Translatio et Renovatio Imperii. Legitimacy Construction through Imperial Succession and Renewal from Antiquity to the 21st Century

Translatio et Renovatio Imperii. Legitimacy Construction through Imperial Succession and Renewal from Antiquity to the 21st Century

Altay Coşkun, Classical Studies, University of Waterloo, ON; David Engels, Roman History, Université libre de Bruxelles / Instytut Zachodni for Western Affairs, Poznań; Gerd Morgenthaler, Public Law, Siegen University
Vom - Bis
18.07.2022 - 20.07.2022
Altay Coşkun, University of Waterloo, ON; David Engels, Université libre de Bruxelles / Instytut Zachodni for Western Affairs, Poznań; Gerd Morgenthaler, Siegen University; Altay Coskun, Classical Studies (esp. Hellenistic and Roman History, Latin prose literature), University of Waterloo, Ontario

The conference was dedicated to the study of empires from (post-) Hittite times to the present, with a declared focus on ideological constructs of succession. The two main types comprise attempts at gaining legitimacy through self-insertion into an imperial tradition either after a longer time gap or shorter break, translatio or renovatio imperii respectively. Complementary approaches aim at delegitimization, up to the degree of mobilizing opposition, by subjects or those under threat to lose its political autonomy or cultural identity, by surmising the revival or continuity of negatively connotated imperial tradition or at least a tendency of decline.

Since the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine was mentioned explicitly in the conference blurb, the expectation was raised that Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions would come under a critical gaze. But one of the two related papers was canceled (Jörg Baberowski: The Revival of Russian Imperialism from Stalin to Putin) and the other (by Henrieke Stahl) shifted the focus away from current-day problems. Though several peripheral mentions were made, the most pervasive theme of the modern and contemporary section became the European Union.

The conference organizers avoided to impose too strict a definition of empire, to allow for much-needed flexibility when comparing political entities from so vastly different times and regions. Yet most participants seemed to accept, explicitly or implicitly, large territories, heterogeneous population, power asymmetry (inside and outside), and universal pretensions as important criteria. Such agreement notwithstanding, the definition or application of these criteria differed at times significantly, especially in those papers whose main aim was not a historical analysis but a political plea, largely based on the assumption that the European Union is an empire or at least a related entity.

The list of papers shows two somewhat amorphous poles. The most obvious split is into ancient and modern/contemporary, as the academic background of the organizers implies: two Ancient Historians on the one hand – Altay Coşkun and David Engels – and two scholars with an interest in modern history, politics, and law – David Engels (in his second role as a researcher at the host institute) and Gerd Morgenthaler. A second dichotomy pertains to the question of how closely the thematic focus of the conference was maintained, while a third distinguishes between papers that explicitly concluded with advice for the political elites in the European Union (and Germany).

After briefly surveying the papers as they were presented,[1] some critical reflection will follow.

JUSTYNA SCHULZ (Poznań), the director of the Instytut Zachodni for Western Affairs, began by introducing the host institution: Poland’s western-most major city with a rich historical heritage is predestined for the study of European, mainly German, history and Poland’s diplomatic relations towards the West – a remarkable goal for an institution established while World War II was still raging in 1944.

The first paper by THOMAS ZIMMERMANN (Ankara) surveyed Anatolian empires of the Late-Bronze and Early-Iron ages and impressed by four examples of petty dynasties from the 10th to 8th centuries BCE who continued or resumed Hittite kingship, as reflected in the names of the kings.

GERMAIN PAYEN (Lille) explored four recurring ideological motifs of the Aspurgian dynasty of the Bosporan kingdom (1st-4th centuries CE), including descent from Mithradates VI and ‘friendship’ with Rome, whose vassals they were in around the coast of the Sea of Azov.

Earlier layers and later interpretations of the imperial allegories in the “Book of Daniel” were examined by ALTAY COŞKUN (Waterloo, ON) and Rabbi BEN SCOLNIC (Hamden, CT) respectively. The former identified five different chronological and ideological layers ranging from the time of Cyrus the Great to the death of Antiochos IV Epiphanes (164/3 BCE). The latter distilled the ideological backgrounds from the Christian, Neoplatonic and Jewish interpretations (2nd-4th centuries CE) that would anticipate all later reception. Both papers demonstrated the flexibility with which mythical, religious, and historical traditions were adapted to suite changing (anti-) imperialist constructs.

LOÏC BORGIES (Namur) compared various aspects of empire building of ancient Rome and China. His particular focus was on the use of symbolic objects to legitimate new dynastic rule as an imperial refoundation. For Augustus, the pignora imperii (talismans of power) were chosen to reconnect the post-civil-war society with an idealized Republic. These were approached to the legend of the Nine Cauldrons, whose ownership symbolized the heavenly mandate to rule over ancient China.

