In the year 192 AD the Roman Emperor Commodus hosted fourteen days of games in the Colosseum. The purpose of the games was to allow Commodus to kill a rhino. But as was fitting for his station, he would do so before a large crowd with as much spectacle as he could muster. As word spread throughout Italy that Commodus himself would enter the arena, crowds flocked to Rome for the event to witness his considerable physical prowess firsthand.
Roman emperors were well versed in marketing, and Commodus was no different. He was known to dress like Hercules. He wore a lionskin shawl and carried a club as Hercules was believed to do, and he had many statues created that depicted him as such. The maintenance of these physical ties to the mythological figure linked Commodus to the gods, allowing him to claim a divine status and power to serve his position. On the day of the games, however, Commodus chose a white silk tunic to greet the Roman senators, who were too terrified of him not to attend. He took note of their attendance and would later threaten them with the head of an ostrich—shaking the bloodied appendage at them in a silent promise. After this reception, Commodus channeled a different deity: Leaving his Herculean apparel on a gilded chair, he came dressed as Mercury, the gods’ messenger. He wore a purple tunic with gold stars and carried a staff like the god's. He stepped out onto the catwalk that had been constructed for him in this attire and the meaning was clear: Commodus would be fleet-footed and agile. He would would display precision and skill in the coming days.
Except there was little sport to be had with the Emperor. He was stashed safely above the animals he would be “hunting” on his catwalk, and the animals themselves were divided into small herds by the very structure of arena so he could pick them off in small groups easily. Still when he paused to drink and raised his cup to the crowd, it’s reported that they unanimously shouted “Cheers!” The style of the presentation didn’t matter to them; they were swept up by his ego. He would kill many, many animals in this fashion for the pleasure of the crowd and to assert his dominance over the coming days. He did leave the catwalk occasionally to face the less aggressive animals, like deer. Others were brought before him in nets or presented point-blank. The crowd was not deterred at all. They were awed by the Emperor’s skill with his weapons as well as with the varied animals on display.
Games of this nature were common in Roman times. And they were employed artfully by emperors over the years as a display of strength and wealth and generosity. Roman leaders were quite strategic in managing their public persona. For example, it became a general practice in the late Republic for reknown leaders to assume the name of a virtue—to essentially become the virtue. Q. Caecilius Metellus took the name of Pius which likened him to the virtue of pietas which had long been something that the population held in high regard. Sulla adopted the name of Felix to personify the quality of felicitous. But it was Caesar who really made the most of this by creating the cults of Victoria Caesaris, Fortuna Caesaris, and Clementia Caesaris. It meant that worship of the personification of Caesaris and Fortuna also meant worship of Julius Caesar himself, allowing him to assume these virtues in a popular context.
In addition, coins were treated as official documents and were minted with representations unique to the emperor and his regime. They were also used to communicate the virtues being leveraged as symbolic capital for the rulers. Using a combination of image and text, emperors linked themselves to indulgentia and munificentia (generosity), aequitas (fairness), and pietas (devotion, respect, and duty). While the emphasized virtues may have changed between rulers, the idea that the idea that the seat of the emperor could carry a brand remained consistent.
There are some comparisons to be drawn here against the newly elected American President, Donald Trump. The word “megalomaniac” has been used several times. Commodus was also a megalomanic. In fact, he actually renamed Rome to Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana at one point in his reign. (He also renamed the months of the year to correspond to his names as well.) Trump's path to the presidency has truly been an exercise in showmanship—much as many were drawn to the arena for Commodus’ games for the promise of seeing him perform, so too did many tune into the debates simply to see what Trump would say next. The spectacle had immense appeal. Now he sits comfortably in the Oval Office, and from this metaphorical catwalk, he can sign executive orders that take aim at the environment, civil rights, education, and a host of other things. Commodus commanded people’s full attention in the arena. All eyes are now on Donald Trump as even the international community waits to see what will come from the White House next.
Trump is shaping the brand of the presidency with a heavy hand. He entered the White House already branded. With a trail of casinos and hotels and other business ventures in tow, the Trump brand embodies excess and a very specific type of wealth. It hinges on the idea of exclusivity on one hand and the perception of luxury on the other. The issue is that his brand runs counter to the expectations for the presidential seat. As the ultimate representative of the people, the President’s brand is national brand. Roman emperors sought to link themselves with Roman virtues as a means of connecting to the people and becoming the embodiment of Rome itself. They chose virtues that were meaningful to the people. Virtues varied from emperor to emperor depending on the needs of the Republic and the regime—and simply due to individuals: it’s entirely possible to display a virtue in one situation but not another. This does not undo the brand in and of itself. Systematic disregard for a virtue can however change the experience and expectation for the brand overall. To this end, public morality does not necessarily equate to or require a private morality, but there is constitutional character that has been the tradition of the presidential brand.
Constitutional virtues are distinct to public office because they exist primarily in the service of the public needs. Generally, they include:
- sensitivity to the basic rights of citizenship,
- respect for due process,
- willingness to justify decisions,
- and a commitment to candor.
While it is hoped that a president will have all of these characteristics, constitutional virtue can consist of one or some of these traits. For example, a president may have a strong sense of responsibility but low tolerance for opposition or respect basic right but nor due process. Donald Trump has challenged each of these virtues in turn within the first week of his presidency, which in turn has caused some of those who did vote for him to question his place in White House and his intention to serve the population that election him.
Presidents, like their citizens, are people, and they can be imperfect too. FDR—who is remembered as a fair president overall—ordered the internment of more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry to War Relocation Camps. Approximately 60% were US citizens and this was only officially acknowledged as wrong in 1988 with reparations following in 1999. Eisenhower failed to speak out against racial segregation. While he did take action to protect the civil rights of African Americans, the perceived lack of leadership here hurt the perception of the presidential seat. It is candor, therefore, that is the cornerstone to the presidential brand, and it’s something that Trump has thus far shown little regard for. In public appearances he has yet to fully explain the actions he has taken or plans to take. The result is that people are fearful for what is to come. Rather than the brand being one of assurances and confidence, the brand is slipping into something opaque.
Of course, it is easily argued that all presidents lie. They need to—perhaps for national security, our security. But not all lies are created equal. Generally the brand of the president is strong enough to support the actions he takes and bolster the confidence of the American public. It is when an individual systematically seeks to maintain secrecy and manipulation with the result being the distortion of democracy that the brand will falter.
At the end of his games, Commodus did kill the rhino. He had practiced at his villa and was an expert spear-thrower. And he likely had some help from other hunters as well—whether they were able to join him in the catwalk remains unknown. The slaying of such a beast was probably satisfying to the emperor and the spectators alike. And it likely contributed to his reputation—adding weight to his skills with weapons and casting him as ferocious and possibly dangerous. The latter perception hurt him ultimately as many of his advisors saw his actions as foolish and cruel. He was undone by a plot led by one of his closest advisors. (The people then also re-renamed the city to Rome.)
The presidential brand has a life of its own. It can be shaped by the person who wields it, but the people will view a threat to this brand as a threat to themselves. Donald Trump may need to choose which brand he wants to wield.
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Correction: An earlier version of this article listed Metellus, Sulla, and Caesar as Emperors. These men held various leadership titles within the Republic but were not Emperors.
Noreña, Carlos F. “The Communication of the Emperor's Virtues.” The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 91, 2001, pp. 146–168. www.jstor.org/stable/3184774.
Thompson, Dennis F. "Constitutional Character: Virtues and Vices in Presidential Leadership." Presidential Studies Quarterly 40(1), 2001: 23-37.
Toner, J. P. The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U Press, 2014. Print.
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Image Credit: Jason Train