In Praise of Nero: Trump and the Claque

Good piece in the New York Times: “For Trump, everything is a rating.” He, like many celebrities, has a long history of lying. Celebrity culture is also filled with paid PR folks maintaining bubbles of celebration.

Celebrities have support staff dedicated to maintaining their bubbles. (Even Mr. Trump’s bringing staff members to cheer him at events — like his first postelection news conference — is familiar from the critics association panels. Journalists are professionally forbidden from applauding the celebrities they cover, so network staffers whoop it up to massage their stars’ egos.)

Which means it’s time to talk about the Emperor Nero, who decided to play the lyre, and wasn’t very good at it. But he really wanted people to cheer. What to do?

3 He [Nero] was greatly taken too with the rhythmic applause of some Alexandrians, who had flocked to Naples from a fleet that had lately arrived, and summoned more men from Alexandria. Not content with that, he selected some young men of the order of knights and more than five thousand sturdy young commoners, to be divided into groups and learn the Alexandrian styles of applause (they called them “the bees,” “the roof-tiles,” and “the bricks”),57 and to ply them vigorously whenever he sang. These men were noticeable for their thick hair and fine apparel; their left hands were bare and without rings, and the leaders were paid four hundred thousand sesterces each. (Suetonius, The Life of Nero, 20.3)

Here’s what we know about the Augustiani, from Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Doublespeak from Nero to Hadrian (Harvard University Press, 1994), by Shadi Bartsch.  Bartsch writes (click for accessible version):

Page 8.

I am persuaded by the general sense that looking at Central Asian dictators and their tacky grandiosity mixed with savage repression is the best analogy to what Trump’s doing now, but definitely want to keep track of ways in which historical examinations of kings and emperors help us better understand Trump’s court culture.

More to come.

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