Caligula, Cnut and Trump

Caligula, Cnut and Trump

In AD 41 Roman senators and their associates assassinated the emperor Caligula after a disastrous four-year reign marked by his egomania, grandiose building projects and incomprehensible foreign policy. “Caligula” was the nickname of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus and means “little boots.” The problem was that this spoiled child had become too big for them. Quite apart from the excesses of his sexual philandering, he had declared himself a god and appointed his horse as a consul – the most senior administrative post in the empire. Sound familiar?

During Caligula’s reign it was observed that his childish selfishness, self-aggrandizement and arrogance were accompanied by increasing paranoia, furious and insulting outbursts and a marked sociopathy. He does not seem to have had a son-in-law in charge of Middle East peace talks, but he did order a statue of himself to be erected in the temple at Jerusalem. Nor is there any record of Caligula ever referring to his “great and unmatched wisdom” or describing himself as a “very stable genius” but you get the idea.

Public opinion would probably disapprove of US senators assassinating a president. After JFK, and a failed attempt on Ronald Reagan, they have had to make do with impeachments, which are never quite as satisfying, especially when they fail. The reluctance of the Democrats to impeach Trump has been due to the likelihood that, as in the case of Bill Clinton, it will probably fail and even increase his chances of re-election. If they hope for a Nixon situation, where the president resigned before impeachment, they are wrong: Donald Trump would never accept that kind of plea bargaining.

There have always been theories – right from his own time – that Caligula was clinically insane. These theories have been vigorously contested by both historians and psychiatrists. “Little Boots” was no more insane than Donald Trump.

In the 1979 film “Caligula,” Malcolm McDowell’s obscenity and complete waywardness made him almost lovable. If he had said that his father had been born in Germany (where he in fact enjoyed remarkable success as a general) the Romans would probably have believed him.

The best solution for Trump is probably to accommodate him in a home for disturbed children. There he would meet his equals, and discover, perhaps for the first time in his life, that nursery tempers – such as throwing your toys across the playpen, violent mood swings or getting your minders sacked for not doing exactly as you demand – are no longer viable strategies. For the first time in his life he would encounter a nanny saying firmly: “No, Donald. You cannot and you may not.”

The tragedy is that if he had stayed in the private sector, hosting silly chat shows (the equivalent of the Roman “bread and circuses”), running loss-making casinos and airlines, and setting up a bogus university, he would have remained a laughing stock that we could enjoy and maybe even relate to. We all love a failure. Instead, US citizens related to his “fake promises” of making the Roman Empire – sorry, America – “great again.”

The remarkable fact about the Roman Empire is that it continued to function efficiently despite Caligula or his nephew, Nero. Given Trump’s up-and-down foreign policy (or lack thereof) it’s remarkable that his diplomatic corps (for the most part) continues to represent America abroad, while at home the wheels of government and the judiciary keep turning. Here in Greece we have to hope that the seesaw on Middle East policy can be stabilized by what Yanis Varoufakis would call “adults in the room” – which does not include Jared Kushner, who plays Nero to Trump’s Caligula.

For the Romans, the imperative in foreign policy wasn’t just to keep the natives happy, but to put up walls against the barbarians: the Goths, Huns, Persians, who would eventually swamp even Rome itself. So Trump’s idea of building a 3,000-kilometer wall to keep out the Mexicans is only a repeat of what the Romans and the Chinese did millennia ago.

In Ireland, however, Trump’s wall-building has been of a different order. The Trump family owns a golf course on the west coast of Ireland. Like many Trumpy enterprises, the golf course makes a loss. To protect three of the course’s holes, which are on the coastline, the company proposes to build a wall, 4 meters high and 3.5 km in length, at a cost of 10 million euros. The purpose? Not to deter the Mexicans, or the Irish, but the sea from doing what it does naturally.

Trump may not have heard of Cnut, the 11th century king of Denmark, England and Norway, who tried to do just that by royal command, and became such a laughing stock in the process that they called him “Silly Cnut.” Nor had he reckoned with a force more powerful than the Mexican government: the local authority, Clare County Council, which rejected his plan on environmental grounds after widespread local and international protest.

“I went for approval to do this massive, beautiful expansion, now I couldn’t care less about it. They were using environmental tricks to stop a project from being built. I don’t think that’s good for a country like Ireland.” So the petulance that we’ve learned as a trademark of the Trump presidency is evident even in such minor matters. Caligula cut off the heads of those he suspected of opposing him. Trump can’t even do that.

Richard Pine was voted “Critic of the Year” in the 2018 Irish Journalism Awards. He lives and works in Corfu, and is the author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kathimerini.

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