The Magazine

Democracy on Trial

Is the American version destined to follow the Greek?

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By AARON MACLEAN
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What's Wrong with Democracy?

From Athenian Practice to American Worship

by Loren J. Samons II

California, 327 pp., $27.50

It's easy to make fun of classicists these days. Here is another article in a learned journal, entitled "Ocheia, Mules, and Animal Husbandry in a Prometheus Play: Amending LSJ and Unemending Aeschylus fr. 189a R," which takes 21 pages and cites 43 other works to establish that a two-line fragment of Greek poetry, of agricultural and reproductive significance, has been misunderstood. There is a new volume, the first of a forthcoming series, called Narrators, Narratees, and Narratives in Ancient Greek Literature, which, the publishers tell us helpfully, "deals with the definition and boundaries of narrative and the role of narrators and narratees."

Meanwhile, as the piffle proliferates, ever fewer undergraduates actually major in the field (out of more than a million bachelor's degrees awarded in the United States during the 1990s, fewer than one thousand went to classics majors). Squandering their efforts either on petty philological minutiae or trendy theory, the professional students of Greece and Rome fail to honor the legacy which depends upon their care.

This lament has often, and justly, been sounded in the last few years, most passionately by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath in their Who Killed Homer? Yet, even while we blame the old poet's murderers, we should take care to praise those classicists who actually trouble to perform their duties. With this aim in mind, a happy place to look--even during these years of decline--is the fascinating controversy regarding the historical legacy of democratic Athens.

The rule of the people in that ancient polis lasted, with two brief oligarchic interruptions, for only 185 years. Some hold that its story is a tragedy, with democracy playing the splendid and flawed hero; others, that it is a triumph. Speaking broadly, it is the conservatives who claim the tragic line. Certainly, a long line of authors claimed by modern American conservatives--the Athenian Thucydides himself, with others like Hobbes, Burke, and the more federally inclined among the American Founders--have held it.

The tragic tale, very briefly: Having, with Spartan aid, defeated the Persians in 479 B.C., the Athenians took to consolidating their position among the Greeks. (This defeat of their Achaemenid invaders is an indisputable triumph which, incidentally, seems to remain a sore spot for those who inhabit the Persian homeland: At the exhibition Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia, at the British Museum in London, sponsored by the government of Iran, a placard notes, with a detectable sulk, that the struggles with the free Greek city-states were nothing more than an attempt to impose order on troublesome border territories, which bore little significance to affairs back in Persepolis.) Athens established itself at the head of an alliance--the Delian League--which had, as an explicit raison d'être, the mandate to take the war to Asia.

There turned out to be very little of this sort of thing. In fact, the coalition mutated through the middle of the fifth century into an organization through which Athens exercised the coalition's power at home, and for its own profit. The democracy repeatedly voted to use the tribute collected from its "allies" to build new and ever grander buildings in Athens (including the Parthenon). Speakers took to reminding the assembled and sovereign multitude that their future renown and present comfort depended on their city's militarism. The naval service, and the industry needed to maintain it, provided employment for poor, voting Athenians, who otherwise might have been destitute.

Popular rule and empire made comfortable bedfellows, and bore a few genocidal rug rats: In 467 the island of Naxos was "reduced" when it attempted to leave the Delian League. Much the same happened, in 463, to Thasos. In 416, in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, mandated by a vote of the city's male population in the assembly, the Athenian navy besieged and then destroyed the Spartan colony of Melos. The women and children were enslaved, and the men executed. Five hundred Athenian colonists were sent to occupy the emptied island. It was to no avail in the long run: The war with Sparta ended badly for Athens, and the fourth century, in the traditional view, was a long twilight ending in tyranny.