Now as we approach – wearily – the end of this somewhat uneven set of parallels, Caesar and President, President and Caesar, we begin to realise that both sets of leaders have very little in common with each other. For one, the Caesars of ancient Rome, while their power is absolute, total, their crimes and passions are limited with respect to the technology at their disposal; but the Caesars of twentieth-century America, though their passions are subdued – or channelled elsewhere – by nearly two-millennia of Christian civilisation, they do command the most powerful military force the world has ever seen. Their instructions may be carried out within moments of making a phone call, in some far-flung region of the world that the electorate will never see.
Under the hot pressures of time and custom, our empire-rulers – once gay, murderous, and extravagant, gorgeous, tyrannical – transform into grey and sombre bureaucrats, mournful in their cynicism, banal in their hypocrisy. Gore Vidal, reviewing Suetonius, points out that it is no wonder the Caesars were all driven mad: ‘it is no wonder that actual insanity was often the Caesarian refuge from a reality so intoxicating’. This could not be further from the presidents who, for the most part, conducted themselves with a ruthless sanity.
Still, the game must be finished.
Vespasian, the tenth Caesar, founded the Flavian dynasty, a dynasty which Suetonius credits with bringing stability to the government and the empire. George W. Bush jr., it might be said, brought the Bush dynasty to an end. Moreover, although we cannot wholly fault Bush, his presidency oversaw the unwinding of a liberal order and stability, and which lands us with the present day.
‘With his knack of apt quotations from the Greek classics…’ This does not refer to George W. Bush but Vespasian, described by Suetonius as having a scholarly humour and ‘considerable wit’. Bush was a cheerleader at the Phillips Academy in Andover, which made up for his mediocre grades. Nonetheless, he majored in History at Yale and earned an MBA at Harvard Business School. With his knack for sounding off like a Texas Ranger, perhaps Bush would have known better than to be overheard quoting Greek classics.
Suetonius says that Vespasian felt bewildered at the authority and power he acquired as emperor, or lack thereof, missing the ‘divine spark’ deemed requisite for legitimacy. America, a country founded during the Enlightenment, seeks legitimacy in matter; in votes. But Bush certainly looked bewildered during his two terms; and his legitimacy was forever called into question when the votes came back from Florida in the 2000 presidential election with uncertainty as to the winner.
Bush won in the end, but in court, and among his first acts as president was to withdraw from the Kyoto agreement. This released millions of acreage for logging, drilling and mining, and standards for clean air and water were lowered in the name of free-market capitalism. Vespasian, Suetonius admits, was unethical in his business dealings, but Earth could yet shrug off the toils of pre-industrial organisms.
I would not be completely honest these accounts if I simply said that both leaders went to war with Middle Eastern powers, Vespasian in Judaea, Bush in Iraq. Vespasian had been military tribune in Thrace and governor of Germany, commanded an army to quash an uprising among the Jews and was injured in battle; but he was not yet emperor. Bush was derided for keeping a relatively safe post during the Vietnam War, and commanded the military only as president when he overthrew Saddam Hussein. The pretext was that Hussein possessed WMDs. The intelligence proved to be faulty, or trumped-up, and 460,000 people lost their lives as a result of the war, although many of these deaths cannot be attributed to the president.
The differences, here, are as painful as the similarities. Vespasian commissioned the famous amphitheatre, also known as the Colosseum, a glorious monument to Roman power. Bush’s presidency began with September 11, the deadliest terrorist attack the world had ever seen.
By the end of the Bush years, the years of the War on Terror, Americans were thinking about the mortgages that they were unable to pay; gas prices rose; unemployment increased. Stock prices dropped, globally. And during Vespasian’s rulership Rome, too, suffered economic hardships. Both leaders provided stimulus packages to revive their economies. Since Suetonius puts it that Vespasian was ‘forced’ into heavy taxation to pay for his stimulus we can surmise that, like Bush, he had hoped he would be able to avoid such measures. Both men are accredited with having a good sense of humour.
Vespasian perished at the age of sixty-nine from an intense bout of diarrhoea. President Bush lives with us still, we hope in good health and for years to come. Nonetheless, we await to see whether his death will result from diarrhoea or some other affliction.
Divus Titus, who like Barack Obama shared his father’s name, had ‘such winning ways—whether inborn, cultivated subsequently, or conferred on him by fortune—that he became an object of universal love and adoration’.
This, without irony, is a description that befits our next President, however much one regarded him as a politician. Comfortable among showbiz types, or charismatic and empathetic in conservative states, Obama not only cultivated winning ways, but had them conferred on him by fortune. Take, for instance, his first run as the senator for Illinois. A relatively unknown candidate, up against a Republican incumbent, he was on the back foot; but Senator Jack Ryan, by ushering his wife to so-called sex clubs, eased his opponent’s path.
Titus was handsome, graceful, and dignified; but not, like Barack Obama, tall. Titus composed speech and verse in Greek and Latin, and although Obama only has one language, he has been praised by his supporters for the lyricism of his rhetoric. A better block of evidence is his memoir Dreams from My Father, written before he ran for office, and which constitutes the best literature composed by any of these twelve presidents. Titus and Obama, too, share a talent for singing.
Obama was not, like his Roman brother, ‘venomously loathed’ prior to taking office. Actually, Obama rarely left such a harsh trail in his wake, and nor a gilded one, for that matter.
