How Similar are Trump and Caesar?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Many of President Trump’s supporters are aggrieved about a New York production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which features a Caesar that looks rather Trump-like. This has produced some discussion of how far this comparison should really go, and whether having a Trump-like Caesar encourages political violence. Much of the arguments surrounding this are a bit muddled because many folks only have a surface-level understanding of Caesar’s historical role. So let’s unpack it.

It’s important to note that Trump opponents are not the only ones who compare him to Caesar–some Trump supporters like this comparison, and feature it in their memes:

The Roman Empire conquered everything from Britain in the Northwest to Morocco in the Southwest to Armenia in the Northeast and Egypt in the Southeast, and it has always been a cultural touchstone–everyone tries to copy the Romans. That’s why so many of America’s national monuments are built in the neo-classical style, it’s why so many historical figures have wanted the title “Emperor“, “Kaiser“, or “Tsar,” and it’s why so many different countries borrow Roman symbols, like the imperial eagle or the fasces. Two of our months are still named for them–“July” for Julius Caesar and “August” for his nephew, Augustus.

What’s most significant about Caesar is not the credit he gets for the name of a beautiful summer month. We have an entire political tradition named for Caesar–Caesarism. What’s distinctive about Caesar and about his -ism is the role both play in intense, protracted legitimacy crises, in which traditional state structures are perceived to be failing. Before the Roman Republic made Julius Caesar dictator, it went through a prolonged period of disorder called the Crisis of the Roman Republic. Historians often date the start of the crisis in 134 BCE. This is the year Tiberius Gracchus was made a tribune of the people. Gracchus deplored the growing wealth and income inequality in Rome, which left many veterans destitute. Said Gracchus:

The wild beasts that roam over Italy have every one of them a cave or lair to lurk in; but the men who fight and die for Italy enjoy the common air and light, indeed, but nothing else; houseless and homeless they wander about with their wives and children. And it is with lying lips that their imperators exhort the soldiers in their battles to defend sepulchres and shrines from the enemy; for not a man of them has an hereditary altar, not one of all these many Romans an ancestral tomb, but they fight and die to support others in wealth and luxury, and though they are styled masters of the world, they have not a single clod of earth that is their own.

Gracchus proposed the Lex Sempronia Agraria–this law would force Roman aristocrats with large amounts of land to forfeit some of it to the state so that it might be redistributed to the vets, the poor and the homeless. Gracchus did offer to compensate the aristocrats for the lands seized, but this did not allay the senate. So Gracchus took the law to the popular assembly first, where it passed easily. When it came to the senate, the senators convinced another one of the tribunes, Octavius, to veto the bill. Gracchus called for Octavius to resign, claiming that he had acted against the interests of the people the tribunes are meant to defend. The tribunes had, after all, been established to safeguard the people from oppression by the aristocracy. Gracchus led the people to vote to remove Octavius and shunted his law through (some accounts claim that Gracchus had Octavius dragged out of the assembly by force, others say Octavius slinked away in defeat). But the senate refused to properly fund the commission tasked with enforcing the law. Gracchus won re-election, promising more radical reforms–soldiers’ tours of duty were to be shortened, juries were to be opened up to the people, and Roman citizenship was to be extended to allied peoples. The senators accused Gracchus of trying to take the state, clubbed him to death, and dumped his body in the Tiber.

This was the beginning of a pattern of civil violence, in which various Roman statesmen and generals rose to become champions of the people only to be struck down by the senate or by generals associated with the senate faction. Those that aligned with the people became known as “populares” and those who aligned with the aristocracy became known as “optimates“. The populares would attempt to redistribute land and cancel debts and the optimates would oppose them. The clashes between these factions grew ever more frequent and violent. Gracchus’ brother was murdered in 121, a series of civil wars were fought between Marius (a populare) and Sulla (an optimate), and all of this culminated in the showdown between Julius Caesar and the senate, in which the senate aligned itself with Pompey in a bid to prevent Caesar from taking the state, redistributing land, and cancelling debts. Caesar defeated Pompey, seized land from the aristocrats and gave it to his vets, and cancelled an immense amount of debt–Suetonius tells us he knocked out a quarter of the total. He even gave every low income Roman citizen a year’s free rent. As with Gracchus, so with Caesar–the senators accused him of trying to take the state, and they stabbed him to death.

