By: Marco Jaimes, Lecturer, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
“The attempt on my life has left me scarred and deformed, but I assure you my resolve has never been stronger.”Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas’s final film in the Star Wars saga, has long been considered his most politically charged entry, exploring themes related to war, the violent suppression of political opposition, and the collapse of republics. At the center of this intrigue is the establishment of the Galactic Empire, with Chancellor Palpatine proclaiming himself as emperor. Star Wars has long drawn influence from history, perhaps most famously from Nazi Germany, which scholars have extensively covered.1 Palpatine’s rise to power and his proclamation of a new regime parallels numerous historical dictators, but the goal of this article is not to simply trace how Palpatine took power; rather, I am more interested in how he maintained his power through propaganda, military might, and political savvy. This article compares Palpatine’s regime to Napoleon’s reign in early 19th century Europe and explores how leaders often rely on manipulation and oppression to maintain power and control, both in history and in a galaxy far, far away.
Richard Wortman argues in his study on monarchy in the Russian Empire that rulers secured political legitimacy through “scenarios of power.”2 According to Wortman, these scenarios were governing myths used by monarchs to convey their authority and promote their legitimacy to the nobility/inner court and the general populace.3 Wortman examines and interprets several events including coronations, imperial visits across the empire, and official monuments to assert that Russian rulers actively cultivated an image, aimed primarily at the nobility and members of the court, that legitimized their authority. The concept of “scenarios of power” is conveniently applicable to other historical leaders and Palpatine himself, demonstrating that rulers could legitimize and maintain their power by constructing a specific image of themselves for public consumption.
Throughout the Star Wars canon it is apparent that Palpatine constructed a scenario of power that revolved around his portrayal not just as a victim of Jedi treason, but as an elderly, benevolent statesman. This portrayal is apparent throughout the book Lords of the Sith, in which rebels attack Palpatine and Darth Vader during an official visit to the planet Ryloth. After crash landing in the planet’s harsh and dangerous forest, Palpatine, Vader, and some of his royal guards confront vicious animals, rebel strike teams, and eventually eliminate an entire village. The Imperial Governor of Ryloth attempts to rescue the group, noting “we need to get to the Emperor… He’s just an elderly man, Steen. They can’t be moving very fast.”4 Of course, the audience knows and witnesses throughout the book that Palpatine is far from “just an elderly man,” but it is this image of Palpatine as an honorable but physically weak statesman that was meant to be ingrained in the galaxy’s general populace.5
This concept of a defenseless, aged Palpatine is also reinforced in the series finale of Star Wars: Rebels. Rebels, which focuses on a band of rebels fighting Imperial forces on the planet Lothal, provides new perspectives on the Empire’s reign in the galaxy. At the end of the series, Jedi Padawan Ezra Bridger is confronted by a holographic Palpatine, who offers Ezra the chance to reunite with his deceased parents. Dressed in white robes and appearing with a face unscarred by lightning, Palpatine apologizes for not being there in person as “governing the galaxy takes up much of my time.”6 The seemingly benevolent, elderly patriarch ultimately fails in turning Ezra from the rebel cause, but Palpatine’s efforts in promoting this specific image to the galaxy emphasizes his “scenario of power.”
In early 19th century Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte found success by establishing his own “scenario of power,” which promoted similarly contradictory notions, such as revolutionary zeal and Catholic traditions. In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself “Emperor of the French” in Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral.8 The ceremony was heavily coordinated by the Napoleonic administration, marking the turn from recognizing France as a geographical construct to emphasizing the notion of a distinct French people. But it is the painting done by Jacques-Louis David that provided observers across the empire with a vision of how Napoleon wanted to be seen.9 David was Napoleon’s official painter and the image emphasized key themes that Napoleon sought to associate with his reign. The center of the painting featured the Catholic cross, which reflected Napoleon’s pro-Catholic policies in the aftermath of the Concordat of 1801. The painting also included Napoleon’s mother and brother, Joseph, neither of whom actually attended the coronation. The decision to include absent family members in the painting emphasized Napoleon’s family ties, which he displayed and utilized across his growing empire in an effort to found a new dynastic regime and to create pro-French governments in recently conquered lands.
French authorities displayed the portrait multiple times to the public via the Louvre gallery as a propaganda piece starting in 1808.10 Of course, Napoleon did not have the same level of technology as a Palpatine, so modes of communication meant that monuments and paintings like David’s The Coronation of Napoleon (and his more famous 1801 Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass) were some of his primary tools to create a “scenario of power,” emphasizing characteristics like his religiosity, family, and military achievements.
