The Roman Empire Survived Unbalanced Executives — Maybe America Can Too

by | Dec 12, 2016 | Classical Civilization

The early Roman Empire survived two mentally unbalanced emperors: Caligula and Nero. In fact, neither seems to have harmed the economy or disrupted the lives of the common people, despite bizarre behavior. That’s encouraging in the age of Donald Trump.

Nero entertains the crowds

Nero entertains the crowds

During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly threatened to ignore legal restraints on executive power. (See my posts on the Founding Fathers, jailing Clinton, and the death of democracy.) If he tries to govern that way, and the GOP Congress fails in its duty to impeach, American democracy faces an existential threat. But psychologists have suggested Mr. Trump is a clinical narcissist. (See Psychology Today and Vanity Fair.) If so, he’s apt to lie without considering the consequences, and we shouldn’t take his promises seriously. Narcissism would also suggest we shouldn’t compare Mr. Trump to thoughtful, capable authoritarians, like Putin and Mussolini, but rather to imbalanced rulers, like Caligula and Nero.



Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus — a.k.a. Caligula — ruled from 37 to 41 A.D. Roman sources report that he made his horse a senator, slept with his sisters and prostituted them to other men, ordered his soldiers to collect seashells as plunder from Neptune, killed nobles, dressed up as both male and female gods, and possibly craziest of all, planned to move the imperial seat to Alexandria. It’s hard to say how Caligula’s reign impacted the economy in the short run, and he certainly bankrupted his own treasury. But during his lifetime, the Roman Empire rose to new heights of power and wealth. And not even Caligula’s worst critics claimed he ravaged the common people’s lives. So far as we can tell, Caligula’s erratic rule didn’t set the empire back much at all.

Nero. (Does that expression remind you of anyone?)

Nero, imagined (Remind you of anyone?)

Nero was Caligula’s nephew and ruled from 54 to 68 A.D. He apparently murdered his mother and step-brother and two of his wives — one of them pregnant — performed music and poetry in public (shameful for a high-ranking Roman), and competed in the Olympics, where he “won” multiple events through bribery or coercion, including a chariot race he didn’t even finish. And despite his awesome political responsibilities, Nero saw himself mostly as a performer; his legendary last words were: “What an artist dies in me!” But it seems Nero didn’t disrupt the economy or the common people’s lives any more than Caligula. In fact, one source (Tacitus) reports that the lower classes mourned his death. And though Nero did preside over a depression, it’s not likely his spending was the cause. In the long run, his reign did little or nothing to stall the empire’s rise in power and wealth.

The Roman example isn’t all good. Caligula died at assassins’ hands, and Nero’s reign ended with revolt, suicide, and a year or more of civil war (along with a serious rebellion by conquered barbarians). Those outcomes sound terrifying as predictions for America’s future. But assassination and civil war were more normal for the Romans than for the modern world. They didn’t break with tradition any more than, say, an impeachment in the U.S., or a contested vote decided by the courts. Plus, America has impeachment and courts to decide power battles, along with limited terms of office and a clear, peaceful system for replacing a disgraced leader. The Roman Empire didn’t. (That may be why the empire fell, as explained in my post on America and Rome, bullet 5.) So violence isn’t anywhere near as likely for America.

Of course, it’s hard to say what really happened during Caligula’s reign or Nero’s. Their Roman enemies may have exaggerated or even made up their worst exploits. Still, it’s likely each emperor was, at a minimum, a narcissist.




  • Christian Dirce, 1897, Henryk Hektor Siemiradzki — cropped
  • Caligula and Germanicus aureus (gold coin), 37-41, from Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., via Wikimedia Commons
  • Kaiser Nero, Abraham Janssens van Nuyssen (1575–1632)

© 2016, 2017 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.


  1. David Tollen

    Of course, neither Nero nor Caligula had nuclear weapons. Let’s hope Trump’s narcissism isn’t so severe that he’d misuse them.

  2. Robert

    And what about Commodus? – His nutty reign seemed to be the beginning of the end for Rome. It never really recovered.

    • David Tollen

      Yes, Commodus is another possible example. He isn’t “early Roman Empire,” and I’m not as certain that he was as imbalanced as Caligula and Nero, but he’s at least a candidate for Trump-like leader.


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