“He’s much less powerful than he used to be” – that was Ed Miliband’s assessment of Rupert Murdoch when asked about press regulation in that Russell Brand interview. It was no secret that The Sun, Murdoch’s top selling UK tabloid paper, together with much of the right wing press were waging a drawn out and viciously personal campaign against the Labour leader. A week before the election The Sun urged its English readers to vote Conservative, its Scottish readers to vote SNP, a seemingly schizophrenic strategy considering that David Cameron was hammering on about the SNP being the biggest danger facing the UK while Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly told us how she wanted nothing more than to “lock the Tories out of Downing street”. But it was a strategy deliberately calculated to stop Labour from winning. I can’t help wondering how Miliband must feel about what he said to Brand now that his dreams of becoming prime minister have ended in an unplanned holiday to Ibiza and in Rupert Murdoch getting exactly the election result he was hoping for.
It is hard to be sure how much influence the press had over the outcome of the election and I’d find it very depressing to think that it was Murdoch “wot won it” but the very fact that British newspapers – of all political persuasions – try so hard to steer their readers to vote a certain way should alert us to a fundamental reality of the nature of power in our democracy: to understand where power lies it is not enough to look merely at the workings of our political institutions. In the UK questions of power are not decided solely through elections, debates in the houses of commons or cabinet meetings; lobbying groups, personal connections, public opinion, public knowledge, the media and countless other factors all play an important role. Figures like Rupert Murdoch also remind us that it is often difficult to draw a distinction between “power” and “influence” and to decide where one begins or the other ends. These problems are not unique to Britain. They are surely a feature of any complex society and, as such, they are problems that any historian faces – ancient historians included – when they want to explore the workings of power in past societies.
Both the Greeks and Romans were well aware of the potential tension between “influence” and “power” and of the ways in which there could be a mismatch between the theoretical government of a state as expressed in its constitution and the political reality. In the 5th Century BC Thucydides, talking of the leadership of Athens by Perikles, said that the city was “a democracy in name but in reality the rule of one man”. The first Roman Emperor Augustus on the other hand could make the bold claim in his “Res Gestae” – an autobiographical text summing up his career and erected posthumously outside his mausoleum – “I exceeded all in influence, but I had no greater power than the others who were colleagues with me in each magistracy.” The question of what we are to make of these passages has, unsurprisingly, attracted considerable attention from modern scholars.
Many historians have disagreed with Thucydides’ assessment of Perikles’ influence in 5th century Athens and have argued that the city really was a radical democracy where power for all the most important decisions was truly in the hands of the people; the citizens were, after all, free to vote against Perikles’ proposals in any of their regular assembly meetings and did, once in his career, chose not to re-elect him as one of the city’s ten “strategoi”, or military generals. On the other hand, it’s hard to get away from the fact that Perikles really does seem to have been the driving force behind Athenian policy for nearly three decades, which has led other scholars to argue that Thucydides words must contain a grain of truth.
Augustus’ statement on first consideration looks less problematic. Many of the institutions of the Republic had, officially been left in tact by Augustus, following his emergence as the victor in the last of a succession of civil wars, and his tremendous personal influence was certainly extremely important in ensuring that his will was enacted. Elections continued to be held for key magistracies, for example, but Augustus put forwards the candidates so that the people could obligingly vote for them. The powers bestowed by the individual magistracies that he held were also, one for one, little different to those bestowed on other men who held the same titles as colleagues at the same time.
A key difference, however, was that while magistracies were usually held individually and temporarily Augustus held several at the same time – or at least held the powers associated with certain magistracies – and held these powers in perpetuity. By monopolising control over the army – also achieved through institutional means – he was also able effectively to quell any dissent. What we see here then is a cunning subversion of pre-existing Republican institutions to bolster up the his one man rule. Still, disentangling Augustus’ powers from his influence (Latin: “auctoritas”) and deciding which played the greater role in making him the first Roman Emperor is still a tricky issue.
The Greeks and Romans were also no strangers to the idea of outsiders trying to exert influence over the internal workings of political constitutions. Throughout the Peloponnesian War, which pitted Greek against Greek as the coalitions led by Athens and Sparta struggled for pre-eminence in the Aegean, both of those powers attempted to detach cities from their enemy and win them over to their side by installing governments of citizens favourable to their rule: in full acknowledgement that this is a gross-simplifcation – Athens tended to favour democracies, Sparta oligarchies. Toward the end of that war the Athenian government was itself overthrown temporarily and replaced by an oligarchic government of 400 upper class men who had been promised by the Persian King that he would donate funds to their cause on the condition that they ended the democracy – an investment that I am sure many modern non-dom CEOs could relate to.
