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Empire without Alternative? Autocratic Power and Inevitability in the early Roman Empire

Carlsberg Foundation Reintegration Fellowships


My project offers the first in-depth analysis of whether one-man rule was perceived as inevitable by Roman historians in the early Roman Empire (31BCE-CE117). While imperial ideology, for sure, promoted the idea that one-man rule was the only alternative, there were other voices, too, other historians. Their works, however, have not been read with the approach required to grasp how alternatives to autocracy - i.e. alternatives to the course of events that came to pass - may be activated in historical texts, especially those written under the watchful eye of an emperor. Inspired by recent work on the use of literary devices that activate so-called "futures past", I will explore how alternatives to autocracy are activated (or shut down) in historical texts from the early Empire.


The inevitability of one-man rule in Rome after the civil wars of the Late Republic was long taken for granted by historians. Consequently, it was generally assumed that the Romans of the Empire were trapped in a world devoid of alternatives, in which autocracy was perceived as an inevitable fact of life. Although this assumption still exerts a powerful influence, it has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. This scrutiny, however, has only partially manifested itself in a reconsideration of the perceptions of the Romans themselves. There is still a lack of research on alternatives to one-man rule in literature from the imperial period, where the assumption still appears to be that such alternatives were inconceivable. This assumption needs to be investigated more critically.


I will put the political horizons of imperial writers under scrutiny by undertaking philological analyses of historical texts. I will explore (i) how the idea of inevitability functions within the imperial truth regime, esp. how failure to acknowledge the inevitability of one-man rule is equated with political incompetence or even treason; and (ii) how alternatives to one-man rule are activated (or shut down) in historical texts, esp. how literary devices may activate alternative (unrealised) futures: debates highlight the decisions with which historical agents grappled, introspection reveals expectations, the relation of rumours implies other possibilities, "Beinahe-episodes" suggest that other outcomes were possible, and explicit counterfactuals develop such outcomes.


2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. So, 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. In Hungary, in Russia, in Turkey, in Brazil, in Poland, even in the US, we find a 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. Scholarly interest in regime change has developed in tandem with this political development. While in the 1990s scholars were laying out trajectories of democratisation, the beginning of the 21st century has witnessed a renaissance of research on autocracy: on how it feeds on the fear of chaos, undermines the system it supposedly seeks to restore, and presents itself as the only option. As noted by Dukalskis and Gerschewski (2017), "there is great power", after all, "in a regime making itself appear inevitable because it renders overt, declared opposition irrational". It's about time this research took into account the most durable autocracy in European history: The Roman Empire. EWA, then, is a timely reaction to contemporary anxieties about a return to autocracy and a reminder of the ease with which formerly unthinkable political positions tend to be normalised in times of crisis.