Ancient and Modern
Is Donald Trump the Modern Nero?
Roman emperors are stained by legends of depravity, but strip away the rumors, says historian Tom Holland, and you find leaders catering to the whims of the masses.
In his acclaimed history, Rubicon, Tom Holland charted the bloody origins and ruin of the Roman republic. Twelve years later, the British writer and historian has penned a sequel which focuses on the imperial family that shocked and transformed Rome. Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar picks up where Rubicon left off—with the assassination of Julius Caesar—and then steers us through the turbulent lives and brutal reigns of the first five Roman emperors.
This book is a cautionary tale about power-lust and corruption. It comes packed with feuds and conspiracies, perversion and sadism, invasions and conquests, and back-stabbing and murder. Holland ably demonstrates how these monstrous dynasts in all their lurid glory continue to fascinate and repel: “Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools; Caligula, lamenting that the Roman people did not have a single neck, so that he might cut it through; Agrippina, the mother of Nero, scheming to bring to power the son who would end up having her murdered; Nero himself, kicking his pregnant wife to death, marrying a eunuch, and raising a pleasure palace over the fire-gutted center of Rome.”
Like Tacitus before him, Holland proves to be an excellent “pathologist of autocracy.” I spoke to him about his book and what relevance this story has for us two thousand years on.
Dynasty, like its prequel Rubicon, manages to be scholarly and compelling, able to appeal to specialists of Roman history and humble laypersons. Which target readership did you have in mind?
Both. The problem with this period is, in a way, the stories are too good! The emperors’ behavior seems too shocking, the behavior of the women seems too scandalous, and traditionally there have been two responses to that. The first is the Robert Graves response, which is to write it as fiction. The academic-scholarly approach, which is obviously more subtle, is to say there is probably quite a lot embedded in the stories about Roman attitudes to women, to power, to all kinds of things. It is the primal account of tyranny in the Western imagination, but it’s also a remarkable story full of astonishing characters. So what I’ve tried to do with this book is to emphasize those two approaches, to try to combine the narrative pace and excitement of fictional treatment of this period with the scholarly-academic understanding of what these stories may actually be about.
By and large, academics that come to this period are less interested in what might actually have happened than they are with what it says about Roman attitudes. In writing this book, insofar as I think it is possible, I have tried to say what I think actually happened. Where we don’t know, I have put my hands up and said we can’t really tell.
Historians of this period must say that often. It was so long ago that surely you have to resort to a lot of speculation and educated guesswork.
You’re right. Tacitus, the greatest historian of the period, acknowledges the problem right at the beginning of the Annals. He says that when these emperors were alive, people didn’t tell the truth about them because they were terrified of them, and when they died lies were told about them because they were hated. And that makes it a challenge for historians, and a particular challenge because in a court much that happened was behind closed doors. That was recognized by the Romans themselves after the change from a republican system of government. If you think about the origin of that word: res publica—public affairs—things that happen in the public eye. Statesmen gave speeches in the Senate or the Forum, up front, but when Augustus’s autocracy rose from the rubble of the Republic, from that point on things that affect Roman affairs are being carried out in corridors and bedrooms rather than the Senate and Forum.
And on top of that, there is the absolute addiction of Romans to gossip and slander. There are contemporary parallels that illustrate the problematic nature of these stories. David Cameron and the pig’s head is a classic example. It is believed partly because people enjoy it and partly because it’s felt to be believable, even if it’s not actually true. The same goes with a lot of the mad stories about Kim Jong-un.
Take us through this Roman rogues’ gallery. After savage civil war, is it fair to call Augustus the great restorer?
His image, as you say, is a very positive one. “Augustan” to this day means a golden age. But he’s the great restorer in the way a mafia boss imposes his rule on war-torn districts. Initially, Rome is a republic, and the very idea of an autocracy is anathema to the Romans. Because Augustus is the great nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, he inherits both Caesar’s money and his name. And he uses this status and this wealth before he is out of his teens to raise an army, eliminate vast swaths of the aristocracy, and eliminate their money. He stands supreme, the sole master of Rome and the empire, having combined political terrorism with personal violence.
