“I, Theodore” – 2020’s US election is all just a little bit of Roman history repeating

Image: Britannica

American republican lore holds its founding fathers drew inspiration from the great democratic institutions of ancient and contemporary times.

The Roman Republic had very little in common with its modern descendant, but American political historians have always enjoyed finding common traits with their famous forebears.

As the lengthy 2020 election nears its end, the divisions, the tactics, and the personalities on show allow for uncanny, ancient parallels.

Rome’s transition from Republic to Empire was neither simple nor swift and the dynastic manoeuvring involved makes England’s royal family look pedestrian.

The decisive moment was the rise of a populist hero from a wealthy family named Caesar.

Comparing Octavian Caesar (better known as Augustus) to Donald Trump is less of a stretch than might first be imagined.

Augustus inherited his wealth and built it by subverting conventions and exploiting his political power.

He venerated military service in public, but always managed to fall sick when he personally was expected on the battlefield.

He began his political career an unlikely, inexperienced figure more established conservative politicians believed they could manipulate and control.

His name crops up in a series of juicy, political conspiracies.

He also left behind him a large dynasty of heirs whose incompetence and excess would torment the Roman world for half a century after his death.

These Julio-Claudians got their most complete and interesting, modern retelling in Robert Graves’ novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God.

The two books use the perspective of the eventual Emperor Claudius and the sex and violence of four generations of Caesar’s to tell a story of greater social change.

At the beginning of I, Claudius, Augustus has only been supreme head of state for a few years and politicians and voting public alike still expect an eventual return to the Republic.

By the end of Claudius the God, the title character’s son scoffs at such dated political thinking and instead demands his chance at the throne.

The Emperor Claudius was Augustus’ fifth (step) grandson.

For Donald Trump, Claudius’ equivalent descendant is four-year-old Theodore Kushner.

By the time the Caesar family came to the fore, the Republic was much changed from its founding days.

Rome’s domestic politics were polarised by angry factionalism and dominated by conservative narratives.

Conservatives warned Rome was overrun with cheap, immigrant labour and at risk of having its core values overwhelmed by exotic, immoral influences.

They argued Rome was not benefiting enough economically from decades spent as the policeman of the Mediterranean world.

The city also faced an exploding population and a widening gap between a small number of fabulously wealthy and devastating numbers of impoverished.

Sound familiar?

Augustus himself has retrospectively been depicted as a great and heroic man.

“A stable genius” of the ancient world.

But during his career, he was often a controversial and unpopular figure.

Decades later, Roman historian Tacitus wrote: “fine intellects were not wanting to describe the times of Augustus, till growing sycophancy scared them away.”

Augustus’ most ardent supporters were seen as Rome’s lowest common denominator, the uneducated and the poor.

His rise to power as sole ruler corrupted Roman courts with overt, political precedents.

He stocked political bodies with sycophantic, partisan supporters and weakened his considerable political rivals by demeaning the status quo of their experience and expertise.

He engaged in bribery, pandered to conservative idealogues, and used private militias to threaten his opponents and solidify his agenda.

His populist campaigns rebranded rival politicians as traitors and the conservative Roman faction steadily transitioned into his cult of personality.

Roman elections became turbulant affairs, not about how the state should be governed but who should govern it, with Augustus noisily dominating the debate.

A brutal civil war followed and despite Augustus’ contentious tactics, breaches of protocol and clear self-interest, even histories written centuries later presented him as a statesman striving to make Rome great again.

While there were no red baseball caps in 27BC, the similarities in rhetoric are haunting.

A recent article in the New York Times called Donald Trump “a noisy weakling, not a budding autocrat”.

It can only be wondered if there were once Roman commentators who felt the same about the sickly, divisive man who would later become their first emperor.

A recent editorial by The Guardian about anti-monarchy protests in Thailand also declared: “Thailand’s establishment has so far proved incapable of grasping that the age of deference is over.”

It’s jaw-dropping condescension in a year when media coverage of US politics has consistently displayed the opposite.

Even as more polls show Democratic candidate Joe Biden with a commanding lead, the tone of most western media remains cautious.

Biden’s own rhetoric claims nothing short of a landslide electoral win can save American democracy from a Trump family dynasty.

More nihilistic commentary claims, no matter who wins this presidential election, the American Republic loses.

In 2020, the world’s news cycle is turning on the issue of one democratic election and the threat its participants might pose to the future of the American Republic.

By the time Theodore Trump’s children are old enough to enter politics, will Americans even care?

It’s all just a little bit of Roman history repeating.

David Allen has a BA (Honours) from the University of Queensland majoring in the Augustan principate period of Ancient Rome.