Ancient Greeks and Modern Britons

By Cartledge, Paul | History Today, April 1994 | Go to article overview

Ancient Greeks and Modern Britons


Cartledge, Paul, History Today


Paul Cartledge has been responsible, as Consultant Editor to our Democracy series, for setting out parameters for a potentially endless examination, and in helping bring on board the impressively-broad band of international. contributors to it. Here he makes a further' contribution as an author by considering how-as Britain has gained its 'democracy' since the Glorious Revolution - the models of the past have been utilised in intellectual argument for and against the Westminster version of 'people power'.

Edward Gibbon, the bicentenary of whose death we celebrate this year, is still probably the greatest historian of Graeco-Roman antiquity we have. Yet in his hostile attitude to democracy - both the full-blooded, populist democracy of the ancients and the etiolated, representative version espoused by the rebellious American colonies - this Enlightenment intellectual was very much a child of his time, class and culture. The 'strange tragical romance' of the French Revolution merely hardened his widely shared conviction that 'Democratical principles... lead by a path of flowers into the Abyss of Hell' (letters of 1791).

Democracy for Gibbon was tantamount to mob-archy, and not so very different in connotation from its usage in sixth-century Byzantium to mean public riot (so far had it been debased in the course of a thousand years from its original meaning of people-power). The self-styled 'historian of the Roman Empire' with his admitted penchant for British-style constitutional monarchy would therefore presumably have been flabber-gasted by the rise in democracy's currency over the next two centuries, to its present apparently unassailable status of universal approbation. However, that curve of upward mobility can be deceptive. In the first place, before democracy could rise it had had to be tamed, by being emptied of its dangerously spontaneous and populist elements. Secondly, its ascent disguises the alternative - in fact, diametrically opposed - positive constructions of democracy that have been entertained in Britain during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

To simplify, there is on the one hand the broadly consensual, 'liberal' view, which notwithstanding the title of its foundational myth, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, is resolutely evolutionary in implication and application. This construction stresses the compatibility of constitutional monarchy with parliamentary sovereignty, the positive function of the ballot-box as peaceful arbiter of principled differences channelled smoothly through the party system, and the benignly tolerant protection afforded by an ideologically neutral state to law-abiding minorities.

On the other side, there is the radical construal of democracy that urges the legitimacy as well as the necessity of extra- or anti-parliamentary action by the common people, and insists on the class nature of the established institutions of state. This interpretation traces its origins to the 'English Revolution' of the seventeenth century, and proceeds by way of the Chartists and the Suffragettes to the people's socialism of George Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn (1940) and Tony Benn's Common Sense (1993).

Benn's manifesto is of course named after Thomas Paine's anti-British imperialism, pro-American Revolution tract of 1776, the year in which the first volume of Gibbon's Decline and Fall also appeared. The aim of what follows here will be to chart the impact of such changing and contradictory attitudes to democracy in modern Britain on the ways in which ancient Greek democracy has been understood and represented, especially in general works of ancient history addressed, like Gibbon's, to a wide public.

'Democracy' first entered the English language, borrowed from the French democratie, in the mid-sixteenth century. But Renaissance humanists were far more interested in their Roman than in their Greek heritage, and following Machiavelli's lead endlessly debated the virtues of Roman Republicanism rather than the vices of Athenian democracy.

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