Monday, October 31, 2011

15th October 2011

Last time Pericles showed how a real politician dealt with the severe austerity measures he had persuaded the Athenians to adopt if they were to win the battle against Sparta in 431 BC (i.e. abandon their lands and come to live inside Athens’ protective walls): he pointed out these measures meant that he and the rich would lose their vast properties and the income they generated. The Greek parliament, which obviously reads the Spectator, promptly slapped on a property tax. Politicians especially will be very keen to pay it to prove they are not the cushioned shysters Athenians take them to be.

But in summer 430 BC it got worse. Athens was hit by a terrifying plague which, in the crowded conditions, killed thousands and led to a breakdown in law and order. It was every man for himself, rich and poor alike. Pericles again rallied them in words relevant to Athens today, where law and order are equally in the balance. As Thucydides makes clear of a man ‘who was even prepared to anger the people’, he did not mince his words.

A man may be personally well off, Pericles says, but if his country is ruined, he is ruined too; so you must rally to the state’s defence, otherwise you will lose grip on our common security. Again, he is a man who, loving his country and being above corruption (as Athenians knew), would never speak up for sectional interests; for ‘if a leader is corrupt, this one fault puts all his other qualities up for sale.’

The fact is, he goes on, you have failed the test of endurance when the going gets rough. You run the risk of being doubly inferior to your forefathers, who both made Athens great and kept it so – all of which you are now throwing away; ‘those who encourage such a state of mind have no place here’.

Today’s Athenians are fighting (as they see it) their own corrupt governing class for its abject servitude to Brussels. If any modern Pericles is around to rally them, he will first have to prove his own incorruptibility and willingness to make sacrifices, before he can risk angering the people by telling them, as he must, that they too are part of the problem.

29th October 2011

The Great Debate about whether people of the same sex should be allowed to ‘marry’ would have bewildered the Romans, and not because they had any hang-ups about that style of sexual behaviour either.

For legal purposes, Romans defined the familia (‘household’) as Roman citizens, joined in lawful marriage, producing legitimate children and with some property to transmit by inheritance. But as the Latin matrimonium (our ‘matrimony’) makes clear, the main point about marriage is that it is all about the mater, ‘mother’. The family gives its daughter into matrimonium, the husband leads, receives and keeps his wife in matrimonio. The Latin for ‘wife’, uxor (cf. our ‘uxorious’), seems to be etymologically related to a Sanskrit word meaning ‘sprinkle with seed’.

‘[Marriage] was ordained for the procreation of children’, says the Anglican Prayer Book, and a Roman would have agreed: ‘the state cannot survive without numerous marriages’, says Aulus Gellius. The production of legitimate citizen children was the basic purpose. This was the only way to continue the family blood-line, its traditions, its worship, its privileges and (as Romans stress) its support for the old. Romans were well aware of these wider advantages. As the first century ad Stoic Musonius writes, there must be ‘perfect companionship and mutual love... both in health and sickness and under all conditions, since it was with desire for this as well as having children that both entered upon marriage’.

We live in a world where marriage is no longer seen as essential for the production of children. Legitimacy is not the serious matter it was in the ancient world. Citizenship, again, is a matter of residence almost as much as of blood-line. The main question, then, is how far we need any more the term ‘marry’ to define the sort of institution the Romans described. If we do, then by definition the production of children will be at the heart of it; and whatever else one may want to say about same-sex relationships, the production of children can hardly be said to be their purpose.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

1st October 2011

The Greek people face serious austerity. How can their corrupt politicians (ask any Greek) possibly win them round?

In 431 BC, the ‘Peloponnesian’ war broke out between the marine super-power Athens and the almost invincible land-based Sparta. Athens knew it could survive a siege (thanks to its encircling ‘Long Walls’ down to its harbour Peiraeus, built in 457 BC) but would not be able to prevent the Spartans ravaging its territory of Attica.

So Athens’ leader Pericles set about persuading the citizen assembly (which took all decisions) that the only course of action was for those in Attica to abandon their homes and farms and take up residence within the city walls. His argument was that they should think of themselves as islanders, ready to abandon homes and land, but keeping close guard on sea and city. ‘Property is the product, not the producer, of men. If I thought I could persuade you, I would tell you to destroy your property now and show the Spartans you will never surrender on that score.’

And to make the point, he promised that if his guest-friend the Spartan general Archidamus did not ravage his country property as well as everyone else’s, he would hand it over to the state. Pericles won the argument, and the country-dwellers, ‘distressed and resentful at having to leave their age-old homes and shrines, tantamount to exile’, relocated in the city. Talk about austerity!

Pericles, master of persuasion, always ‘knew what needed to be done’ (Thucydides) — in this case, sharing the burden. And what sacrifices will his ‘give us the money’ successors make, desperate to cling to the feather-bedded comfort of the eurozone? Not to mention the Eurocrats, determined that everyone else but they shall pay the price of their irresponsible fantasy?

ERRATA: In my piece about classics last week, the YouGov sample was taken from a cohort of 10,000 who had done something classical, out of a total of 80,000; and the figure for those who had benefited or greatly benefited from their classics, having studied it up to age 16 and no further, was 77 per cent. See for the full survey report.