Brexit, Athens, and a lesson from history

Parallel lives: Pericles and Boris Johnson both faced geopolitical showdowns and pandemics.

Can an ancient Greek general shine a light on Britain’s future? Coronavirus has suddenly made Boris Johnson’s career look uncannily similar to that of his hero, the Athenian leader Pericles.

431BC: Pericles is involved in a tense stand-off with neighbouring power, Sparta.

AD2019: Boris Johnson is involved in tense Brexit discussions with the EU.

430BC: Pericles’s plans are totally up-ended by a sudden epidemic that sweeps across Athens.

AD2020: Say no more.

Boris Johnson has always been a fan of Pericles, the leading politician and general of the Athenian golden age.

Above all, he has celebrated Pericles as a believer in “the importance of the many not the few”.

The Athenian leader pushed hard to enable a wider range of people to participate in public affairs, especially the less wealthy. While huge parts of society were still excluded from politics – including women – Pericles’s changes earned him a reputation as one of the architects of democracy.

This is something Johnson likes to mention in connection with Brexit. Democracy, he says, is about people “being in charge of their own destiny”. We chose to leave the EU, so he will make sure that happens.

But the similarities between Johnson and Pericles are starting to go further than Johnson might find comfortable.

Pericles was hugely overconfident about the success of Athens in a war with Sparta, believing that his side was better prepared and more powerful.

This confidence proved to be misplaced: the conflict between the two states (known as the Peloponnesian War) went on for 27 years.

Johnson, meanwhile, has been optimistic about the speed with which Britain can finalise its departure from the EU. Many are much more sceptical.

And now – as it did for Pericles – an unexpected epidemic has changed everything for Johnson.

Pericles had prepared well for a siege from Sparta by ordering all Athenians to gather inside the city walls. But when a mysterious disease hit – possibly, typhoid – it spread with terrifying speed because everyone was so close together.

The devastation it caused undid all of Pericles’s planning and shifted the war in favour of Sparta.

Who knows how the coronavirus may affect Johnson’s Brexit hopes – but can Pericles’s story help shed light on what comes next for Britain?

Then and now

Of course not. Ancient Athens and modern Britain are utterly different. For a start, Brexit negotiations are nothing like a war. The comparison is distasteful. Nor could Pericles and Johnson be more different as individuals. Pericles, for example, was famous for his careful choice of words. It’s easy to pick out similarities, but that’s nothing more than a silly game.

On the other hand, we can learn so much about what might happen in the present day by looking at history. Pericles’s story cautions against arrogance, a reminder that unexpected events can undermine plans. Power is also no protection from illness. In the end, Pericles was killed by the epidemic that devastated Athens. On Friday, Boris Johnson tested positive for Covid-19.

You Decide

  1. If you were the leader of a country and found out you had the coronavirus, would you tell everyone – or try to keep it secret?
  2. Do you consider classics (the study of ancient Greece and Rome, in particular) to be relevant today?

Activities

  1. Pick the person who most inspires you – this could be a historical figure, or someone alive today. Make a list of the five things you admire most about them and say why. Show your household and find out if they think you share any of your hero’s qualities!
  2. Imagine you are the leader of your country. Write a one-page speech thanking the public for their response to the coronavirus so far – what have they done, and why has it mattered? Find an adult who is willing to listen to your speech – and see if they are convinced by your gratitude.

Some People Say...

“Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number. Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you. Ye are many – they are few.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), English poet, from The Mask of Anarchy

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
We know that Pericles was a great politician, public speaker, and military general. He was responsible for making Athens famous for its culture, education, political systems, and architecture. He was friends with the playwrights Aeschylus and Sophocles, and his partner Aspasia taught rhetoric to the philosopher Socrates. Boris Johnson is a well-known classics enthusiast, able to quote Homer in Greek. He has named Winston Churchill as his other hero.
What do we not know?
We don’t actually know what Pericles was really like. The main historian who wrote about him, Thucydides, was forty years younger. He only had first-hand experience of the end of Pericles’s career and wasn’t interested in biographical details, so left them out of his account. The other historian who wrote about Pericles was Plutarch – born 500 years later. The Pericles we know about today may be more an invention of these two historians than anything else.

Word Watch

Sparta
A city-state in ancient Greece, famous for its war-like and extremely tough citizens.
430BC
BC dates go down towards 0, meaning that 430 is the year after 431.
Golden age
The period between 449 and 431 BC, when Athens became known as the cultural and intellectual centre of the ancient Greek world.
Peloponnesian War
A war fought between Athens and Sparta lasting from 431-404 BC, which brought an end to Athens’s golden age.
Siege
A military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of making those inside to surrender.
Typhoid
A disease that can cause fever and death. It was very common in Victorian England.

Subjects

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