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Introduction: Populism and propaganda in the Roman world

Date of news: 9 March 2022

Populism and propaganda have become hot topics in current discussions about the Roman world. The concept of propaganda has proven to be a useful tool for interpreting imperial image-making, whereas populism has traditionally been recognized as a major force behind the upheaval of the late Roman Republic. Neither can exist without the other, however: an image needs an audience, and the expectations from the target audience to a certain extent also define what imagery is deemed acceptable.

Students of the ancient world have long been fascinated by the functioning of ideologies in the past. Recent approaches demonstrate a trend towards reestablishing the truths behind ancient narratives, such as stock imagery of republicanism, or of good and bad emperors. Last fall saw an exhibition in the British Museum on Nero, ‘the man behind the myth’. Anton van Hooff published his book on Tirannenmoord for a broader audience with Athenaeum press in 2021. The Radboud University itself has made a significant contribution to the study of imperial image making or the constraints of tradition. This spring, moreover, the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden presents an exhibition on Domitian, co-organized by a number of colleagues.

Students are invited to interact with these recent developments in the BA2/BA3 thematic seminar Populism and Propaganda in the Roman World. The course deals with Roman society but also ventures into the 19th and 20th centuries when populism and propaganda became powerful tools of state, reverberating with classical references. The topic is clearly relevant also for the understanding of contemporary phenomena. Just like in antiquity, in contemporary media, too, populism is regularly presented as a cause for worry, and propaganda may implicitly be seen as its vector, viewed in the unfavorable light of fake news and alternative facts. Strictly speaking, populism and propaganda are not necessarily negative terms in and of themselves, and they are concepts to describe a larger phenomenon that can be interpreted neutrally (or positively, or negatively). The value-laden terminology creates a tension between message and audience that carries a sense of urgency: there is every reason to want to understand more about these concepts and their place in history.

Against this background we are particularly proud to present to you the current blog, which is a collaboration of the students of the course Populism and Propaganda in the Roman World, and the Radboud University Library. It is written in the context of the Week of the Classics, 10–20 March 2022, which this year is centered on the theme of ‘propaganda’. In the following contributions students will present a selection of known and lesser-known propagandistic source material from antiquity for a broad audience. The students’ various contributions are structured chronologically, from the Gracchi in the later Roman Republic, to the late Roman empire under Diocletian and they deal with a variety ancient evidence, from epigraphic evidence and literary sources, to statues and coins. It is a colorful and broad range of material that should interest the general reader and the student of Roman history alike.

Miriam Groen-Vallinga & Ketty Iannantuono
(Ancient History: Department of History, Art History and Classics)