The wonderful thing about ancient history is that it can so easily be held up as a mirror by which to look at modern problems in a new light. It can also be made to mean pretty much whatever you want. Last Saturday in the Spectator Peter Jones described the upcoming EU referendum as a chance for the people of Britain to “do an Athens”, to shake off foreign oppression, assert our autonomy and achieve the level of cultural greatness experienced by that Greek city in the 5th century BC. The trouble is that you could argue that ancient Athens has a very different lesson to teach us.
Leaving aside the obvious issue that it’s very unlikely that leaving the EU would actually place power in the hands of the British people to the same degree as in the “radical democracy” of Classical Athens a more serious problem is that Jones’ vision of the causes and effects of Athens’ greatness is very one sided.
He cites the reforms of Solon (early 6th Century BC) as paving the way for Athens’ democracy but doesn’t mention that one of Solon’s economic measures was to actively encourage foreign immigrants, or metics, to come to Athens – hardly a policy that would win votes with the Leave campaigners. He glorifies the decision to invest in the fleet as an assertion of independence but skirts around the way that the fleet was used to reduce hundreds of other Greek city states to the status of tribute paying subjects. Whether democracy or empire played a bigger role in Athens’ cultural greatness continues to be debated but the wealth that military control of the Aegean brought with it can hardly have been a handicap. Should Britain also emulate Athens in this respect?
Ultimately it wasn’t long before the expansion of Athenian power led to a brutal and drawn out war with the other major Greek power, Sparta, and her allies. It is perhaps the biggest tragedy of Greek history that the spirit of cooperation between the separate city states that had brought so many of them, including Athens and Sparta, together to fight the Persians in the early 5th century failed to maintain its momentum, as they rapidly fell into two competing power blocks.
In 404 BC, three quarters of a century after the major investment in the fleet that Jones points to as the radical decision that should inspire us to vote for Brexit, Athens lost the war against Sparta. For the same amount of time that it took the Athenian Empire to rise and fall, the countries of northwest Europe have been at peace. Whatever the shortcomings of the EU that achievement is without parallel in ancient Greek history.
In the 4th century BC Athens recovered something of her power and influence but, the florescence of culture that produced the great 5th century tragedies and comedies and the buildings on the Acropolis, was never to return. Athens’ Golden Age was like a briliiant firework display, blinding in its intensity but which fizzled out all too soon. Is that what Jones hopes for for Britain?