Our emperor grew up in court; Obama was born in far-flung Hawaii. He was the son of a white American mother and a Kenyan intellectual, who left the country to return home and complete his studies (Titus’s father also left, to conquer Judaea). His mother remarried, and the family moved further away from court to Indonesia, where Obama spent his early years. Breaking with the tedium of the baseball presidents, Obama dabbled in basketball and not much else before the fairy godmother-like intervention of his mother’s family, who raised the rest of him in America.
Both men practised law. Titus became an advocate, Suetonius suspects for career purposes; Obama studied at Harvard Law School, and was elected President of the Harvard Law Review. The Roman in his youth ‘displayed alike a natural aptitude for the arts of war and peace’. A brief anecdote regarding Obama presages his time as commander-in-chief. As president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama, his professor tells us, had a profound empathy for others’ points of view. Yet he was not vigorous enough, and voters elected a tougher editor next time round.
Titus, too, wished that he could please everyone. This task is simpler when you have access to the treasury of the Roman empire, and absolute power. American presidents operate within a system of checks and balances: a slow, compromising system, in which pleasing others is conferred upon you, and vigorousness is to be cultivated. Obama was not successful in this regard, such that his major policies, on healthcare, on the stimulus package following the recession, on the civil war in Syria, on the rise of ISIS, Obama earned a reputation of a man of inaction.
Like Obama, Titus had a reputation for natural kind-heartedness. Titus demonstrated his fatherly care for the Roman people by his response to natural catastrophes, such as Vesuvius. Obama demonstrated his by his response to mass shootings, in schools, in churches.
Titus died, probably of fever, aged 42, Obama’s aged when he was elected senator. Despite the endless trouble caused by his brother Domitian, our next emperor, Titus in his death was mourned by the common people. Donald Trump, our next president, demanded Obama release his birth certificate to prove he was an authentic American. In his years out of office, President Obama is remembered fondly by the electorate; but he is not Donald Trump’s brother.
With his customary inconveniences, Suetonius begins his narrative in this, the final Caesar, by telling us that Domitian lived a poverty-stricken and rather degraded youth. Meanwhile, a German immigrant named Frederick Drumpf – who knocked of the ‘f’ and changed the ‘D’ to a ‘T’, thus securing the brand for the future – supplied miners in Seattle before moving to the Bronx. His son, Fred, became a real-estate agent. In becoming his father’s apprentice for some years, Donald Trump may have jostled with the poverty-stricken, the degraded, in collecting rent (a chore he loathed), but he did not suffer deprivation himself. Nor would he.
Being a future candidate for presidency, Trump preferred athletics to academics. Nonetheless, he attended the School of Finance at Pennsylvania. Domitian, diverging slightly, feigned modesty, and took up poetry. He emerged as Caesar after tampering with his predecessor’s will. During the civil war against Vitellus, the city was sieged, and Domitian hid away in some caretakers’ quarters. As always with the American parallel, cowardice is papered over with bureaucracy: Trump dodged the Vietnam War draft with a doctor’s note.
Both men, as they acquired status, provided extravagant entertainments for the people. With Domitian, this entailed staging battles at the Colosseum, including sea battles; with Trump, extravagance – conducted ‘like a nineteenth-century promoter – larger than life’ – renovated large-scale property in New York, and purchased a tower.
Our historian commends Domitian with being a conscientious judge and dealing with cases in an even-handed manner. Trump, who never held public office until the day of his presidential inauguration, overreached himself when he purchased casinos in Atlantic City. When they pinched out, and he had to sell his private plane and his yacht to pay for losses, he licensed his name and lived off his fame.
What similarity do these two men share? Well, both are notoriously bad-tempered. Domitian was known to be discourteous from a young age, and as emperor was hated and feared by his people. The senate, many of whose members he had put to death, had greater cause to fear their ruler. In Fear: Trump in the White House (2018), Bob Woodward’s expose of the administration, Trump broods, explodes in range; he ‘erupted into uncontrollable anger’ when the world failed to do his bidding. His rashness causes him to Tweet inappropriately, as well as draw his country as close as it ever has been to nuclear war since the days of Reagan and Kennedy.
Trump, running for office, promised to ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington politics. Unlike Domitian, he is not able to dispatch of his enemies by execution. Trump’s personality, like no other presidency before him, is what his enemies and opponents fear. Woodward takes the title of his book from a quotation attributed to Trump: ‘Real power is – I don’t even want to say the word – fear’.
I could go on. I could say, for instance, that both men were bald, and vain. I could say that both men enjoyed extra-marital affairs with other men’s wives. But it seems that, for us, the story is unfinished. Domitian died aged forty-four, when he was stabbed in the groin. Aged seventy-two, Trump is likely to serve a second term as president.
Domitian brooded that that the commonwealth would prove a happier place once he had gone (Trump has no such modesty). Suetonius says that he was proved right. But the emperors who succeeded Domitian were related to the emperor by whom Suetonius was employed. Still, historians have maintained that comparably moderate emperors followed in the wake of Domitian.
Now, Trump is viewed as an exceptionally egregious president, a Nixon for our times. We, who have surveyed the past eleven presidents: can we really maintain that he is any worse? Can we maintain that those who follow will be an improvement? More moderate? Can we call this, what we have here, progress? For the crimes of the presidents have been undeniably worse than the cartoonish decadence and cruelty of the emperors. If there is any meaning to this game that I have been playing, it is to be found in the differences. In holding up the ancient past next to ourselves in the mirror, it is the differences that tell us who we really are. Let us return to our studies, then, and make no more odious comparisons.