Brief Lessons From 1800 Years Ago
In February, the distinguished Mary Beard gave an academic talk in Rome and, as a Classics professor at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of the Royal Academy of Ancient Literature, mentioned that reporters often asked her which Roman emperor Donald Trump is most like.
She thought it “a silly question,” and said she usually didn’t reply.
It’s often asked because Donald Trump does sometimes claim imperial privileges, most recently immunity from subpoenas. He once bragged that he could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue and get away with it.
A couple of months later, I ran across this quote: “Remember that I can do whatever I want to anyone.”
But it wasn’t from the president. The Trump predecessor who said that was the Roman emperor Caracalla. While the sentiment was disturbingly familiar, the name wasn’t. And, when looked up, other similarities surfaced.
Caracalla admired despots. His favorite was the tyrant Alexander the Great*. He was so enthralled that he took to mimicking the long-dead Alexander in dress and style which, by the way, was by then some 500 years out of fashion. When it got so ridiculous that thespians satirized him, Caracalla traveled to see them in Alexandria and, like Alexander might have done, slaughtered the delegation that came to greet him. Then he looted and burned the city.
This began to sound like a thin-skinned ruler who admires other despots, dresses funny and seems able to get away with anything.
Caracalla, who ruled the Roman Empire from 198 to 217 CE, also overspent on the military and thus ultimately debased the currency. His reign was one of domestic instability. He dumped a wife when he grew tired of her. Threatened, he despised his challengers and schemed behind the scenes to defeat — in his case, kill — them.
Though the Roman Senate, like ours’, still existed it, too, had more or less willed itself into impotence. There was thus no one to check Caracalla, which was why he was free to do whatever he wanted. That included killing his brother and 20,000 of his brother’s followers. He then made it a capital crime to mention his brother’s name, which, like Barrack Obama’s in today’s White House, was held without affection.
Lest you get carried away by these parallels, he was not impeached.
He was, however, stabbed to death by one of the many lieutenants he had once insulted and cashiered.
Professor Beard, during her talk in Rome, said she didn’t like to compare Trump to emperors “not because it was unfair on Trump, but because it was maybe unfair on the emperors.”
*When Alexander razed the Greek city of Thebes, he paid his allies by letting them sell some 30,000 Thebans into slavery. He was a prodigious killer. Somehow, 1300 years before the invention of gunpower, Alexander and his armies managed to kill what historians estimate to be as many as several million people during his ten years of wars in Greece, Persia, Afghanistan and beyond.