A man stands before a crowd, trawling for votes. He’s rich and the son of a rich man, though his personal finances are tangled, he’s saddled with debt, and his career to date has been studded with scandal. Far from pretending to be good, he makes a virtue out of his lack of pretense, and plays up his excesses as extravagantly as he stokes the crowd’s resentment of his own class.
Call him Donald Trump. But this man is also Julius Caesar, Catiline, Clodius, and a legion of other men who lived in ancient Rome, from which the American Founders drew inspiration for the political system we have today. Long before Max Weber studied “charismatic authority” or Adorno the “authoritarian personality,” Alexander Hamilton, unexpected darling of today’s Broadway, would have recognized the type instantly from his knowledge of Roman history.
He’s a man of wealth and power, but he tells the people he is an outsider, just like them. He insists the system is rigged against them by the influential few. He rails against the people, too: “You’ve given up everything in exchange for laziness and apathy, thinking you’ve got freedom in abundance because your backs are spared the lash. The elite will fight and enjoy their victory, and regular people will be treated like a conquered nation: This will be more the case every day, so long as they work harder for total power than you do to get your freedom back.”
That’s not Trump, though it sounds like him. It’s a politician called Licinius Macer, haranguing a crowd in Rome in 73 BCE. It was with men like Macer in mind that in the first of the Federalist papers, Hamilton identified the claim to fight for popular freedom as the demagogue’s most insidious and effective tactic. “Dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people,” he wrote. Far from the innocent meaning of the original ancient Greek word, “leader of the people,” for Hamilton the demagogue paves a “much more certain road to the introduction of despotism.”
Trump now takes office on the strength of his demagoguery. A student of little else, Trump is an intuitive expert in popular fantasy, and he plays his American audience like a well-worn instrument. What to the pundits seemed like outrageous rhetorical excesses (“total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the U.S.,” “She has to go to jail,” and so on) turned out to be the notes roughly half the country wanted to hear.
Since the election, the excesses have continued, in speeches, casual asides, and tweets at all times of day or night. The professional classes marvel that Trump summarily dismisses advice (“I know a lot about hacking”), jabs at perceived enemies in the press, and tweets bellicose threats to foreign governments. But this is par for the course. Both as candidate and president-elect, Trump has invited the elites to bring it on, rubbing raw the weakest point of the republican constitution: the relationship between the people and their elected politicians, or as the Romans would put it, “plebs” and “pauci,” the many and the few.
The Romans called their state “res publica,” or “public affair.” To be a citizen of the Roman Republic meant, among other things, the right to do certain things for the public in the public eye: for instance, to elect politicians to office, to attend public assemblies, and to vote on legislation. Though only a small percentage of the total citizenry participated in elections (you had to be physically present in the city and able to take the day off from work, too), the raucous contio, or public assembly, was a signal part of the Roman political process.
The ballot itself was secret, a late republican innovation detested by the elites, who had preferred intimidating the less powerful in the earlier voice vote. But secret ballot or no, for centuries a few dozen rich and noble houses exerted enormous influence over the policies and the future of the republic. For as long as the republic lasted, negotiating the balance between the masses and the elite was a tricky business. Speaking in the open air at the contio and other venues was a crucial test of privileged Romans’ backbone and their ability to handle different factions and patronage groups, and it was a test they had to pass again and again, over years and decades. Cicero, who put his political experience to work in a series of enormously influential books about rhetoric, wrote that the good speaker “must have his finger on the pulse of every class, every age group, every social rank, and get a taste of their feelings and thoughts.”
Then, as now, politicians who trod on populist values risked being shouted down or even suffering physical violence. One member of the Scipios, an old and famous family, lost an election after shaking hands with a man on the street, just as candidates do today. He teased the man, a farm laborer whose hands had been roughened by work, “did he generally make a habit of walking on his hands?” Voters from the local countryside took this as a poke at their poverty and withdrew their support.
As Rome conquered almost the entire Mediterranean coast, an area stretching as wide as the continental United States, social and political traditions began to buckle. By the time Julius Caesar was born, in 100 BCE, the republic had already seen three decades of political assassinations and gang violence in the city. Matters would only deteriorate. Much of the unrest stemmed from a growing sense of disconnection between the people and the ruling elite. Roman citizens of the first century faced worsened conditions of income inequality, rising costs of living, a shortage of decent food and housing, dim job prospects, and levels of immigration and cultural change that felt out of control. Within their lifetimes, the traditional institutions and values of the republic had faltered.
