An ancient Athenian witnessing the lying of government and its hangers-on over the Stephen Byers affair would have been no more or less surprised than any of us at the sight of someone trying to save his skin. What would have appalled them is the secrecy.
In 5th century bc Athens, the people in Assembly (all male citizens over 18) were sovereign. They took all the decisions that MPs take today, and then handed matters over to their public officials to see through. These public officials were appointed for one year, most of them by lot (voting, of course, is not democratic but meritocratic). In order to discourage incompetents from putting their names forward — it would obviously be disastrous if the system resulted in someone like Stephen Byers coming out of the hat — they held their public officials fully accountable, both for what they did in the people’s name and how they handled their budgets. This, the theory went, would prevent anyone applying for office for the sheer hell of it.
So when an official entered office, the state at once had a lien on his property and civic freedom. Regularly throughout his term of office, the official had to come through a vote of confidence by the people in Assembly, and at the end his whole performance was reviewed. Within 30 days of laying down office, he had to present his financial records for audit, to be checked against documents in the state archive. If that was passed, he was then scrutinised on other matters, and any citizen could bring a charge against him for performing his functions detrimentally to an individual or the state. If he was found wanting, he could be fined, exiled or executed. As the orator Demosthenes said, a top military official was more likely to die at the hands of the people than in battle.
No official was sacrosanct. Pericles was often slow to submit his accounts, and in 443 bc suspicions were raised over a vast ten-talent sum eis to deon, ‘to requirements’, from some years earlier. He was not appointed to office for that year. In 430 he was tried for some dodgy dealing, fined and deposed from office.
When the people are sovereign, there is no messing. But parliamentary oligarchs? Forget it. From Jo Moore’s pay-off to the role of the British ambassador to Romania in the Mittal affair, all is shrouded in secrecy. The fact that these brutes work in the public domain and we pay for them is not of the slightest concern. The people have no right to know, and that’s how it’s gonna stay. OK?
Some disquiet has recently been expressed about the Today programme’s ‘Thought for the Day’. In a slot ideal for a persuasive Christian homily — expounding a biblical text and applying it to the modern world —one feels that, on present form, Aesop’s Fables would serve the purpose better.
The Greek historian Herodotus placed Aesop in the 6th century bc, as a slave of one Iadmon from Samos. Whatever the truth of that, the first collection of fables was made about 300 bc, and they have enjoyed a flourishing existence, in prose and verse, ever since. They generally feature a conflict between talking animals who stand for human types, usually the rich and powerful against the poor and weak. They stress either the folly of taking on a stronger power, or the cunning which the weaker must deploy if he is to stand any chance of success; and they often warn that nature never changes.
What makes them perfect for ‘Thought for the Day’ is that the moral is conveyed in a brief, usually amusing, story, which is rounded off with a pithy summarising punch line. Take the jackdaw and the pigeons. The jackdaw had noticed that pigeons in the nearby coop were well fed, so he coloured his feathers to look like theirs and joined them, taking care not to make any sound. At first the pigeons were fooled, but one day the jackdaw forgot where he was and let out his familiar cry. The pigeons promptly chased him off. Dejected, he returned to his fellow jackdaws, who promptly mistook him for a pigeon and also chased him off. Moral: be content with what you are.
Or what of the donkey and the fox? They became friends and, setting out to hunt, met a lion. Sensing danger, the fox said to the lion that he could have the donkey to eat if he left him (the fox) alone. The lion said that seemed very fair, so the fox led the donkey straight into a ditch. The lion, seeing that the donkey was his in any case, picked up the fox and threw him in too. Moral: if you set traps for your friends, you may find yourself caught in one as well. And then there is the tortoise who refused to come to Zeus’ party, arguing that there was no place like home. So Zeus angrily condemned him to carry his house with him wherever he went. Moral: many agree with the tortoise.
Aesop, in other words, was a sort of spiritual Rabbi Blue, though with rather more moral and intellectual depth. This raises the question of whether the BBC might not consider the Fables too demanding for the current slot.
As tribal warfare extends all over Afghanistan and the job of the peace- keepers becomes more and more impossible, the example of the late Roman empire in the West comes to mind.
