Barbarians raid the Capitol while Nero sets Washington ablaze
As Congress convened in Washington to ratify the presidential election results, a large group of pro-Trump protesters attempted to break their way into the Capitol. The session was forced to adjourn while Senators and members of Congress were moved to more secure areas. The Trumpist hoards began flooding in like raging water, leaving us horrific images of 6th January 2021. If 2020 was a difficult year to forget, the 6th day of this year has left us with the snapshot of a bare-chested man covered in tattoos, his face painted with the US flag and an animal skin with horns covering his head, presiding over the United States Senate Chamber. While the situation itself was utterly serious, the images that started spreading like wildfire on social media gave rise to humour, sarcasm, and historical comparisons of all kinds, with inevitable references to the history of Rome.
Teetering between worry and humour, Twitter became a hive of comments and photographs likening the Capitol raid to Barbarian invasions. “Barbarians at the gate. Gauls raid the capital! Or are they the Visigoths, led by Alaric? Or perhaps Gaiseric’s vandals? What will this attack on the Capitol bring? The start of a new imperialist Republic like after the first Sack of Rome, or will it be the fall of the Empire?” These were the reflections of one Twitter user while the seizure was still under way. Another, named Anacletus, pondered sarcastically, “Are there no geese in the US Capitol to warn them when the Barbarians arrive?”. Meanwhile, Twitter user Galieno_Augusto reaped more than 2,500 “likes” with the following tweet:
These are just three of the many tweets that made reference to the image of the Barbarians looting the urbs, while others adopted some other historical analogy, such as the Viking invasions or the 1527 Sack of Rome.
Nero in the White House
Another analogy linked to ancient Rome proved to be even more popular, both on Twitter and across a number of media channels: that between Donald Trump and the emperor Nero, especially in reference to the Great Fire of Rome, 64 AD. Along with countless tweets and newspaper headlines to have made this comparison (links 1, 2, 3), frequently accompanied by some freeze-frame or another of Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis (1951), perhaps the most relevant example is the illustration by David Rowe for the Financial Review just a day after the riots:
However, the act of comparing Trump to Nero was far from new, nor inspired solely by the storming of the Capitol. In fact, 2020 is rife with examples of this kind. It is a comparison that was even made by one of his greatest political adversaries, Bernie Sanders, to condemn the fact that Trump played golf during difficult times for the country, just as Nero “fiddled while Rome burned”:
In June of last year, Tim O’Brien published an illustration with the title “Trump Nero” to accompany an article entitled “The End of Empire”. During the Capitol raid, this image went viral on Twitter once again. Here, Trump/Nero is not playing golf, but is instead seen tweeting while Washington D.C is engulfed by the flames. Just a few days prior, another newspaper comic strip depicted Trump/Nero playing a fiddle out of the window of the White House.
All of these examples, particularly this last comic strip, are rooted in the controversy that arose in March 2020, when Trump’s political advisor Dan Scavino posted the following meme on his Twitter profile, which was made even more popular by the president himself upon responding from his account, “Who knows what this means, but it sounds good to me!”:
They seemed to have walked straight into it, not anticipating the sarcastic backlash this would incur from Trump’s political rivals and harshest critics. The allusion to Nero and his lyre was obvious, leading some users to poke fun at the fact that neither the advisor nor the president seemed to have caught on. By 9th March 2020, the word “Nero” had gained trending topic status, and Amazon wasted no time in putting appropriately controversial T-shirts on sale that very same day (though not for the first time—an even more epic design linking these two figures had been sold by the platform the previous year).
A few days leading up to this polemical buzz, the Trump-Nero comparison had been the theme for a float at a carnival parade in the city of Mainz (Germany). Underlining just how popular this parallel had become was the publication, in early 2020, of two books whose titles make a direct connection between these figures: More of History’s Worst: 2000 Years of Idiocy from Nero to Trump (link), and American Nero: The History of the Destruction of the Rule of Law, and Why Trump Is the Worst Offender (link).
If we look even further back, we find that we are dealing with what was already a widespread analogy even before 2020, and one which accompanied the 45th president throughout practically his whole term, including during the 2018 California wildfires:
In previous years, a number of media channels had used this comparison in reference to the American decline, despite that fact that under Nero’s rule, in the 1st century AD, the Roman Empire was thriving (links 1, 2, 3). Tom Holland, author of several books on the history of Rome, made the comparison between Trump and Nero (not to mention Sanders and Caligula!) when promoting his book Dinasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar (2015).
It is worth mentioning that the potential fall of the American Empire and its being likened to the fall of Rome has been a recurring theme all on its own, both in newspaper articles and academic texts, without necessarily making use of the Trump-Nero analogy.
Trump and other “bad emperors”
“Decline and fall: what Donald Trump can learn from the Roman emperors” was the title given by classicist Natalie Haynes to her article published in The Guardian at the end of last year. The author talks not only about Nero, but also Caligula and Domitian. Although she tries to avoid making direct comparisons, Haynes poses a fundamental question: “What difference is there between an elected president and an unelected dictator if the president refuses to step down when his time has come?”
In light of the Capitol riots, other classicists and the media have made a more direct comparison between Trump and Caligula.
As with the example of Nero, although perhaps to a lesser extent, this comparison is pre-existing and has a good career behind it. Blogs of varying stature and newspaper articles alike have made this comparison since the beginning of Trump’s term. As was to be expected, several of these articles include famous snapshots of the 1979 semi-pornographic film about the Roman Emperor, starring Malcolm McDowell and directed by Tinto Brass. In a blog dedicated to compiling “recounts of Trump and the Republicans’ daily disasters”, Spike Dolomite talked of Trump’s legislation as that of “the most corrupt government since Caligula’s Rome”, in an entry that opens with the following image:
Hosted by renowned political commentator Thom Hartmann is a radio show debating the question: which historical figure more closely resembles Trump—Mussolini, Hitler, Berlusconi or Caligula?
