If you count yourself as an inhabitant of the UK you may well have spent a proportion of the last month (at the very least) clinging onto an umbrella of apathy while politicians encourage a deluge of media reports, party political broadcasts and those glossy leaflets you find by your front door. What feels like demokratia – democracy shoved in your face, or through your letterbox, every day. The general election has hit fever pitch. People are voting, as I write, and the country waits with baited interest for the result sometime early on Friday morning.
But why am I telling you this. Am I know better than the politicians and media who have been ramping up the coverage since the dissolution of parliament? Much like Spartacus must have felt at at Petelia, is there no escape?
Well, other than not being able to resit the temptation of hooking in ancient history into modern life at every available opportunity, I have a sincere belief that people are interested. The fact that there is a statue of Tacitus outside the Austrian Parliament building attests not only to the excellence of Tacitus in writing and surviving the intervening millennia as a cultural icon (don’t deny it). But also the western tendency to legitimize their government by harking back to the Romans or Greeks.
Every country seemingly has it’s bastion of political ideas. Austria obviously its statue of Tacitus, Britain: Westminster, USA: the White House and Capitol Building and Greece has the acropolis. How may of the former will be as famous and archaeologically revered in another few millennia as Athens’ own tourist trap? Of course, in the case of the acropolis, the eye of the unsuspecting is almost instantly drawn to the Parthenon at the high-point of the hill, its importance to Greece is a subject I have previously touched upon. But it isn’t the Parthenon that is so key to the early inception of democratic process, rather the empty space near to it: the Agora. It formed a hub for everything from politics to business to social activities to law. It also had constant reminders of Athenian military triumphs (the precursor to the Parthenon being built after the battle of Marathon), in essence, what it meant to be Athenian, as long as you were a citizen male of course. Do the buildings we associate with our governments today hold such a place in the way we form our identity as citizens or people… I leave that one for you to ponder.
The Romans, in their constant want to be like the Greeks but distinctly Roman at the same time, were so keen on the idea of a democracy in the sense of more a collective power in the hands of the senate that they effectively lived in denial for the entire time that the emperors claimed ultimate power. There is a reason, after all that Octavian (or Gaius, or Augustus, or whatever name you like best) called himself princeps i.e. ‘first among equals.’ Theoretically he was ‘just the same’ as all of the other members of Rome’s ruling political class. Only he ultimately had the say-so on everything.
So, if you are a citizen of the UK, and you have managed to get this far reading, I would urge you, if you have even the mildest inkling of interest in democracy, or if you’re one of those who have no interest and will not vote (but have huge sympathy for the ancient Athenian men who had no choice but to vote, ‘need a new ostrakon anyone?’). Or if you are among those who cannot vote, joining the same boat as the overwhelming masses of people who called Athens home… take a peak at the deepest darkest beginnings of the people experiment that we nicked the word ‘democracy’ from and see how we probably misappropriated the word anyway. So that, when you are getting daydream-y about Arcadian bucolic wonderland that you have ‘sort-of planned’ for your summer holiday, (as per the Romans) and just want to get this whole election democracy over and done with, remember the weight of history that has gone before you. As you step into that polling booth, if you are, in that cold school community building, feel epic in your actions and you Periclean in participatory attitude to politics. Also remember that “the great thing about democracy is that it gives every voter a chance to do something stupid.” According to Art Spander anyway. So, following that nugget of wisdom, if you have decided to, for whatever reason, spoil your ballot paper in the time you have left to vote, take a leaf out of this Athenian’s scroll and draw as unflattering a picture of the candidate as possible…
You can read a succinct introductory article by (the wonderful) Paul Cartledge about the origins of democracy, or if you devoured that with fiendish purpose try ‘Marathon 490 BC: The First Persian Invasion of Greece’ by Nick Secunda