The emperor’s clothes

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Julius Caesar used to conceal his receding hairline with a laurel wreath. A convenient trick of cosmetic and political proportions.

Many autocrats have since sought to divert attention from their own insecurities by trying to promote the opposite idea: that the strength emanating from their own personalities and their sense of self-magnificence manifests itself in everything about them: the way of dressing, words, gestures and lifestyle. The Byzantine emperors held the award for the rulers most in danger of assassination. Their insecurities were real. But their image was never allowed to project weakness, quite the opposite. Western leaders travelling to Constantinople were dazzled by the magnificence of the Byzantine imperial court. Anna Comnena, the daughter of the 11th-century emperor Alexios Comnenos, notes the strong impression that the Greek emperor made on the Latin crusaders arriving in the Byzantine capital on their way to the Holy Land: a larger than life figure, a demigod, a geopolitical superhero whose automatic throne seemed built by aliens.

The projection of power often hides a deep weakness beneath the surface. Totalising power requires enough complicity to resist the pull of justice and truth. The Emperor is naked, but everyone is willing to pretend he is dressed in a purple chlamys – and the collective fraud causes the powerful to preserve their seat of power. The autocrat knows that, and there is more than a receding hairline that unnerves him. For he knows, deep down, that no amount of laurel leaves will ever be enough to avert the treacherous, yet ineluctable blade.

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