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.

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, especially the less wealthy, to participate in public affairs.

This is something Johnson likes to mention in connection with Brexit. Democracy, he says, is about people “being in charge of their own destiny”.

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.

Who knows how 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. Nor could Pericles and Johnson be more different as individuals.

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. 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 coronavirus, would you tell everyone – or try to keep it secret?


  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!

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 his poem 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 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

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.
Shed light on
Help to explain something.

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