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Tyranny: Ancient vs. Modern

In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune titled, “If Elizabeth Warren is ‘Pocahontas,’ then Donald Trump is ‘Caligula,’” by Eric Zorn, the president is compared to a Roman Emperor named Caligula who ruled from 37 to 41 AD. The word ‘tyrant’ is incorrectly used in this article as its context does not correlate to the appropriate time period. The historical usage of the word ‘tyrant’ usually meant a ruler who came to power in a non-hereditary fashion and disrupted a familiar system of succession. The more common and contemporary definition accurately depicts the ancient Roman emperor while the former definition can be seen as a closer fit to the American president.

Caligula was described as a “changeable, unpredictable, and contradictory” ruler according to a biography written by Stephen Dando-Collins. In addition, the ancient Roman historian Suetonius, who was born 28 years after Caligula’s death, wrote about the former ruler in “De Vita Caesarum (The Lives of the Caesars)” and said, “it is difficult to say whether weakness of understanding or corruption of morals were more conspicuous.” Suentonius continues to say that Caligula thought of himself as a god and built a temple in his own honor which contained a life-sized statue made of pure gold. The article by Zorn also claims that Caligula was a savage murderer and was quick to execute anyone who angered or upset him.  However, Caligula was a member of a lineage of emperors. While not a direct son of his predecessor, Tiberius, he was in the bloodline of which his successor, Claudius, was as well. This removes the ancient definition of tyranny from Caligula. He was not an extra-constitutional power and he became known as a ruthless and evil leader. This more closely matches the modern-day interpretation of the word ‘tyrant’ and not the premodern definition of a tyrant as an outsider who takes over.

Donald Trump has become a very controversial figure in today’s society. He is hated and loved by many for several different reasons. Regardless of politics, I do not believe that he can be considered a tyrant according to the modern interpretation of the word. I understand a tyrant to be an oppressive ruler who enforces a cruel and harsh regime on those under their power. While he may be evil to some, he has not taken any actions on which to directly associate him as a tyrant. However, while he was elected into office constitutionally, he assumed power in a non-hereditary fashion and he came from a non-political background. This can be loosely related to the ancient definition of tyrant because he appeared on the scene and gained power in a relatively short amount of time much to the dissatisfaction of many in his electorate.

The ancient definition of tyranny is rarely used let alone understood, therefore Zorn did not intend to misrepresent the word in the context of the article. However, observing the word with the new definition in mind, it can be concluded that Caligula was not a tyrant in regards to his society’s understanding even though he so closely fits the stereotype that we commonly associate with tyrants today.

-Nate Utesch

Word count: 523

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