There’s a story that when an assassin was brought before Augustus, he put his thumbs over the eyeballs of the assassin and gouged them out. He personally understood what violence could bring him and used it in an incredibly calculating way. After all this violence, he then realized that to continue in power he would have to pose as a prince of peace. The deal was he would give the world peace and in return the Romans would put up with his autocracy. He made the people believe he wasn’t the sole ruler and that the Senate shared the power. It was the kind of arrangement that anyone who’s watched The Godfather would recognize.
Augustus differs from his successors in that he took a dim view of promiscuity and even made adultery an offense.
Yes. He was conservative in pretty much everything apart from ambition. The Romans believed that moral and sexual depravity had played a key role in leading to the downfall of the Roman system and so Augustus legislates how people behave in their bedrooms. Although we have an image that the Romans of this period were spectacularly depraved, sexually promiscuous in every way, actually the opposite is true. They were very moral, puritanical people. Another parallel: in America you have immense gossip raking, but at the same time that gossip and the shock and scandal it evokes exists in the context of a broadly accepted moral code. It was pretty much the same for the Romans.
Ovid, the great literary figure of the latter years of Augustus’s reign, who had a massive influence on Shakespeare, we tend to think of him just as an erotic poet or a love poet. Actually, he’s a deeply political poet as well because by writing about people having affairs in the context of a regime that has criminalized adultery, that is a very political thing to do. And so it’s not surprising that Ovid ends up in exile.
Next up was Tiberius.
He is the great tragic hero of the story. Unlike Augustus, he is a Claudian, which is the snootiest, most Bush-like dynasty in Rome. Tiberius sees himself as the defender of an aristocratic tradition. He is a figure of tremendous weight and achievement—he proves to be an incredibly effective general, has a talent for pacifying provinces, securing frontiers, doing all these unglamorous things which are essential for firming up the Roman empire. When he becomes emperor he becomes unpopular with the people because he affects this stiff, haughty, aristocratic contempt for them, but he is also unpopular with the aristocracy because he’s the emperor.
The strains of this get too much for him so he retires to the island of Capri for the last ten years of his life and appoints able governors to administer the state. On Capri he is seen by provincials such as the Alexandrian Jew, Philo, as almost a Prospero figure, but to the Romans he has abandoned, they believe that the reason he wants to live his life in private is because he is a massive perv. So they tell terrible stories about what he is getting up to on Capri, and they are stories that ruin his reputation. The stain of these stories has clung to him ever since.
Do you believe them? The Capri stories in the book are accounts of eye-watering depravity.
I’m sure there are elements of truth to them. He does seem to have indulged in some unsavory practices, and he becomes increasingly oppressive towards his family. But on the other hand he kept peace across a vast region of the world that had never known peace, and this was a remarkable achievement.
We get more depravity, both on Capri and back in Rome, courtesy of the most notorious member of the dynasty, and perhaps the most well known—Caligula. We associate him with the utmost decadence. Does he have any redeeming features?
Well, the Romans invented satire and there is a sense in which Caligula is a great satirist. The most brutally funny example of that is when he falls ill, and a Roman declares that if he is spared by the gods then he will fight in the arena. It’s an obsequious piece of flattery—he had absolutely no thought that Caligula would take him up on it. Caligula recovers and pushes him into the arena where he is butchered by a gladiator and dragged away on a hook. To the elite this was terrifying, they didn’t know what the rules were: if they fail to flatter Caligula they are punished; if they did, he would punish them. But to the people watching it was very funny and made him terribly popular.
The other thing to be said about him is that he behaved in the way most ordinary Romans would have behaved had they become emperor. In other words, he gads around in chariots, and he provides dash and color and youth to a city that has grown weary of aged and grim Tiberius.
He overturns Augustus’s anti-adultery laws. So does he encourage wild living and excess?
