Gaius Marius/Donald Trump: A Good Comparison?
“So, which Roman Emperor is Donald Trump like?”
This is a question I have been asked regularly over pints in the last couple of years. While it is fun to speculate on comparisons – I would dearly love to see Trump appoint a horse to a senior magistracy, as Caligula reportedly did – I can’t help but feel that the question says more about the perceptions of those asking it than it does about the 45th President of the United States.
Faced with a political situation that “is not normal”, as news outlets have been so keen to remind us, people naturally search for a historical case of abnormality with which to compare. In the post-Enlightenment era, this inevitably seems to lead back to the archetypical Republic, which remains as poignant an example as it proved for the Founding Fathers. This is precisely why asking whether Donald Trump is like a Roman emperor seems a bit redundant.
For Roman observers like Tacitus, the shift from Republican to Imperial rule was characterised as the termination of liberty (libertas) in favour of despotism (dominatio): unfettered monarchy (regnum) was the necessary prerequisite for this change, and this only became possible once the house of Caesar had thrown off both the legal checks and balances and the traditional customs of the era of Senatorial rule. The preservation of law and custom – mos and lex – thus become the canary in the coalmine for the preservation of a functional Republic from rule based on charisma (auctoritas).
Whilst Trump’s particular brand of misrule is evidently based on personal charisma – “I alone can fix it” – it seems very clear that this is still being significantly impeded by the laws and customs of a Republican political environment. It makes more sense, therefore, to compare Trump to Republican figures who came up against similar challenges in trying to carve out charismatic roles for themselves in a space dominated by law and custom.
This brings us to Gaius Marius (158/7 – 86 BCE). For those of you who are not familiar, Marius was a late Republican politician and general who, through a combination of military prowess and a political program that united Rome’s burgeoning populist movement and equestrian business interests, managed to claim for himself an unprecedented seven terms as one of Rome’s two consuls, the most senior magistracy (and broadly equivalent to the Presidency). His personal ambitions were also partly responsible for triggering Rome’s first civil war (88-87 BCE), during which Marius was forced to flee to North Africa, from whence he returned to head up a brief populist despotism. Marius died barely two weeks into the lifespan of this new regime, but this is perhaps the point: the success of such figures is partially what they themselves did, and partially the extent to which they paved the way for future experimentation on the same theme.
Caius Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage - John Vanderlyn (1807)
There are two very broad reasons why Gaius Marius serves as a good comparison to Donald Trump. The first is the degree of similarity in terms of character. Both men relied on duplicity to achieve their ends; both made alliance with populist demagogues; both appealed to a sense of chauvinism and anti-intellectualism; both were considered outsiders to the established political class.
The second is a similarity in terms of where they appeared in the lifespan of their respective republics. The long-term military conflicts that Rome conducted in Spain and Numidia can broadly be compared with the United States’ endless wars in the Middle East, and the rhetorics of senatorial arrogance and corruption that characterised Roman political discourse in Marius’s time can seem frighteningly familiar: many clearly felt that there was a swamp that needed draining. The problem that Rome faced on a grand scale is also broadly similar to that faced by the United States. Much as the political system of the former was designed to deal with a city-state, the latter was designed to accommodate thirteen culturally and ethnically homogeneous settler colonies. Neither was remotely equipped to deal with global hegemony, and nor could they have been expected to be.
Both republics were still functioning, but the centripetal forces of wealth and the opportunities afforded to the ambitious on a global scale were slowly, painfully tearing political society apart. In some sense, both Marius and Trump can be seen as symptoms of their times, physical manifestations of the dialectic between an extraspective political elite and an introspective voting populace, albeit within very different contexts. The question is whether the outcomes will be different, and this remains to be seen.
So, what indicators can we look for based on this comparison? How might we judge how close to the edge the Republic of the United States is, so to speak? Marius lived long enough to see Sulla march on Rome at the head of a Roman army, and himself led a similar assault on the City. As we said, however, the contexts are extremely different.
Firstly, the highly personalised and politicised link between leader and army that was first forged by Marius and then developed by Sulla is missing. The President is, of course, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but Donald Trump has never served, and nor has he led a campaign: the direct material benefits that he could offer troops as an incentive to march on their own generals and political leaders seem limited. Active military support could, however, be provided by second-amendment groups such as the NRA, but these are a poor substitute for the United States armed forces in the long term.
The inability to forge such a link has a great deal to do with the changing nature of aristocracies. The Roman elite was overtly militaristic; they were actively expected to lead campaigns, and plunder was a natural consequence of this. The American aristocracy – Trump included – is extremely civilian, even when they have served. They are never expected to personally campaign. The US army is also much more professionalised than the legions were, which reinforces the civic/military division upon which American political society is based.
Lastly, there is a fundamental difference in the nature of the state. The overthrow of the Roman Republic by what amounted to an aristocratic faction was possible precisely because the Roman state was barely existent beyond the confederation of these competing aristocratic factions. The American state, by contrast, is vast, not only in and of itself but in terms of the multinational organisations that it has spawned under its military umbrella. Americans may sneer at political dynasties like the Kennedys and Clintons, but these families have nowhere near the direct influence over the state that a Roman aristocrat would enjoy: state personnel are simply too numerous, and legislation and customs protecting conduct too pervasive.
Further, by contrast to early states, the American state is despotically weak – it must negotiate constantly with civil society groups to achieve its ends. This was not something that Roman aristocratic clans would have been expected to do – the ability to impose their will through force was a vital component of their dignitas. In short, the indirect relationship between elite and military coupled with the relative strength of the impersonal state would seem to preclude the same path being taken by populists in the American context.
It isn’t impossible, however. It also isn’t the only path one can take to absolute power. The advent of modernity, the possibilities entailed in mass communication technology, and the development of much more pervasive rhetorics of nationality and group identity provide routes to despotism that simply did not exist in the Roman world. Overall, we must remember that whilst history doesn’t repeat itself, it does tend to rhyme.