BMCR 2020.06.24

New perspectives on power and political representation from ancient history to the present day: repertoires of representation

Daniëlle Slootjes, Harm Kaal, New perspectives on power and political representation from ancient history to the present day: repertoires of representation. Leiden: Brill, 2019. 201 p.. ISBN 9789004291959 $120.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This latest edition to the Radboud Studies in Humanities series explores the different ways political and ideological communication between leaders and subjects take form and seeks to understand the degree to which the concept of representation is unfettered by “artificial boundaries” of time and historical context. The contributions in this work stem from a lecture series hosted by the editors in 2014 and 2015, Repertoires of Representation. These sessions saw members of the Institute for Historical, Literary, and Cultural Studies at Radboud University explore the role of political representation in their respective fields of ancient, medieval, early modern, and modern political history.

The volume exhibits a wide chronological range across its nine contributions. Its geographic span, however, is largely Eurocentric. While this collection of essays is not aimed at being an inclusive cross-cultural study of political representation, many will rejoice that the European context of Roman emperors and medieval kings to Popes and modern politicians expands to include a contribution on the rulers of the Abbasid Caliphate.

The introduction by the editors Harm Kaal and Daniëlle Slootjes surveys recent scholarship on representation studies and makes the case that debate and analyses have room for much growth, as scholars have only recently begun to look beyond traditional emphases on structure and manner of representation.[1] They argue that this volume contributes to this growing conversation not only by delving deeper into political representation to uncover what is happening under the surface of the phenomenon but also by revealing the degree of applicability of modern theories of political representation to earlier political systems as well as how modes of (self-)representation are alike both in manner and discourse from antiquity to the present day. Thus, continuity of the performative act of representing power is a common thread developed throughout.

The chapters are arranged in chronological order and begin with an article by Olivier Hekster, who examines Roman Imperial representation to explore “competing claims of representation of rulers and the circles around them” (12). Hekster focuses on changes of the performative nature of Roman power and how its centrality shifted, in terms of representation, from the senatorial elite to the figure of the emperor. He suggests that Republican demonstrations of power, such as the salutatio and official dinners, were used by the princeps as a Trojan horse in efforts to sap senatorial power and influence. The senatorial elite participated in the familiar charades, even if in a diminished role, both to maintain (and communicate) a sense of legitimacy and importance as well as to nurture a relationship with the emperor. These acts, he argues, underscore the superiority of the emperor while upholding a degree of senatorial prestige insofar as their continuance “showed that the ruler was still held by the convention to listen to his advisors” (15). This portrayed the emperor as akin to a “superior servant” (15). Hekster sees the early emperors walking a “tightrope” of self-representation, carefully balancing self-portrayal as a ruler dependent on his councilors with assertion of his ultimate authority. The relationship between emperor and senate evolved from one that involved, at least symbolically, a sharing of power to one in which senators were downgraded to “supporting actors who belonged to the monarch” (19).

Hekster demonstrates how Imperial images on monumental architecture and coinage reflect this changed socio-political atmosphere. On the Ara Pacis, Augustus is surrounded by senators of seemingly equal status and importance and is effectively lost in a crowd of ‘equals.’ The representation of the emperor is strikingly different in the later Empire: the Decennalia base and the Arch of Constantine, portray Diocletian and Constantine as secluded, centered, and unambiguously superior on the respective monuments. Moreover, numismatic iconography also differs greatly between the early and later Empire. Hekster reminds us that reference to the senate is rare for post-Crisis Imperial coinage. Instead, senatorial references are found almost exclusively in depictions of the emperor displayed not in the standard military regalia but in senatorial toga. Though the separation between reality and representation of power had changed immensely throughout the Empire, Hekster concludes that, since the representative claim was maintained, “Roman emperors continued to rule in a senatorial world, at least symbolically” (23).

The chapter by Maaike van Berkel examines the evolving representation of access to Abbasid caliphs in contemporary sources. As she notes, early Islamic rulers emulated Muhammad’s approaches to rulership, a method that saw a lack of court protocol and viziers while maintaining the image of an open and accessible ruler. As Islamic political reach extended, a hierarchical representation of an inaccessible majestic ruler in the Persian style supplanted that of an approachable tribal chieftain. As such, historians view caliphs in binary terms, seeing them as one of these two varieties of Islamic ruler.