A quiz of the “Who said it?” variety has also emerged, where players have to guess if certain statements were made by Trump or Caligula. It is not easy to guess correctly, even if you know quite a bit about each leader. Apart from that, there is a Twitter account under the name Donald Caligula Trump, although it has had limited activity since its creation in November 2017, and not a single follower (but at least he has had the privilege of remaining active, which is more than the real emper… president can say).
Last but not least, Trump has even been compared to the emperor Commodus. As a rule, this leader has never been as well-known in popular culture as Nero or Caligula. However, thanks to the impact of the film Gladiator (2000), in which Commodus was played by Joaquin Phoenix, this emperor has become another popular reference for the figure of the tyrant (whilst not forgetting that in The Fall of the Roman Empire  Christopher Plummer played the same role with an equally unsympathetic portrayal of the character). During the electoral campaign in 2016, uploaded to YouTube by one of Trump’s followers was a montage of a famous scene from the film, where the candidate for presidency was likened to Maximus (making him the new “American Gladiator”). In stark contrast, an article in The Guardian in August 2019 linked him to Commodus, with the provocative title “Trump seems to think he’s an emperor – but we are not entertained”, in clear reference to the film. The article based this comparison on a number of controversial statements by the president in which he, like some emperors, compared himself to a deity or referred to himself as “the chosen one”.
Trump: the new Julius Caesar?
Nero, Caligula, and Commodus are not the only historical figures to have been recognised in Donald Trump. On the same day the Capitol was raided, the Twitter account Antigua Roma al Día saw a parallel between Julius Caesar rejecting the decisions of the Roman Senate and preparing to cross the Rubicon, and Trump refusing to accept the election results and turning his followers against the US Senate. Some followers found the comparison detestable, forcing the blog to clarify that “Trump is not even fit to tie Caesar’s calceus”, and that it had just been a joke, but that such an analogy was not unfounded.
As it happens, Antigua Roma al Día was not the first to identify similarities between Julius Caesar and the 45th president of the United States. In fact, this association was made even before his election, when he was already known to be aspiring to the White House. In an interview published by the BBC, broadcaster and writer Tom Holland pointed out how each of the two political figures had stood up to the establishment and were “very impatient” with the republican traditions and democratic procedures of their respective countries. And he was not the only one to make this observation. Journalists, politologists and even classicists have periodically used this comparison by way of examining the actions and character of the US president.
While the well-known Mary Beard recently underlined how misleading it can be to compare two political personalities separated by over twenty centuries, she admits that there are parallels to be drawn between Trump and Caesar. This was illustrated somewhat exhaustively by the American journalist, academic and politologist Brent Ranalli last November, in a series of four articles in which he detailed what are, from his point of view, the similarities and differences between the two (links 1, 2, 3 y 4).
The Caesar-Trump analogy blew up as part of the buzz surrounding a remake of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, released in 2017 with the English playwright’s original script, in which the Roman dictator was made to look and move a lot like Trump. The US right-wing media and their followers criticised the piece, in particular for its well-known ending. Nonetheless, they used this very same parallel on Twitter after the elections, to denounce the “betrayal” of his closest allies, such as vice-president Mike Pence (A.K.A. Brutus) (tweets 1, 2, 3).
In the search for historical analogies for the purpose of analysing or mocking Trump, he has been likened by Twitter users, journalists and academics to other “strong men” from the last century of the Roman Republic. Unsurprisingly, the most popular are those who challenged republican institutions and traditions, contributing to the crisis and the end of the Res publica. Though this list is not exhaustive, we have come across comparisons with populares leaders such as Gaius Marius, Catiline and Clodius, as well as the optimate dictator Sulla.
Donald Trump and the crisis of the Roman Republic
As we have seen, Donald Trump’s image and presidency have signified a new, prolific episode of Classical Reception in current affairs. To some extent, the parallel is inescapable, being the US a democracy deliberately designed to reflect the institutions of ancient republics, especially that of Rome. The Founding Fathers endeavoured to put a system of checks and balances in place to prevent their republican system from giving way to authoritarianism, so as not to fall into the same errors or fate as the Romans.
As underlined by Joy Connolly in 2017 (article reviewed by Antonio Duplá), the Roman aristocracy designed an institutional framework that was intended to prevent the emergence of political personalities like Donald Trump, in very much the same way as the founders of the US did. The Romans were unsuccessful, as the Republic gave way to the Empire. As a result, concern that the US republican system might be harmed by Trump’s repeated acts of defiance has shone an inevitable spotlight on the crisis of the Roman Republic, its causes and key players. In 2004, neocon historian Niall Ferguson boasted that, unlike Rome, the American republican constitution has “withstood the ambitions of any would-be Caesar” (apud López Barja de Quiroga 2015, 205). Currently, many citizens of the global village wonder if Trump will be the precursor to more authoritarian regimes, as were Sulla and others to Caesar and Augustus.
What is more, the notion of empire has been associated with the United States for decades, especially following the end of the Cold War, both by supporters and opposers of the new hegemonic power of the time. As with any other empire, Rome is inevitably taken as a reference. As Phiroze Vasunia rightly explains in what he refers to as the first law of comparative imperialisms: “As an online discussion of empire grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Roman Empire approaches 1”. Thus, Trump is not the first US president to be compared with emperors and important figures from Roman history, nor will he be the last.
*This article was originally published in Spanish on 15th January 2021: https://aniho.hypotheses.org/2075