2021 was the 16th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Such, at least, is the verdict given by Freedom in the World, the flagship journal of the NGO ‘Freedom House’. Rather than harvesting the democratic gains expected from the fall of the USSR, the Arab Spring, and the expansion of the EU, we find ourselves in the midst of a resurgence of autocracy – a resurgence whose devastating consequences we are currently witnessing in real time in Ukraine. The sudden dramatic exposure to autocracy in the form of Putin’s invasion should not, however, obscure the fact that the current rise of autocracy is a world-wide phenomenon. All around the world, we find the upsurge of similar rhetoric: democratic institutions are too feeble and too inefficient to handle a crisis, and only a strong leader, unfettered by constitutional constraints, can guarantee peace and security. If we want to safeguard our societies from autocracy, we must first interrogate the rhetoric used to legitimise it.
While recent treatments of our autocratic moment have tended to approach the issue from a modern perspective – Timothy Snyder 2017 expertly and powerfully musters examples from the 20th century, and Ece Temelkuran 2019 argues for the fundamental uniformity of contemporary countries’ path to autocracy – the conference aims to bring an historical perspective to this debate by exploring the legitimation strategies of contemporary self-proclaimed strongmen side by side with those employed to justify the absolute power of the Roman emperors. It is, in other words, time to look at the historicity of autocratic rhetoric, and where better to start than at the most durable autocracy of western civilisation: The Roman Empire. Having replaced the failing Roman Republic with a de facto autocracy at the end of the first century BCE, the emperors and their henchmen had to sell this new system of government to the Roman people and above all to the Roman aristocracy. How did they do it? In a society which shortly before had taken great pride in its dedication to libertas (political freedom), which legitimation strategies were employed to defend and rationalise the need for a single ruler to wield absolute power?
“The Language of Autocracy: Ancient and Modern” takes its cue from the observation that the rhetoric of the archetypical authoritarian ‘strong man’ appears to be oddly similar throughout history. While this might seem defeating, it can also provide us with valuable insight as we seek to understand specific autocracies and their legitimation strategies – not least those of the present day. The conference, then, is grounded in the belief that autocracy as a form of government needs to be historicised; that conversation between historians and political scientists will enrich both disciplines; and that the Roman Empire in particular may provide a fruitful laboratory for improving our understanding of modern and contemporary autocracies, and vice versa. We can learn from today and yesterday no less than from the distant past. Above all, the conference hopes to suggest answers to the question of how universal autocratic legitimation strategies really are: Is there an enduring logic governing the rise and maintenance of autocracies and the systems of thought that support them? In other words, how exceptional is our current autocratic moment? And are there meaningful – and helpful – similarities to be drawn from the Roman Empire?
Autocracies are back on our doorstep. They should also be back at the top of our research agenda.