Trump = Caligula

Trump = Caligula

by Justin Martin
, October 2020

Donald Trump is a president seemingly without precedent. Among those that have held the office before him, none offers much in the way of useful historical analogy. Often people turn to the last century’s most notorious strongmen such as Mussolini, Stalin, even Adolph Hitler. But to find Trump’s closest genuine antecedent, one needs to travel back 2,000 years to ancient Rome, and Caligula.

In Caligula’s time, Rome was a diarchy, characterized by shared governance between a senate, whose power was mostly for show, and an emperor, in whom ultimate authority resided. Young Caligula (he assumed the throne at age 24) thrilled at tweaking this delicate relationship. For example, he eliminated the senatorial privilege of occupying front-row seating at theatrical performances and gladiatorial contests. Apparently, he relished watching senators scramble for seats, often losing out to the plebeians. And where senators were used to greeting the emperor on equal terms, at least optics-wise, with an embrace and peck on the cheek, Caligula introduced the humiliating practice of prostration. Senators were forced to grovel before him, kissing his feet.

Predictably, such behavior endeared the emperor to the plebs. Even though he was fabulously wealthy, despite a lineage that traced back to such august figures as Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, Caligula succeeded in casting himself as a man of the people. Where Tiberius (his glum predecessor), had thrown few gladiatorial contests and chariot races, Caligula drastically increased the number. He was a conspicuous and enthusiastic spectator, the better to be witnessed by the populace. Caligula even stood on the roof of his palace, showering gold and silver coins down onto the masses.

Caligula sparked class warfare in Rome, siding with the plebs against the senators and elites. According to the philosopher Seneca, a contemporary of the emperor, Caligula possessed a “bent for insult” and was “moved by the strange desire to brand every one with some stigma.” Unfortunately, the nicknames he dreamed up for Roman senators—Little Lepidus? Sleepy Sabinus?—are lost to history.

What we do know is that Caligula wasn’t receptive to advice or expertise, believing, like Trump, that only he could fix it. Naevius Sertorius Macro, chief of the Praetorian Guard, was a seasoned political player, 33-years Caligula’s senior. When he attempted to offer counsel, Caligula responded: “Who dares teach me?” Thereupon, Caligula dismissed Macro just as Trump has purged so many from his administration: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, three chiefs of staff, five inspector generals and counting. But Caligula didn’t confine himself to a mere “you’re fired.” He also demanded that Macro kill himself, forced suicide being a favorite Roman gambit. Under Caligula, countless others would suffer Macro’s fate, falling on their swords, quite literally, where ousted Trump toadies have done this only figuratively—so far.

There are other notable similarities shared by Trump and Caligula. Both men are known for vanity, manifested in pathological hair obsession. Whereas Trump favors a painstaking comb-over, Caligula ordered his subjects to vacate buildings during state processions to prevent anyone from catching a glimpse from above of his prematurely balding pate. Sometimes, upon encountering a man with a mop of hair, in a fit pique, Caligula would demand that the unfortunate be violently shorn.
Both men have reputations as raging misogynists. Whereas Trump said of women that he likes to “grab ’em by the pussy,” Caligula famously snatched a woman from her wedding. As the story goes, while presiding over nuptials in his role as high priest (no separation of church and state in ancient Rome), Caligula took a shine to the bride. Mid-ceremony, he simply declared her his own wife. Within a few days, he tired of the woman and got divorced, though he also issued an edict that she refrain from ever again having sex. Thus ended the second of his four marriages.

Like Trump, a five-time draft deferrer who craves a good parade, Caligula, the cowardly son of one of Rome’s greatest generals, sought to wrap himself in a military mantle. In a ridiculous turn, Caligula led 200,000 men in an invasion of Germania Magna, despite having zero combat experience. Upon crossing the Rhine and encountering the enemy, Caligula became so frightened that he had to be passed overhead from soldier to soldier, body-surfing style, until he was safely clear of the front lines. The invasion was a debacle. Nevertheless, Caligula arranged for a group of Gauls, members of an allied force that fought alongside the Romans, to dye their hair red and learn a few stock German phrases so that they could pose as captured prisoners during a triumphal procession that celebrated no discernible triumph. Sound familiar?

Like Trump, a profane man and bungler of “Second Corinthians,” Caligula also sought to shroud himself in religion. Whereas Trump employed tear gas and rubber bullets to clear peaceful protestors for a photo-op with an upside-down Bible, Caligula took matters slightly further. He simply declared himself a god. According to ancient sources, he rigged up a thunder machine and hurled lighting bolts fashioned from iron. One wonders how convincing such a display could possibly have been. Nevertheless, many citizens anted up the exorbitant sum necessary to join Caligula’s religious cult. (Mar-a-Lago membership fee anyone?)

The trait of which Caligula was most proud was adiatrepsia, according to the ancient historian Seutonius. That’s a Greek term, and translates roughly to “shamelessness.” Ultimately, Caligula became the victim of his own overreach. Though he had ascended to emperor with a huge treasury surplus, he quickly depleted the monies. His excesses helped pitch his country into a famine—as opposed to a plague. Presently, at least four concurrent plots against his life were underway, including one led by Cassius Chaerea, a genuine Roman military hero who Caligula had repeatedly demeaned for having a high-pitched, effeminate voice. Chaerea’s plot was successful. On January 24, 41 AD, following a day at the theater during which the nobleman Lucius Vitellius was planted at emperor’s feet throughout the performances, lavishing kisses on his toes, Caligula was assassinated. He was 28, and had been emperor for exactly three years, nine months and 28 days.

On November 3, Americans will vote. Should Trump lose, he’ll have served for roughly the same amount of time—one final similarity shared with Caligula.

Justin Martin, author of five books of nonfiction, is currently at work on a historical novel about Caligula.