Hoping for a new Age of Pericles

If you happen to eavesdrop on a political discussion in Athens, you are more than likely to get the impression that Greeks are fed up with their politicians. You would be right. The questions on everybody’s lips are: Where do we go from here? Who do we turn to? How can we find some inspiration? Well, it seems that the answer might be right under our noses. Boris Johnson has just finished his first week as the new mayor of London and, despite holding the keys to one of the most progressive capitals of the world, he will be looking to the 5th century BC for his inspiration. He plans to seek guidance from perhaps Athens’s greatest statesman, Pericles. Johnson recently told an interviewer that Pericles was his «historical pinup.» «Look at his funeral speech. Democracy. Freedom. Champion stuff,» he explained. The Conservative MP is a self-confessed fan of ancient Greece. In an interview with a men’s magazine, he was asked who he would invite to a «fantasy dinner party.» The first names on his list were Marilyn Monroe, Pericles, Aristotle, William Shakespeare and Rene Descartes. He later added actress Scarlett Johansson and his wife. During the mayoral election, he told the British 24-hour news channel Sky News that «The Iliad» is his favorite poem. His father, Stanley Johnson, told the same network that his son would be a success because he had a good knowledge of classical Greece. «The man can do it. It all goes back to having a classical upbringing,» he said. «The theory is if you can master Ancient Greek, you can master anything. Pericles’ view of Athenian democracy is a pretty good model if you are going to be mayor of London.» It is unusual for any kind of candidate in British politics to refer freely to his love of the classics as it is seen as a turnoff for most voters. But Johnson, a deputy for the leafy riverside town of Henley, west of London, has never been a by-the-book politician. His reputation has mostly been built on his very public gaffes and ability to mock himself. His love for ancient Greece is in keeping with his upper-middle-class upbringing, which saw him go to school at Eton and then go on to study Classics at Oxford University. But this belies the Johnson family’s roots. Stanley Johnson’s grandfather was Ali Kemal Bey, a Turkish journalist and briefly interior minister who was responsible for signing the warrant for the arrest of [Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk. The family moved to the UK in 1910 and Ali Kemal’s son, orphaned in England, changed his name from Osman Ali to Wilfred Johnson. Boris Johnson’s Turkish roots will not prevent him from looking to Greece for guidance on how to run London. His biographer, Andrew Gimson, wrote in the Daily Telegraph last month that Johnson will aim to model himself on Pericles. «With most of our politicians, confined as they are by their knowledge of only one language and only one time – the present – the best one could hope for would be an admiring reference to what Rudy Giuliani or Michael Bloomberg have done in New York. «Instead, this classicist takes us back to the first flowering of democratic politics in Athens: His hero is Pericles, leader of that city state in its golden age in the 5th century BC.» Gimson believes that Johnson’s admiration for Pericles proves that he is «serious,» contrary to the belief of many people who think his «Merry England conservatism is shallow or lacking in intellectual roots.» Peter Jones, a classics scholar who writes in the Spectator political magazine that Johnson used to edit, has also welcomed the fact that the new London mayor will be looking to the hand of Pericles to guide his decisions. «First, Pericles wielded power over the decision-making assembly only by his ability to persuade it that his policies were best. In the contemporary historian Thucydides’ judgment, he was a man of ‘high integrity and intelligence, ‘ who ‘saw no necessity to flatter the people; in fact he was so highly respected that he was able to contradict them and provoke their anger. ‘ Bar election time, the art of public political persuasion has been killed by the point-scoring party system. Mr Johnson would do us all a favor if he restored it.» Jones goes on to refer to Pericles not seeing anything «wrong in people enjoying the better things of life,» such as music, art, architecture and philosophy before quoting Plutarch’s description of Pericles as never giving way «to feelings of envy or hatred, nor treating any man as so irreconcilable an enemy that he could never become a friend.» «So Londoners could indeed do a lot worse than elect an aristocrat and intellectual who became Athens’s greatest champion of the people,» concluded Jones. Johnson will not have to look far for inspiration from Pericles as he has a 23.5-kilo bust of the statesman in his office. It is a plaster cast of the 2nd-century Roman copy of the 5th-century BC bust of Pericles by Kresilas. «I stood before it in the shop and reflected that I was only three removes away from the position of the sculptor who stood before one of the greatest statesmen who ever lived. Cor! I thought to myself as we bubblewrapped it. Pericles, eh!» he wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2004. Not satisfied with buying the bust for his office, Johnson then went to see the Roman copy of the bust in the British Museum, only to find the room closed on that particular day. «If I were the Greek ambassador, I think I might have fired off an immediate demarche,» he wrote. «Oi, I would have said to Tony Blair, how can you people claim to be the valid custodians of so much that is greatest in 5th-century Athenian sculpture when on July 1, at around 5 p. m., a person couldn’t even get to see Pericles? «You Brits may think that the owl of Athens haunts the squares of Bloomsbury. But you can’t even display Pericles, the man who called these marbles into being!» However, if we are expecting the new London mayor to be an advocate for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens, then we had better think again. A philhellene he may be but in the same article, Johnson said that «any attempt to remove those Periclean marbles would, of course, be an indefensible mutilation.» However, there may be a downside to the mayor’s passion for Pericles. In a radio debate a few days before the May 1 election, the main candidates were asked to pick the Shakespearean character that best described them. Johnson chose Pericles because «he was responsible for the rejuvenation of Athens… and the wonderful thing about the Athenian system was its democracy.» But rival candidate Ken Livingstone pointed out that the Shakespeare play «Pericles» was in fact about Pericles, prince of Tyre. «It’s not the same Pericles but it doesn’t matter. I was just using the name,» Johnson admitted after the debate. Londoners will be hoping that their new mayor is more akin to the man behind Athens’s Golden Age than Shakespeare’s shipwrecked prince when it comes to running the English capital. Athenians, meanwhile, would settle for seeing their politicians stranded on a desert island so they could replace them with ones more in the mold of Pericles of Athens.