Review: How to Be a Bad Emperor: An Ancient Guide to Truly Terrible Leaders by Suetonius (Selected, Translated, and Introduced by Josiah Osgood)
“For what can anyone expect from someone he has trained in wickedness? A villainous heart does not show obedience for long, and the scale of its crimes does not depend on the orders it is given.”
- Seneca, On Mercy, 1.26.1
“Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.”
- Albert Camus, The Plague
From the very first paragraph, it’s impossible to ignore the eerie and disconcerting parallels between some of ancient Rome’s most notorious emperors and President Donald Trump that can be found in How to Be a Bad Emperor: An Ancient Guide to Truly Terrible Leaders. Drawn from the ancient historian Suetonius’s masterwork Lives of the Caesars and translated by Georgetown classics scholar Josiah Osgood, this latest in a series of fresh translations of ancient Greek and Roman works on politics and philosophy never explicitly draws out similarities between these ancient tyrants and their modern doppelgänger. But this uncanny symmetry remains clear, making a persuasive – and petrifying – case that while the times may change, awful political leadership remains timeless.
It’s a hard lesson, and one humanity seems forced to endure time and again. We learn with difficulty that an amalgam of incompetence, malevolence, and egotism in our political leaders sends our societies careening toward catastrophe. Yet time marches on, and these lessons fade from our collective memory. As a result, societies repeatedly find themselves at the mercy of charlatans and misanthropes who cannot even begin to contemplate the public good or consider anything beyond their own egos. Osgood’s selections from Suetonius therefore perform a salutary task, reminding us that dreadful political leadership both remains inescapable and invariably proves disastrous.
These ancient reminders start with Julius Caesar, the otherwise impressive military commander who proved too arrogant for his own good. According to Suetonius, Caesar held himself high above those who considered themselves his equal – or at least felt they weren’t as far down Rome’s political and social pecking order as Caesar apparently did. This hubris would prove Caesar’s nemesis, blinding him to those conspiring to assassinate him. Ultimately, Suetonius tells us, Caesar “allowed honors to be awarded to him that were too great for any human being… Indeed, there were no honors he did not receive, or bestow, as he liked.”
Caesar’s pride and vanity may have led to his own murder, but his faults would come to pale in comparison with those of his successors. Midway through his more than two-decade reign as Rome’s second full-fledged emperor, Tiberius retreated from the capitol and relocated more or less permanently to the resort island of Capri. Ensconced there, Suetonius recounts, Tiberius “gave up his concern for public affairs.” He failed to appoint replacements for a wide variety of public positions, up to and including provincial governors for vital imperial territories like Spain and Syria. Enemies nibbled away at Rome’s frontiers, leading Suetonius to charge the “dishonor to the empire was as great as the danger.”
Though modern historians discount the tales told by Suetonius of Tiberius’s sexual debauchery – “Roman history is full of salacious rumors, and we should be skeptical,” the historian Barry Strauss cautioned in his own recent group biography Ten Caesars – his brutality toward his imagined enemies remains largely uncontested. Tiberius earned this reputation with his proclivity for treason trials against those among the Roman elite who criticized him, as well as repression of average Romans over quotidian offenses like changing one’s clothes near a statue of the Augustus. As Suetonius remarks, “To go through all his acts of cruelty one by one would be tedious… Every crime was considered a capital one, even if it consisted of a few innocent words.”
Nor did Tiberius leave behind much of a legacy in stone or marble. “He spent little and was tightfisted,” Suetonius says. “As emperor, he did not build any structures of splendor.” Tiberius did not shower the Roman military or the Roman people with much generosity, even in times of hardship. Suetonius also alleges that Rome’s provinces failed to receive much financial support from their emperor, though he does make an exception for recovery efforts that followed an earthquake in the eastern part of the empire.
But the torpor of Tiberius couldn’t compete with the paranoid and cruel megalomania of his immediate successor, Caligula. This emperor’s behavior as emperor certainly accords with what Suetonius says he told his grandmother: “I can do whatever I want to whomever I want.” Caligula executed family members, relatives, and friends on a whim, “suddenly and unexpectedly” killing his adoptive brother when he confused the brother’s cough medicine for a poison antidote and forcing his father-in-law to commit suicide after he failed to join Caligula on a stormy ocean voyage out of concern for seasickness. No sector of Roman society was spared Caligula’s callous brutality, Suetonius writes; he treated them all “with similar arrogance and violence” for trivial reasons like “being critical of his games.” When notified that he had punished the wrong person due to what Suetonius tells us is a confusion over names, Caligula claimed that the unintended victim “deserved it just as much.”