Well, he doesn’t encourage excess. What he does is play on every sexual taboo that the aristocracy has, because he absolutely understands what was most humiliating and excruciating for an aristocratic Roman. One of the stories told about Tiberius on Capri is that he was a great enthusiast for pornographic floorshows, and what turns him on is to see these shows performed by the sons and daughters of leading men. We are also told that Caligula takes part. What happens when Caligula becomes emperor is that he translates that onto the most public stage of all in Rome. There is a story told that many historians doubt, but I think it has elements of truth because it so closely echoes what was meant to have gone on at Capri: Caligula seizes the sons, daughters, and wives of senators, puts them in his residence on the Palatine to serve as hostages, and also announces that they are now prostitutes for sale in a public brothel. The calculated insult to the Senate was breathtaking. The nerve and the sheer horror of it is extraordinary, and yet clearly also highly entertaining to the vast mass of the people who, when Caligula subsequently gets assassinated, are terribly upset and threaten to riot.
Do you think Caligula was insane?
His enemies accused him of being mad, but I don’t think he was mad at all. What he did was certainly sadistic, but it displayed a very shrewd and calculating political intelligence. On a personal level, he clearly enjoyed dressing up and hurting people, but the political strategy that he displays, which is a conscious attempt to eradicate the influence of the Senate, to undermine the entire basis of his prestige and to found his own authority—essentially, that works. The Senate is completely—at times literally—emasculated by this strategy. The famous story that is used to show Caligula was mad, that he wanted to make his horse a consul—it was a joke. He was taking the piss out of the ambition of the Senate. Every individual senator wanted to become a consul, but Caligula was saying to them, everything is in my power. He was very satirically and cynically mocking their ambitions.
Is it fair to say that Claudius is the best out of a bad lot?
I suppose what you could say about Claudius is he is not as bad as Caligula! He can be seen as a good guy but … At the games there were three orders of entertainment: executions followed by hunting followed by gladiatorial combat. Claudius was unusual in preferring the spectacle of the executions. Having said that, his great achievement was that he invested in infrastructure and conquered Britain. But the basis of his rule was problematic, because he was not related to Augustus, he was not a lineal descendant, he was the first emperor to have Caesar as a title rather than by right. That meant he was dependent on his wives, descendents of Augustus, and dependent on slaves. Claudius comes to power basically in a coup. The Senate resents this; they were hoping they could restore their power. Inevitably, Claudius has to uphold his regime though force.
Which brings us, lastly, to Nero. Can we draw parallels between Nero and Caligula? Both were young, hedonistic, and responsible for some outrageous acts. And both met grisly ends.
I think there are parallels. But also, in their own brutal way, they are consummate politicians. For an emperor you have two choices: you either go with the grain and try to get the Senate and the upper classes on your side and play along with their morality; or you deliberately try to freeze them out of the equation and you reach over their heads to the people. So what Caligula and Nero are doing, in a sense, is the equivalent of what Trump and Sanders are doing—wanting to get out of that Washington bubble to speak to the people. Caligula and Nero are doing that, although obviously in a vastly more entertaining and brutal way. That is their political program and both are pretty good at it.
Do you think he Nero was more hated than Caligula?
I think he was certainly as hated by the aristocracy as Caligula was, but I think he was probably more loved by the people. Nero understood better than any other emperor who ever lived that being a successful emperor was at least in part about acting. When he dies he says, “What an artist perishes with me.” There is a very self-conscious degree of artifice about what he does. When he kills his mother because she’s a danger, he doesn’t do it discreetly by poison, he does it in a very public way—he gives her a yacht that collapses, and then when she swims from that he has her openly murdered by guards. He takes up acting, which is not the kind of thing an emperor is supposed to do, and one of the parts he takes on is Orestes, who in Greek tragedy is the archetypal matricide who kills his mother, Clytemnestra. Effectively, Nero casts himself as a figure of tragedy. It’s the kind of thing an ancient hero or maybe a god would do. This explains many of his stunts. He is at the center of the stage. He is pure show business.
Women get a rough deal throughout the Roman Empire. They are either subservient or sly manipulators. A wife caught in flagrante could be murdered on the spot. And you compare a brothel to a latrine: “A man could no more be expected to ignore his sexual needs than he could a full bladder.”
