A Role Model for Boris

Vincent Azoulay’s biography of Pericles is written with precision and avoids clichés

Books Literature
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.

In this period citizens were engaged in the civic life of the city by the introduction of pay for public servants and the commissioning of the great building works of the Odeon and the Parthenon and a vibrant cultural life. The voluntary alliance of the Delian League was transformed into the Athenian empire, and Pericles participated in military campaigns that mercilessly crushed any rebellion.

Azoulay notes the lengths to which Pericles went to distance himself from his aristocratic advantages that could have been liabilities in the eyes of the dēmos. After entering political life, he stopped socialising in elite circles, especially in the symposia portrayed in Plato and Xenophon, which were inaccessible to and distrusted by the dēmos. Fully devoted to his public life, he sold the produce of his estate in bulk and lived frugally, to the point that his son complained bitterly of his meagre allowance and Pericles’s refusal to settle his debts.

He rarely used his charm and rhetorical skill, letting friends speak in his place to make his own appearances all the more effective. The glories of his victories exposed him both to the praise and enmity of his political enemies, but his strategy of waging war only when absolutely necessary invited accusations of cowardice. Even in the face of vicious attacks, he “never betrayed the slightest annoyance”.

The construction of the Odeon and Parthenon were ideological statements of democracy and of victory over the Persians. The Odeon, a roofed 43,000-square-foot theatre modelled on Xerxes’s movable tent for the enjoyment of the Great King, became a public space open to all. The Parthenon became the treasury of Athens and the Delian League; Azoulay describes it as a “marble symbol of Athenian imperialism” whereas Boris recalled his boyhood spent in the British Museum in the company of the Elgin Marbles, and asked his audience what was missing. After a few guesses, he exclaimed: “There is no king! There is no pharaoh, there is no basileus, there is no ruler having his boots licked by the fawning chamberlain. The Parthenon is an absolutely explicit piece of ideology. It is an expression of people power.”

Azoulay has provided us with a valuable new biography, which provides a detailed portrait of the environment in which Pericles operated, and two chapters on his treatment after the Renaissance; he was treated largely with disdain from the 15th to the 18th centuries. A positive “myth” emerged only after the French and American revolutions.

My only quibble with this book is while the author traces the idea of Pericles he devotes little attention to his ideas. He flatly states in the last paragraph that Pericles holds “no useful lessons for our time” — a very strange remark for a scholar so steeped in his sources. This is in stark contrast to Donald Kagan’s hagiographic 1991 portrait, which was devoted to understanding the “mind of Pericles as opposed to his psyche. For this purpose, his actions, the stories told about him, and especially his own speeches provide considerable evidence. They offer a consistent picture of Pericles’s ideas, especially his political, social and ethical vision.” Lessons for current and future leaders can most definitely be found in the life of this remarkable man, who lived in a remarkable time.