Caligula’s narcissism and contempt for humanity knew few if any bounds. “I wish the Roman People had a single neck!” he shouted because crowds backed a racing team other than the one he favored. “Over and over,” Suetonius tells us, “he wished for military massacres, famine, plague, fires, or a major earthquake” in order to be able to demonstrate his own greatness. He repeatedly made clear that he could execute random individuals and close relatives whenever he felt like it, telling consuls at a dinner party “that with a single nod I could immediately have both of you executed.” “In short,” Suetonius observes, “no matter how bad a man’s circumstances or low his fortune, Caligula still begrudged him whatever advantages he did enjoy.”
Suetonius does give us an explanation for Caligula’s self-indulgence and cruelty: “overwhelming confidence and, on the other hand, excessive fear.” The emperor claimed to have no use for the gods, the ancient historian says, but scurried underneath his bed at “the smallest burst of thunder and clap of lightning.” It shouldn’t be surprising that this combustible cocktail of deep insecurity and grandiosity produced such a vicious and volatile personality. Eventually Caligula went too far, insulting a senior officer in the Praetorian Guard and leading members of that elite unit to assassinate him.
Just thirteen years after Caligula’s death, however, the emperor Nero would mount an impressive challenge to his standing as Rome’s worst leader. Under the influence of advisors like the philosopher Seneca and Praetorian Guard commander Burrus, Nero’s early reign showed promise. But just five years in, Nero murdered his mother and began a full-blown descent into tyranny and self-absorption.
Above all, Nero saw himself as an entertainer and an artist. He took up singing, playing the lyre, and driving chariots, moving up previously scheduled games so he could perform in Rome. When Nero later took his talents to Greece, “it was not permitted to leave the theater, even in an emergency. And so some women, it is said, gave birth during his shows.” Suetonius needed just one line to sum up Nero’s extraordinary narcissism: “To many men he offered friendship, or declared an enmity, based on how much, or how little, they praised him.”
“After putting up with an emperor like this for fourteen years,” Suetonius soberly concludes, “the world finally abandoned him.” Even when top Roman military commanders revolted against his rule, Nero remained focused on his own idle pursuits. Upon hearing the news of the rebellion, for instance, the emperor “immediately made his way to the gymnasium and became deeply engrossed in watching the athletes compete.” It took eight days to wrench any sort of orders or instructions from Nero, and Suetonius informs us that even as he faced this crisis “nothing pained him so much as being criticized as a bad lyre-player or being called Ahenobarbus instead of Nero.”
Even with his throne on the line, Nero could not muster a serious effort to fight his rebellious generals. Rather than concern himself with military preparations, Nero “took most care in choosing carts to carry organs for the theater and in giving the concubines he was bringing with him masculine haircuts.” Oblivious as he was as his regime came crashing down around him, Nero eventually read the writing on the wall and considered his options as Rome’s elites turned on him en masse. After much hesitation, the self-obsessed and theatrical emperor talked himself into taking his own life rather than be captured by his myriad enemies.
In their broad strokes as well as their details, these selections from Suetonius ought to sound disturbing to our modern ears. It’s paradoxically both shocking and unsurprising that humanity hasn’t learned all that much from its experiences with atrocious political leadership over the last two thousand years. Over and over again, societies around the world discover that, as Osgood puts it, “the acquisition of power may not so much corrupt, as the old adage has it, allow our own worst qualities to slide out and harm us.” The megalomania, egoism, and reckless cruelty of such rulers ultimately lead to disastrous consequences for themselves personally and the societies they profess to govern.
Indeed, the trademarks of appalling political leadership Suetonius first identified two millennia ago may well have reached their apotheosis in President Donald Trump. To be sure, there have been some stiff contenders for the title over the decades and centuries since Nero’s death. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his brutal if somewhat ramshackle Fascist regime certainly made a strong showing in the early twentieth century. But Trump’s conduct in the world’s most powerful office leaves the impression that he’s taken Rome’s worst leaders as his principal political role models.
