Sun, Aug 07, 2011 - Page 9 News List

What can the ancient Greeks teach us?

By Charlotte Higgins  /  The Guardian, LONDON

In the last years of the 5th century BC, Athens was on the rocks. The Peloponnesian War against Sparta had been rumbling on since 431 BC. In 414 BC, the Athenians planned a bold offensive against Sicily. Before the navy departed, however, two outrages occurred. First, there were rumors that a religious cult, the Eleusinian Mysteries, had been profaned. Second, a shocking act of religious vandalism occurred — sculptures of the god Hermes, hundreds of which stood around Athens as protectors of thresholds, were hacked and mutilated. These were unpropitious omens for the Sicilian expedition: It ended in defeat for Athens, with almost the entire navy lost. In the febrile atmosphere after the mutilation of the Hermes sculptures, an anti-democratic conspiracy was feared and the charismatic, handsome and desperately unreliable aristocrat and military commander Alcibiades was blamed. After the Sicilian disaster, democracy was briefly overturned and replaced by an oligarchy in 411 BC. In 404 BC, after Athens’ final defeat, came the reign of terror of the Thirty Tyrants, characterized by mass killings. After a few months, democracy was restored. In 399 BC, Socrates was tried on charges of impiety and of “corrupting the youth” of Athens. Critias, one of the tyrants, had been Socrates’ pupil, as had Alcibiades. Historians and philosophers still debate how anti-democratic Socrates’ teachings were; the execution of Greece’s greatest philosopher was at least partly an act of scapegoating for the actions of the politicians whom he had educated.

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