The brutal reality of succession: what the Romans can teach us about Trump and Biden

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Mary Beard
·7 min read
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Trump’s reign is at an end
Trump’s reign is at an end

The one question that as a classicist I have been asked most these past four years is which Roman emperor Donald Trump is like. And, with the recent US presidential election and Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden, I am now getting the same request about him.

What I always reply is that we can learn about ourselves from thinking about Ancient Rome – but it doesn’t offer nice off-the-peg comparisons. So when I watch – with some trepidation given the events of recent weeks – the inauguration on a Capitol Hill full of classical resonances, I will be weighing up how a modern democracy like the United States deals with the inevitably messy, brutal business of succession next to how the Romans handled it.

On my desk as I write this is a bust of Emperor Vitellius that I picked up cheaply in a local auction. I have been studying him recently and my husband spotted the 19th century plaster cast up for sale in a catalogue.

Vitellius reigned for just eight months in AD69, known as the ‘year of four emperors’. For him succession meant death and his body being thrown in the River Tiber. However overshadowed the inauguration of Biden has been by the assault on Congress and Trump’s refusal to accept the election result, one thing is for sure: by and large, Western democracies are handling succession better than the Romans.

You need only think of the stories that are still familiar to us about the nasty ends of Roman emperors. Vitellius wasn’t the only one. They are assassinated. They get stabbed in the back by their closest friends. They get fed poisoned mushrooms by their unfaithful wives. And they get dumped in the river. Of the first 12 emperors, only in one case (the Emperor Vespasian) was there no rumour at all that the emperor had been bumped off.

Mary Beard: “The script has been discarded, which is what is causing so much foreboding” - Geoff pugh for The Telegraph
Mary Beard: “The script has been discarded, which is what is causing so much foreboding” - Geoff pugh for The Telegraph

That isn’t because Roman imperial leaders were in general a load of murderous psychopaths (even if a few might have been). It’s that the Romans were even worse than us in managing the transition of power.

In Ancient Rome, you see, they tended to imagine power change in terms of murder. In America, as in Britain and other democracies, today we have precisely the reverse view. We do everything we can to use ceremony and literature and ritual to make the transition of power peaceful, to normalise it.

Whether that is talking about being a good loser, or using military bands in the ceremony, we invest a lot of cultural effort into doing this very successfully. We never thought Margaret Thatcher in 1991 after being deposed would say, “I’m not leaving Downing Street.” Departing prime ministers go to Buckingham Palace to see the Queen for one last time; they have internalised the script.

Margaret Thatcher leaves Number 10 Downing Street for the last time as Prime Minister - Ken Lennox
Margaret Thatcher leaves Number 10 Downing Street for the last time as Prime Minister - Ken Lennox

The only time we get so much as a glimpse of the brutal reality for those involved is when we catch sight of the van slipping in the back gate of Downing Street to remove the possessions of one incumbent to make way for the next. And it is there, too, when it comes to monarchy in that chilling phrase: ‘The king is dead, long live the king’, as if it was so easy to send the last incumbent packing in a single sentence.

With the inauguration of Biden, however, Trump and his hardcore supporters have thrown away the script. In so doing, they have exposed what the Romans knew all too clearly, that the transition of power is in some ways a fight to the end, and that no amount of pomp and circumstance can guarantee to cover that up.

There is no civilisation or culture in the world where power change is anything but a moment of anxiety. That is being laid bare this week in Washington.

What lessons, then, could Biden learn from history about how to navigate this very real challenge? The inauguration sees a concatenation of them: Covid restrictions, as observed by the new president if not the outgoing one, will make it an event like no other. As will the security situation.

And while the living past presidents will line up in their best suits to offer congratulations, with Mike Pence there on behalf of the losing party, Donald Trump – in not attending – is not playing the role he has been given.

The script has been discarded, which is what is causing so much foreboding. All the other cultural expectations of a presidential inauguration will, though, be in place. There will be singing, and there will be the reading of a poem by a living writer, an innovation first introduced by John F Kennedy, when Robert Frost recited his poem, The Gift Outright.

Incoming presidents have all used the cultural repertoire to help bolster the sense of an orderly and peaceful transmission of power. You may say it is a carapace, and it is, but it is a carapace we want to keep because it is preferable to the alternative.

In the same way, we tend to regard the way inaugurations or coronations are carried out as bond by tradition, something set in stone. It is another way we prop up our institutions.

We like to think of the coronation ceremony of our Queen as going all the way back to Edward the Confessor in the 11th century. The reality is that it was more or less invented after Queen Victoria’s coronation was such a mess (it was inadequately rehearsed and no one quite knew what they were expected to do).

How we mark succession, then, is not only more open to disruption than we may have imagined, but also more adaptable, because, while it gives us a script, it isn’t a set of rules. It can be reformulated to find a new status quo that works in that moment. That is Biden’s challenge.

In the new series of Inside Culture, our first programme (which goes out on BBC Two on Thursday 21 January) looks at succession and the transfer of power, including six actors reading a passage from King Lear, beginning with Brian Cox. We shouldn’t forget Shakespeare repeatedly returns to power changes. I like to think of him as the godfather of regime change.

I also talk to Margaret Atwood, who has imagined in The Handmaid’s Tale a particularly dystopian version of the transition of power; she suggests that eventually people do get back on script, even if not immediately.

So reasons for long-term optimism, but in the short term it may be rocky. And then there is the potential for it all to go wrong unintentionally.

Armando Iannucci, who has passed his satirical eye over the underbelly of political power on both sides of the Atlantic with The Thick of It and Veep, is in the show, too, warning that however good the script is for an inauguration, there is always potential for mess, panic and danger – partly because it is such a complex operation, involving so many people to bring about that turnaround successfully (right down to the person who changes the name plate on the new leader’s door).

Is there anything Ancient Rome can add to those last-minute deliberations of the Biden team? The Romans did have some clever tricks up their sleeves. They would sometimes, for example, take the bust of the previous emperor, get a bloke to do a morning’s work on it with a hammer and chisel so it bore some resemblance to the new incumbent, and present it to the public.

I have no doubt there were economic reasons for that – especially in a year of four emperors – but what underpinned it was also a sense that maybe all emperors are much like each other. That is another way of understanding power, and how it is passed on from one person to the next.

One successful model from Rome for Biden at his inauguration might be Augustus, the first Roman emperor. His great success was successfully to walk a tightrope between sounding deeply traditional and, at the same time, being radically innovative. It may be worth a glance back at the Roman playbook at this moment of fragility and fear.

Inside Culture with Mary Beard, begins tomorrow (Thursday 21st January) on BBC Two at 7pm