Opinion | How Alliances Made Athens Great

One year into the war with Sparta, in the prime of his city’s democracy and power, Pericles, the great Athenian leader, also expressed a composite view of his state’s policies: “In nobility of spirit, we stand in sharp contrast to most men; for it is not by receiving kindness, but by conferring it, that we acquire our friends,” the historian Thucydides quoted him as saying at a funeral of war dead.

But Pericles was no softhearted liberal in the modern sense. His pursuit was Athenian greatness — and domestic and foreign policy contributed to this. Before succumbing to a plague that struck Athens during the war, he tried to encourage his fellow citizens.

“It will be remembered forever, how we of all Greeks held sway over the greatest number of Greeks, how in the greatest wars we held out against our foes whether united or single, and inhabited a city that was the richest in all things and the greatest,” he declared.

Both the grudging respect of a political opponent of democracy and the inspired rhetoric of its champion reveal that Athens had created a network of common interests among its citizens and with its allies, all of which it was able to manipulate to its own advantage. Allied tribute helped fund the glorious temples whose ruins still grace the Greek capital; allied money and ships contributed to Athens’s naval might, which, in turn, helped the Athenians dominate their allies. In Thucydides’s analysis, it was this rise in influence that provoked Sparta to reassert its authority as the Greeks’ greatest power. After Pericles’s death, arrogance toward other states and recklessness contributed to Athens’s defeat.

The Oligarch was given his catchy name a century ago by a prominent classicist, Gilbert Murray, at a time when the word was not synonymous with friends of Vladimir Putin or billionaires funding political campaigns. The name reflected the perennial tension in Athens and other city-states between the rule of the many and the rule of the few. Unlike those who today try to manipulate politics to their ends, the Old Oligarch could appreciate the effectiveness of what he did not like. He knew that the common people had to have economic benefits and a say in the running of the state, because the state depended on them.

“The people generally are right to have more than the highborn and the wealthy, because it is the people who man the ships and impart strength to the city,” he wrote.

Today, as President Trump tries to roll back health care for a large part of the population, as he invests in domestic division and further economic inequality, as he undermines alliances and the international order, he seems blind to the value of what he does not like, indifferent to the consequences of his actions. Endowed with the immense powers of his office, he lacks the cynical Old Oligarch’s understanding of politics. Unlike Pericles, he does not see that power can be enhanced through the projection of kindness.

Nikos Konstandaras is a columnist at the Greek newspaper Kathimerini.

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