Category: Ancient Greece

The Politics of Posterity

Titus Livius, or simply Livy, Historian of Rome. The question is why did he write his histories?

In assessing the battlefield casualties Rome suffered in the first thirty years of the second century BC, Livy (c59 BC – c17 AD) estimates 55,000. The classicist Mary Beard distrusts the figures – and that number, she suggests, is far too low. In the first instance, ‘there was no systematic tally of deaths on an ancient battlefield; and all numbers in ancient texts have to be treated with suspicion, victims of exaggeration, misunderstanding and over the years some terrible miscopying by medieval monks.’ In addition, she continues, ‘[t]here was probably a patriotic tendency to downplay Roman losses; it is not clear whether allies as well as Roman citizens were included; there must have been some battles and skirmishes which do not feature in Livy’s list; and those who subsequently died of their wounds must have been very many indeed (in most circumstances, ancient weapons were much better at wounding than killing outright; death followed later, by infection).’ (SPQR, p.131-2)

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Failures of Political Philosophy

Adam Smith: the Invisible Hand only goes so far.

In a very crude sense, the western history of political philosophy can be divided into five phases: the city state Greek democracy, an oikonomia derived in Ancient Greece from a principle of agreed control; colonial empire, deriving first from the Greek colonies and extending into the military-bureaucratic structures of the Roman empire; federalist patrimonial states, an essentially feudalist structure allowing for larger domains to be managed through grace and favour; and modern variations on social democracy (including communism) since the French Revolution, based on concepts of individual equality and freedom. Max Weber, Francis Fukuyama and countless others have variations on these phases and structures, some more global (Fukuyama in particular considers Indo-Sino histories), and others more scientific (Weber’s forensic sociology in particular).

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The Soul of the State

Our stories define us; and how
we tell them is really important.

In his 2019 book The World Philosophy Made, Scott Soames quotes the historian of Greek religion Walter Burkert, who claimed that the epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod was no less than ‘the glue that held Greek society and culture together.’ Burkert says that ‘[t]he authority to whom the Greeks appealed was the poetry of Hesiod and, above all, Homer. The spiritual unity of the Greeks was founded and upheld by poetry – a poetry which could still draw on living oral tradition to produce a felicitous union of freedom and form, spontaneity and discipline. To be a Greek was to be educated, and all education was Homer.’ (Soames, The World Philosophy Made, p.2; Burkert, Greek Religion, p.120)

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The Politics of Public Sacrifice

Phil Hogan and Charlie McCreevy were both dispatched to Brussels as a salve for a wounded government. The Ancient Greeks figured out this move first.

In 2004, Bertie Ahern’s government was busy deregulating the banking sector in Ireland, and GDP growth was accelerating. There remained some concerns, however, and some discontent, culminating in Fianna Fáil’s dismal local election performance in May of that year. Charlie McCreevy, the outspoken Finance Minister in the coalition government, became a lightning rod for discontent, both a party and public representation of why Fianna Fáil had done so badly. He was dispatched to Brussels with what some may term indelicate haste, dismissed from Irish domestic politics, and became EU Commissioner.

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