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‘The Echoes With Trump Are Obvious’: BBC Series On Caesar Casts Light On Similarities With Modern Populists

It is “the most thrilling, the most extraordinary political story” in history, whose central character “stamps himself on the fabric of time and whose fame endures throughout the ages”, according to historian Tom Holland.

For Rory Stewart, podcaster, former soldier and former politician, that character is “a disgrace in every single way. He’s immoral, he’s irreligious and he’s a political tyrant”.

The man in question is Julius Caesar, the subject of a new BBC three-part docudrama in which Holland and Stewart dissect the popular Roman general-turned-despot, offering different perspectives. Holland admires Caesar as a “titanic figure”; Stewart bats for his principled arch-enemy, Cato.

Julius Caesar: The Making of a Dictator starts on 27 November and includes dramatised scenes depicting Caesar’s rise and fall, his ambitions, plots, alliances and conquests as he dismantles five centuries of the Roman republic in just 16 years. It shows how some of those closest to Caesar tried to stop the march towards tyranny, culminating in daggers being plunged into his body on the Ides of March in 44BCE as he sat on his golden throne in the Roman senate.

Parallels are drawn with modern-day populism and the echoes seen in leaders such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Vladimir Putin. Caesar endures “in the imagination either as an exemplar to be emulated or as a warning from history”, said Holland.

The three-hour docudrama format “allows the nuances of the characters to be unpacked, and the audience to engage with the story as directly as possible”, said Alexander Leith, executive producer of the series. Its dramatised scenes were filmed at Villa Ventorum, a reconstructed Roman house in Somerset. Archaeologists, conservators and skilled craft workers spent seven years excavating and recreating the villa and its gardens, incorporating fragments of original material found at the site.

As well as Holland and Stewart, contributors to the series include Jonathan Evans, former head of MI5, Shelley Haley, professor of Africana studies and Classics at Hamilton College in New York state, and Shami Chakrabarti, former director of the civil rights advocacy group, Liberty.

According to Stewart, the end result glosses over Caesar’s profound flaws. “I think Caesar is a horrifying figure,” he told the Observer. The series “does not make enough of the fact that the guy is corrupt, in massive debt, sleeping around with everyone. He’s presented in the documentary as a big man, the macho silent guy who just wants to be on the side of the people against the conservatives.

“When you see people talking about Caesar like that, you understand why democracy is in trouble. People become intoxicated by his success. Whereas Cato ultimately stands up to power.”

Rory Stewart, who features in a new docudrama about Caesar, describes the Roman leader as “immoral, irreligious and a political tyrant”. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The GuardianIn the programme, Stewart says the “echoes with Trump are obvious”. Both men “basically whip up a mob” to achieve their aims. According to Holland, part of the attraction of populist politicians among the public is the “adrenaline rush of seeing traditional orders trampled down and humiliated. People want someone who they feel speaks for them.”

The US had “consciously modelled itself on the Roman republic. That’s why there is a senate, why there is a Capitol Hill, why Washington’s architecture is classical. The idea of a republic that falls, that becomes overmighty, that is destroyed by the ambition and arrogance of its great men – this is a nightmare that has haunted Americans right from the very beginning,” he told the Observer.

But attempts to “equate the Roman republic with our democratic systems are dangerous; the parallels are not exact,” he said. And, in Britain, “the history of the past 20 years has demonstrated that democracy is working pretty robustly. We’ve had two existential referendums that most people in government didn’t want. And you could say the churn of recent prime ministers is the expression not of a democracy failing but democracy working.”

But, he added: “I feel slightly less sanguine about what’s happening in the US and possibly in France, looking at what the result of the next presidential election might be.”

The fundamental lesson of Caesar’s rise and fall was “to be very, very suspicious of populism”, said Stewart. “In the end, Caesar is a populist, and the narrative of his defenders is a populist narrative. It is: ‘I’m standing for the people against the elite. The people who are trying to defend the old way of doing things are out of touch. Things need to change, and I’m going to break it all.’ The roots of dictatorship are very seductive.

“Put this together with a charismatic individual. And whatever you think of Trump, [Boris] Johnson, Bolsonaro, [Narendra] Modi, they have charisma. They’re very good at saying, ‘I’m standing for the people against the elite’. It’s very difficult to make the case against the ‘big man’. But that’s what Cato was doing, again and again.”

Unsurprisingly, both Holland and Stewart believe there is much to be learned from history. “I know it’s unfashionable, but history has a way of making you reflect on the present. And one of the most important things history does is teach us moral lessons about precedent,” said Stewart.

“This is a brilliant story,” said Holland. “It’s amazing as a mirror held up to two millennia of subsequent history, but it’s also an amazing story in its own right. There’s no period of history that isn’t fascinating, because what history does is remind us that there are infinite ways of being human.”

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