Political Propaganda: Are Modern World Leaders just following patterns set by Roman Emperors?
Updated: Oct 3
This article was written by Bella Green, a Classicist at Durham University.
In the age of social media, where we are constantly bombarded with conflicting opinions and political storylines, it is difficult to imagine a time where a leader’s only means of influencing and interacting with their people was through word-of-mouth or distribution of artefacts. Roman emperors would use coins, statues, and other monuments, alongside a strong military presence throughout the empire, to portray an impenetrable and united imperial front. Despite the immediacy of media in the 21st century, it is interesting to see how little political propaganda has changed. Today, we may be dealing with Strictly Come Dancing rather than gladiatorial games, but the message remains the same.
The Champion of the People
A recognisable trend in political propaganda is the attempt to portray a leader who is on the side of the people, making it more likely that they will secure the popular vote. This can be seen in the Roman empire too: according to ancient biographer Suetonius, following fires in Rome, the emperor Vespasian decreed that anyone could take possession of an abandoned site and build on it, if the owner failed to claim it. Vespasian was reportedly the first person to help clear the rubble, even carrying some of it away on his head. Similarly, throughout his career, Boris Johnson has jumped at any opportunity to operate heavy machinery, and it even formed part of his 2019 electoral campaign when he smashed through a brick wall in a bulldozer labelled ‘Get Brexit Done.’ The message is clear - neither Vespasian nor Johnson considers themselves to be above hard labour.
Suetonius likewise describes a scene during a games when the emperor Augustus left his own place of safety and took a seat in the most dangerous part of the theatre, in order to calm the people who were afraid it would collapse. This anecdote presents a strong leader who is willing to be among ordinary people. In the same way, Angela Merkel has been photographed eating alongside children in an elementary school; the act of eating humanises her, while the smiling children and teachers incites the viewer’s affection. Sunak’s introduction of the scheme ‘eat out to help out’ has further demonstrated the power of the ‘man of the people’ narrative in propaganda. Often seen as the smiling champion of the service industry, Sunak’s approval ratings have soared: on the 10th July, YouGov reported that he is the most popular Chancellor of the Exchequer in 15 years.
The Down-to-Earth Leader
Similar to the People’s Champion trope, there has been a recent trend of western politicians demonstrating their fun or ‘silly’ sides, in an attempt to become more personable. For the most part, it has resulted in increased popularity, although some viewed Theresa May’s dance moves during the 2018 campaign as unnatural and forced. Her successor Johnson, however, has seen a positive reaction to his ‘boyish’ mishaps, including being left hanging on a zip wire for several minutes during the London Olympics. Likewise, a ComRes Independent poll demonstrated that the popularity of former Labour MP Ed Balls increased significantly following his appearances on Strictly Come Dancing, jumping by 28 percentage points.
This is where modern westernised politicians differ from Roman emperors: there is more of a propaganda push to portray 21st-century leaders as down-to-earth. Roman emperors, however, were viewed almost as gods, and it was customary for them to be deified after death. There were also fewer opportunities for emperors to show a lighter side, as statues and coins were their main method of communication with the far reaches of the empire. The emperors Nero and Commodus were possible exceptions to this rule because they participated in public entertainment. Nero was a lyre-player and he competed in musical games, winning a number of contests. Later, Commodus would fight in the arena as a gladiator, which was a job usually reserved for prisoners and slaves. In some of his statues, he is represented with a short, gladiatorial haircut, reflecting his chosen pastime. But even while performing these roles, Nero and Commodus would expect reverence, not to be the butt of a joke.
The Military Leader
It was vital that Roman emperors placed military strength at the forefront of their propaganda, in order to secure the support of their people around the empire and prevent power struggles. In the centre of the Augustan forum, there was a statue of Augustus in a quadriga, which is a chariot pulled by four horses, in a triumphal scene. This was a display of military prowess, and would be seen by the thousands of Romans who constantly moved throughout the forum. In a series of publicity photos on horseback, Vladimir Putin also implies his strength as a military leader, displaying his bodybuilder torso.
Roman statues would often depict emperors in military dress, underlining the image of the strong soldier emperor. In the same way, it is customary for American presidents to wear bomber jackets when addressing troops, particularly during thanksgiving visits Again, the public are encouraged to view them as efficient and grounded military leaders, with a relationship of respect and equality with their military forces.
The Family Unit
The importance of the role of the Roman imperial family cannot be overstated, particularly in the case of the Caesars. Augustus’ wife, Livia, was presented as the ultimate Roman matriarch during his reign. The Historian Tacitus writes how many wished for her to be named ‘mother of the country’ after her son Tiberius’ accession to power. She is depicted on the Ara Pacis (‘altar of peace’), which Augustus commissioned - this was extremely unusual for a woman. The altar also uniquely features children on its reliefs, which likely include Augustus’ potential heirs at the time of commission: Gaius and Lucius Caesar. The two boys were adopted by Augustus, their grandfather, and marked out as leaders of the youth. They experienced accelerated political and military careers before their untimely deaths. The imperial family unit of the Caesars is comparable to American presidential families, because each member is under scrutiny and has a notable public role to play. For instance, Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka holds the role of senior adviser to the president, and all of his older children and their partners are key figures at his campaign events.
Alongside the family unit was the emphasis on succession, as it was important for the Roman people to believe that the power of their empire was infinite. Several dynasties were established in Rome, most notably the Julio-Claudians, the Flavians, the Antonines and the Severans. A strong dynasty helped secure an emperor’s claim to power and prevent uprisings. In the year of the four emperors, AD 69, Vespasian was the only one who managed to retain power, since he left his son Titus in Jerusalem to complete the Flavian victory alone - this established a new, stable dynasty from the offset, with a capable heir. The triumph was so significant that Emperor Domitian, following the death of his older brother Titus, constructed a monument in celebration of his achievement, called the Arch of Titus.
Dynasties also hold a place in modern-day politics. There are a number of influential American political families, but the most successful is probably the Bush family, which produced two presidents with their terms only eight years apart. In North Korea, the Kim dynasty takes on a significance akin to Roman imperialism, and this is emphasised through propaganda: while Kim Jong-Un is the current leader, photographs of his father Kim Jong-Il and grandfather Kim Il-Sung hang side by side in every home, work and public space. There are an estimated 35,000 statues of Il-Sung alone, and both leaders stand twenty metres tall at the Mansu Hill Grand Monument.