Now, in conditions of inequality and social stress, for ambitious Roman politicians the art of speaking offered a new set of keys to the kingdom. Where it had once been the art of justifying traditional elite control over the system, rhetoric became the powerful tool of individual men who exploited its powers to unite a fragmented society around themselves.
Here is one: “Over the past fifteen years you’ve been sport for the pride and arrogance of the few; your defenders have perished unavenged; your own spirit has been so rotted with weakness and cowardice that you can’t stand up even now…. Who are these people who have occupied our country? Criminals with bloody hands and outrageous greed, totally guilty and yet totally arrogant, who have transformed everything — loyalty, their good names, religious piety, everything both honorable and not — into a source of personal gain.”
Does it sound familiar? This is the kind of speech that pleases a fractured, alienated republican audience — one that feels ignored by the authority figures they traditionally trusted. In sum, Gaius Memmius (now obscure, but a successful popular politician before he was killed in a riot during the elections of 100 BCE) is telling the people that all the institutions that used to protect free citizens have turned against them; the rulers are criminals, but because they run the courts along with everything else, they will never be held accountable.
The only answer is to throw the bums out and replace them with — what? Memmius’s language is tribal and aggressive, emotional and extravagant, and in Roman history, it leads in one direction. If the whole system is broken, no better way to replace it than with the lone hero who is blunt and brave enough to call it out.
One such man was Gaius Marius, a contemporary of Memmius and Julius Caesar’s uncle. Born into an Italian family with few connections to the inner circles of the Roman elite, Marius made his fortune and his political career in the military. According to Sallust, a preeminent Roman historian, Marius argued that other men could compensate for their mistakes by appealing to their families’ glorious deeds or enlisting the help of their friends. “But my hopes rest in me alone,” he told one public assembly, “and must be advanced by my virtue and integrity…. Every eye is turned on me: Good and honorable men prefer me because my actions help the republic.”
Here is the same speech in contemporary English: “I didn’t have to bring J.Lo or Jay Z…. I am here all by myself…. Just me. No guitar, no piano, no nothing.” That’s Trump at a Pennsylvania rally. As Marius told the Romans, the only answer for the republic was an alliance between the defiant ex-soldier and the masses against the debased governing class. No surprise, then, he liked to say, that the elite “seek any chance to attack me.”
Marius contrasted his blunt style with the hoity-toity phrases of his political enemies: “My words aren’t well chosen, but I don’t care. Virtue shows itself on its own. They’re the ones that need artificial aids, to cover over their crimes with fancy words.” No teleprompter for Marius! When he proceeds to dismiss his rivals’ investment in Greek methods of education (and by extension, Greek cultural values), it’s a brilliant move with a long history in old-fashioned Roman moralism. Give logic and rhetoric a foreign face, call it un-Roman, and throw it out the window. Marius ended up winning Rome’s highest office seven times, breaking every precedent.
In the late days of the Roman Republic, Marius and his imitators set up a pattern of marking reason, education, and the deliberative processes of politics as corrupted tools of the foreign-influenced elite, suggesting to their listeners that those very habits were part of the problem. The culmination of the growing violence and fragmentation of Roman politics was Julius Caesar himself. We have a reasonably good record of Caesar’s appeals to the public because in addition to his success in wars domestic and foreign, Caesar wrote the history books — literally. His account of the civil war he fought with his rival and son-in-law Pompey the Great records the appeal he made to his army right after crossing the Rubicon, where he “cast the die” that led to war.
The speech skillfully makes Caesar’s personal glory one and the same with the freedom of Roman citizens. He likens all the wrongs his enemies have done to him to the violence the rich and powerful wreaked on popular heroes of the past, and exhorts the army to defend his reputation. Caesar uses the reflexive personal pronoun again and again: He is the one who matters, and his victory is a victory for Rome. Or as Trump told his fans at the Republican National Convention, good hard-working citizens are the “forgotten men and women” who “no longer have a voice. I am your voice!”
The goal of this kind of speech is to give the audience a larger-than-life version of themselves to identify with. Cicero praises his favorite style of ornate, dramatic speech because it gives the listeners more: more sensations to experience, more feelings to wallow in. Speakers who reach for this effect but for whom this kind of theatricality doesn’t come naturally appear strained and artificial, an impression Hillary Clinton brought to many stages and town halls. You always had the sense that like Cicero’s friend Brutus (yes, Caesar’s assassin, a notoriously dry speaker) she was at her best putting the drama aside and pulling out the spreadsheets.
