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Making and Unmaking the Emperor. The use of ritual and cultural standard practices to elevate and denigrate emperors in ancient Rome (46 BC – AD 395)

Final Report Summary - UNMEMP (Making and Unmaking the Emperor. The use of ritual and cultural standard practices to elevate and denigrate emperors in ancient Rome (46 BC - AD 395))

Project objectives

As numerous studies have shown, power is not just a matter of force. It is essential for any ruler to legitimise and enhance his position, presenting himself in ways that win and maintain the support of his subjects. In achieving this goal, rituals are important instruments. Consequently, the delegitimation of rulers works the other way around. Opponents who want to renounce, remove or even kill a ruler attack his elevated position to justify their act (either beforehand or afterwards). By committing ‘character assassination’, they demonstrate that the king, emperor or president in question is/was not worthy to rule and should be/had to be disposed. Attacking the rituals which propagate and highlight a ruler’s power is one of the primary ways to achieve this.
This project analyses the delegitimation of Roman emperors through negative descriptions of imperial rituals. The main question is: how did ancient authors transpose rituals that were in use as means of imperial representation into their negative reverses, thus delegitimising rulers they did not like? A connected second question is: which rituals were most frequently used in this respect?
The prime objective of the project is to contribute to the academic discourse on rituals in representations of power and status through the presentation of papers at conferences, the publication of peer-reviewed articles and, eventually, a monograph. A second objective is to imbed the results of the project in the wider context of the delegitimation of rulers from a broad variety of geographic and historical contexts. Finally, the project aims to disseminate the research results to a wider (nonacademic) audience.

Work performed

During the first year of the project, Icks (the researcher) has worked his way through a great number of ancient literary sources, resulting in a database of nearly 600 cases of negative descriptions of Roman imperial rituals. He has also familiarised himself with modern academic literature on these particular rituals and on sociological and anthropological theories of ritual in general. Based on these findings, he has taught the course ‘Kaiser und Ritual’ to undergraduates at the University of Heidelberg. In addition, Icks has discussed his project with several experts on ancient ritual, including Prof. Christian Witschel, Prof. Kai Trampedach, Prof. Tonio Hölscher, Prof. Eftychia Stavrianopoulou (all at the University of Heidelberg) and Prof. Angelos Chaniotis (Instute for Advanced Study, Princeton). Finally, he has gotten in touch with the political scientist Dr. Eric Shiraev (George Mason University, VA), with whom he has taken preparations to host an international colloquium on the delegitimation of rulers (‘character assassination’).
During the second year of the project, Icks has focussed on one particular Roman imperial ritual, namely the investiture of men with imperial power (i.e. the accession of Roman emperors). He has processed his findings in several articles and papers presented to academic audiences (see ‘Main results achieved’). Icks has also applied for a Veni stipendium (a three-year Dutch postdoctoral scholarship) to continue and expand his research. His proposal received a double A rating, but was eventually not elected for funding. Together with Dr. Eric Shiraev, Icks has organised and hosted the international colloquium ‘Character Assassination: The Art of Defamation throughout the Ages’ at the University of Heidelberg (21st to 23rd of July 2011).