An Interesting Comparison of Donald Trump with Clodius Pulcher
I recently came across an interesting article comparing Donald Trump to a famous roman populist/demagogue who was a contemporary of Julius Caesar. The author of the piece is trying to point out that unconventional and populist political figures such as Trump can be found throughout recorded history.
The man who ultimately brought down the system was a wealthy and ambitious nobleman named Publius Clodius Pulcher, a populist demagogue who refused to play by the rules. Clodius had always been eccentric and unpredictable in ways that both shocked and amused the Roman populace. As a young man, he had incited a mutiny among his brother-in-law’s troops. Then, when pirates captured him, he took deep offense at the small ransom they accepted for his release. Nothing was sacred to Clodius. The more audacious his behavior, the more the public loved him for it. In Rome, for example, Clodius, a noted ladies’ man, committed sacrilege by dressing up as a woman and infiltrating the female-only religious festival of the goddess Bona Dea, with the aim of seducing Pompeia, Julius Caesar’s wife. The scandal led Caesar to divorce Pompeia, and gave rise to the famous quip that Caesar’s wife needed to be beyond suspicion.
After the elite rebuffed him, Clodius began breaking every rule in his quest for power. He gave up his standing as a nobleman and officially joined the plebs, positioning himself as the leader of the angry Roman working classes. Using his natural charm, fiery rhetoric, and keen sense of how to play establishment politicians against each other, he rammed through legislation establishing the first regular handout of free grain in Western history. This provided him with a huge following among the common people, especially those who had lost their jobs in recent economic upheavals. He became the king of the Roman streets and unleashed a populist uprising unlike anything the Republic had ever seen. Rome’s ruling classes had no idea how to control Clodius, whom they continued to despise. If the Republic were going to be destroyed, the famous orator and establishment politician Cicero lamented, at least let it fall by the hand of a real man.
My take on it however a bit different and darker. I see Clodius Pulcher as the almost inevitable consequence of a fundamentally unstable socio-economic system. It is reasonably well-known that the transition of Rome from a medium-sized republic to a full-fledged and multi-ethnic empire (200 BC- 50 BC) was frequently less than positive for most roman citizens. Multiple empire building wars, conquest of new lands and importing slaves was however extremely profitable to the oligarchs (and wannabe oligarchs) who pretended to run Rome as a republic. It is therefore no surprise that levels of internal unrest in Rome rose alongside the expansion of its empire. The continuous infighting and scheming among various shifting factions of the oligarchs also made Rome far less governable than when it was a regional south Italian republic. All of these changes and related neglect of the needs of average romans resulted in high levels of discontent among the population.
Clodius Pulcher was certainly not the first to exploit generalized public discontent of romans with their supposedly “elected” leaders. Nor was he the first to use wars and other crises to bypass republican limits on individual power. He just happened to be an especially skilled demagogue and politician. Pulcher’s biggest and especially relevant innovation was his grasp of the of popularity of social welfare programs in combination with organised strong-arm tactics which were previously the domain of oligarchs. He understood that most average romans were just not buying into all the ideological bullshit that most other oligarchs of his time assumed. Clodius Pulcher also, correctly, figured out that manipulating and humiliating other elitist oligarchs greatly increased his popularity- in addition to discrediting his opponents. It also helped that he was in the right position at the right time. History may not repeat itself perfectly, but it often rhymes.
What do you think?