AUGUSTINE DICKINSON (Hamburg University) familiarized the audience with the foundation legend of the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia. Its founder Yekunno ʾAmlāk, who came to power in 1270, claimed descent from the biblical Queen of Sheba and Solomon (1 Kings 10) and the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia.

STONE CHEN (Waterloo, ON) discussed various Chinese terms related to empire and their ideological implications. The term diguo gained the meaning “rule of an emperor” in the 19th century CE, but is confined to non-Chinese empires. Most relevant is the notion of tian (heaven), as in tianxia (all under heaven) and tianming (mandate of heaven). Tian needs to be claimed by every Chinese ruler or rule, and thus implies not only divine support but also a transition of legitimacy, just as the European concepts of renovatio or translatio.

In his search for a model for modern multiculturality, GRZEGORZ LEWICKI (Gdańsk), compared the Ottoman and Jagiellonian empires. Lewicki insisted on the high level of tolerance the latter offered to Christian denominations, but acknowledged the tolerance of the Ottomans towards Jews and Christians, although the primacy of Islam imposed strict limitations.

HENRIEKE STAHL (Trier) explored the relation to the tsar in the works of three authors of the early-modern period. A particular focus was on the Russian poet Pushkin (1799–1837), who laid the ground to a romanticized national literature while also leaning towards liberalism in post-Napoleonic Russia.

GRZEGORZ KUCHARCZYK (Gorzów/Warsaw) first introduced the audience to Friedrich Naumann’s “Mitteleuropa”, a bestseller at its time (1915) that tried to weigh in on the discussions of Germany’s aims in World War I. In contrast to the military, which chose to extend the multiethnic Prussian-German empire by annexation, Naumann suggested a more liberal approach: national states in the east should maintain a certain level of autonomy, albeit as protectorates of the Reich. Kucharczyk concluded with the statement that the current influence of Germany over Eastern Europe made seem Naumann’s vision surprisingly modern.

In combination with the guided tour through historical Poznań, the paper by DAVID ENGELS (Poznań/Bruxelles) on the “Kaiserschloss” exemplified different paradigms of renovatio and translatio based on one building. The palace commissioned by Kaiser Wilhelm II in the early 20th century reflected a German-Prussian view on the past, but later phases left their architectonic and ideological marks, such as the Nazi occupation (which bequeathed the atticizing décor of the Hitler tract), or Soviet hegemony (which left behind the Polish-Marxist “Ahnengalerie”). Engels was able to show how flexibly the ruling classes of each period reconfigured its ethnic-ideological identity by selecting and rejecting specific imperial pasts.

MISIA DOMS (Mannheim) explored the works of the Austrian writers Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1897–1976) and Joseph Roth (1894–1937). The former’s “Die Standarte” (1934) and the latter’s “Der Radetzkymarsch” (1932) deal with the latest Habsburg Empire, described as emptied of purpose and doomed to fall, whether due to an alienation of the subjects from an emperor of divine grace or owing to a metaphysical force. Doms offered no historical or political conclusion, but the most natural to follow would have been to claim that ideology is needed as a sociopolitical glue. Yet this should lead to the follow-up question on the nature of this ideology: should it be national or imperial or else?

Next, ZDZISŁAW KRASNODĘBSKI (Bremen) explored imperial aspects of Polish-German relations through a little more than a millennium. Krasnodębski claimed that the Jagiellonian kingdom (which ranged from Prussia over Lithuania to Moscow and Kiev) was anti-imperialist and republican in nature, explaining why Polish nationalism, as conditioned by the Poles’ historical experience with the Russian and German empires, is still typically anti-imperialist; in contrast, German and other European nationalisms often dwelled on imperialist and racist traditions. Krasnodębski also claimed that Germany, unconsciously, continued to be under the influence of idealist philosophy and thus has a tendency to find solutions for all and then also impose them on all – regularly leading to conflicts with other nations (mostly Poland) wanting to oppose what they see as patronizing trends.

MAGDALENA BAINCZYK (Kraków) focused on the legal structure of the European Union. She first claimed that the EU persistently breaks its own constitution by gradually expanding its competences and reducing national sovereignty. She also considered many of the recent sanctions imposed by the EU on member states as illegal breaches of national sovereignty. She emphasized that the Treaty of the European Union of 2004 claims respect of the member states’ national identities, while at the same time pursuing an ill-defined process of integration requiring the deferral of powers away from the nation state to the union (thus explicitly Art. 1), which must lead to a growing conflict about the ultimate aims of the EU. Bainczyk also complained about what she considered Poland’s unfair treatment, contrasting it with what she interpreted as “German impunity” after the Bundesverfassungsgericht decision of 2020.

GERD MORGENTHALER (Siegen) agreed insofar with Bainczyk as “empire” is not a juridical category. Though a political entity sui generis from a Völkerrecht perspective, the union seems to hover between a confederation and a federal state according to the treaty itself. For this, so he argues, there cannot be a translatio or renovatio imperii, which complicates the search for “lenders of legitimacy”. Morgenthaler then adduced various indications in the Treaty of the European Union addressing the values supposed to underly the union, such as Art. 2.1 and 3.3[4]: “It shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall ensure that Europe's cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.” His paper led over to a strong plea for drawing on the European traditions of Classical Antiquity, Christianity, Enlightenment, and Idealism, a claim of renovatio culturae et civilisationis.

