“Doing an Athens”. Is ancient history telling us to vote leave the EU?

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Classical Athenian vase showing Hoplites fighting – was democracy or warfare more important for Athens’ greatness?

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?

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2 thoughts on ““Doing an Athens”. Is ancient history telling us to vote leave the EU?

  1. Hello, interesting view point. I tend to agree that Peter Jones’ parallel with Ancient Athens and Brexit probably isn’t the most appropriate. I was pondering this myself this week and reached the view that Athens might better be represented as the current EU itself. A City state (with greater statehood aims) dominating its neighbours from within the Greek federation of states, and demanding tribute….enforced by policies to ensure that tribute is maintained. In turn Athens provided “protection” to those states.

    And whilst the state was based on democracy, it is often the strong political characters within that democracy that held power and which shape the direction of the democracy. And, as we have seen in Athens, the over-reaching of that city state and the politicians led to catastrophe. It could be this over-reaching that could lead to the demise of the city state again.

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    1. I think you are onto something. It’s certainly true that Athens, by the standards of the time, was a super state. Many of the villages within Attica were large enough to have been classed as small independent poleis if they had been located elsewhere in the Greek world. The genius of the Athenian democracy and, above all the reforms of Cleisthenes of 508 BC was to, integrate these many separate local communities into a larger political system. I’m not sure though that we can stretch the parallel to explain Athens’ downfall or to account for any problems the EU might be facing. Athens’ domination of cities outside of Attica is surely quite different than the EU which isn’t the hegemony of a single state over others.

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