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.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis waits for Indonesia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi during an honor cordon at the Pentagon March 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis waits for Indonesia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Retno Marsudi during an honor cordon at the Pentagon March 26, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

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 The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, 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 his book Fire and Fury. Whether they are actually true is another, less promising, matter.

Anyone who wants to understand the complexities, ethical and practical, posed by the unstable and unserious rule of Nero — and, by extension, Trump — would be far better off consulting the writing of Suetonius’s slightly older contemporary, Tacitus, whose Annals and Histories deeply influenced writers ranging from Machiavelli and Montaigne to Edward Gibbon and David Hume. Judging from his pattern of behavior in Trump’s cabinet – and his well-established reading habits — Secretary of Defense James Mattis may have done just that.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus would have understood Americans’ precarious political moment better than most, having grown up during Nero’s reign and served as a senator under his later successor, Domitian, who was just as dangerous, if less notorious. Cruel and cunning, Domitian trashed the republic’s institutions and undermined its laws. At the same time, he instituted a cult of personality by offering bread and circuses to the people, launching nighttime gladiatorial games that included female fighters. (He also happened to be obsessed with his baldness and wore a wig for public appearances.)

For Tacitus, this was hardly reason for laughter: Domitian was quick to banish or kill his critics. But Domitian and Nero posed a more insidious threat to Rome: Their behavior inspired others not to defy it, but to copy it. It was, Tacitus writes in Annals, as if senators and other officials “were infected, so to speak, by sickness,” leading many of them to emulate the source of this contagion, the emperor. At the same time as they were busy subverting the old order, Nero and Domitian were creating new opportunities for those willing to profit from them. Tacitus recognized that the greatest danger was found not with the absolutists, but instead with the opportunists for whom servility paid handsomely.

For those unwilling to toady, what was to be done? Whereas Suetonius (and Wolff) tells us what we already know about our rulers, Tacitus tells us what we should know about our own selves and our duties.

Who are we, though, and what are those duties? We could aspire, for instance, to emulate Thrasea. While his fellow senators were cravenly congratulating Nero for ordering the killing of his mother Agrippina, a disgusted Thrasea, who, according to the historian Cassius Dio, “could not say what he would and would not say what he could,” rose and walked out of the Senate. Thrasea’s scorn for Nero — reflected in his Stoic mantra “Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me” — led him to commit suicide.

Yet Tacitus, while he reported on the deeds of republican martyrs like Thrasea, did not always sing their praises. Undertaken with an eye to glory, such acts were ultimately as selfish as were Nero’s own antics. In the end, Tacitus tells us, all Thrasea accomplished was “bringing danger upon himself without acquiring freedom for the others.”

But there are other ways to act dutifully, Tacitus insisted. Service is not servility, just as deference is not subservience. Tacitus praised those Romans who, like his father-in-law, Agricola, acted under Domitian not just with energy but also with a sense of responsibility and piety. On the eve of a pivotal battle in Britain, Agricola told his legions: “Our best chance of safety lies in doing our duty.” For him, republican duty was not to an individual but instead to Rome’s past, present, and future. Hence, Tacitus’s famous claim that “even under bad emperors there can be great men.” Greatness was measured less by an “ostentatious death” like Thrasea’s (or, for that matter, Seneca’s), but instead by an “unassuming conduct” that maintained the security of the empire.

It might well be, were Tacitus alive today, that he would dismiss Jeff Flake as a pale imitation of Thrasea Paetus. The Arizona senator has very publicly broken with Trump and warned his fellow Republicans against the Faustian bargain they have entered into in order to remain in power. While Flake has not opened his veins as did Thrasea, he has, like his Roman counterpart, preferred a glorious exit from the Senate to a less glorious effort to fight for what is right (in every sense of the word) from within. In fact, many critics would argue that Flake, through his failure to use his vote to counter Trump’s behavior, never truly fought at all.

In contrast, Tacitus would find a different and more effective fighter in the person of Secretary of Defense Mattis. By now, many of us know that the retired general kept a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations by his side during his tour of duty in Iraq. But since joining the Trump administration, Mattis seems to have plucked an edition of Tacitus’s works from his sizable personal library. Like Agricola, he embodies an ethos of service — one that is civic as well as military — which the United States desperately needs.

Consider Trump’s infamous meeting last year with his Cabinet secretaries, who — in front of cameras — outdid one another in thanking the president for the opportunity to serve him. To quote Tacitus, such “foul and openly displayed” sycophancy could only increase the president’s arrogance. But Mattis was the one notable exception to this feast of fecklessness and fawning. Rather than thanking Trump, Mattis instead thanked the men and women at the Defense Department for the chance to represent them, expressing his gratitude to the sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers on behalf of its diplomacy.

He has not since wavered from this model of restraint. Unlike former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Mattis knows not to call the commander in chief a “fucking moron” anywhere other than his kitchen. Unlike former national security advisor H.R. McMaster, Mattis knows it is a dereliction of duty to be trotted out by the commander in chief in order to defend his lies. Unlike Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose grasp on office has been consistently tenuous, Mattis knows not to act upon Trump’s most divisive and dire desires. Instead, Mattis makes a point of not scoring points against his commander in chief. Rather than taking issue with Trump’s pronouncements, he instead works behind the scenes to moderate them. This has been the case with a range of issues, including transgender people serving in the military and the staging an expensive military parade in Washington. Thanks to his studied moderation, Mattis not only has secured a 10 percent increase in military spending but also remains the one constant in a Cabinet beset by turmoil and terror cultivated by Trump.

Herein perhaps lies a lesson. Rather than focusing upon the Neronic antics of our president, or the servile behavior of his enablers, we would do well to recall the vital role played by government officials like James Mattis. It will be the work of those committed to moderation and duty that will keep Donald Trump in check and, to paraphrase Tacitus, prevent him from creating a wasteland and making it a piece of the Trump empire.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.