age of fifty-five, had won a civil war against his own nation, and was assassinated by a group of senators, who feared that he would become a tyrant. Eisenhower gracefully stepped down from the presidency, but not before warning the public against the military industrial complex, which had nonetheless been useful to him in Iran, Guatemala, and Indonesia.
So far, so alike. The parallels appear to break down somewhat with Augustus and John F. Kennedy. Augustus ruled for decades; Kennedy was assassinated in the third year of his presidency. Yet both men acquired power at a young age; both had fathers of considerable wealth. Augustus, despite winning five civil wars and avenging his uncle’s assassination, was sneered at as ‘the boy’; Kennedy remains the youngest president in American history. Both men were afflicted by serious ailments throughout their lives, and both were regarded as handsome. Augustus was said to have a ‘serene expression’, while Kennedy, the ‘Osiris-Adonis-Christ figure,’ as his good friend Gore Vidal described him, was famous for his smile. Both men were serial adulterers.
As politicians, Augustus and Kennedy caused fear among their own party. The republicans of Rome and the Democrats of the United States feared that the reigning family would become a ruling dynasty.
Otherwise, we have here two very different leaders. Augustus, who ruled until he died, aged 77, suffered ‘only two disgraceful defeats’. President Kennedy suffered disgrace with the disastrous Bay of Pigs, an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro, and did not live to see the deaths of two million Vietnamese civilians over the course of a war that was escalated by his administration. Augustus’ reign was long, and renowned for stability and renovation (‘I found Rome built of bricks; I leave it clothed in marble’). Kennedy’s presidency, because of his assassination, was short-lived, while during that time he stalled on social reforms such as the Civil Rights Act, because, as Gore Vidal says, ‘he was reluctant to rock the boat’. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, due partly to his bad temper, he brought the world as close as it had ever had been in human history to complete annihilation. Augustus did not have such means at his disposal, yet we know that he treated his daughter with limitless cruelty for an infidelity to her husband, and murdered the baby resulting from the affair. There never would have been a good time, it seems, to invent the nuclear bomb.
The parallels improve again with the sullen Tiberius, stepson of Augustus, and Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s Vice President. What they share in common is that they lived in the shadow of their predecessor.
It should be noted at this juncture that Caesars, as men, are often despicable. Suetonius records that Tiberius was a sadist, a sexual predator, not to mention bad-tempered. Johnson was faithfully married. Yet he shares with Tiberius his sullenness, his brooding self-pity, his sulks. Kennedy was reported to have said to his aides that, with Johnson, ‘You are dealing with a very insecure, sensitive man with a huge ego. I want you to literally kiss his fanny from one end of Washington to the other’.
Tiberius and Johnson had retired from politics before they re-entered it and achieved power. However, Suetonius records no imperial victories for Tiberius. President Johnson, whose administration expanded the war in Indochina without success, does not improve upon his Latin counterpart. Despite drafting 175,000 soldiers and authorising several major bombing raids on north Vietnam, the war only became a deeper quagmire. Tiberius and Johnson, for their evil deeds, were the subjects of mocking rhymes. Roman rhymes mocked Tiberius for his personal cruelties, while protesters against Johnson chanted, ‘Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?’ in reference to the thousands of soldiers and civilians pointlessly wasted under the watch of his administration. So, you seen, quite different.
Caligula and Nixon follow, but with major differences. Caligula was a sexual deviant, incestuous, and cruel. President Nixon was faithful to his wife Pat until the day he died. Caligula was not noted for foreign policy, nor did he lead any great exploits across the empire. This is not the case with Nixon who, even before he was elected president, had been vice president to Eisenhower, and famously sabotaged the 1968 Paris peace-talks by promising the leaders of South Vietnam a better deal should he be elected as President. Under Nixon’s administration, the Vietnam War continued for another seven years. Although we are uncertain of the total death-figures, 4.500,000 tons of high-explosives were dropped on Indochina over the course of four years following Nixon’s election, not to mention the array of chemical weapons deployed over that region on a regular basis. Those chemicals, such as Agent Orange, are the cause of mutations and disfigurements in children yet to be born. Caligula, whose name is a byword for decadence, corruption, tyranny, is most famous for his affair with Drusilla, his sister.
For spying on his political opponents, Nixon was targeted with impeachment, but stepped down in time to avoid further disgrace and humiliation. Meanwhile, Caligula, for his cruelties and ineptitudes, was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard. Suetonius writes of his ‘brutal language’, and anyone with access to the Internet can listen to the Nixon tapes, which record the slurred, the drunken phone calls made by the president, the profanity, the bigotry, and the anti-Semitism in the repertoire of his conversation.
Richard Nixon shared Caligula’s belief in the infallibility of his office, and the paranoia which comes with such a belief. To gain power, Nixon won two presidential elections. Caligula came to power as an heir, an event which he hastened by poisoning his predecessor. Upon his death, a chest of poisons was found in his rooms, along with a list of intended victims. Nothing of the sort was found in Nixon’s bedroom.
Part II, published next week, includes Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton.