Though our ‘democracies’ are designed to prevent any popular involvement, there are times when the situation becomes so critical that only the people have the authority to make the final decision. Modern Greeks face that situation now, as Athenians did in 431BC.
Athens’ fleet ruled the sea, the army of its deadly rival Sparta ruled the land. When war broke out, Athens’ influential leader, Pericles — whose only power, in a real democracy, was that of persuasion — argued that they should not take on the Spartans by land, but abandon their farms and seek refuge within the long walls of Athens. These ran from the city all the way down to the harbour at Piraeus, providing total protection. People, he argued, were far more important than property; by maintaining their grip on the sea and the revenues from their maritime empire, they would win through.
The citizen body agreed to this complete transformation of their normal existence. The contemporary historian Thucydides commented: ‘this total upheaval was not easy for them, especially as they had just rebuilt their homes after the Persian invasion. Demoralised, they took it hard, abandoning their homes and their ancestral shrines, facing a change to their whole way of life, tantamount for every man to nothing less than exile from his own world.’ But that was what the Athenians had agreed, as a citizen body, of their own free will, to do, and do it they did. It got even worse when the Spartans invaded, and a plague hit. But while Pericles lived, they stuck it out.
The ancient Athenians were capable of seeing what had to be done, however painful. Modern Greeks, too, now face a climactic moment: the long walls of the drachma, or the ruthless despotism of the euro? But the vain, starstruck politicians who, lying their way to the top table, got them into the mess in the first place, will not be bearing the grim burden of either decision. It is the common people who will do that. If they are not allowed, as a people, to vote on that one decision, and show they can stick to it, they will have no peace for a very long time. It would be the ultimate test for the inventors of real democracy.