In the middle of Rome, just next to the tomb of the Emperor Augustus, there’s a high wall engraved with hundreds of lines, written in Latin.
This is the Res Gestae Divi Augusti—”The Deeds of Divine Augustus,” a mini-autobiography composed by the Emperor before his death in 14 AD.
Augustus, the first of the Roman emperors, wasn’t lacking in self-confidence. Here’s a taste of what he wrote: “Twice I triumphed with an ovation, and three times I enjoyed a curule triumph and 21 times I was named. I paid to the Roman plebs 300 sesterces each from my father’s will.
“In my own name, I gave them 400 sesterces from the spoils of war. I rebuilt the Capitol and Pompey’s theatre, each work at enormous cost. I gave three gladiator shows in my name, another five in the name of my sons and grandsons. I gave the people a naval battle show. I recovered from Spain, Gaul and Dalmatia the many military standards lost through other leaders, after defeating the enemies.”
As I was reading these lines in Rome this winter, one man came to mind—Donald J. Trump. They are are at one on so many things: the joy in their own popularity, the pride in their huge fortunes, their faith in the military, and the sheer spectacle they provide—not just in terms of public entertainment, but in the spectacle they provide of themselves, mighty kings of all they survey.
Of course, circumstances change over 2,000 years. Trump used The Apprentice and the presidential debates to charm his supporters. Augustus used fake naval battles and gladiator fights. As the Roman poet Juvenal wrote, the people only want two things—”panem et circenses,” or bread and circuses.
Trump has worked out what Augustus figured out two millennia ago: People like their leaders to be tough, alpha males. Or alpha females—look at the popularity of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
People don’t want to be ruled by committee. They want a clear, single figurehead to follow when things are going well, a single scapegoat to blame when things go wrong. In other words, an emperor-like leader.
Even with a Republican Congress, Trump has nothing like the scale of direct power wielded by Roman emperors. But he is gifted at presenting an impression of complete, personal, imperial power—thus the personal pledges to defeat ISIS, to build that wall, to reform Obamacare, to jail Hillary.
That sensation of personal power is clear in Trump’s use of Twitter. With a stroke, the vast ranks of White House press officers, speechwriters and focus group wonks are dispensed with. All that’s needed is the presidential thumb on the keypad, as powerful as the imperial thumb, when emperors were asked at the end of gladiator fights whether a warrior should live or die. Contrary to popular opinion, a thumbs-down meant the gladiator lived to fight another day; a thumbs-up meant death.
All leaders also have to demonstrate to their people that they are their leaders. The Queen wears bright, primary colors on public trips so she can be spotted in the crowd. She has said, “I have to be seen to be believed.” In ancient Rome, there was no way for the emperors to be seen in the flesh by their millions of subjects across the Roman Empire, so they relied on public monuments.
Go round Rome, or anywhere in the Roman Empire, and you will see the Emperor’s name everywhere: on temples, baths, treasuries, statues, all over the Roman Forum.
Even the month of August is named after Augustus; he died on August 19. Not only did he have his own forum in Rome; he also had his own temple of Divus Augustus (divine Augustus) built between the Palatine and the Capitoline Hills; as prominent a spot in Rome as Trump Tower is in Manhattan.
There was even a day called Augustalia, the day Augustus returned to Rome in 19 BC from Syria, one of the chaotic provinces he pacified. How Trump would love to pacify the wrecked state of modern Syria today.
Trump, like Augustus, has worked out that his customers, and his voters, like seeing his name everywhere, too.
Emperors used those thousands of statues, baths and temples to perpetuate their name. Trump does it through television appearances, and tweeting. But also, like Roman emperors, he does it by spreading his name physically through his business empire: in his hotels, golf courses, universities and apartment blocks.
Trump also realizes what the Roman Emperors knew: people love money. Trump knows the power of a dollar—even better, millions of dollars. In his campaign, he equated success in charge of a huge private company to success in charge of the biggest economy in the world, and millions of voters accepted that equation.
Some people are interested in religion; lots of people are interested in sex; everyone’s interested in money. The Roman Emperors understood this, particularly the Emperor Vespasian, who ruled the empire from 69-79 AD.
Vespasian made a fortune from a urine tax. Urine was used by tanners and launderers. His son, Titus, said it was a filthy tax, and Vespasian said, waving a gold coin in his face: “Pecunia non olet”—”Money doesn’t smell.”
That could serve as Trump’s Latin motto, except for the fact that he already has one: “Numquam concedere”—”Never concede.” Actually, that Latin isn’t quite right. It should be “Numquam concede” or, in the plural, “Numquam concedite”.
But who cares about a little spelling mistake! When you’re a Roman emperor—or an American President—no one would dare correct your Latin.
Harry Mount’s “Summer Madness—How Brexit Split the Tories, Destroyed Labour and Divided the Country” will be published this month by Biteback.