Today we have some good estimates of just how unequal Rome was during this period–the gap was tremendous:

Population Segment Average Wealth (In 2014 USD, based on current historical research) Number of Times Wealthier than the Median
10 Richest Romans $2.1 billion 400,000
Next 590 Senators $52.5 million 10,000
40k Equites $10.5 million 2,000
360k Provincial Senators $4.2 million 800
9,300 Army Officers $78k 16
1.45 million Legionnaires and Workers $17k 3
12 million Slaves and Farm Laborers $5k 1

The legionnaires, workers, slaves, and farm laborers would have accounted for nearly 95% of Rome’s population, meaning that only the top 5% would have earned above the poverty level. The people of Rome were so destitute and miserable that they weren’t particularly invested in the Roman Republic as a set of institutions. They wanted a big, strong man to show up, bash the senate, and reward them with land, debt forgiveness, and free rent.

At other points in history there have been prolonged crises in which public confidence in the governing institutions comes into question. When this happens, there is often some group of people who find themselves willing to support a Caesar–a big strong man willing to come in and wreck up the place. But none of the successors to Caesarism have the kind of reputation for hyper-competence which Caesar himself still enjoys in some quarters. Napoleon is polarising, and nearly everyone recognises that Hitler was a nightmare. In modern times we have often been more likely to lionize the people who could have been Caesars but chose not to–figures like George Washington.

Trump sometimes feels like a Caesar, and there are a few similarities:

  1. Many working class people have seen their living standards decline, and our political system has not managed to figure out how to help them.  This has eroded confidence in our institutions and produced the kind of hyper-polarisation reminiscent of Rome’s crisis period, in which people pursued increasingly radical ideological alternatives in a bid to solve a deep structural problem.
  2. Many people feel that Trump doesn’t respect our institutions and would like to install himself as dictator if he could. They think he bends institutional norms and pushes at the limits of presidential power.
  3. Like Caesar, Trump frequently talks about helping vets and people who are forgotten or left behind.

There are however, several key differences:

  1. Caesar had a huge amount of political and military experience–before becoming dictator, he was a consul, he governed multiple provinces, and he conquered Gaul (modern France and Belgium). He was even pontifex maximus (essentially the pagan pope) for a year. Early in his career he was a quaester and a praetor–he had held nearly all the traditional offices which Romans pursuing political careers might hold. As a young man he was captured by pirates. Once his ransom was paid and they let him go, he raised a fleet, captured those same pirates, and crucified them. Caesar was highly competent–it doesn’t look like Trump has his skills.
  2. Caesar maintained the support of the people and of his soldiers by actually delivering for them. He made sure his troops got land and he helped the people with debt and rent. Trump promised a healthcare bill that would cover everyone and has instead attached himself to a bill which takes health insurance from millions of people. His party is pushing the Financial Choice Act, which would gut the powers of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, enable congress to defund it, and let the president fire its board as well as the board of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. These organisations protect Americans from predatory lending agencies. If Trump governs like an optimate and doesn’t help the forgotten people, why would they support his bid for the dictatorship?
  3. There is no large portion of the military which is personally loyal to Donald Trump, or which needs him to politically succeed in order to be assured of a comfortable retirement. Caesar’s vets could only get their land if Caesar won the civil war.
  4. The Roman Republic’s system contained within it a set of rules for appointing a dictator, making it much easier for Caesar to gain a lot of power through a process which was still arguably semi-constitutional. The US constitution is more tightly written and doesn’t have big loopholes, making it significantly harder to legitimately transfer unusually large amounts of power to the executive.

In the long-run, we do have some troubling issues with confidence in our institutions and with living standards and the distribution of wealth and power, and these things are liable to generate people amenable to Caesarism. It wouldn’t surprise me if some number of Trump supporters are Caesarists and would be happy to see the president concentrate his power. But Trump seems to lack the competence and skill necessary to solve the people’s problems and earn their undying love, and our constitutional impediments make a would-be Caesar’s job even harder than it was in Roman times. So while the comparison to Caesar is interesting because of what it highlights about how people handle prolonged crisis, Trump almost certainly can’t match that man’s legend.