For those who do pull it off, intemperateness becomes a central part of their appeal and proof of their leadership. In his maturity, Julius Caesar carefully cultivated a public persona of gravity and good judgment, deserving of public trust. But his actual career strings together excess, extravagance, violence, and very public rule-breaking. When his daughter died, he held gladiatorial games to commemorate her death, an unheard-of mark of recognition for a woman that marked out his whole family for special distinction in the eyes of gods and men. Caesar’s soldiers sang songs about their beloved “bald adulterer,” who had love affairs with both men and women.
Through the campaign and now heading into the inauguration, Trump’s blustering arrogance (as well as the revelation of his vices) has never played out as his rivals hoped and expected. Rather than bring him down, his over-the-top style gave and continues to give deep satisfaction to his supporters. His schoolyard-simplistic language (“huge,” “bad guys,” “killers and rapists”) and the illusion of direct, free-flowing connection he creates through Twitter fabricates a sense of what the Cameroonian political theorist Achille Mbembe calls “convivial” intimacy between himself and the citizenry.
This style offers a pragmatic nod to the corrupt state of the world, where there are no good men, only suckers and a leader with the unfettered ruthlessness needed to keep the thieves in line. It allows his supporters to indulge in a vision of unrestrained ego, and by extension, a vision of unrestrained national power.
The popular approval of Trump’s pouting, shouting, grandstanding, partying, and philandering recalls the Roman crowd’s love of politicians who broke similar social rules — particularly during the half-century from the 90s to the 40s BCE, which witnessed what was probably the worst political violence in Rome’s history under a parade of leaders with scandalous personal lives. In 63, Cicero was elected consul, the highest office in Roman government, only to discover that a conspiracy was brewing against the senate. Its leader was Catiline, a member of a noble family who had squandered his personal wealth. “His insatiable spirit constantly craved excess, the monstrous, the gigantic,” says Sallust. “Even as a young man he had many shameful affairs,” including one with a priestess to the goddess Vesta, vowed to virginity.
The demagogue turns personal vice into a source of his power, which now becomes a sign of state power. He keeps the state safe by being bigger and more brazen than its enemies, especially the criminals within. As the head of a conspiracy, Catiline would have delivered his rousing speeches in secret, but Sallust imagines him telling an audience, “All of us hard-working good people serve the interests of those few to whom, if the republic were strong, we would be a source of terror.” Not respect, not support, but terror. My outrageous transgressions, Catiline and Caesar and Marius are saying, show how special I am, how powerful, how perfect an embodiment of the special and powerful Roman people I am, how “beautiful and important” is this moment in history.
The convivial intimacy with the people that Trump peddles is new. It offers Americans the illusion — his partisans will say the “promise” — of a leader whose lack of filters represents daring, honesty, a willingness to experiment with ideas and reveal the rough spots in the process. Raucous, obnoxious, disingenuous, impossible to ignore, the infantile shrillness of his voice sounds to his supporters like an outgrowth of the founding fantasy of America as the youngest child in the world’s family, the risk-taking upstart against the Old World. Against this the virtues of moderation and self-control, as the traditional Roman elite discovered, come off as weak and emasculated.
As the old political balancing act of the republic was crumbling, just a few years before his beheading at the command of Mark Antony, Cicero gave a series of speeches that conveyed his despondency about the Roman polity. It was 46 BCE. Julius Caesar had established himself as ruler of Rome in all but name, packing the senate with his supporters and passing laws that bolstered his power. In one of these speeches, describing his anxiety that the republic “was surviving on the breath of a single man,” Cicero reminded Caesar and the senate of the terrible costs of civil strife and implicitly called on the senators to take responsibility for creating the conditions that had led to Caesar’s triumph. His message: We cannot go back to the old way of doing things.
How to counter the new speech of the charismatic demagogue by practicing politics that people can identify with is the puzzle that Rome finally failed to solve. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, his heir Octavian could bring Rome to heel and set up a dynastic monarchy that would last nearly four hundred years. Rome’s political class never succeeded in refreshing their own habits of speech and thought. They failed to probe and heal the alienation that had fragmented the republican community. Like today’s self-absorbed elites, they had become addicted to their wealth and to traditional authority, and never imagined their influence could disappear.
Joy Connolly is provost and professor of classics, the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of The Life of Roman Republicanism and The State of Speech: Rhetoric and Political Thought in Ancient Rome.