Alaric, ruler of the Visigoths (ad 395–410), was born in the Danube region c. 365. In 394, he was recruited by the western Roman emperor Theodosius to take on the usurper Eugenius at the river Frigidus (north of Trieste). Eugenius was captured and executed, and Alaric demanded his reward. This was, after all, a matter of internal imperial politics, and Alaric had assumed he would be offered an appointment at the top of the Roman military hierarchy. But he was rejected. As a result, he took his career into his own hands and, backed by his powerful Gothic troops, set out to legitimise himself some other way.
For 15 years he and the Roman state engaged in a danse macabre. Stilicho, a Romanised Vandal and regent of the western Roman empire after Theodosius’ death, was unable to defeat him decisively, buy him off or recruit him — Stilicho seems to have wanted to use Alaric against the eastern half of the empire but never managed to clinch a deal. In 406 a massive barbarian invasion (not involving Alaric) swept across the Rhine, leaving Rome even more unstable. Stilicho was put to death, and Alaric upped the stakes. Twice he marched on Rome and was bought off; the third time in 410 the gates were opened and, for the first time in its 800 years, Rome was ransacked. Its fall shocked the civilised world. St Augustine composed his City of God to refute the notion that God must have turned his back on his people.
The point is that ‘barbarians’ had been coming into the Roman empire since the 3rd century ad, some peacefully, others by force. Like Stilicho, many were absorbed and thoroughly Romanised. The late Roman army, for example, was full of first- and second-generation German immigrants, and none the worse for it. But there were other barbarians who remained free agents, under their own leaders, and these could change sides, without warning, depending on the offers available. Alaric was one, and he caused mayhem — within the Roman empire itself.
The grim lesson for the West in Afghanistan today is that we are not even on home ground. Acculturation of the locals to Western ways is out of the question. Tribal leaders will, like Alaric, demand their money from the West and change sides at will. A not dishonourable, speedy exit is the West’s only hope.
As Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat continue their murderous assault on each other’s people, an Aristophanic image comes strongly to mind.
In his comedy Peace (421 bc), Aristophanes introduces his hero, the little farmer Trygaeus. He is sick of the war between Athens and Sparta (the historian Thucydides’ ‘Peloponnesian War’), and rides a dung-beetle up to heaven to remonstrate with Zeus. On his arrival, Hermes explains to him that Zeus and almost all the other gods have abandoned Olympus; War has been installed in their place, and Peace buried deep in Hades. When Trygaeus demands to know why, Hermes replies that, whenever the gods tried to make peace, the Greeks preferred war: whichever side gained the smallest advantage immediately assumed they would win, and refused all terms. A great noise is heard and Hermes now departs, warning Trygaeus that War is about to appear with a huge mortar, in which he intends to pound the Greek states to pieces.
Enter, then, War: ‘Iô brotoi brotoi brotoi polutlêmones,’ he cries (‘Oho mortals, mortals, mortals, much-enduring [mortals]’), and proceeds to hurl cities, pro-Spartan and pro-Athenian alike, into the mortar: Prasiae, leek- city, Megara, garlic-city, Sicily, cheese-land, and Athens, honey-town. He then calls on his slave, SoundandFury, to fetch a pestle with which he can grind them to pulp. Get one from Athens, War tells him. SoundandFury reports back that Athens no longer has one. Well, says War, get one from Sparta. Back comes the report that Sparta has not got one either. ‘I’ll make my own, then,’ snarls War, and stumps off. But before War can return Trygaeus digs up Peace, and, with other attractive female deities, Fullfruit and Showtime, also in tow, returns to earth to celebrate the advent of peace, joy and plenty — Everyman’s triumph.
In 422 bc, a year before Peace was staged, Athens and Sparta had been fighting in northern Greece, around Amphipolis. In this battle the Athenian war-leader Cleon and the uncompromising Spartan general Brasidas had been killed, and, with them now gone, both sides had started to make tentative moves towards a settlement. These two are the ‘pestles’ to which War refers when he asks SoundandFury to fetch them. As a result of their removal, a truce had virtually been agreed when Peace was put on.
Meanwhile in Israel the terrible pounding, the pestles-and-mortar crushing and destroying, continue. What else are pestles for? What do pestles know of Fullfruit and Showtime?