Identity moments from world history

By Rolf Christoffersen, Denmark

Identity is powerful tool, it can cause movement and change or it can be fixing and arresting. There is a very fine line between these two aspects of identity. Identity can be a tool that a person can take up and use and put down as needed, so that they do not become arrested and fixed by it, or it becomes the name of the person, and thereby fixes them in that identity.

The celebration of the individual personality did not exist in Ancient Egypt

When observing identity in the time of the ancients it is the absence of personality that is most striking. It was the purpose and the message of the gods, as directed to the human race, that was of greatest importance in the art and design of the ancients. In the earliest recorded history in Egypt and other areas the identity of people is rarely portrayed. When looking at the statue of King Zoser from Egypt (2700 BC) or at other portrayals from the same time, there is a very haunting impersonal sense of being looked at by ‘something else’. It strikes you that it is not ‘who’ is looking at you but ‘what’ is looking at you, through the statue. The ancients invite us into a very different and enigmatic universe to our world today. This place is highly religious where other rules and ways applied and these rules and ways did not include personality. The identity portrayed in the artwork of the ancients is identifying with another time and another place and another order than this world, which the Egyptian Book of the Dead reveals in plenty with its mystical language. The colours on their coffins, the artwork on their statues, their jewellery, their symbology, their postures, their dress code – they are all put there for a reason that identifies with a purpose and a way of life, to serve the gods and a higher existence. It is a way of life which is very difficult for us to comprehend today. The celebration of the individual personality did not exist in Ancient Egypt.

The first portrayal of the identity of a person comes later in history. As an example, the pharaoh Aknaton (Amenhotep the 4th, 1377-1358 BC) is often referred to as the first personality in history. The artwork of his time portrays his family life, showing him as a father and husband, with his children and their pets. It is no longer an impersonal expression with the gods being of central importance, it is now the identity of people and their lives that is appearing. This is also the time when the first smiles and expressions of joy were portrayed in Egypt.

From around this time the big names, the big personalities and identities started to appear on the world stage, and history gradually became more and more personal, written by man, and mostly about men. It transcends from a hi-story down to his-story. The story is no longer about what caused the events in history but the identity of who caused it.

To be Emperor is to be Caesar


Throughout history the names of influential people can often become identified with the role they represent. It began with Julius Caesar. The name of Caesar became identified with emperor. After Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, his adopted son Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, linked the title of emperor to Caesar. To be emperor is to be Caesar. He also introduced the salutation ‘Hail Caesar’ as the way to salute the Emperor of Rome from that point onwards. The style of this salutation has been used by nearly all empires up to our time.

Napoleon’s name became the name of the new civil law in France after the revolution. It became known as The Napoleonic Code and signified Napoleon as the lawmaker. The humanitarian ideals of the revolution, where everyone would be equal in the eyes of the law, became identified with his name through this code.

Napoleon’s powerful personality brought France, which was in turmoil and revolution, together under his name, first as general, then as consul and later as emperor. The same name of Napoleon, but with different identities. The story of the change in the identity of France at the time of the revolution is very similar to the story of the change in the identity of Rome about 2000 years earlier. It took Rome nearly 500 years to shift identity from a kingdom, to a republic, to an empire and it lasted in all for around 1,000 years. The same process took just 15 years in France, from 1789 to 1804, and only lasted for a bit more than 20 years.

Identity as a means to cause movement or change

History is full of examples where identity is used as a means of causing movement or change or inspiration in people. Because of the extreme situation England found itself in during the Second World War, the need for defiance emerged, and there was no one better than Winston Churchill to be identified with this quality. He became the symbol of this defiance during the war. The defiance reached millions of people and it was expressed throughout the war in multiple ways. Maybe the most famous words of defiance from Winston Churchill were after the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, “... we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”.

President John F. Kennedy carried an identity of hope when he appeared on the world stage in 1960. The world was scared and suffering because of the cold war. Its leaders were mainly old men in dark suits and with stony faces. When Kennedy became a young President with new ideals and vitality, he and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy became identified with the spirit of hope and belief in the future which the world desperately needed at the time. When he spoke the words “Ich bin ein Berliner” to the population of Berlin, it inspired hope and solidarity, both in them and in the rest of the western world.

John Lennon carried a ‘make love, not war’ identity in his portrayal and through his music. It allowed his message to flow through to millions of people at that time.

When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, he brought a signal of renewal and change to millions of people. His plans for Glasnost, which means new openness, were carried out through an identity of openness.

When identity possesses the person

Napoleon Bonaparte

The crowning of Napoleon as emperor is another famous identity moment in history. At the coronation in Notre Dame in 1804, he took the crown from the Pope and placed it on his head himself, since he only had himself to thank for his achievements and not God. This scene at Napoleon’s coronation has become one of the most famous moments in the history of his time. It marks a turning point for himself and for France. By crowning himself he took possession of the identity that had allowed him to rise that far. He identified himself as an emperor, and so he saw himself as being untouchable and invincible. Although Napoleon fought some of his greatest battles whilst Emperor and the Empire of France expanded, the act at the coronation also marks the beginning of the end for Napoleon and his empire.

Questions to consider about national identity

The question must be asked, what is the natural identity of a nation? Is it based on history and the people who lived in and worked for the nation? Napoleon had an answer to that when he said, ‘I am France and France is me’. What is a national identity unto itself? Can we look at the identity of a nation regardless of its past? If the past has the major say, most nations could be seen to have failed and would suffer an identity crisis - there are no Roman or French empires today.

Identity is a vast consideration. There are multiple identity possibilities, from the individual identity to a group identity, and each one affects the other. The identities that we can see from historic evidence are just a part of this consideration.

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