More of Napoleon’s “scenario of power” comes through in the writings of Austrian Foreign Minister Klemens von Metternich, who had a confrontation/conversation with Napoleon in 1813, on the eve of the War of the Sixth Coalition. The discussion between the two demonstrates a number of traits that Napoleon emphasized in his “scenario of power.” This included the importance of military prowess, as he asserts “I shall know how to die; but I shall not yield one handbreadth of soil,” and his marriage (literally) of traditional and revolutionary zeal, as he argued “When I married an Archduchess [of Austria] I tried to weld the new with the old, Gothic prejudices with the institutions of my century.”12 These assertions reflect Napoleon’s “scenario of power” as he sought to conquer Europe and establish his legitimacy.
Ultimately, Napoleon and Palpatine strived to create images of unity and a hierarchical system with them at the top. The top, however, meant slightly different things in these two systems as far as the public was concerned. While Napoleon was the top general, legislator, and executive, winning battles across the continent and reforming France’s legal system via the Code Napoléon, Palpatine frequently sought to emphasize his political status in public, while leaving military affairs to traditional leadership. As Palpatine and his party depart Coruscant, en route to Ryloth, Captain Luitt, commander of the Star Destroyer escorting Palpatine, offers the emperor the chance to order the ship into hyperspace:
“I’d be honored if you’d give the order, my lord,” said Luitt.
“Oh, no, Captain,” the Emperor said, waving a hand. “I’m a political leader, not a military one. Proceed as you would normally.”Paul S. Kemp, Lords of the Sith (New York: Del Rey, 2016), 68.
While both Napoleon and Palpatine sought to be the pinnacle of their regimes, Napoleon publicly claimed the mantle often while Palpatine publicly ceded military authority. Of course, his decision to allow Luitt to order the ship into hyperspaces was part of Palpatine’s construction of his specific “scenario of power,” which emphasized his helplessness.
Palpatine’s parallels to historical leaders goes beyond his seizure of power seen in Revenge of the Sith. Like other leaders, Palpatine had to maintain control over the system he built and used familiar techniques, including the construction of a “scenario of power.” Palpatine’s effort to create a benevolent, elderly, and somewhat helpless image was directly connected to his efforts to maintain power and control. Like Napoleon, Palpatine utilized images, technologies, and other tools to keep his regime going. While the audience certainly understands the immense personal power that Palpatine wielded as a Sith Lord, the people of the galaxy usually saw “just an elderly man.”
Marco Jaimes is a lecturer at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches courses on empire, nationalism, and general European history. His research focuses on late Habsburg history and the role of the cult of the monarch in promoting a sense of stability and coherence within the empire. Outside of the classroom, he is an avid Star Wars and Marvel fan, and enjoys playing Magic: The Gathering with friends.
Other Star Wars Posts:
- Nostalgia, Black Krrsantan, and Predators: A Conversation with The Book of Boba Fett’s Carey Jones
- Cloning, the Zombie Apocalypse, and Texas History: A Conversation with The Mandalorian’s Omid Abtahi
- An (In)Sidious Image: Palpatine, Napoleon, and Propaganda
- “If a planet is not in our records then it does not exist”: Star Wars, Archives, and Pedagogy
- Droid Rights and the Lumpenproletar-E8: The Potential of a Fanonian Revolution in Star Wars
- “Don’t everybody thank me at once”: A few historians, an obsession with pop culture, and the creation of (yet another) digital history site
- For connections between Star Wars and history (albeit before the sequel trilogy) see: Nancy Ruth Reagin and Janice Liedl’s edited collection, Star Wars and History (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2013). For an examination of how Palpatine’s rise to power compares to historical leaders, see Tony Keen’s chapter, “I, Sidious: Historical Dictators and Senator Palpatine’s Rise to Power.”
- Richard Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006).
- Wortman, Scenarios of Power.
- Paul S. Kemp, Lords of the Sith (New York: Del Rey, 2016), 259.
- Imperial forces find Palpatine as rebels attempt one last attack. Recognizing the larger audience, Palpatine notes to Vader “I can’t be seen using the Force before so many witnesses.” Kemp, Lords of the Sith, 272.
- Star Wars: Rebels, “Family Reunion and Farewell,” Disney+, March 5, 2018.
- Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1807, oil on canvas, Paris, The Louvre.
- For an authoritative analysis of Napoleon in power, in English, see Philip G. Dwyer, Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power, 1799-1815, (Bloomsbury, 2014).
- Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1807, oil on canvas, Paris, The Louvre. Interestingly, the painting itself is not actually of Napoleon’s coronation moment, but the consecration of his then-wife Josephine.
- The painting itself serves as the centerpiece of another painting by Louis-Léopold Boilly, who documents the public’s reaction in The Public Viewing David’s ‘Coronation’ at the Louvre.
- Louis-Léopold Boilly, The Public Viewing David’s ‘Coronation’ at the Louvre, 1810, oil on canvas, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
- The conversation was recorded by Metternich, who went on to publish it in his memoir in 1829. Mack Walker, ed. Metternich’s Europe (New York: Harper & Row, 1968).