Character Assassination! Media and mudslinging from Caligula to King Gorilla

Martijn Icks's picture
June 21, 2019
Subject Fields: 
American History / Studies, Contemporary History, European History / Studies, Political History / Studies, Social History / Studies

Character assassination! Media and mudslinging from Caligula to King Gorilla

Date: June 21, 2019

Location: De Hortus, Plantage Middenlaan 2A, Amsterdam

Organised by Edwina Hagen and Martijn Icks



Character assassination is a phenomenon that can be found in every historical epoch. Throughout the ages, numerous kings, queens, generals, clergymen, thinkers and rebels have suffered visual and verbal attacks which sought to undermine their prestige and cast them in a negative light. While this is currently done through tweets and campaign ads, in previous ages speeches, chronicles and pamphlets were the weapons of choice. Their effects were no less devastating. The reputation of notorious figures such as Emperor Caligula, the “Iron Duke” of Alba and the Dutch “King Gorilla” [William III] has been determined by character attacks to this day.

This colloquium places character assassination in historical perspective. In doing so, we focus primarily on persons from the political sphere: kings, aristocrats, statesmen. Can we identify constant factors through time in the ways these people’s reputations were attacked and in the motives behind these attacks? How have acts of character assassination been influenced by changing historical circumstances, particularly by the introduction of new technologies and media such as the printing press, the newspaper and radio? And can historians make use of methods and models from the political and social sciences to analyse character assassination? By discussing and comparing case studies from various historical epochs, we hope to shed light on these questions.


Overview of topics:

  • Henri van Nispen, Imperial madness? The case of Roman emperor Gaius Caligula
  • Erik Goosmann, Defaming the Merovingians: manipulating the past to accommodate political change in the Early Middle Ages
  • Frans Camphuijsen, Crusades and character assassination: political mudslinging in the thirteenth century
  • Yolanda Rodríguez Pérez, The Duke of Alba and the Revolt in the Low Countries: the character assassination of an individual and a nation
  • Luc Panhuysen, The murder of John and Cornelius de Witt: the body of state demolished
  • Eric Shiraev, Fake news for the American Revolution: the character assassination of George Washington
  • Dik van der Meulen, King William III (1817-1890): reputation and reality
  • Carla Hoetink, Deathblow to debate? Character attacks in Dutch parliament, a historical analysis
  • Munira Cheema, How character assassination unfolds in a Pakistani context: the case of Benazir Bhutto
  • KEYNOTE: Dirk Wolthekker, From citizen father to caricature: Provo and the character assassination of Gijs van Hall


The colloquium is organised by historians Edwina Hagen (VU University) and Martijn Icks (University of Amsterdam) and supported by CARP, the Research Lab for Character Assassination and Reputation Politics at George Mason University:

Access is free of charge. For more information, contact Edwina Hagen:


Contact Info: 

Dr. Edwina Hagen, VU University:

Dr. Martijn Icks, University of Amsterdam:


Contact Email: