Trump … Our Claudius

By Victor Davis Hanson

Published June 5, 2017

The Roman Emperor Claudius, who reigned from the years 41 to 54, was never
supposed to be emperor. He came to office at age 50, an old man in Roman
times. Claudius succeeded the charismatic, youthful heartthrob Caligula-son
of the beloved Germanicus and the "little boot" who turned out to be a
narcissist monster before being assassinated in office.

Claudius was an unusual emperor, the first to be born outside Italy, in
Roman Gaul. Under the Augustan Principate, new Caesars-who claimed direct
lineage from the "divine" Augustus-were usually rubber-stamped by the
toadyish Senate. However, the outsider Claudius (who had no political
training and was prevented by his uncle Tiberius from entering the *cursus
honorum*), was brought into power by the Roman Praetorian Guard, who wanted
a change from the *status quo apparat* of the Augustan dynasty.

The Roman aristocracy-most claiming some sort of descent from Julius Caesar
and his grandnephew Octavian (Caesar Augustus)-had long written Claudius
off as a hopeless dolt. Claudius limped, the result of a childhood disease
or genetic impairment. His mother Antonia, ashamed of his habits and
appearance, called the youthful Claudius "a monster of man." He was likely
almost deaf and purportedly stuttered.

That lifelong disparagement of his appearance and mannerisms probably saved
Claudius's life in the dynastic struggles during the last years of the
Emperor Augustus and the subsequent reigns of the emperors Tiberius and

The stereotyped impression of Claudius was that of a simpleton not to be
taken seriously-and so no one did. Claudius himself claimed that he feigned
acting differently in part so that he would not be targeted by enemies
before he assumed power, and to unnerve them afterwards.

Contemporary critics laughed at his apparent lack of eloquence and
rhetorical mastery, leading some scholars to conjecture that he may have
suffered from Tourette syndrome or a form of autism. The court biographer
Suetonius wrote that Claudius "was now careful and shrewd, sometimes hasty
and inconsiderate, occasionally silly and like a crazy man."

Sound familiar?

Roman intellectuals hated Claudius, who hit back blow-for-blow at them for
their slights and snark, and showed no mercy to plotters and conspiracists.
After Claudius's death, the court toady and philosopher Seneca-pal of
Claudius's successor, the sinister and murderous Nero-wrote a cruel satire
on Claudius's supposed crudity and buffoonery. Seneca's *Apocolyncotosis* (*The
"Gourdification" of the Divine Claudius*) mocks Claudius's halting speech
and off-putting mannerisms. He also poked fun at Claudius's lowbrow
friends, and his penchant for crass popular entertainment.

Later Roman historians, drawing on now lost contemporary accounts of
Claudius, reflect the same prejudices. In the biography of Suetonius and
throughout the *Annals* of the historian Tacitus, the accidental emperor
Claudius comes off as little more than an impulsive bumbler, an accidental
emperor who came to power on a fluke and whose lack of Julian elegance made
him more a buffoon than the head of the global Roman Empire of some 60
million citizens.

Claudius's 50 years of private life before becoming emperor were also the
stuff of court gossip and ridicule. He would marry four times and was often
flattered and manipulated by younger women.

Modern historians, however, have corrected that largely negative view and
ancient bias.

Claudius's rule of some 13 years as emperor was marked by financial reforms
and restoration after the disastrous reign of the spendthrift Caligula.
Claudius-haters like Seneca, Suetonius, and Tacitus focused mostly on
Claudius as the uncouth outsider-and overlooked what he had done for Rome
after the disasters of the Caligula regime.

The empire under Claudius grew and was largely at peace. Rome annexed
Britain, and added a variety of border provinces in the east. While court
insiders and gossipers ridiculed Claudius's supposed ineptness, he
nonetheless assembled one of the most gifted staffs of advisers and
operatives-many of them freed slaves-in the history of the Julio-Claudian
and Flavian dynasties.

Claudius was foremost a builder and a pragmatist. Some of the Roman
Empire's most impressive archaeological remains (such as the *Aqua Claudia*
and *Aqua Anio Novus* aqueducts and the reconstituted port at Ostia) date
from his reign, as he focused on constructing new infrastructure and
improving Roman roads, bridges, ports, and aqueducts.

The early few months of the Trump presidency are, in many ways, Claudian.
Trump is likewise an outsider who, in the view of the Washington
aristocracy, should never have been president.

The thrice-married Trump was supposedly too old, too crude, too coarse, and
too reckless in his past private life. His critics now allege that the
blunt-talking Trump suffers from some sort of psychological or physical
ailment, given that his accent, diction, grammar, and general manner of
speaking, as well as his comportment, just don't seem presidential.

If Claudius constantly scribbled down observations on imperial life
(unfortunately now mostly lost), Trump is an incessant tweeter, who daily
issues forth a litany of impromptu impressions, half-baked thoughts, and
assertions-that are likewise the stuff of ridicule by journalists.

The media and the Washington establishment-like Claudius's elite critics,
Seneca, Suetonius, and Tacitus-focus mostly on the psychodramas of the
president. But while they obsess over the frequent absence of First Lady
Melania, Trump's two-scoop ice cream deserts, the supposed undue and
sinister influence of Trump's daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner,
the insider spats between the New York moderates and the Steve Bannon
true-blue populists, the assorted firings of former Obama appointees, and
investigations of Trump associates-the American government, like Rome under
Claudius, goes on.

Critics also miss the fact that Trump is not a catalyst but a reflection of
contemporary culture, in the way that the world portrayed in Petronius's
*Satyricon* both pre- and postdated Claudius. The Neroian crudity,
obscenity, and vulgarity of a Madonna, Bill Maher, or Steven Colbert-or DNC
head Tom Perez or California Senator Kamala Harris-had nothing to do with
Donald Trump.

The real story of the Trump administration is not the messy firing of James
Comey or the hysterical attacks on Trump by the media, or even his own
shoot-from-the-hip excesses. Rather Trump, also like Claudius, has
assembled a first-rate team of advisors and cabinet officials.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis, National
Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Homeland Security Director John
Kelly-and the dozens of professionals who work for them-comprise the most
astute and experienced group of strategists, diplomats, world travelers,
and foreign policy thinkers since the Truman and Eisenhower administrations.

Never have so many cabinet officers been given such responsibility and
autonomy. It is unlikely that a Mattis or McMaster-outsiders who lack
bureaucratic portfolios-would have ever held such office under either a
progressive Democratic president or an establishment Republican one. A
mercurial and unpredictable president gives a Secretary of Defense or State
more leverage abroad than does an apologetic sounding and predictably
complacent Commander in Chief. The result is a recovering military and a
slow restoration of American deterrence abroad that will ultimately make
the world safer and the need for America to intervene less likely.

Trump's Justice Department under former Senator Jeff Sessions and his
Deputy Rod Rosenstein is likewise a vast improvement over the one headed by
Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch, which politicized and even nullified federal

So far, any diagnosis of what our contemporary Claudius has done in his
first three months rather than what he has said-or what the media says he
has said or done-suggests national improvement.

The stock market is up over the last four month. Unemployment is down.
Labor participation is inching up. Business confidence polls stronger.
Illegal immigration has dropped by 70 percent. Federal revenues are
increasing while federal spending is declining. Neil Gorsuch and other
federal judicial appointees are being roundly praised. Local police and
federal law enforcement officials are re-enthused after years of

Trump's executive orders on the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, and the
reenergized support for the coal industry, will bring more jobs and lower
energy costs. Industries like steel, aluminum, and beef are talking about
exporting and hiring in a way that they have not in years. While the media
caricatures Trump's propensity to jawbone companies about outsourcing jobs
abroad, corporations themselves see executive orders on deregulation,
promises of tax reform, and a new attitude of "America first" as incentives
to stay home and hire Americans.

Talking heads cringe after watching network interviews of Trump (who unlike
former President Obama will talk off-the-cuff to almost anyone at any time
anywhere about anything). Smug authors pen long exposes of Trump's
buffoonery in Washington and New York magazines. Yet we should no more
believe that their satires of Trump, the man, are an accurate window into
the Trump agenda or record than was Seneca's *Apocolyncotosis *a reliable
account of the reign of Claudius.

>From what we can tell, the more Rome prospered under Claudius, the more the
imperial court grew to despise him-as if his odd mannerisms and the even
odder way he came to power could not be squared with the able
administration of a far-flung empire over the 13 years of his reign.

In the end, Claudius was likely murdered by dynastic rivals and relatives
who thought that a young, glib, handsome, intellectual, and artistic Nero
would be a pleasant relief from the awkwardness, bluntness, and weirdness
of Claudius. What followed was the triumph of artists, intellectuals,
stylish aristocrats, obsequious dynastic insiders, and flatterers-many of
them eventually to be consumed by the reign of terror they so eagerly
helped to usher in.



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