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What Netflix’s Caligula Teaches Us about Trump and His Critics

“If we are willing to be mildly skeptical of a historian who wrote about an emperor removed by one century, then we should also be skeptical of psychiatrists who are too eager to diagnose Mr. Trump with some mental disorder.”

If you enjoy pornography, then you know that not all porn productions have ridiculous plots. No, I am not talking about Deep Throat (that plot is as ridiculous as it gets). I am talking about Caligula, the 1979 film directed by Bob Guccione. Notoriously, Gore Vidal (the scriptwriter), Malcolm McDowell (the lead actor) and Peter O’Toole (a major star) disavowed the film; in fact, Caligula has been hated by many critics. For what is worth, I happen to think this is an unfair assessment. If you are into Roman fetishes, then the movie’s explicit scenes (and there are quite a few) are appealing, in-and-of-themselves. If you are more the conservative type and are not turned on by orgies and the like, you might still enjoy the movie because the film does a decent job of showcasing the intricacies of 1st Century Roman aristocratic depravations and palace intrigues.

I suppose critics hated the film because of its gratuitous sex and violence. But, that excess of sex and violence is actually present in the very sources that we rely on to reconstruct Caligula’s life. The main source is Suetonius, a historian who wrote nearly a century after Caligula’s death. Suetonius provided the juicy details of the debaucheries: Tiberius, Caligula’s adopted grandfather, playing in a pool with sharks (the sharks being little boys, victims to the old pervert), Caligula organizing a major brothel in the palace, and so on. The 1979 film perhaps exaggerates Suetonius’ own descriptions—but only by a little. If you are disgusted by Guccione’s film, and then read Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars; chances are you will also feel offended.

Netflix has recently released the third season of Roman Empire. In four episodes, it re-tells the story of Caligula, mixing documentary narration, experts’ historical assessments, and bits of acting. The episodes are nowhere as entertaining as Guccione’s film, but if you want a more serious approach to Caligula’s life, without the boredom of some Oxford don giving a mini-lecture in a Roman ruin (as unfortunately, most documentaries do), then this will suffice.

The series tries to present a more sober view of Caligula’s life and times by omitting some of Suetonius’ more sensational claims. After all, Suetonius had an ax to grind; he was part of the equestrian class, and his descriptions of the Caesars’ lives may have been an attempt to discredit the imperial system in order to push for a return to the Republic.

Whereas in Guccione’s film, the very casting of McDowell (the same actor who played the violently charismatic Alex in A Clockwork Orange) already conditions the audience to think of Caligula as a hedonistic yet captivating monster, the Netflix series portrays a young man who as a child had to endure deep traumas, and that may explain some aspects of his troublesome personality. Although this may be a more boring version of history, it is probably more accurate.

According to Suetonius, Caligula wanted to designate his horse Incitatus as consul. This is probably the most infamous detail known about the emperor. The series completely omits any reference to this claim, as if such a thing never happened. I tend to think that indeed, this story may have been based on a misunderstanding of Caligula just playing with words (he seemed to have a wicked sense of humor), telling people that even his horse was more eloquent than the senators he so vehemently hated.

On the basis of the story about the horse—and on the fact that Caligula suffered a mysterious illness at some point—historians have been fond of claiming that Caligula was mad. This allegedly explains, for example, Caligula’s bizarre actions in waging war against the god Neptune and ordering his troops to collect shells from a beach, as part of the booty. The series, once again aiming for a less sensationalized account, simply narrates that, just before setting to cross the English Channel as part of a plan to invade Britain, the troops rebelled, and they all went home.

This is not to say that in its sobriety, the Netflix series is entirely accurate. Caligula’s uncle Claudius is presented as the rational counterweight to Caligula’s excesses that, on more than one occasion, saves the day. This is unlikely. Although later as an emperor, Claudius did turn out to be a capable administrator, during Caligula’s reign Claudius was completely marginalized in the imperial court, on account of his stuttering and limping (both handicaps are omitted in the series). Suetonius tells the curious story that, when Caligula was finally assassinated, Claudius was found hiding behind a curtain, trembling in fear. I find this particular detail reliable, yet the series prefers to narrate that Claudius was actually the mastermind of the conspiracy; and, to this effect, he was present in the very scene of Caligula’s murder.

Be that as it may, despite its shortcomings, the third season of Roman Empire is commendable for its serious and measured approach to a subject that lends itself to hyperbole. And in that regard, I believe it has something important to tell us about 21st Century America. The President of the United States is the closest equivalent to a Roman emperor in our times. An office with such power inevitably runs the risk of intoxicating its occupants. We seem to have a president who, unlike the previous ones, has flaws in characters that resemble some of the Caesars described by Suetonius. Donald J. Trump may not organize brothels in the White House, but there is the persistent rumor about Stormy Daniels. President Trump may not be incestuous as Caligula was (the emperor apparently had sex with his three sisters), but he has made some unusual remarks about his daughter Ivanka. The current president has not erected statues to be worshipped as a god (as Caligula pretended to do, most notably in the Temple in Jerusalem), but some psychiatrists do claim Trump may have a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Yet, in the same manner that the Netflix series is aware of Suetonius’ biases and therefore opts for a more sober telling of Caligula’s life, for our own sanity we need to cool down our obsession with Trump’s immoralities and alleged lack of mental health. Yes, Trump has some eccentricities, but he is not the hedonistic moral boogeyman the media imagines him to be. Very much as Suetonius, most of the anti-Trump media also has an ax to grind, and for accuracy and objectivity’s sake, we should avoid the sensationalizing that ultimately erodes political debate.

The Netflix series makes no attempt to sugarcoat Caligula’s brutality, but it refuses to portray him as a madman gone awry. The emperor certainly had excesses, but the fact that Suetonius wrote about them one century later should caution us not to think of Caligula as simply insane. By the same token, if we are willing to be mildly skeptical of a historian who wrote about an emperor removed by decades, then we should also be skeptical of psychiatrists who are too eager to diagnose Mr. Trump with some mental disorder, even though they are also removed from him, in the sense that they have never done a clinical interview with the President. Currently, the so-called “Goldwater Rule” is in effect: according to this rule, psychiatrists are forbidden from diagnosing public figures without an authorized clinical examination. Given President Trump’s eccentricities, there has been some pressure to overturn this rule. If we want to avoid the sensationalism akin to Suetonius or the 1979 film, we should follow the more nuanced approach of Netflix and evaluate Trump’s presidency and political actions, without being so concerned about his personality or mental health.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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