Gaius Julius Trumpus? Is this Caesarism, or just Orange Julius?

Comments (1) Art, History, Politics

“Is this Caesarism?”


Caesar’s body lies covered in a bloody toga, his murderers exit swords raised, and the senators all skedaddled. Jean-Louis Gérôme (1859) rejects the conventions of academic history painting, his figures off-center, not idealized or ennobled, seen not in  the dramatic moment of the murder but moving off in the distance afterwards. Meaning, please? 

“Is this Caesarism?” ask the pundits. Trump’s rise has been explained as Caesarism for over a year now (“An American ‘Caesarism’ has now become flesh,” wrote the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf;  just google “Trump” and “Caesarism” for thousands of results). Authoritarian Populists often get compared to Julius Caesar, and “Caesarism” has become a term for rule by an authoritarian, charismatic ruler, claiming to come as a savior and embody the popular will. Trump?

Was it a burlesque waiting to happen when the Public Theater mounted Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” — a Trump-like Caesar with preening vanity and a red tie and blond hair, a Calphurnia speaking with Slovenian accent? Actually, the burlesque was in the right-wing media enrage by the image of Trump murdered; the Trumpenproletariat fulminated in social media and sent hate mail and death threats to the Public Theater and Shakespeare companies elsewhere — regardless of whether they were producing the play. Guilt by association with Shakespeare.

Facts don’t matter. Shakespeare’s play showed the assassination of Caesar not so much as an attack on tyranny as the beginning of chaos, civil war, and mass murder, concluding with a restoration of order by far more ruthless and murderous tyrants. Together after the murder, Shakespeare has Caesar’s avengers raising money for their army, coolly “proscribing” wealthy Romans they could murder for their property — and even including their own relatives on the hit-list.

Caesar’s murder in the Public Theater production was extremely bloody … and that was the way Shakespeare meant it to be, with the noble tyrannicides drenching their hands in Caesar’s blood and raising them in triumphant display. The play was not a call to murder Trumps or tyrants, but a warning about violent means bringing violent consequences. So the Public Theater keeps giving audiences provocative art, and the right keeps up its fight for cultural sterility.

Just another “Bogus Caesar?”

Thomas Nast parodied Gérôme’s painting in “The Political Death of the Bogus Caesar,” showing the corpse of impeached Pres. Andrew Johnson and the radical Republicans holding their swords high in triumph. Harpers Weekly, 1869.

But what about the analogy  — is Trump a Caesar, is this Caesarism? Both Trump and Caesar are popular authoritarian rulers, both attacked the political establishment, both claimed to speak for the populus; and there the analogy ends. (In other words, In your dreams, Donald!)

For Trump, as for many populists, populism is a matter of rhetoric and branding, not of policy or ideology. Trump claims to stand for “the forgotten men and women,”  but he supports the Republican establishment’s program of redistribution upwards, cutting taxes, defunding health care, destroying Medicaid, ending environmental and consumer protections to send the wealth up to the super-rich.

Caesar was a populist of a different kind. Some of his assassins may have wanted to kill him to save the “republic,”  but the republic they wanted was a rapacious oligarchy. (An example: Brutus, “that paragon of nobility,”  Shakespeare’s “noblest Roman of them all,” tried to use Roman soldiers to starve the city of Salamis into repaying a loan at 48% interest.)

Caesar — traitor to his class?

Caesar’s popularity with the Roman mob was not just rhetoric, it was the result of a career of support for land reform (including almost all the land in Campania for the poor, as well as land for veterans), debt relief (just one of his many measures on debt, Suetonius said, canceled 1/4 of all outstanding debt), and, of course, “the dole‚” — free grain for the plebeians. And a radically “liberal” immigration policy — Trump wants to expel immigrants, but Caesar granted citizenship to Cisalpine Gaul and planned to grant citizenship to “entire nations and provinces,” complained Cicero.

Caesar was quite wonkish, using his years as dictator to rationalize everything from the calendar to tax collection, planning vast construction and colonization projects, rebuilding Carthage and Corinth, draining marshes, altering the course of the Tiber, jobs for the poor through his ambitious “infrastructure” projects, many of which were prevented by his assassination  … and building a library to rival Alexandria’s.

