Whatever one makes of the accuracy of the journalist Michael Wolff’s depiction of President Trump, it cannot all be the product of an overheated imagination. What makes it so interesting is that his picture of total dysfunctionality is typical of Roman historians’ accounts of many emperors.
Suetonius (d. c. ad 125), for example, was a high-ranking imperial secretary to the emperor Hadrian. In his Lives of the Caesars, he covered the period from Julius Caesar, Augustus and all the other early emperors — most notoriously Caligula and Nero — through to Domitian (d. ad 96).
Take his portrait of the viciously self-indulgent Caligula. His desire to humiliate senators and officials and to put on shows, dress up, act, sing and dance, made him very popular with the people. Consuls who forgot his birthday were stripped of office for three days. He ordered the death or exile of senators, friends and relatives with complete insouciance. His dark humour reflected his actions: ‘I can do anything I please, to anybody’ was his mantra.
He demanded that the finest Greek statues of the gods be brought to Rome, and have their heads replaced with his. He set up a temple to himself and would invite the full moon to share his bed. He acquired and got rid of wives almost at random, made a habit of seducing women of distinguished families, detailing their performance in bed, and indulged in incest with his sisters. Unsurprisingly, he wanted to abolish all lawyers. Suetonius commented that the previous emperor Tiberius, his adoptive grandfather, got it right: in Caligula, he said, he was rearing a viper for the Roman people.
Much of this material does read like invention, fed into the record by sources hostile to Caligula. But in the light of Wolff’s revelations about Trump, maybe Suetonius was right. The saving grace is that a country’s institutions and public servants keep it on the road, however pathological its leadership. If the Roman Empire could survive for half a millennium, the USA can probably survive Trump.