The aim of this blog is to apply Pagan wisdom to current politics, so I’ll start by considering what light the ancient sources can shed on Donald Trump. Can we find a similar politician who lived in olden times?
Actually, this already has been done. A Huff Post article by Philip Freeman in April of last year equated the Don with Publius Clodius Pulcher, a populist demagogue of the late Roman Republic. However, Clodius wasn’t that significant – the ruling elite had him beaten to death before he could do any lasting damage – and Freeman’s article was written before Trump was elected President. We need someone far more important than Clodius to be a suitable parallel.
My first thought was to compare the Don to one of those Roman strongmen of the first century BC – Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar – who between them transformed the Republic into an Empire. This would have the benefit of underlining the fragility of American democracy, which almost seems on its last legs – a topic for another time. Yet these warlords were proven commanders and administrators who’d served the Roman state in some way, while Trump, maybe uniquely, reached the political summit after a past devoted solely to his own enrichment.
For a comparison, we’ll need to find an ancient politician who, with no proven qualifications, gained a top-level position by hurling insults and trashing the accepted political standards. There haven’t been many of those in any age.
Here’s my suggestion: Cleon. He was an Athenian politician of the 5th century BC, the time of that city’s great war with Sparta. The historian Thucydides had plenty of opportunities to see Cleon in action, and reported him to be a loutish, boastful, foul-mouthed fool who appealed to the basest instincts of the voters. This was also the view of the comic playwright Aristophanes, whose X-rated comedy, Knights, depicts Cleon as the crooked servant of a doddering old man named Demos. Cleon sued Aristophanes for libel, but the play won first prize and still survives.
Plutarch says Cleon debased the norms of conduct in the Assembly. Previously, speakers tried to maintain decorum, but “he … broke out into exclamations, flung open his dress, smote his thigh, and ran up and down while he was speaking,” thus fostering “such licence and contempt of decency as brought all into confusion.” He liked to toss random charges of dishonesty at anyone who got in his way, which created a climate of general suspicion in the community. He was insolent and overbearing – yet the people tolerated behavior in him that they bore from no one else.
A carping critic of Pericles, Cleon assumed the leading place in the Assembly following the great man’s death. With regard to the war he took a hawkish line, while carefully staying out of harm’s way himself. On one occasion, he called for a general massacre of the rebel city of Mytilene, arguing that anything less drastic would show “weakness.” The Assembly at first agreed, but then had second thoughts and reversed itself the next day, just in the nick of time.
As the war went on, Cleon received what seemed to be a stroke of good fortune. In the Assembly, he was castigating a general, Nicias, for failure to corral some Spartan soldiers who were trapped on the island of Sphacteria, when he impulsively declared that he could do it easily if he were in charge. Nicias promptly resigned his command, and the Assembly forced Cleon, much against his will, to back up his words with deeds. The Fates were on his side. A fortuitous fire destroyed the Spartans’ cover and another general, Demosthenes, was on hand to plan the attack. Cleon triumphantly returned to Athens, captives in tow.
Unfortunately for Cleon, this apparent success led to his downfall. He became convinced of his own genius – a fatal mistake. He departed from his previous practice of criticizing others from the safety of Athens, and solicited command of an Athenian force opposing a Spartan army near the city of Amphipolis. The able Spartan general, Brasidas, conceived a battle plan based on the premise that the Athenian leadership (i.e. Cleon) would screw up, and the result was a crushing Spartan victory. Cleon ran away at the first sign of trouble, but not fast enough, and that was the end of him.
Athens and Sparta made a truce soon after. It didn’t last long, but at least for a time they weren’t butchering each other.
Getting back to the Don, Cleon’s example shows a likely trajectory for our so-called President. Trump has had his “Sphacteria moment” already. Winning the White House has convinced him that he’s smarter than anyone else, and he didn’t need much convincing. It’s perhaps only a matter of time before his hubris leads to some immense disaster that can’t be explained away.
Which brings us to the most obvious difference between Cleon and Trump: the amount of harm potentially resulting from their deeds. Cleon lost a battle, but did no lasting damage to the Athenian community. Trump’s belligerent, impulsive, resentful nature, and his authoritarian attitude, could not only inflict a fatal wound on American democracy, but trigger ruin on a global scale.
That’s a bummer to think about. My next posting will be on something else.
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