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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

The public fury against MPs generated by everything from Iraq to the expenses scandal seems to leave our MPs baffled. Ancient Athenians would not have been.

17 February 2010

1:00 PM

17 February 2010

1:00 PM

There was no respite for those who engaged in democratic politics in 5th- to 4th-century Athens. Since Athenians meeting in Assembly were the government of Athens, they had no compunction in taking action against those whom they had appointed to serve them when, rightly or wrongly, they felt they had been let down in some way or other. Miltiades, the victor against the Persians at Marathon in 490 bc, later led an expedition against the island of Paros without informing the Assembly of his intentions. When it ended in disaster, the crime was compounded. Not only had he abused his powers by acting off his own bat, he was also guilty of gross incompetence. The result was that his political enemies in Athens, of which he had many, were handed a golden opportunity to get their own back. He was prosecuted by one such rival, who sought the death penalty. The Assembly eventually decided to fine him the gigantic sum of fifty talents, possibly because he was dying anyway of gangrene in a wound suffered in the attack. 

This incident was typical. The Assembly did not take failure or incompetence lightly, while wealthy aristocrats were quick to seize any chance of getting at a rival (sometimes as much for self-protection as to do him down). Further, those who, as private citizens, simply wielded influence in the Assembly, even if they did not hold any office, could also be disciplined, with exile or even execution, if the courses of action they proposed turned out badly.


The importance placed on civic responsibility may be one reason for the severity of the Athenian Assembly. Another may be the fact that ‘good intentions’ did not play well as an excuse for failure. No one, after all, intends to fail. In other words, it was a world in which, by and large, only results counted. A tearful Alastair Campbell, emoting abjectly over his master’s sincerity, would have been howled down.

Yet none of this prevented Athenians eager for power fighting their way up the democratic ladder. Our self-pitying, mollycoddled MPs, for whom political failure simply means the loss of a job, can thank their lucky stars that they do not serve in a real democracy.


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