Caesar emerged at the end of a long line of radical reformers, called populares, leaders coming from the patrician class and betraying it to base their power not in the Senate, but in the tribal assembly, in the Roman mob and the land-hungry military veterans. Their way was prepared by centuries of often violent mass conflict. These exploded into deadly street fighting between political gangs, assassinations of popular heroes, “civil war or revolutionary uprisings (there is often a hazy boundary between them),” and the great slave rebellion of Spartacus might not have lasted two years against Roman legions if the rebels’ numbers weren’t swelled by the disaffected poor, many of whom will have had military experience.*

Revolutionary Romans?

Of course, for perspective you have to remember these populares never had a thought about emancipating the slaves or women — but then terms like “revolution” and “tyranny” are relative, context-bound and not mutually exclusive. They certainly understood the role of violence in Roman politics, and they certainly were regarded as class traitors and, many of them, scum, but were they trying to overthrow the system or trying to save it?

Shakespeare got some of the politics quite right — Caesar’s popularity; he bequeathed money and gardens to the people of Rome; and, most of all, his murder “let loose the dogs of war” and opened the way to the end of the Republic and the rise of a coldly manipulative Octavius, soon to become the first emperor.

But Shakespeare got the mob wrong,  the Roman mob. He had contempt for the mob. He portrayed a mob that wasn’t really loyal to Caesar, one that could be swayed for or against him by some demagogue. First they cheered Brutus and the assassins, then became enraged against them as they listened to Anthony’s brilliant tweets oratory. But that was the history that Shakespeare read, all coming ultimately from biased patrician sources. Or maybe the play is saying something about his attitude toward the unruly and riotous London mob.

Curious analogy: Roman radical reforms began with demands of veterans for land and pay — compare the origins of social policy in the US, in pensions for Union civil war veterans and their widows, or, after World War II,  the GI Bill in the US and the welfare state in the UK.

  • Barbara Garson's 1967 antiwar outrage, Pres. Lyndon Johnson satirized as Macbeth, Lady Bird Johnson as Lady Macbeth.
  • British playwright David Edgar's musical satire, using "Richard III" to satirize Nixon.
  • The Public Theater does Julius Caesar. Photo: Public Theater.

Maybe Trump and Caesar had one molecule in common

Donald Trump and Julius Caesar may have breathed the same air. That’s one conclusion you can draw from science writer Sam Kean’s new book about the air around us,” Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us.

Here’s the argument, about as weird as comparing Trump with Caesar. An individual breath is such a small percentage of the atmosphere, says Kean on Science Friday, “something like  19 zeros with a 1 after it.” But with every breath, we each “inhale something like 25 sextillion molecules. … And if you do the math, it turns out that those two numbers, the really big one and the really small one, almost exactly cancel each other out. And so statistically it turns out that every time you breath, there’s a very good chance that you’re inhaling probably about one molecule that Julius Caesar exhaled when he died in 44 BC.” (The nitrogen in the air we breathe is “a very very hard molecule, sticks around for millions maybe even billions of years.”)

So maybe Trump breathed in Caesar’s dying breath, just as his assassins Brutus and Cassius did.

Other implications are that you may have breathed some of the same air as Donald Trump. He may be in Mar-a-Lago, but it’s been getting very windy the last few years.

A few sources on Caesar and Republican Rome

*Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2015. The asterisked quote is from Beard.

Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar: Life of a Colossus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. (Especially chapter xxii.)

P. A. Brunt, Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic. Norton, 1971.

Miriam Griffin, ed., A Companion to Julius Caesar. Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009. (In particular, Erich S. Gruen’s essay, “Caesar as a Politician.”)

Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome. New Press, 2004. The most fun to read, extremely tendentious and sometimes unfair to modern historians, but lots of sources you can follow up on if you want to check out his claims. This guy is not a classical scholar, and it shows.

—Paul Elitzik

One Response to Gaius Julius Trumpus? Is this Caesarism, or just Orange Julius?

  1. thalia a. pandiri says:

    Beautifully done! Lucid, and accurate!

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