It’s really important to appreciate that the Romans’ attitude towards sex is different than ours. For us, sexual vocabulary is usually focused upon female genitals, but for Romans the vast majority of sexual vocabulary is focused upon male genitals. It relates essentially to military action, to stabbing, thrusting, piercing, and it reflects the way in which being an active sexual partner in the Roman psychology has to do with being free, powerful, a Roman male. So when the Roman people submit to Augustus and to his heirs, the figure of the emperor becomes the dominant male figure and the Roman people are made to feel subservient. There is an incredible psychosexual tension going on, and that puts an enormous onus on imperial women who actually have incredible power—compared with the time of the Republic where they had none.
You have women like Livia, the wife of Augustus, who is able to project herself as a model of sexual respectability. No one can have a go at her. She has a degree of power greater than most Roman men have, provided that she gives not a hint of sexual misbehavior. The other Julio-Claudian women, they are in a more precarious position. They are potentially powerful people, but because they don’t have the hold on the emperor that Livia uniquely has, they are incredibly vulnerable to anybody saying they are sexually promiscuous, and there are stories told about them because the very idea of a powerful woman to most Romans is regarded in itself as sexually depraved.
And you have schemers such as Nero’s mother, Agrippina.
They have to be schemers. Any woman who has the blood of Augustus in her veins has the potential to breed an emperor, which makes them incredibly dangerous to the person who is emperor at the time. Nero ends up killing his mother to show how much she is a genuine threat to him.
Roman history is forever being updated and rewritten. The writer Robert Harris has argued that the conspirators who assassinated Julius Caesar can now be compared to the German army officers who tried to blow up Hitler in 1944, i.e., not traitors but heroes. Can we revise the reputations of these emperors and see them as something other than tyrants?
We in the West have woken up, perhaps, to the way that Rome continues to hold a mirror up to us. People have always looked to it, and been influenced by it, and seen their own reflections in it. That is why in America there is a Senate and a Capitol Hill. The American republic was very consciously founded on the example of the Roman republic. And there were anxieties: the Roman republic collapsed and was replaced with an autocracy, and this was massively influential on the framing of the Constitution. At a time when it’s possible now to look at the late Roman republic, the era of Julius Caesar, and see in it numerous echoes of our own times, inevitably the story of how Caesar came to seize power makes people nervous. The earlier appreciation of Julius Caesar as a superman, and Augustus, too, belongs to a more innocent time before the great dictators of the modern era, and I think now we are less sympathetic towards people who seize power by military means.
Talking of the modern era, most of us would acknowledge that we need to understand ancient Rome; but should we take lessons from it?
It’s not a matter of should, it’s just we always have done. Rome is such an influential seedbed of our civilization that it’s almost impossible not to look back to it for some form of contextualization. We can trace the changing self-image we have of ourselves by tracking how our attitudes to Rome have changed. I think, essentially, the role that Rome plays in the modern West’s imagination is like that of a really great science-fiction novel. It is simultaneously very familiar and very alien, and what is familiar about it becomes unsettling because of what is alien about it. And vice-versa. We have had two cracks at civilization, and in that sense I think we are always shadowed by Rome.
So can we learn from its politics and its emperors’ naked ambition?
If we are trying to draw lessons about ourselves, traditionally Rome has provided that context. You only have to think about the readiness to draw upon parallels in American politics. So when Bush was invading Iraq, it was very hard to open a newspaper or magazine and not find him portrayed with a laurel wreath. The idea of Bush as Caesar was an absolute staple of newspaper commentary. And now I think when people look at a presidential campaign where, perhaps, you might have another Bush up against another Clinton, people look back to Rome and its dynasties.
And dynasties in politics provide a kind of reassurance for some voters. What worked well before, will work again in a new guise.
I think that dynasties provide brands, and people invest in familiar brands, and I think that the lessons both of the Roman and the American republics demonstrate that.
Do you see any more connections between the republics in today’s politics?
There was a whole tradition in Roman politics called the popularis tradition and it was with incredibly rich, aristocratic figures playing the popular card and saying, I am the spokesman for the ordinary Joe, and affecting the language and the tone of the ordinary citizen and consciously setting himself against what he would portray as the archetypal, self-obsessed establishment. That was the tradition that Caligula and Nero inherited, so in their bloodthirsty and brutal way they were populares, people who were playing to the popular gallery, who were all about entertaining as well as ruling. I think Donald Trump is clearly a politician in the popularis tradition.