Performing Popular Sovereignty: Populism in Ancient and Modern Politics

Conference Room, Westmere House (G15 on the Campus map)
Wednesday 21 September 2022 (10:00-17:15)

Tim Elliott (UoB) – main organiser contact:


Midlands4Cities funded Symposium, in association with the Network for Oratory and Politics

In-person and online attendance tickets available

In the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, when Francis Fukuyama proclaimed ‘the End of History’, a previously latent political force has been gaining significant ground throughout the world – populism.  While efforts are often made to distinguish between left- and right- populism, the phenomenon itself repeatedly evokes a response of recognition where it emerges across the political spectrum.  Attempts have been made to categorise populism, each ultimately failing in some way to fully encapsulate what it is being recognised; either as an ideology (‘thick’ or ‘thin’), a discursive framework, a political strategy, style, or even a state mind, incarnations of populism remain heterogeneous enough to evade an all-encompassing quantification.  Nevertheless, there are some recurring threads – in particular, an overarching reliance on a notion of popular sovereignty that pits ‘the people’ in a moral struggle against those who hold power.  This idea of popular sovereignty comes, however, without the nuance, caveats, and divisions that characterise the constitutions of modern liberal democracies and the intellectual traditions that engendered them – an incompatibility which finds populism so often in conflict with establishment processes and values.  Sovereignty in modern participative states is tempered, mediated, and diverted by competing paradigms of authority and legitimacy: the supremacy of the law, human rights, and institutions, as well as values such as pluralism and inclusion.  Populism simplifies authority and legitimacy towards a single source, a single people with a single voice.  This has been seen as both a potential danger to democracy and a corrective process: on one hand, populism’s propensity to authoritarianism, anti-pluralism, and disregard for the institutions, conventions, and protections of liberal democracy, and yet, on the other hand, it brings the deep inequalities of wealth and power, as well as arbitrariness of rights and values society enshrines into sharp focus.

And yet, this seemingly straightforward idea that ‘the people rule’ has a long and established provenance that remained locked in dialogue with ancient societies and their thinkers; from Jean Bodin, to the revolutions of France and the United States, to Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Hannah Arendt, theorists have looked to the political societies of Greece and Rome to understand sovereignty and the people’s role in it.  Ancient philosophers themselves dealt directly with many of the same issues at stake today, attempting to understand how a society can realise just, effective, stable government.  While survivorship and class biases have left a decidedly ‘elite’ perspective on extant ancient political philosophy, there are also echoes of more ‘radical’ or pro-popular strains of political thought found in events, institutions, and material culture.  Throughout, we see attempts to construct the ideas of ‘popular sovereignty’ and ‘the people’ within different frames through different performances of rhetoric and political action, by individuals, crowds, and material culture. 

This symposium looks to explore these rhetorical configurations of ‘the People’ and its sovereignty in both ancient societies and modern dialogue with ancient sources, in order to shine a light on this crucial facet of populism.  Understanding the similarities and alterities between ancient and modern performances of sovereignty will allow a greater understanding of both how populism leverages its moral position within politics today, and better understand how popular power was conceived in the ancient world.


  • Tim Elliott (UoB) – main organiser contact:
  • Henriette van der Blom (UoB)
  • Mark Wenman (UoB)
  • Marcus Spencer-Brown (UoB)
  • Alexander Riggs (University of Nottingham)
  • Rebecca Wheddon (University of Nottingham)


Date: 21st September 2022

Format: Midlands4Cities funded, full-day, hybrid symposium (online and in-person).

Keynote, followed by six 20-minute papers, ending with a round-table with all participants.






Keynote speech: Valentina Arena (UCL), ‘Popular Sovereignty in Republican Rome: Ownership, Rights, and Liberty’




Tim Elliott (UoB), ‘A model of populism and sovereignty beyond the modern’


 Rob Goodman (Toronto Met), "'Naked' Speech in Late Republican Rome."


Christoph Lundgreen, (Dresden), ‘C. Gracchus’ performance of sovereignty’ (Title TBC) - remote


Lunch (provided)


Mark Wenman (UoB), ‘Populism vs Pluralism? Rethinking polyarchy amidst the populist insurgency’


Amy Russell (Brown), ‘Reading between the lines: radical popular sovereignty beyond Cicero’


Emilio Zucchetti (RHUL), “Aequa libertas, summa potestas: Appeals to “popular sovereignty” in the addresses to the populus” - remote




Roundtable discussion



Midland4 Cities Doctoral Training Partnership logoUKRI logo - UK Research and Innovation