July 24, 2019. A month after Theresa May resigned from her post as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson steps into Number 10 as the new Leader of Government, and calls for a bust of Pericles to be put on his desk.
This is not new news. In fact, it was covered by a number of papers at the time, with some journalists wondering if Johnson’s obvious attempt to liken himself to the Classical Athenian strategos (elected general) is the correct comparison, as perhaps a better fit for the new prime minister would be Alcibiades, a brief successor of Pericles who was far less successful both politically and in war; or even perhaps Cimon, who was eventually ostracised from Athens due to his oligarchic sympathies – something that Johnson certainly has, as the leader of the Conservative Party.
But these comparisons have been brought firmly back into the discussion surrounding Johnson’s effectiveness as a leader, especially with the rise of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Pericles and Johnson, both great orators, have both now had to lead their citizens through plagues that completely reshaped the societies that they controlled – and both leaders’ health suffered as a result of it.
In Athens, between 430-427 BCE, a plague erupted which killed upwards of a third of the population of the city, making it the most destructive epidemic in terms of loss of life of that era. The 2nd Peloponnesian War, which had arisen because of disputes between the Peloponnesian League (of which Sparta was head) and the Athenian Empire (formerly the Delian League), had been raging for two years, and Sparta was on the offensive in Attica. The city of Athens was locked down, under siege from their Peloponnesian assailants, with the only food and resources coming into the city arriving at the port in Piraeus; which is how the disease got in. Living in close quarters under siege; scarce resources due to dependency on imports; and the fact that the day-to-day running of the city relied on the citizens gathering in a large crowd to make decisions made Athens an easy target, and an epidemic that Thucydides (an ancient Greek historian) describes as being similar to either Smallpox or Typhus rampaged through the population, killing without discriminating between gender, age or status. Pericles caught the disease and died, forcing the people of Athens to offer peace to the Spartans – which they refused.
Of course, while the United Kingdom was also in the middle of a politically tumultuous period when the current pandemic hit, circumstance is not a good comparison: otherwise, you could attempt to also compare Lloyd George – the Liberal Prime Minister during the 1918 H1N1 pandemic – to Pericles in the same way. After all, George was also hospitalised after catching the virus, requiring a ventilator to breathe as he lay in a makeshift Manchester hospital.
Johnson has modelled himself after Pericles, or, at least, that’s the image that he and his team are hoping to portray. And with good reason: as the apologist for radical democracy in Athens, Pericles made it easier for all citizens of the Greek state to participate in legislative decision-making. Under his guidance, citizens were paid to attend the Ecclesia (the general assembly of Athens that met once every 8 or 9 days), granting the lower, poorer classes the opportunity to participate in democracy, attempting to reduce the power inequality between citizens of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Pericles was a master of populism, using his democratic reforms to his own end; and as a result, his power over Athens lasted for more than 30 years (starting count from when he convinced the Ecclesia to ostracise Cimon, his political rival, in 461BCE until his death in 429BCE).
Johnson, too, is a gifted populist. He, like Pericles before him, claims to be attempting to open up (or re-open) democracy for the good of his citizens: the rhetoric that his camp spewed with regards to Brexit, the jewel in the brass crown of Johnson’s achievements, insinuated that legislative power was, at that time, being moved from Westminster to Brussels – and the only way to rectify that was through severing the UK’s ties with the EU. Like Pericles, he promised the people more power over the decisions that affect them – and, like Pericles, he attempted to close down the rights of vulnerable residents as well.
A subscriber to the Aristotelian belief that Greeks were superior to Barbarians, and that Athenians were superior to other Greeks, Pericles convinced the Ecclesia to narrow the terms of citizenship in Athens, allowing only men born to two Athenians to claim citizen status; both encouraging Athenians to reproduce exclusively with other Athenians and making it easier for anti-foreigner policies to be passed by popular vote. These reforms made upping the payment for participation easier – fewer people to pay means that everyone can get paid more – but also made it harder for metics (residents of Athens who were not eligible for citizenship due to either their nationality or parentage) to have their needs and concerns met and addressed.
And, like Johnson, Pericles was a hypocrite. Both men have proven to their citizens that the rules that leaders create don’t apply if you’re in with the right people. Johnson’s flailing and misdirected defence of Dominic Cummings’ daring expedition to County Durham while infected with coronavirus draws an easy parallel with Pericles’ (far more successful) attempt at convincing the Ecclesia to grant his son citizenship, even though his mother was a foreign hetaira (a type of Ancient Greek prostitute). The comparison is simple: Johnson, like his hero, believed that he was infallible – that the country needs him too much to be critiqued for his own shortcomings and hypocrisies, especially during a crisis. This is why Pericles was never ostracised during his reign, despite being the exact kind of man that Cleisthenes (the founder of Athenian democracy) would have been trying to prevent from gaining power when he designed the Athenian government: his country relied on him too much to be removed.
Johnson is not in that position. The legend of his hero has been passed down for almost 2,500 years, whereas he will be lucky if his political legacy lasts more than twenty-five. As a relatively young Prime Minister, he has only two opinions facing him at the end of his rule: disgrace and defeat. Already drowning in scandal and repeated failure less than a year in, it is difficult to imagine him lasting more than another twenty-four months at most, unlike the un-unelectable Athenian strategos. In fact, if one thing is remembered about the man in Number Ten it will be that, like his idol, a disease was the thing that brought him down.