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Dealing with Emperor Trump: Field Notes from Ancient Rome

While Nero may have fiddled while ancient Rome burned, how the people respond to 'Emperor Trump' will dictate just how much damage the billionaire reality television star does while in office. (Photo: Ancient Origins)

The Roman poet, Virgil, wrote his classic epic, The Aeneid, in the aftermath of decades of political dysfunction and violence. Riots and bloody brawls, revenge killings, and periodic outbursts of civil war had turned Rome into a burnt out shell of its former self, as a rolling parade of demagogues, each posing as a uniquely gifted savior of a Rome that was once great, urged ‘real’ and ‘good’ Romans to hate and, when necessary, kill the ‘fake’ and ‘bad’ ones.   And they did that, hating and killing their fellow Romans, in great numbers.

In the first pages of Virgil’s epic, the story’s mythic hero, Aeneas, is caught in a storm at sea.  If his ship sinks, the state of Rome cannot be founded, so the sea god, Neptune, sweeps in to rescue both the ship, and the state of Rome that the ship represents, by effortlessly dispersing the marauding winds back to the foreign prison-hole from which they had been unleashed.  And it is here, in describing the effortlessness of that act of pacification, that things get really interesting.  Virgil compares the sea storm to a riot that breaks out in the center of Rome: a furious mob is rampaging through the streets, hurling stones and setting fires. Then suddenly some un-named elder statesman steps onto the scene, visible to all: a man ‘loaded with piety’ who speaks ‘soothing words’ that cause the rioters to cease their rampage.  Looking at that super-pious man, they come to their senses and drop their torches.

"The government will soon be in the hands of a man who has no scruples about speaking insultingly and recklessly about things he actively chooses not to understand.  And yet ours is a grand, old, resilient democracy all the same."

In describing the storm’s pacification in this way, Virgil paints a picture that speaks to the weariness of Romans worn down by decades of civil strife.  It is a clever picture that completely reverses the way that things were actually known to work in Rome: since when did Roman statesmen use their words to calm crowds, rather than to whip them into frenzies of self-righteous, mutual destruction?  Since when did politicians parade their ‘piety’ as an appeal for calm rather than a call for revenge?  And so on.  It’s all impossibly upside down.  A wonderful fantasy!

And yet it is a fantasy ‘Roman’ in its very design, for it finds Virgil posing a ‘big man’ solution to Rome’s ongoing ‘big man’ problem: yet another superman who, like a god, will wave his wand and send all of Rome’s problems packing, back to whatever foreign hellholes that they were allowed to swarm out of.  That’s the way fascists think about power.  Here the idea parades as a fantasy of peace.

Wearied by decades of war and vitriol, Romans of Virgil’s day gave themselves over to dreams of this sort, and what they got in return was an autocrat: the emperor Augustus.  We are now entering a new age in the United States, having just elected as our next president a man who has proven himself uniquely gifted at turning the latent fears and untapped ‘us versus them’ hatreds of millions of otherwise decent American citizens into a source of his own political power.  He has no qualms about doing this, and he offers no apologies.  Instead of appealing to what Lincoln named ‘the better angels of our nature,’ Donald Trump has consistently appealed to the most irrational and un-controllable of our worst potentials, enticing them out into the light of day.  Like any bad Roman emperor, he has shown himself preternaturally gifted at conjuring up fantasy threats (Mexican rapists) that stand in for real ones (global warming), so that he might sweep in to pose as a protection against those threats.  In the end, that’s the way bad emperors worked the reins of power in Rome: not by actually solving problems, but by posing problems of their own manufacture; problems that they themselves, and only they, could claim to be uniquely capable of solving.  They needed people to feel afraid so that they could step in to calm their fears.

Not all Roman poets were as happy as Virgil in the autocrats that they lived under—as far as emperors go, Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, wasn’t half bad.  Later poets such as Lucan and the Younger Seneca, both living under Nero, wrote jarring, dystopian poems that make the zombie apocalypse films of our own day look rather tame.  In their works they describe morally disfigured worlds abandoned to forces let loose from hell; demons unleashed, and determined to tear human decency to shreds.  They draw such gruesome pictures to illustrate the awful truth about how power was generated under divisive and bad emperors.  But they do so also in order to describe the ruined state of their own minds; minds damaged by seething, despondency, and hatred, all eating away at them from inside.

The first century satirist, Persius, demonstrates that he is highly aware of this problem in his poems.  As a self-avowed Stoic, he knows that not only are such reckless ways of reacting to the reckless ways of tyranny unhelpful, they are self-destructive: a counterproductive self-indulgence that serves merely to validate the nastiness it seeks to oppose, all on the way to eating away at, and ruining, the soul.  How can I oppose hate and fear as political tools if hate and fear are my response to their political use?  Trapped in a world that was glowered over by a vainglorious man-child, Persius felt the vitriol bubbling inside himself.  He used his satires to dwell on the difficulties of keeping sane in Nero’s world, and the overriding point of his poems is that to give in to hatred of Nero is, in essence, to let him take control of you, and derive yet more power from you; it is to let him steer you from the inside; it is to let him win.

Many are the pundits (not to mention the professional basketball coaches!) who have declared an America under Donald Trump a new Rome.  I, too, feel their pain, and I want to second them in their outrage.  But, taking a lesson from Persius, I think that to give in to such hyperbole threatens to make of me my very own, self-indulgent version of Donald Trump.  He is the outraged hyperbolist looking to scare and score points, not me.  I do not want to become him.  Yes, we have problems in this country.  Big ones.  Our democracy is fragile and on the precipice of hard times.  The government will soon be in the hands of a man who has no scruples about speaking insultingly and recklessly about things he actively chooses not to understand.  And yet ours is a grand, old, resilient democracy all the same.  Not Rome, in other words.  Not quite.  Not yet—though we have just taken a big, dangerous step in that direction.  It is our job now, as Americans, to reconnect with the better angels of our nature, not to dream up monsters, or a savior to sweep in and slay them.  The task is to fix our problems in the plural, as in ‘we the people,’ for ourselves.

Kirk Freudenburg

Kirk Freudenburg is a Professor in Department of Classics at Yale University, and a former fellow of the American Academy in Rome (FAAR 2002).  His Cambridge Companion to the Age of Nero, co-edited with Shadi Bartsch and Cedric Littlewood, is forthcoming this spring.

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