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Emperor Trump is the new Nero

Jan 05, 2017

SO…TRUMP. EVERYONE ELSE IS WRITING ABOUT HIM. I DIDN’T THINK I HAD ANYTHING TO ADD EXCEPT— AT A TIME WHEN THE UK IS SLIDING INEXORABLY TOWARDS REPUBLICANISM (Do you know anyone at all who thinks the current monarchy, ineffectual as it is, can survive the death of Elizabeth II?), THE US SEEMS JUST TO HAVE ELECTED ITS FIRST KING AND NOBODY HAS NOTICED.

I say this in full knowledge of the irony.

Kings are not usually elected. Certainly, they are rarely elected twice. The only king in planetary history to call for the dissolution of the monarchy was the king of Bhutan — a nation that assesses its economy on the basis of a ‘Gross National Happiness’ index. Much as I think it would transform the world to move to that model, I can’t see it taking off in the US any time soon.

Quite the reverse. The US is about to be ruled by an individual who is convinced the rules don’t apply to him — and it seems that if he says they don’t, then they don’t. The lawyers can argue as much as they like that he will be in breach of the constitution on day 1, but it seems nobody is actually going to do anything about it. So he’s right. He is above the law. We have a narcissist with the mental age of a twelve year old in charge of the world’s biggest superpower. He can enrich himself beyond even his most vulgar dreams. He will have people treat him with a respect that is entirely new to him because that’s what you do to Presidents. He will command power in intoxicating doses, entirely blind to the idea that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you think he’s ever going to let that go, I have a bridge to sell you…

In fact, I will make a small prophecy — the 2020 election, if it happens at all, will be a farce of North Korean proportions with no chance whatsoever of anyone else winning. If there is a 2024 election, it will be to crown one of Trump’s children (or perhaps his son in law: the internecine feuding for position will be interesting to watch) as the new monarch of an impoverished nation at war with the rest of the world. Or worse, at war with Germany. I have a recurring nightmare where the US, Russia and America’s poodle, the UK, are at war with Germany — and this time the Allies are the fascists with Germany standing alone against the rising tide of human catastrophe.

trumpImage by Michael Vadon, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

SO TRUMP IS KING OF AMERICA

Or perhaps we should say, he is the emperor, because we have to look a long, long, long way back in history to find someone with equivalent power and an equivalent psychological profile so eminently unsuited to rule. Please let me remind you of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

The similarities are not total: Nero was only seventeen years old when he came to power in AD54, and his first five years, when he allowed himself to be led by Seneca and Burrus, were considered a golden period of Roman history — seen from Roman eyes, of course. It wasn’t so much fun if you were in Britannia at the time, where Seneca was loaning out 26 million sesterces to the newly pacified tribes, a breathtaking sum, to people who had barely any notion of currency and certainly not of compound debt. Thus was the UK’s first debt-fuelled crisis set under way. Neoliberal capitalism is a particularly Roman inheritance. But that’s another story.

LET’S HEAD BACK TO NERO, THE BOY-EMPEROR WHO KNEW THE RULES DIDN’T APPLY TO HIM.

This is a man who ascended the throne (probably) on the back of his mother’s murder of his uncle Claudius. Certainly the ancient sources are agreed that Nero murdered the only other serious contender, Claudius’ son, Britannicus. In personal relationships, he banished and then executed his first wife so he could continue his affair with a slave, and then he married the (pregnant) wife of his friend, Otho. When she died, he had frequent, highly public affairs with slaves of both genders. When he ‘married’ a eunuch, he forced the rest of the senate to watch their wedding night. Rome was pretty relaxed about homosexuality, but they weren’t expecting to have to watch this. It’s a bit like our queen deciding to take up pole dancing and then forcing the entire House of Commons to the first display.

nero

Image by ‘shakko’ courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Even less appropriate was his belief that he was a profoundly gifted artist. Actors were not celebrities in ancient Rome, and when Nero decided it would be fun to take the stage in public, he scandalized the entire upper class. Which is probably why he did it. Like his predecessor bar one, Caligula, who made his horse a senator (which may not be as mad as it sounds: If you want to make a point that a) you are all-powerful and b) you think the Senate is populated by a load of donkeys, it makes some kind of sense) he loathed the senate and did everything he could to undercut its power, and head straight to the people. He was a great proponent of bread and circuses. He could (did) cut taxes to keep the people on side. He could (did) nonetheless spend the Roman treasury to bankruptcy. He could (did) have to devalue the currency and mix more tin in with the silver of the coins to make them go further. But he made sure the people had their bread and the constant attraction of other people — slaves, prisoners of war, other ‘undesirables’ – dying slowly in the grimmest of conditions in the Circus and that made him immensely popular.

PEOPLE DIDN’T ONLY DIE IN THE CIRCUS, MIND YOU.

When the treasury was running dry, Nero’s big idea was to persuade the wealthy of Rome’s elite that it was in their interests to fall on their own swords and leave all their money to the treasury in their wills. Pour encourager les autres, he had a senator’s teenaged son skinned alive in front of him. A number of decent, honorable men fell on their swords and left their families in penury rather than put them through something similar.

His foreign relations were haphazard. He had some good generals –Corbulo’s triumph in Parthia is a particular highlight of his reign — but he had a tendency to have them executed when they became popular. So Corbulo died and generals tended after that to be less effective. Vespasian bucked the trend by being genuinely good. How he survived the potentially fatal mistake of falling asleep in one of Nero’s recitals is a mystery, but he did go on to become one of Rome’s greatest Emperors, by almost any standards, so it’s just as well.

