Foreign Policy Digital

James Mattis Is an Ancient Roman Action Hero

In dealing with President Trump, the defense secretary seems to have done his reading on Emperor Nero.

Since the 2016 election, comparisons between the United States and ancient Rome abound, motivated as much by President Donald Trump-Emperor Nero analogies as anything. Commentators have dwelled on the traits of theatricality, brutality, solipsism, narcissism, cruelty, and cowardice these men seem to share.

There’s a problem, however, with these comparisons: their source material. Most have turned to the work of Suetonius as their Nero-knowledge arsenal. Author of , Suetonius was antiquity’s Michael Wolff: a gossipy and glib chronicler of fear and loathing in imperial Rome. His account of Caligula planning to make a horse one of his consuls and Nero singing while Rome burned makes for sensational and spellbinding reading, just as does Wolff’s portrait of Trump eating cheeseburgers in bed and warning the maid not to touch his toothbrush in. Whether they are actually true is another, less promising, matter.

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