No, We Shouldn't Model Our Democracy on Ancient Athens

By Robert Davis

This week, Politico reported that the Trump White House is consulting political thinker Graham Allison about Thucydides’ classic work, The History of the Peloponnesian War. That administrations are studying ancient history is nothing new: in 2002, the Pentagon commissioned a study of ancient empires and current National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is reportedly deeply influenced by Thucydides. The Politico piece points out that white House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon is an intense admirer of Thucydides. Almost since the Revolutionary War, Americans have uncritically looked to Athens, the so-called birthplace of democracy, as a political and intellectual guide. While our current leaders are openly discussing classical history, it pays to remember that Athens, a slave-owning society, denied personhood to both women and foreigners. Citing it as a predecessor of contemporary democracy risks perpetuating the myth that a culture whose art, politics, and philosophy were created by--and for--men is worth emulating.

 Thucydides’ history chronicles a roughly twenty-year year conflict that pitted Greece’s two most powerful cities, democratic Athens and militaristic Sparta, against each other, consuming the Mediterranean in the late 5th century BCE. One of the most famous examples of political speech-making is Thucydides’ retelling of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, given to commemorate the war dead.  A founding text of Western liberal democracy, its soaring rhetoric on sacrifice, freedom, and patriotism has inspired generations of American politicians. For example, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which many compare to Pericles’ oration, was merely the warm-up act for Edward Everett’s two-hour speech on Pericles and the current political moment.  

 Scholars are still working through the finer points of women’s roles in ancient Athens, but Pericles’s speech lays out the mainstream opinion of women in public life: “a woman’s reputation is highest when men say little about her, whether it be good or evil.” Athens, more so than many other Greek cities, was an avowedly male culture and democracy was an explicitly gender-based privilege. Women could not vote, argue in the assembly, or speak in public. Respectable Athenian women stayed in their father or husband’s home. Even ancient tragedy, which textbooks tell us was the beginning of theatre, was a product of men writing plays that men performed for an audience that was probably exclusively male.

 As a whole, Thucydides does not give much time to women. The wives and daughters in his book are usually objects bartered for political gain. The few outlier examples of priestesses or other active women are depicted in relation to the actions of men. At the end of Pericles’ oration, Thucydides has the statesman tells the women present to “weep your last for your own, and so depart.”  As a rule, women were meant to go quietly.

 The Athenians called anyone who did not speak Greek barbaros, literally “one who says ‘bar bar’,” presumably because they thought all foreign languages were “bar bar,” or gibberish. It has been well-argued that racism as we know it was invented in the ancient world. Classical literature and thought is rife with distinctions between Athenians, who were always depicted as strong and male, and barbarians, who appear largely weak and effeminate. It is perhaps no surprise that white supremacist groups often invoke Greece and Rome to claim that “civilization” began with white culture. Recently, classicists have been mobilizing to combat these simplistic and hateful uses of antiquity. Roman historian Sarah Bond has called out groups like Identity Europa for drawing (historically inaccurate) inspiration from ancient Greece based on the whiteness of extant statues. By pointing out that classical sculpture was in fact brightly painted, she severed the legitimacy that supremacists often claim from ancient art. Predictably, Bond has met with harassment and even death threats for pointing out that the Greeks did not see themselves as “white.”

 That the White House is drawing its flawed historical inspiration from Graham Allison is another example of the administration’s blindness in trusting amateurs. Allison, who has worked in government and business, is not a historian, nor is he well-versed in the particularities of classical history or languages. However, ignorance does not stop him from using Thucydides to argue that war between the United States and China, like Athens and Sparta, is likely inevitable, much less sharing his thoughts with the men who shape global strategy. The Peloponnesian War consumed all of Greece, devastating its land, people, and economy, an outcome that may be attractive to members of Trump’s inner circle. Bannon, who reportedly once had his computer password set to “Sparta,” is an avowed fan of Neil Howe and William Strauss’s The Fourth Turning, a book inspired by 3rd-century BCE Greek philosophers. Using arbitrary periodization and cherry-picked evidence, its authors claim that history moves in roughly 80-year cycles of destruction. In Bannon’s view, nations are fated to periodic large-scale cataclysm, which makes it all the more troubling to have the White House looking to ancient history for validation that the U.S. and China might be inescapably headed for a large-scale war.

Despite robust research into the lives of marginalized peoples, our concept of the ancient world will always be dangerously incomplete. The history of Athens is always going to be one-sided, since it was only enacted and recorded by Athenian men, for Athenian men. If officials begin comparing the United States to Athens, it pays to be aware that such an analogy envisions a bankrupt, regressive democracy.  

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