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Ancient and modern

Athenians understood public trust – even if we don’t

The case of Themistocles vs Tony Blair

16 July 2016

9:00 AM

16 July 2016

9:00 AM

Tony Blair has excused himself for the Iraq war by saying that he did what he believed was right. But no one was suggesting that he had done what he believed was wrong. The charge was a matter of integrity: that he deceived Parliament and turned a blind eye to the evidence on weapons of mass destruction.

The Athenians knew a sharpster when they saw one. The historian Diodorus described how in 477 BC Themistocles, a man admired by the Athenians but known to be something of a con man, conceived of a plan to turn Piraeus, at that time a rocky outcrop, into a full-blown commercial and military harbour. Aware, however, that the Spartans would be bound to try to stop it if it were discussed openly, he asked the Athenian assembly to appoint two people to vet privately ‘an important project of mine’.


The Athenians appointed to the job two of the straightest men they knew, but who were also political rivals of Themistocles. When they heard of the plan, they announced to the assembly that it was both feasible and greatly to the city’s advantage.

The assembly, still not trusting Themistocles’ motives and suspecting a coup of some sort, demanded that he reveal all. When Themistocles still refused, they instructed him to describe his plan in secret to the public body that acted as the assembly’s steering committee — if that body agreed, they would give him a free hand to proceed. When the committee learned the details, it agreed that the scheme was a cracker; and the assembly promptly asked Themistocles to go ahead. His scheme turned Athens into the powerhouse he had envisaged.

Diodorus’ account describes the resolution of a question of public trust in a political individual. The Romans categorised this as an issue of publica fides, the trust in leaders, laws and institutions which are themselves trustworthy. This virtue — for so the ancients saw it — is foundational across any society. After Chilcot, after the referendum, the post-referendum leadership farce — and now Corbyn — it is at stake as never before.


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