SO WHAT COMES NEXT?

Which brings us to the aftermath. Nero was a disaster: a narcissist and populist who bankrupted the treasury, killed without mercy, indulged sexual appetites in ways that went far beyond the mores of the time — and thought it was amusing to trash those beneath him in the social scale –which was everyone.

Something had to snap and after fourteen years of this, the army took the law into their own hands. They did so in fits and starts, leading to the Year of the Four Emperors which, as any historian of the period will tell you, was eighteen months and five men who all named themselves emperor, but one of them never reached Rome, so he didn’t count. 

At any rate, the Spanish legions rose first, and Nero, faced with the prospect of having his neck trapped between two rough sticks and then being beaten to death (the Romans were very specific in their punishments), chose to kill himself. His final words: ‘What an artist dies here.’ The slave who helped him, was later executed by the emperor Domitian, another young man entirely unsuited to rule.

The first of the challengers to make it to the White House Rome, was Galba, an elderly general who had led the legions well in Spain. Sadly, he turned out to be a stringent martinet and it was said of him that ‘everyone thought Galba would be an ideal Emperor, until he became one, at which point everyone except Galba realized the magnitude of their mistake.’

His only redeeming feature is that he was gay and had no children. So everyone hung on in there until he named his heir and, when he named the wrong man, the Praetorian Guard killed him and the wrong pick and duly installed the better option — Otho —  in their place.

Otho, by all accounts, was intelligent, charismatic and pragmatic — he had to be: he was the man whose wife Nero stole and if he survived that, he could survive anything. There’s an interesting counter factual novel to be written where Otho survives more than a few months as Emperor. It seems likely, for instance, that Christianity might not have grown beyond a minor blood cult if Otho had remained on the throne: there’s a train of thought (not mine) that says the first few sections of the bible were written in order to demonstrate that Titus Vespasian was the Son of God, largely because, in Roman terms, he was exactly that. 

But we skip ahead. Otho was doing fine, until the legions on the Rhine decided that if the Spanish legions could make a general into an Emperor, so could they. Their first pick turned them down flat, so they defaulted to someone far more malleable and thus Vitellius, a senator known primarily for his lack of spine, was nominated. He wasn’t quite as blue-blooded as his predecessors, but the premium on noble blood was falling by the day and the generals who made the decision were confident they could manage things. 

The German legions marched on Rome, taking Vitellius with them. Otho marched the home legions north to meet them, but failed to wait for key support from the east and his forces lost the first skirmish. It wasn’t major and there’s a strong argument that said if he waited a day or three for reinforcements, he’d have won, but he had an eye to his reputation and there was nothing the Roman historians loved more than a man who sacrificed himself for his people. So he, too, killed himself, though rather more cleanly, nobly, honourably than Nero. At least, history tells us this — because he was right: the historians of the time were deeply touched by his sacrifice. By that one act, he became the best Emperor Rome had never had.

Vitellius was named emperor on the spot, at which point the fact of having picked someone too weak to say they didn’t want the job became apparent. Remember Johnson and Gove on the morning after Brexit when they looked as if they wanted the floor to open up and swallow them? That was Vitellius: a man who had the Empire in his hand and didn’t know what to do with it. To be fair, he didn’t do anything particularly bad, but they’d had 14 years of Nero: they needed something and someone more…dynamic.

Enter the eastern legions, particularly those in Judaea, who were in the midst of putting down the Jewish revolt with great success. Their leader was highly competent and they knew it. Five legions, battle fit and in high morale looked west and wanted a slice of the Roman pie. Vespasian, who led them, didn’t want to be emperor either. But Vitellius made the mistake of sending an assassin to kill him on the grounds that he was an obvious competitor. That kind of thing has a tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Vespasian could sit around and wait for the next knife in the dark — or he could let the eastern legions march in his name. He already had Josephus, a defector, who had told him he was the inheritor of the Star Prophecy that said a king would arise in the east who would rule the whole world (remember the bit about Titus as the son of God? This was the prophecy they were using as their bedrock).

So Vespasian and Titus went to Egypt and let the legions do the dirty work. Which they did. It wasn’t easy, and the civil war was bloody, but it was brief and Vespasian’s men won. He went on to become one of the best emperors of all time. He was pragmatic, he understood how to rebuild the treasury and, given that he had fallen in love with a slave girl in his early 20s and remained faithful to her (more or less, he had to marry a good Roman girl, but she died after giving him two sons and a sickly daughter), he was continent and didn’t provoke scandal. He was followed by Titus, who had similar potential but who died, possibly of poison, leaving the way open for Domitian, who was almost as unfit as Nero.

WE’LL LEAVE THE HISTORY THERE.

Just remember: emperors don’t hold elections in which they may lose. And Trump has his new best buddy Putin to show him how to hold onto power in ways your pliant population doesn’t (or can’t) object to. The world is entering very interesting times. The Trump dynasty could last for a hundred years. Or until climate change, eco-system breakdown and the breaking of the other eight planetary boundaries wipes us all out, whichever come first. Happy New Year!

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image of Mr Donald Trump from New Hampshire Town Hall on 15/8/16. Image of Nero from plaster bust in Pushkin museum, based on original in British Museum. Use of neither images suggests any kind of endorsement by the photographer. 

Manda Scott is an author who has written extensively in the Roman period. This blog was first posted on http://www.mandascott.co.u

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