Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

How would Pericles have dealt with the problems facing America after 9/11? As rationally as ever, no doubt.

The great Athenian statesman (c. 495-429 BC) controlled the Athenian Assembly so effectively from the 440s till his death that the Athenian historian Thucydides remarked that Athens at this time was a democracy in name only. Not that Pericles wielded any constitutional authority; the Assembly of Athenian males over 18 was sovereign, and it was only by his powers of persuasion that they accepted his policies. As Thucydides said, he 'knew what was required' in any situation, and was equally able to restrain the Assembly when it became over-ambitious, and rally it when spirits were low; but he never pandered to it.

The outbreak of the war against Sparta in 431 BC provides one example of what he was able to achieve. Knowing perfectly well that Athens could not take the Spartans on by land, he persuaded the Assembly to agree to the only rational course open to it: to permit the Athenian rural population to decamp from their farms and homes in Attica (the territory which Athens controlled) and withdraw into Athens and the protection of its unassailable walls. There were those, of course, who, yielding to emotion and patriotism, wanted to stand and fight. …

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