Van Berkel, however, advocates for a more nuanced approach. She convincingly argues that even reigns that saw excessive degrees of inaccessibility, such as that of the Abassid caliph al-Muqtadir, did not abandon the ideal of the approachable and caring ruler. As her argument goes, while caliphs were burrowing deeper into a growing court apparatus that saw them elevated to near sacrosanctity the ideal of the accessible ruler was increasingly projected on the vizier.

The article of Bert Roest looks at how modern scholars approach medieval political thought and parliamentary developments through a predominantly secular lense and focus “squarely on the legacy of classical legal and political concepts and their recasting” (38). Roest views the internal structure of many religious orders as deeply influential on the secular development of representative bodies in the larger realms within which they featured. While paying particular attention to the Franciscans (due to their regular production of texts on political theory), he cogently argues that secular powers “must have noticed the institutional strength” of religious orders leading to emulation of their most successful practices (51). Regardless of any perceivable influence, Roest is surely quite right in stressing that given the size and ubiquity of these orders “it is a mistake to ignore them” when examining the rise of medieval representative institutions (51).

The chapter by Peter Rietbergen compares the representation of power and public display in early modern Rome and in Versailles. Rietbergen sees the two cities as distinct ‘types’ of monarchic display: “the one an old capital constantly adapted to new visions of power, the other a new capital specifically devised to do so” (58). Rietbergen sheds much light on the irony that many popes of the period self-represented with all the trappings of worldly monarchs who privileged materialism over spirituality while the kings of France portrayed themselves in a religious and transcendental framework.

Early modern Rome and Versailles faced distinct challenges: the one from Humanism and the Reformation and the other from the urban elites and the aristocracy who sought an ebbing of royal ascendancy. It is their respective challenges, so argues Rietbergen, that best explains the different forms of monumental public display utilized by the Church and by the French monarchy in attempts to communicate an ideological message that served their current needs.

The contribution of Dries Raeymaekers and Sebastiaan Derks returns to the concept of access. They are interested not in how access related to exercisable power or influence, but instead in how the concept of access was manipulated through a range of “interconnected and complex practices” associated with the “visual and material culture surrounding the monarch” (80). Through analysis of four distinct repertoires (articulating access; regulating access; monopolizing access; and visualizing access) they develop a two-fold argument: first, that access is a process of negotiation best understood as a performative act expressed through spatial, visual, and material media and second, that their more nuanced approach offers a scalpel in place of the oft-used shovel that modern historians employ in studies of early modern court access and the political culture within which it operated.

The article of Marij Leenders and Joris Gijsenbergh examines the diverse ways in which Dutch political leaders were portrayed by parliamentary photographers and political cartoonists in the 1930s. Leenders and Gijsenbergh see photographers and cartoonists employ two distinct motifs in political portrayal: deliberative democrats and disciplined democrats—the former working with and the latter autocratically working without parliament. Though their focus is on Hendrik Colijn, the authors develop a broader argument that image-forming played an indispensable role in perception of individual politicians as well as reception of the varied political ideologies circulating throughout Europe during the interwar period.

The chapter of Harm Kaal and Vincent van de Griend engages with ongoing debate concerning the contemporary ‘crisis of democracy.’ The authors argue that “at the heart of the discourse of crisis is a lack of understanding of the multifaceted ways in which politicians and the people have interacted” (125). Thus the goal of their article is both to identify the various modes of reciprocal communication as well as to demonstrate how, through a brief case study, historians might analyze communicative media in order to offer a roadmap for future studies on popular politics. For the authors, there are no less than four communicative mediums that facilitate discourse between politician and populace: television; opinion polls; popular culture; and letters. Their small case study of letters between the PvdA [Partij van de Arbeid] and constituents during the later 1960s yields promising results. Among other things, it reveals a surprisingly responsive interchange of ideas, opinions, goals, and justifications.

The chapter of Wim van Meurs and Olga Morozova examines how Ukrainian protesters (re)shaped and (re)defined the limits of representation. With a focus on a series of protests in Kiev’s main square, Majdan, in the early 2010s, the authors effectively demonstrate that following elections rigged in favor of pro-Russian candidates, protesters rejected all forms of traditional political representation and made ‘street politics’ a legitimate venue of political expression and agency.

The final chapter by Adriejan van Veen considers claims of representation of modern-day Dutch Independent Regulatory Agencies [IRA]. Van Veen refutes previous assumptions regarding the role that Dutch IRAs play in representing economic and societal public interests through examination of four such agencies that uses a theoretical framework proposed by Michael Saward.[2] The central argument that van Veen develops throughout is that Dutch IRAs “embody, reproduce, and facilitate claims about the public and consumer interests they non-electorally represent on liberalised marketplaces” (193). In short, he sees IRAs as anything but unrepresentative.

The strengths of the individual contributions, which are well-informed and erudite, as well as the guiding hands of the volume’s editors deserve praise. The task of clearly and cogently demonstrating, in barely 200 pages, that across a wide chronological and geographic span a set of discourses, practices, and mechanisms operating as politically representative is discernable is surely an unenviable one. The collected essays are generally written in a very approachable manner and one need not be well versed in contemporary political theory to grasp the overarching arguments.

The work is not, however, without problems. First, while the individual chapters follow a common thread and serve common purpose, there is no indication of internal referencing. It is regrettable that during the four years in between the initial conference and the volume’s eventual publication no efforts were made for the nine contributors (all colleagues at the same institution) to draw from one another.

Second, an overview of the collected essays at the end of the volume would have been of considerable value. As it stands, any interconnectivity of the developed themes narrowly speaking or aspirations for future studies of representation more broadly remain unexplored. Moreover, the particularity and isolated nature of the chapters, as noted above, could have been mitigated by such an overview.

Undoubtedly, many readers of BMCR will be more interested in the article by Olivier Hekster than others. While I do feel that his contribution is surely one of the strongest in the volume and is alone reason enough to justify the hefty cost of this small book, classicists have much to gain from other chapters here that might otherwise be neglected. For instance, ancient historians whose interests engage with late Republican politics and populism will find considerable value in the contribution of van Meurs and Morozova that explores street politics of 21st century Ukraine. Those with interest in the role of the ab epistulis and/or the Letters between Pliny and Trajan might consider the article of Kaal and van de Griend on correspondence between people and the PvdA of 20th century Netherlands. And those whose work engages with ancient iconography and visual propaganda would profit from Leenders Gijsenbergh’s chapter on the construction of the public image of Dutch PM Hendrik Colijn.

Authors and titles

Chapter 1. Introduction: Repertoires of Representation. Harm Kaal and Daniëlle Slootjes.
Chapter 2. Emperors and Councillors: Imperial Representation between Republic and Empire. Olivier Hekster.
Chapter 3. Politics of Access at the Court of the Caliph. Maaike van Berkel.
Chapter 4. Representative Bodies in Medieval Religious Orders: A Discarded Legacy? Bert Roest.
Chapter 5. The Political Rhetoric of Capitals: Rome and Versailles in the Baroque Period, or the “Power of Place.” Peter Rietbergen.
Chapter 6. Repertoires of Access in Princely Courts, 1400-1750. Dries Raeymaekers and Sebastiaan Derks.
Chapter 7. The Image of Prime Minister Colijn: Public Visualisation of Political Leadership in the 1930s. Marij Leenders and Joris Gijsenbergh.
Chapter 8. Postwar Popular Politics: Integrating the Voice of the People in Postwar Political History. Harm Kaal and Vincent van de Griend.
Chapter 9. Majdan: Presence and Political Representation in Post-Communist Ukraine. Wim van Meurs and Olga Morozova.
Chapter 10. Regulation without Representation? Independent Regulatory Authorities and Representative Claim-Making in the Netherlands, 1997-Now. Adriejan van Veen.


[1] Saward, M. 2006. “The Representative Claim.” Contemporary Political Theory 5: 297-318; Mergel, T. 2010. Propaganda nach Hitler: Eine Kulturgeschichte des Wahlkampfs in der Bundesrepublik, 1949-1990; Steinmetz, W. 2011. Political Language in the Age of Extremes.

[2] For more on Saward’s contributions to the study of political representation, see Saward, Michael. 2009. “Authorisation and Authenticity: Representation and the Unelected” Journal of Political Philosophy 17.1: 1-22; and Saward, Michael. 2010. The Representative Claim. Oxford.