Are the crowds in Ukraine reviving an ancient Roman tradition?

The emperor Constantine, portrayed by David Threlfall in a BBC drama

In an extraordinary ceremony in Ukraine, potential cabinet members are to be paraded in front of crowds of protesters to seek their approval, it’s been reported. It has strange echoes of Ancient Roman practices, writes Finlo Rohrer on BBC News Blog.

Apart from the X Factor, it’s hard to think of a modern parallel for the event planned in Independence Square, at the heart of anti-government protests in Ukraine. Candidates for the new cabinet of ministers are to be paraded and – only if approved by the crowds – formally confirmed later.

It has, one assumes, unintentional echoes of the tradition of acclamation in later Roman times and particularly in the Eastern Roman or Byzantine empire. A candidate for the imperial throne would present themselves in front of a crowd of soldiers, or even ordinary people, lap up the adulation, and then go on to overcome their rivals aided by a handy sheen of legitimacy.

“The emperor Constantine was acclaimed by his father’s soldiers in Britain – that didn’t guarantee the role. He then had to battle with several rivals,” says Prof Dame Averil Cameron, of Oxford University.

Then there was regular contact with large crowds who had a chance to voice disapproval. “Among the early Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome, they appeared in the Circus. That is where you met the people. There might be shouts or demonstrations,” says Cameron.

What happened was not necessarily always a reflection of the real will of the people. Even Rome in the republic was not any kind of modern-style democracy. “The Romans got really good at orchestrating it [acceptance by the crowd],” says Byzantinist Prof Charlotte Roueche, of King’s College London. “In Kiev, the main cathedral actually has wall paintings showing activities in the Hippodrome in Constantinople, where the emperors were acclaimed.”

In many societies throughout history it was seen as a mark almost of divine inspiration to have a unanimous shout from a crowd. But even with bribery and cajoling, unanimity isn’t always easy to come by. “If the [Roman or Byzantine] people were feeling grumpy they would shout out that they wanted more bread,” says Roueche.

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About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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