On balance, there was a disconnect between the historical-analytic papers and the conservative pleas for a new European Union, an “empire” at best only cum grano salis (or many). This said, the conference offered many opportunities to better understand national-conservative and Christian-conservative positions in the EU, which were confronted with liberal and centrist concerns, and reflected against the background of historical imperialism. While many shortcomings of the modern EU were labelled, it remained equally unclear how a conservative counter-model could be defined. Who would decide on the “right” choices to be made from the very ambiguous traditions of Christianity, Enlightenment and Idealism? How much individual and democratic freedom would be maintained in the finding process and thereafter? The discussion further evoked the problems of the debate on Leitkultur, which has sporadically flared up in Germany since 2000: politically, it came to nothing, because the left rejected it categorically, the right was incapable of defining the meaning of the catch words, and the center was too indifferent, or at least failed to establish a transparent democratic procedure to explore the values binding together a nation and adequate ways of instilling them in citizens who have come to cherish their freedom after World War II.

Also, no consensus could be reached concerning the current status of Germany within the EU: while some (Polish) speakers considered Germany as new hegemon, responses from the audience questioned this understanding as heavily lopsided. Similarly, the conference highlighted very conflicting views of the European Union, some speakers insisting on the fact the Treaty committed the EU to respect the member states’ national institutions as the ultimate sovereigns of power, but in the discussion it was held against this the obvious fact that the EU is explicitly meant to be an ongoing process of integration requiring the deferral of powers away from the nation state to the union (e.g., Treaty of the European Union Art. 4.1) and the submission to the decisions taken by the competent European institutions. Likewise, it was intensely discussed whether the Bundesverfassungsgericht in 2020 had indeed ruled that the German constitution prevailed over European Law, or whether it had only maintained its right to examine in how far European legislation or jurisdiction is in line with the treaties signed by Germany.

All in all, the Poznań conference offered precious opportunities to learn about imperial constructs, the need for political legitimacy, as well as the urgency felt by many to define, redefine, or develop their national ethnic identities in the transnational societies of the 21st century.

Conference overview:

Justyna Schulz (Instytut Zachodni for Western Affairs, Poznań): Empires and Imperial Traditions – Yesterday and Tomorrow

Thomas Zimmermann (Bilkent University, Ankara): “I Reinforced the Realms of My Father and Grandfather” – Conjuring Lost Hittite Imperial Glory in Post-Hittite Perilous Times

Germain Payen (Lille University): The Aspurgian Dynasty in Bosporan History: Mithradatism, Thracian Identity, Graeco-Scythian Past and Sarmatian Influence

Altay Coşkun (University of Waterloo, ON): Empire Allegories and Decline in the Book of Daniel

Benjamin Scolnic (Southern Connecticut State University, Hamden, CT): The Crystal Coffin of Daniel: Neoplatonic, Early Christian and Jewish Responses to Daniel’s Vision of the Succession of Empires

Loïc Borgies (Namur University): The Presence of the Past within the Imperial Ideologies of Augustus and Qin and Han Dynasties. An Essay of Comparative Analysis of Talismans of Power: the Pignora Imperii and the Nine Cauldrons

Augustine Dickinson (Hamburg University): Holy Men and the Holy Ark: The Church, the State, and the Legitimization of the Solomonic Dynasty of Ethiopia

Stone Chen (University of Waterloo, ON): Imperial Concepts of China

Grzegorz Lewicki (Gdańsk): Managing Multiculturalism in Ottoman and Jagiellonian Empires. Lessons for the New Middle Ages

Henrieke Stahl (Trier University): Imperial Conflicts and Historical Traumas in Eastern European Poetry

Grzegorz Kucharczyk (Gorzów / Warsaw University): How to Build an Empire? The Mitteleuropa-Plan of Friedrich Naumann

David Engels (Université libre de Bruxelles / Instytut Zachodni for Western Affairs, Poznań): Poznań’s “Kaiserschloss”: The Strange Fate of Imperial Self-Legitimation in the 20th Century

Misia Doms (Mannheim University): Ashes without Phoenix. The End of the Habsburg Empire in the Works by Alexander Lernet-Holenia and Joseph Roth

Zdzisław Krasnodębski (Bremen): Imperial Theories in the Context of Polish-German Relations during the 19th and 20th Century

Magdalena Bainczyk (Kraków University): Fall and Rise of the European Union. Disputes over the Legal Character of the EU

Gerd Morgenthaler (Siegen University): The European Union – Yet Another European Empire or an Institution “sui generis”?

[1] See the conference website for longer summaries and comments:

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