Alexander may be the given first name of the United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister, but he prefers himself to look to Athens rather than Macedon for political inspiration. During the Tory leadership campaign, at least, during the now famous TalkRadio interview in which he professed to a hitherto unsuspected bus-painting hobby, Johnson said (to use the transcription on the TalkRadio website):
I’ve always greatly admired Pericles of Athens because he was the guy who said, uh, that politics was about the many, not the few. He was the first to use exactly that… a great orator. And, uh, he, uh, it was said that he thundered and lightened when he spoke. But what he did is he used great infrastructure. He invested in fantastic infrastructure. Uh, he developed the, the, not just the Acropolis, but the Piraeus port which was integral to the success of a lot of Athens.
Nor was this the first campaign during which Johnson invoked the name of Pericles. According to a feature in the Spectator magazine in May 2016, Johnson ‘contends that Pericles, the great Athenian statesman he so often cites, would also have been an Outer. Boris argues that “to stick up for democracy is entirely Periclean” and that the referendum ultimately comes down to whether you believe in “rule by the many, not the few”’. Johnson is said, moreover, to have a bust of Pericles in his office.
Johnson’s Periclean self-projection has unsurprisingly been picked up ‒ and tweaked ‒ in newspaper discussion on his leadership. Patrick Kidd in the Times wrote a piece the other day entitled ‘Boris Johnson could prove more of a chancer than his hero Pericles’. In this column he referred to the TalkRadio interview, writing: ‘Asked recently why he so admires Pericles, Johnson said that the Greek believed government should be conducted “by the many, not the few” (a phrase subtly different from “for the many”), that he was a magnificent orator who “thundered and lightened when he spoke” and that he “invested in fantastic infrastructure”.’ Kidd then develops the thesis that Johnson may be more of an Alcibiades ‒ arrogant, spoiled, charismatic to some, a disaster to Athens. The same suggestion is made by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian. The more learned of the online comments go a bit further and invoke the name of Cleon.
Two names stand out in these discussions for their absence: Thucydides and Plutarch, the two key authors through whom we derive our varied pictures of Pericles and his successors. The public debate carries on as if we have unmediated access to the world of Athenian politics. Our main sources, however, make Pericles central to strong historical plots, and it is they who are responsible for the words which are sometimes attributed to Pericles himself.
Plutarch’s Life of Pericles adds a dimension not found in Johnson’s idealization of Pericles: time. Plutarch posits a change between the early and the late Pericles – a change from a more demagogic to a more aristocratic mode of government. This change solves the problem of the divergence between the Thucydidean and Platonic image of Pericles: the negative Platonic image of Pericles’ pandering to the people is restricted to the early portion of Pericles’ life; for the later stages, Plutarch explicitly supports the Thucydidean picture of a Pericles who resists the people’s whims.
Johnson recuperates as positive much that in Plutarch is highly ambivalent. The imagery of thunder and lightning applied to Pericles’ rhetoric is taken from Plutarch, via the comic playwright Aristophanes’ Acharnians. In Aristophanes, the presentation of Pericles’ powers of persuasion is highly negative. He is arraigned for using his linguistic skills to foist the disruption of the Peloponnesian War on the Greeks, and all for petty personal motives. Similarly ambivalent in Plutarch is the presentation of Pericles’ spending on infrastructure. Though Plutarch acknowledges the beauty of the temples that Pericles had built, he also reports strong criticisms of Pericles for spending the allies’ financial contributions on beautifying Athens like a ‘vain woman’.
As for the language of the many and the few, the source for that lies in the famous funeral speech that Thucydides places in the mouth of Pericles during the first year of the Peloponnesian War. In this speech (written up by Thucydides perhaps a quarter of a century or more after it was supposedly delivered), Pericles is made to say that Athens is called a democracy because it is governed ‘for the many rather than for the few’. Pericles’ language is in fact evoked most closely by the slogan of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in the party’s 2017 election manifesto. But in Thucydides’ speech Pericles grants democracy this definition as a concession. He explains that Athens’ constitution is called a democracy because it respects the interests of the many, but he immediately qualifies this claim by stressing that it allows individuals to achieve a status that matches their personal excellence. It is a definition that prepares for Thucydides’ own claim that Athens under Pericles was in name a democracy but in fact rule by the first man. Pericles, on Thucydides’ reading, had the strength to resist the changing moods of the people (he notably fails to call an assembly when he sees that they are angry at the immediate results of the Peloponnesians’ first invasion of Attica).
Would Pericles have been an ‘outer’? Obviously not … but perhaps it is better to dismiss that question as an anachronistic absurdity. A more productive use of anachronism may be to explore the similarities and differences between Pericles’ imperial Athens, imposing standardized measures on the subject allies that she (in Thucydides’ view) tyrannically enslaved, and the fantasy image of Brussels cooked up by irresponsible journalists like the young Johnson. Anachronisms aside, it is worth dwelling on (Thucydides’) Pericles’ boast that his generation handed down a city more powerful than the one it inherited, and wondering on the prospects that future historians will say the same of the United Kingdom during its current rule by a Conservative and Unionist Party controlled by the products of 1980s Oxford.
- For more on Brexit and anachronism, see the blogpost Down with anachronism: March 29, 2019
• In a 2011 feature for the Mail on Sunday, as shown in the screenshot above, Johnson offered a section of the Funeral Speech given by Thucydides’ Pericles as one of his favourite Greek quotes, although readers should note that in this ghost-written piece placed to support an educational initiative, the task of finding the actual Greek quotes was outsourced to a member of the Anachronism team.