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Boris's hero: Roman copy of a Greek original by Kresilas, c.430 BC (credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

Last month Boris Johnson spoke about the marvels of classical Athenian democracy: "When you look at that supernova of Athenian intellectual activity, the blasphemous inquiries of the philosophers, the scatological satire of the comedians, the pervy psychological probings of the tragedians, the cynicism of the historians, Aristotle's musings on the sex lives of the cuttlefish . . . you ask yourself, why then? Why did it all come together in fifth-century Athens?"

Boris described London as the Athens of today with its strict "adherence to the rule of law". Citing Pericles' Funeral Oration he noted the "many diversions from work to refresh the spirit", such as "public games and festivals of sacrifice", adding that "there could be no greater festival of sacrifice than the London 2012 Olympics where we sacrificed £9.3 billion on the greatest public games the world has ever seen." 

What a delight that the Mayor of London is a lover of Greek antiquity and looks to its great leaders for inspiration. Was this a prime ministerial speech? And did the hosts wonder, "But is Boris Pericles?" Perhaps we should first ask: what kind of a leader was Pericles and what can we learn from his remarkable life?

An English translation has appeared of a new biography of Pericles by the French historian Vincent Azoulay which also examines his treatment by history. Writing with precision and avoiding clichés and anachronisms, Azoulay carefully balances the credibility of classical sources. He presents a convincing account of the stratēgos in the Athens that emerged from the Persian Wars as a fragile democracy in which Pericles played a central role as the city further democratised its public institutions and increased its power until defeat in the Peloponnesian War. The Periclean age was unprecedented in its intellectual ferment, imperial prosperity and dynamic political life. Navigating incomplete and contradictory sources, Azoulay places Pericles in the context of his aristocratic pedigree, his family and the political, military, economic, erotic and religious life of his city.

The question is not whether Athens shaped Pericles or Pericles shaped Athens, but rather to "inquire into the productive tension that developed between the stratēgos and the Athenian community". No other leader was elected stratēgos for 15 successive years — the dēmos could remove him or exile anyone for a decade at any time. For an aristocrat to achieve this many reelections he needed to be a genuine democrat. He was fully devoted to the dēmos, and carefully managed his image to be seen to be so.

Pericles entered the political stage in 463 BC at the age of 31, first pursuing his rival Cimon, and over the next three decades taking over all roles in the city. He played an active part in strengthening democracy by opening  magistracies to all citizens, regardless of their wealth, and exposing them to democratic control. While Pericles was not an innovator of democracy, and never made decisions without other stratēgoi and democratic approval, he exercised leadership both in speech and action.

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Benjamin Bilski
October 17th, 2014
11:10 AM
Not sure -- but "idleness" (or "quietism") was certainly not acceptable -- some of the building works, payment for civic duties and also a stipend (for citizens) to attend the theatre if they could not afford missing a day's wages, were all policies that Pericles had a hand in implementing. They all had the intention of involving citizens actively in the life of the city.

gus logan
October 2nd, 2014
5:10 PM
Did Pericles not say that in the polity of Athens citizens who did not get involved in civil society , politics etc. , had no business living there ?

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