Sunday, January 10, 2016

Loren J. Samons II's "Pericles and the Conquest of History"

Loren J. Samons II is Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University. He has published widely on Greek politics and history and on the relationship between ancient and modern democracy. His books include What's Wrong with Democracy? From Athenian Practice to American Worship (2004), Empire of the Owl: Athenian Imperial Finance (2000), and (with C. W. Fornara) Athens from Cleisthenes to Pericles (1991).

Samons applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Pericles and the Conquest of History: A Political Biography, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Those of us inured to modern democratic politics may perhaps sympathize somewhat with the awkward position of those who opposed Pericles’ introduction of public payments or his support of the massive building program. How, after all, does a politician in a democratic environment oppose a rival who promises pay to his supporters? We have seen, for example, the effects of a political environment in which liberal politicians propose the expansion of government benefits while conservatives promise lower taxes or economic advantages. Both groups emphasize the economic benefits to their supporters, and few if any modern American politicians campaign successfully on the idea that it will cost voters more (one way or the other) to do the right thing for the larger economy or for our descendants.

Pericles’ opponents must have quickly discovered this conundrum. They could not oppose Pericles’ proposals without appearing to want to take “bread out of the mouths” of the voters. Could an argument from prudence or justice succeed in such an environment? Modern experience suggests the answer to this question is in the negative, and Athens’ history in the years after Pericles’ introduction of public pay shows that any serious, successful opposition to Pericles would come not from the right (as it were), [p.100] but from the left. Later politicians wishing to rival Pericles would propose higher public payments or the expansion of payments to other offices. Pericles, we may surmise, by that time could be painted as overly conservative or cautious more easily than he could be tarred as imprudently or unjustly spending money that was not his own (or even the Athenians’). Pericles himself from time to time may have concluded that he had created a monster where the hunger and will of the demos [the Athenian people] was concerned.
The test proves to work pretty well for Pericles and the Conquest of History. On page 99 the book concludes the discussion of the way Pericles’ chief rival in the 440s B.C., a conservative statesman named Thucydides Melesiou (not the historian Thucydides), ultimately lost out in his political battle with Pericles. The Athenians in fact chose to exile Thucydides for 10 years.

Pericles had advocated using moneys ostensibly collected from Athens’ “allies” against Persia to adorn the city of Athens with fantastically expensive buildings like the Parthenon. Thucydides apparently opposed both this redirection of the allies’ military funds and (I argue) Pericles’ proposal that public money should be used to pay the hundreds of jurors in large Athenian courts. The latter suggestion constitutes the first time (so far as we know) that the principal of payment for public service appears above the political horizon. I argue that it was momentous and that it has colored and debased democratic politics ever since. To put it crudely, democratic politicians since Pericles’ day have too often sought to find a way to “buy votes.”
Learn more about Pericles and the Conquest of History at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue