Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

All lovers of elective oligarchy will applaud last month's ballot in Iraq, but that will not stop debates about America's role there. Athenians of the 5th century BC, committed like America to the idea of freedom, obsessively debated how to justify the power which they exercised over their empire.

In his early speeches, Pericles condones the right to rule by arguing that Athens exerted far less brutal control over its empire than its supremacy might have allowed, and was anyway culturally superior to everyone else. The tone changes, however, in the final speech before his death in 429 BC. Here he argues that Athens had no option but to continue down the imperial path 'because of the danger from those whose hatred you have incurred in gaining your empire . . . which you now possess like a tyranny. It may be thought wrong to have acquired it, but to let it go would be extremely dangerous.'

This argument took a brutal turn in 416 BC, when an Athenian embassy to the island of Melos - which had asked to remain neutral - argued that right was in question only between those who were equal in power; it was 'natural law' that the strong did what they had the power to do, and the weak accepted whatever they had to accept. …

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