Alexander Boris de Pericles Johnson

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.

Boris Johnson admiring bust of Pericles
Boris Johnson has been eager to play up his classical connections, as in this 2011 Mail on Sunday article

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.


• 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.

Thermopylae business: exemplarity and historicity

‘A new age is begun.  An age of great deeds.  An age of reason.  An age of justice.  An age of law.  And all will know that three hundred Spartans gave their last breath to defend it.’

‘We’re with you, sir, to the death.’

‘I didn’t ask.  Leave democracy to the Athenians, boy.’

The heroic death of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae can be taken as exemplary of exemplarity itself. No one can know what the men said to themselves the night before they met their end (the knowing allusion to the fame of their sacrifice quoted above is from 300, Frank Miller’s graphic re-telling of the Thermopylae story). But the famous Thermopylae epitaph ‒ ‘Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here we lie, obeying their laws’ ‒ imagines them speaking from beyond the grave, establishing themselves as an example to the Spartans at home and by implication to all who come across their message, starting with the ‘stranger’ who is to convey it to Sparta.

David's Leonidas at Thermopylae
Leonidas at Thermopylae, Jacques-Louis David, 1814, Louvre, Paris.

The Thermopylae paradigm was often picked up in antiquity. In an excerpt from his Annals that is quoted by Aulus Gellius, Cato the Elder set the self-sacrifice of a Roman tribune in the First Punic War alongside the death of the Spartan king Leonidas (F76 FRHist) ‒ in full consciousness that he would go on to recount his own (supposedly decisive) role in a later battle at Thermopylae, the Roman defeat of Antiochus III in 192 BC. While Thermopylae is naturally enough absent from the list of Persian War battles on which the Athenians’ own patriotic rhetoric was fixated, it had its place alongside Marathon and Salamis in the rhetorical schools of the early Roman empire: Lucian’s satire An Instructor in Rhetoric includes the advice that the would-be declaimer should ‘cap everything with references to Marathon and Cynegeirus, without which you cannot succeed at all … Let Xerxes flee and Leonidas receive admiration’ (41.18).

The spell of the example of the 300 Spartans has remained strong in the last two centuries. Thermopylae was invoked by Goering in a radio appeal in January 1943 to the German Sixth Army trapped in Stalingrad. It was also applied to many conflicts in the US expansion across North America, from the Alamo to the war against Mexico (‘they will consecrate their camp as an American Thermopylæ’) and Custer at Little Bighorn. More expansively, an American journalist at the time of the Mexican War used the ancient battle to cap an encomium of the United States as ‘a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to the followers of liberty throughout the civilized world’: ‘This is, indeed, the world’s Thermopylæ’ (New York Herald, 1845). Knowingly or not, this writer was using an image of British self-promotion during the war against Napoleon (the phrase ‘the world’s Thermopylæ’ is found in an 1803 sermon by Robert Hall and the 1814 poem Greece by William Haygarth).

The power of exemplarity is often thought to be based on the notion of a stable human nature ‒ a notion that tells against sensitivity to historical change and a sense of anachronism. Yet the exemplary power of the story of Thermopylae has often been unsettled by the interplay of past and present. Thucydides (4.36.3) alluded to Thermopylae precisely to show up the failure of the Spartans trapped on the island of Sphacteria to match the example set by their forebears two generations earlier. In similar vein Mary Boykin Chestnut, wife of a confederate general in the American Civil War, referred to the retreat of the confederate army before Sherman as a failure to do ‘Thermopylae business’. Alternatively the present can trump the past: the Texan boast ‘Thermopylae had its messenger of defeat; the Alamo had none’ glorifies the complete destruction of the defenders while the expression ‘the world’s Thermopylæ’ holds out the promise of ultimate victory in a more global conflict than the Greco-Persian wars.

To move to the twentieth century, Anthony Beevor’s classic Stalingrad evokes from first-hand evidence the disillusion felt by the Germans within the city as a heroic paradigm was thrust upon them by a distant leader with no grasp of their suffering. And in the aftermath of the war a sense of the fragmentation of ancient exemplarity was conveyed by Heinrich Boll in his 1950 short story Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa … Boll’s story tells of a severely wounded young German soldier who comes to realise that he is back in his old school as he sees the words (Schiller’s translation of the Thermopylae epitaph, now partly erased) that he himself had written on the blackboard just three months earlier. Like many modern receptions of ancient exemplarity, Boll offers a thoughtful interrogation of concepts of historical distance and proximity. That sort of interrogation can even be seen in rather blunter form in Frank Miller’s ‘leave democracy to the Athenians’: is that a distancing of Spartan militarism and masculinity ‒ or a hint that democracy is not all it is cracked up to be? However it is read, it is a message that is now subject to its own historicization, in the wake of the Iraq War, the subsequent film based on Miller’s comic, and the rise of Trumpism.

In antiquity, the paradigmatic use of Thermopylae and of the other Persian Wars battles underwent a major change after the Roman conquest of Greece. We have already noted that Leonidas’ example was cited by Cato, himself a participant in that conquest; on one reading, Cato’s point in juxtaposing Roman and Spartan heroism was to hint that the now conquered Greeks were excessively given to self-praise. From the Greek perspective, reflections on the changes made by the Roman conquest can be found in Plutarch’s essay Precepts of Statesmanship. Plutarch advises that the great themes of the Persian Wars ‒ ‘Marathon, the Eurymedon, Plataea, and all the other examples which make the common folk vainly to swell with pride’ ‒ should be left to ‘the schools of the sophists’. He does nonetheless recuperate for present use some seemingly less glamorous deeds by the Greeks of old: the statesman can still ‘mould and correct the characters of our contemporaries’ by recounting events such as the amnesty at Athens after the downfall of the Thirty Tyrants (814a-c).

The pax Romana did not hold, and with its passing came the possibility of new uses of the old exempla. A spectacular illustration of the new possibilities has recently re-surfaced with the discovery in palimpsest in a manuscript in Vienna of some excerpts from the third-century AD historian Dexippus (subject already of my previous post, Oft of one wide expanse had I been told). It was already known that Dexippus told of the contemporary Gothic incursions that marked the end of the Roman peace. The new discovery has revealed a previously unsuspected battle against the Goths at Thermopylae ‒ for Dexippus, inspiration for an oration in the classic historiographical style: ‘For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state, for they fought bravely in the Persian wars and in the conflict called the Lamian war, and when they put to flight Antiochus, the despot from Asia, at which time they were already working in partnership with the Romans who were then in command’ (translated Mallan and Davenport). For the Greeks, it seems, a new age had begun, and it was once more time for Thermopylae business.


C. Mallan and C. Davenport, ‘Dexippus and the Gothic Invasions: Interpreting the New Vienna Fragment (Codex Vindobonensis Hist. gr. 73, ff. 192v–193r)’, Journal of Roman Studies 105 (2015), 203–26.