In the event Athenian democracy was restored and Sparta won the war, herself making use of Persian financial support, and an even narrower oligarchy was installed at Athens who became known as the Thiry Tyrants because of their brutal and violent oppression of their opponents. Understanding configurations of power at the local level, therefore, often requires taking account of complex outside influences, thereby complicating further the task of working out who was really in charge in a given state at a given moment in time.
For Roman Greece, assessing the balance of power and influence is arguably an even thornier problem because of the nature of the evidence, which mainly comes from inscriptions. Cities throughout the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire tended to describe themselves in their official documents as democracies yet it is clear enough that small cliques of elite families monopolised key political positions such as magistracies and seats on local councils and were honoured with statues and other rewards for using their wealth to bestow benefactions – of grain, festivals, buildings etc. – on their communities. The prominence of these elite benefactors has been enough to persuade many historians that these so-called “democracies” were, in actual fact, “oligarchies” run by, and for the benefit of, these elite families. Political assemblies of citizens might still have met but their business consisted mainly of finding ways to honour these benefactors instead of debating issues of real importance. And what important issues were left to debate now that these cities were under the control of an empire and no longer free to wage war on one another? This largely pessimistic vision was for a long time the consensus view regarding the Roman period polis.
Recently, however, the tide has begun to turn and certain historians have begun to challenge this vision arguing that the Roman period poleis has suffered unfairly by comparing it to Classical Athens. They have stressed that even in Classical times no polis had as radical a democracy as Athens, where all male citizens could meet regularly to debate the issues of the day and were chosen by lot to occupy key magistracies. Many cities even then had been ruled by oligarchies and Athens itself, as an imperial power, severely limited the political freedom of around 150 Greek cities that it effectively ruled over. In Roman times, such scholars argue, the business of honouring benefactors was an effective means of choosing the men most suited to governing the local city and that important business did still have to be decided upon locally – management of the food and water supply, organising the religious festivals that were the lifeblood of civic life and choosing ambassadors to send to Rome to secure imperial favour. Inscriptions honouring benefactors were not displays of sycophancy but rather a way of advertising the power of the polis to decide which men (and more rarely women) were deserving of such honours. Such scholars have also drawn on passages in key literary sources that describe civic assemblies to argue that the level of participation in political life on the part of ordinary citizens remained high and that such meetings were characterised by a lively level of debate.
One of the key problems to do with Roman Greece is, therefore, that using exactly the same evidence, scholars are able to argue for two very different visions about where power was concentrated and where the dividing line between power and influence lay in the poleis of that time. The reason for the problem is easy to appreciate – if it is hard working out where power lies in our own society it is extremely difficult when the evidence we have is extremely patchy and largely concerned with one facet of political behaviour. If only we had transcriptions of what was actually discussed at political assembly meetings or lists of attendance figures then our impression might be clearer. Sadly we don’t. Faced with the enormous ambiguity in the evidence the debate seems to have become deadlocked with both sides defending their position yet doing little to convince their opponents.
The debate above all illustrates that “democracy” is a relative concept. I’m not sure that I’ve really completely made up my mind about where power lay in the Roman period Greek polis but if I generally find myself more sympathetic to the optimistic view that these were “real democracies” it’s perhaps because I’m largely pessimistic as to the extent to which power in our modern democratic system really is in the hands of the people. “People power” is, after all, the literal translation of the ancient Greek word. Even if power effectively was in the hands of the oligarchs in these cities, however, their rule still depended on a level of interaction with the rest of the population, which I would argue is unparalleled in pre-modern times. That in itself makes the question of how power operated in the Roman period polis a question worth asking.
To consider how power operates in 21st century Britain we need to look beyond elections and political parties to take account of the role played by the media and advertising in shaping opinion and to account for the potential influence of public figures like Rupert Murdoch and even Russell Brand. The same is true for the Greek city of Roman times. The honorific monuments that the poleis set up could be seen everywhere in public spaces such as marketplaces, gymnasiums, theatres and bathhouses – they educated people into the political realties of their time in the same way that The Sun, the BBC News, or Twitter do today. Looking at the impact of these monuments on the urban landscape – as opposed to merely analysing what the inscriptions inscribed on their bases have to say, which is where the emphasis in previous research has been – is, I believe, a useful way to move beyond institutional politics and to think about where power and influence in these cities really lay