It’s not as if the United States hasn’t had its fair share of poor political leadership. Both James Buchanan nor Herbert Hoover proved wholly inadequate to the severe national crises they faced, leaving their exceptional successors Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt to pick up the pieces of their broken societies and rebuild them. Some presidents like George W. Bush were simply inept when it came to the formulation and execution of public policy, while others like Warren G. Harding and Richard Nixon mired themselves in scandal and corruption.
With his melange of vainglorious incompetence and indolence at a time of acute national crisis, however, Trump has managed to outpace his predecessors by a considerable distance. Like Tiberius, Trump spent an inordinate amount of time at his own Mar-a-Lago resort in South Florida before it was shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic. Nor will Trump leave behind any “structures of splendor,” despite early promises of substantial infrastructure spending and an “infrastructure week” that’s lasted for nearly three years.
But it’s Trump’s petty cruelty, overweening self-absorption, and obsession with his own image that places him in the company of Caligula and Nero. Like these two terrible leaders, Trump’s narcissism and insecurity function to conceal a weak and unstable personality that has no business anywhere near the reins of power. Trump’s public rallies and adolescent name-calling on Twitter lend credence to repeated claims by those in close working proximity to him – both political allies and opponents – that his personality most closely resembles that of a petulant toddler. Indeed, political scientist Dan Drezner identifies Trump’s temper tantrums, short attention span, and poor impulse control as three of the president’s core personality traits.
Abundant evidence supports the contention that Trump seems to have taken leadership lessons from Rome’s worst emperors, from his insistence that Article II of the U.S. Constitution allows him “to do whatever I want” to his repeated and preposterous claims that no other president has been treated “so unfairly” – not even Lincoln. It’s clear Trump thinks about little else than how events affect his public image and media coverage. During a recent press conference on the coronavirus crisis, for instance, Trump lashed out at a reporter who asked what words of reassurance he’d offer to frightened Americans in this time of national distress.
Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic illustrates just how disastrous an abysmal political leader like Trump inevitably proves to be at times of crisis. Oblivious to any concerns outside his own ego, Trump repeatedly and consistently underplayed the danger at hand. As the coronavirus began to radiate out from China at the start of 2020, he quickly characterized it as a partisan political hoax. Trump’s own White House “struggled to get him to take the virus seriously” as it rapidly became a global public health threat. In an early telephone call with Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, for instance, Trump abruptly switched subjects from the virus to vaping. When Centers for Disease Control senior director Dr. Nancy Messonnier publicly stated in late February that the virus would continue to spread, moreover, Trump complained to Azar that she had spooked the stock markets.
As a result of Trump’s narcissism and idleness, the United States government finds itself ill-prepared and struggling to effectively respond to the worst national crisis in recent memory. Even with cities and states across the country locking down and the nation’s heath care system under unprecedented strain, Trump refuses to use executive authority to produce the medical equipment needed to protect America’s doctors and save lives. Instead, Trump categorically rejected any responsibility whatsoever for his administration’s failed response and attempted to shift the blame to his predecessor. Public officials feel they must flatter Trump live on television to keep him on task and his temper down. Thanks to Donald Trump’s utterly appalling political leadership, tens of thousands of Americans – if not more – will likely die while the overall economy will likely suffer its worst collapse since the Great Depression.
The Romans who endured Caligula and Nero were lucky by comparison. Neither bad emperor had to confront the sort of crisis that later emperors like Marcus Aurelius would face later or that the United States faces today. Given the striking similarities between terrible political leaders both ancient and modern, it’s not hard to conclude that atrocious political leadership is just part and parcel of the human condition. Truly awful leaders recur again and again throughout history, and we’d be delusional to think we can somehow immunize ourselves against another Nero or another Trump in the future.
That’s not a call for fatalism or defeatism, however. In previous national crises, Americans got lucky with leaders like Lincoln and Roosevelt. Rome did have an emperor like Marcus to deal with a series of near-simultaneous disasters that included internal rebellion, frontier wars, and the spread of a devastating plague throughout the empire. It may be too soon to do a full and complete accounting of the the Trump administration’s debacles, but it’s clear that the moral failings of terrible leaders often return to haunt them personally – but not before their appalling leadership leads their societies to catastrophe.