March 11, 2002
Suetonius, Claudius, And Caligula Revisited

Last October 4th, Andrew Sullivan printed this note in his Daily Dish:

CLINTON'S REGRET: In last Friday's New York Times, an anonymous close friend of Bill Clinton's reflected on the former president's mixed emotions after the WTC Massacre: "He has said there has to be a defining moment in a presidency that really makes a great presidency. He didn't have one." A reader points out how similar these feelings are to another character in history as captured by the Roman historian, Suetonius: "He even used openly to deplore the state of his times, because they had been marked by no public disasters, saying that the rule of Augustus had been made famous by the Varus massacre, and that of Tiberius by the collapse of the amphitheatre at Fidenae, while his own was threatened with oblivion because of its prosperity, and every now and then he wished for the destruction of his armies, for famine, pestilence, fires, or a great earthquake." To whom was Suetonius referring? Caligula.

I remember it well, partly because it was quoted in 'Best of the Web', NRO, and the Weekly Standard, but mostly because I was "a reader". I mean no offence to Sullivan, one of my blogging inspirations, when I say that one reason for starting this blog was so I could sign my own name -- well, my own chosen pseudonym --to all my clever and not-so-clever remarks.

The next day, Sullivan added:

IF CLINTON IS CALIGULA...: Doesn't that make B-b-b-Bush C-c-c-c-Claudius?

(Caligula was succeeded by his uncle Claudius.) Sullivan was probably just comparing Claudius' notorious stutter to W's rather different linguistic impediment, but he may also have been thinking about their shared reputation for gross stupidity and accidental accession to power.

Why this post? I've just realized that the similarities go further. Here's what TurkeyBlog had to say in yesterday's last post, an informal book review headed Ambling Into History, IV:

Knocking heads - the right heads - for your old man is as good a way as any to get into the family business, and it has at least been suggested that W was the one who decided it was time for Sununu to go. Having seen politics as the goofy kid who wasn't worth paying attention to, Bush may have learned far more about the game than his opponents are comfortable with.

Hmmmm . . . Claudius survived the massacre of most of his relatives only because he was thought to be mentally deficient and therefore ineligible for the throne. As uncle of Caligula and nephew of Tiberius (Caligula's predecessor), he was given various low- to mid-level jobs that gave him valuable experience while keeping him out of the public eye. Not that anyone thought that he would ever need the experience, he was just too high-ranking to be totally ignored. As emperor, he did a fairly decent job, keeping taxes low and annexing Britain and Morocco (don't get any ideas, W!), among other accomplishments. At least many classicists now think of him as a relatively competent emperor. On the other hand, he did murder a lot of senators, not all of whom deserved it (again, don't get any ideas, W!). The ancient authorities, principally Tacitus (Books XI, XII, and the beginning of XIII) and Suetonius (very amusing), are uniformly hostile, perhaps because the historians were senators. The fact that Claudius shook and drooled and walked with a limp may have helped to prejudice them. He seems to have had cerebral palsy or something similar. You might think that he would make a good poster-boy for the Cerebral Palsy Association, but his reputation for stupidity, and all those murdered senators, seem to have discouraged that.

Final unpleasant thought for the superstitious: Claudius was succeeded by Nero. Would that be Hillary? John Edwards? Dick Gephardt? Hmmmmm . . . .

Posted by Dr. Weevil at March 11, 2002 10:20 PM