Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.08


R. Gundlach and H. Weber, Legitimation und Funktion des Herrschers. Vom Pharao zum neuzeitlichen Diktator. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 1992. Pp. 358 (pb). ISBN 3-515-06178-9.


Reviewed by David Potter, University of Michigan.

This is an interesting exercise in comparative history. After an introductory essay by Grundlach on sacred kingship as an historical and "phenomenological" problem (his point is that it is a "typical form of political organization between the fourth millennium BC and the industrial revolution"), there are nine essays on discreet historical periods. These include Middle Kingdom Egypt (also by Gundlach), the Ptolemies, "sacred kingship" in the Middle Ages, the Byzantine monarchy in exile (1204-1282), political ideology and politics in Reformation Germany, sacred kingship and legitimation in Henry IV's France, the question of English absolutism in the reign of James II, the absolutism of Ludwig IV of Bavaria, Frederick the Great and the emperor Joseph II of Austria, and, finally, Stalin. It would be impolite to wonder why one of Stalin's coevals is omitted in a German volume, especially since the justification for including Stalin appears to be that Marxist "sacred king" has a sort of quasi-religious legitimation (p. 355).

As Gundlach points out in his introduction, historical studies are necessarily interdisciplinary, but no individual is capable of commanding the range of detail necessary to carry on meaningful studies of this sort on his or her own (p. 21). The point of the volume is thus show how research can be advanced by bringing together specialists in different disciplines. Such publications are becoming quite common these days (hence some surprise at the description of this effort as a pilot project), and are often very useful. This book is no exception, and in the area where I felt some competence to comment, I found the essay by Herz on Ptolemaic kingship to be an excellent summary of the issues connected with the evolution of royal ideology in the second century. H. treats what he sees as the different aspects of Ptolemaic ideology (king as philosopher, king as leader of the Macedonian army, king as ruler over Greek states, king as Pharaoh) with precision and clarity. Although I think more could be made here of the relationship between Greeks and Egyptians on the ground, and of the reflection of royal ideology in an Egyptian context (e.g. the Oracle of the Potter), this clear, up-to-date discussion is well worth reading by anyone concerned with the topic. The further issue that needs considering is, of course, the difference between Ptolemaic, Seleucid and Antigonid traditions, but this would have taken Herz beyond his brief.

Despite the couple of pages at the end by Weber and the introductory essay by Gundlach (where the difference between German and anglophone traditions is most evident -- especially in his lack of anthropological bibliography), there is no real effort to pull things together in any detail. This is often the case with such books, and it is not necessarily a great ill. On the other hand, it is important for outsiders to be made aware of the terms of debate within other disciplines, and for this the inclusion of more detailed comment on individual offerings, a feature of the excellent collection assembled by A. Mulho, K. Raaflaub and J. Emlen -- City-States in Classical Antiquity and Medieval Italy (Ann Arbor, 1991) -- is a very useful thing indeed.