Populism Ancient and Modern

Published on: Author: Ian Leave a comment
View of Athens from the Pnyx
View of Athens from the Pnyx, where the Athenian assembly met: the speaker’s platform is bottom right, and the people would be in front

The politics of the UK and US over the past two years has led to an upsurge in populist politics. How far this is distinctively new is open to question—leaving aside precursors in British and American politics, similar trends have been well in evidence in continental Europe and there is a long and ugly history of populism in modern history worldwide. But there are many instructive parallels too both in the direct democracy of ancient Athens and in the more multi-modal politics of Republican Rome.

Thinking about this phenomenon led me to revisit the question of comedy and politics, for a conference on Aristophanes and Politics that was held at the end of September in New York. The fifth and early-fourth century BCE comedy of Aristophanes and his contemporaries (‘Old Comedy’) was highly politically engaged and the interpretation of this engagement is a hoary old problem, and one that I have had a big bite at in my first book. The phenomenon of populist politics that we have been witnessing offered a new angle or two. A lot of the problems about framing debates about Aristophanes and politics were, I thought, because of a tendency to boil things down to a simple opposition: Left or Right, radical or conservative. Populist politics cuts across such notions. Also, in my earlier work I had been asking how you make an argument if you are not relying on regular logic; this time, I wanted to ask how you create, explore and defend a position in a populist mode of democracy. Those two aren’t actually that far apart: as any observer of a Trump speech will know, logical and even syntactical coherence are not high on his agenda.

The conference was an eye-opener on many different levels. One was that the perception of satire among the US-based participants was that satire was a left or ‘liberal’ phenomenon, which was vigorously challenged by those of us from a British background. But what I wasn’t prepared for at all was the vehement reaction to my paper. How could I besmirch the democracy of ancient Athens by comparing it with modern populist politics? Even more surprising (to me), one questioner wanted to know what the point was of comparing ancient and modern politics. ‘Isn’t it just trying to look cool?’ It’s the first time I’ve ever been accused of that—and probably the last.

I was completely non-plussed by this. For me, it has always been axiomatic that one of the great attractions of studying the past is that it is meaningful to us: through its similarities and differences, we learn more about ourselves. And it is quite clear that the questions we ask about the past are always shaped by the concerns of the present (the growing emphasis on gender as a category of enquiry being just the most glaringly obvious). True, a characteristic stance of Classical scholarship has been a disinterested, dispassionate pose of objectivity, but even before postmodernism questioned such a pose, historians of ancient politics have regularly found it instructive to compare ancient and modern. Syme’s famous characterisation of Octavian at the age of 17 as ‘already a chill and mature terrorist’ was surely influenced by the political context of the 1930s. For my first ever tutorial on Athenian democracy, I was advised by the late George Forrest, a great historian of Athenian politics, that ‘if you really want to understand what was going on, spend a day watching the Tory conference on TV’: it was the early 1990s and John Major was battling his ‘bastards’ over Europe. Plus ça change.

Ancient democratic politics, as Forrest’s advice suggested, is extremely instructive to the modern politics that we are currently encountering, but perhaps now for more reasons than the internal politics of the Conservative party alone. What is characteristic, and for so many, problematic, is that there is now relatively unmediated access for politicians to their audiences, and that major decisions are being taken by direct democracy, as in the various recent referenda (notably on Scottish independence and on UK membership of the EU). And it is quite clear that hardly anyone today knows the rules of that game. A look to the past will give some instruction—and warning.

One of the most common things being said by Brexiters (and government ministers) is that it is impossible to question a decision once it has been taken by the majority of the citizens. Go tell that to the Athenians, who famously changed their mind within 24 hours of an assembly decision. After Mytilene (the main city on the island of Lesbos) had revolted from the Athenian Empire and been forcibly brought back into the fold, the Athenians decided to massacre the entire male population and sell the women and children into slavery (pour encourager les autres). Sleeping on it, they seem to have regretted this decision, held another assembly and decided on a less extreme measure instead (massacrng only some of the male population).

This is hardly the only instance of the Athenian assembly being hasty, often encouraged by self-seeking politicians making extravagant and wildly over-optimistic promises (sound familiar?). Thus the Athenians’ fateful decision to invade Sicily was egged on by the ambitious and flamboyant Alcibiades, a demagogic child of privilege (again, sound familiar?). We even have foreign states interfering in democratic politics, as the invasion was encouraged (not least financially) by certain of the competing Sicilian cities. The disaster in Sicily (an imperial over-extension with which we are more than familiar, from Vietnam to Afghanistan via Iraq) ultimately led to Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War and the (temporary) fall of its democracy. The trajectory to defeat was further hastened by a subsequent occasion on which the Athenian assembly decided to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by (illegally) prosecuting its top generals en masse for failing to pick up survivors from a asuccessful naval battle, leading to execution or exile for the defendants. Again the
assembly was allegedly manipulated by those actually responsible, in order to evade blame themselves. It was a decision that the Athenians were to regret deeply.

In our sources for late fifth-century politics, these mistakes are often the focus of interest and discussion, and not always from a position of sympathy. For Aristophanes, for example, one of the lesser flaws of the Athenian people was that they were both over-hasty and fickle. He could also compare them to sheep or to a senile, deaf old man. But it would be doing a disservice to Athenian democracy, as well as being entirely ahistorical, not to acknowledge its flaws as well as its successes. The Athenians themselves learned (somewhat) from their mistakes and when the democracy was restored one of the precautions they took was a law to prevent the proposal of any illegal motion. And there were some genuinely far-sighted moves: there was (as one historian in the room pointed out) also an amnesty for those most deeply implicated in the temporary period of anti-democratic repression at the end of the war. That there was also a number of show trials in 399 for those not directly involved but who could be attached to anti-democratic politics in various ways (notably Socrates) may of course only be an accident of timing.

How is it that in the light of its well-known track record Athenian democracy could be seen through such rose-tinted spectacles as I encountered? The answer I think is twofold. As the first long-term, stable democracy, there is an understandable, if misguided, tendency to put it on a pedestal. Second, the style in which a lot of our sources are written do rather play to the idea that the Athenians were all sitting there thinking great thoughts rationally debating highly emotive issues. Thucydides, who tells us (in rather obscure language) that his speeches are his own creations, tends to present the discussion held in the assembly as very abstracted and about first principles (even where he describes one of the speakers, as in the Mytilene debate, as the ‘most violent’ of speakers). The development of a highly formal, periodic style of oratory in the fourth century also encourages this idea of stately seriousness. But highly structured and articulate oratory does not prevent anyone from putting the boot in or appealing to emotions over logic (as Demosthenes, Cicero and Obama all demonstrate), but in any case that style is a further development from the explosive atmosphere in the late fifth century. So it’s entirely reasonable to see Athenian politics as an instructive instance of populism, whose strengths and weaknesses have been analysed in a number of genres, including comedy. It is also reasonable to look to modern populism for some idea of what that experience might have been like. As the world watches to see the results of the Trumpian experiment, it is perhaps time we start urgently looking to the lessons of Athenian populism before it is too late.

Categories: Drama, Politics, Reception


Ian Ruffell is Senior Lecturer in Classics in the School of Humanities in the University of Glasgow. His main research interests are in Greek drama (both comedy and tragedy), Roman satire, and ancient science and technology.

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