It nearly goes without saying that war has often been a useful distraction for leaders in trouble.
On the weekend before the world learned that two people in U.S. President Donald Trump’s circle had been indicted — Paul Manafort and Rick Gates — and that a third, George Papadopoulos, had already pleaded guilty and apparently sung like a canary, he tweeted an extraordinary plea:
As usual, pundits condemned Trump’s social media comment as, at best, unbecoming of the commander-in-chief and, at worst — by mobilizing a compliant Congress and his legions of Twitter followers — a challenge to the Constitution itself.
We will have to wait to see the extent of the president’s response to the latest developments in Mueller’s Russia investigation, but the classical Athenian democracy provides a troubling parallel of a leader beset by his political enemies and backed into a corner.
An ancient war hawk
Pericles is considered by many to be the supreme practitioner of ancient statecraft who broadened the Athenian democracy to include more citizens than ever before and brought Athens to unprecedented heights of influence and glory.
He did, after all, champion a massive building project that included the Parthenon, and his famous Funeral Oration of 430 BC has been required reading for Western Civilization students for generations.
There is a much darker side to Pericles’ legacy, however. For one, he narrowed the group eligible for Athenian citizenship, requiring both parents to be Athenian citizens — a requirement, ironically, that his own children did not meet.
And, as is increasingly the view among ancient historians, he bore perhaps more responsibility than anyone else for the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, a ruinous 27-year conflict between Athens and Sparta that ended in Athens’ defeat and the temporary overthrow of the world’s first democracy.
A frequent criticism of Pericles among his contemporaries was that he took a hard line against Sparta and pushed his city toward war not due to any higher principle or strategic goal, but to deflect charges brought against his closest friends and political allies.
Thucydides and Pericles
Why has Pericles benefitted from such a stellar reputation? We can blame Thucydides, the famous historian of the Peloponnesian War who recorded (or largely invented) the Funeral Oration and treated Pericles like a hero, the last true leader of Athens before the state devolved into demagoguery.
Thucydides has been popular as of late, especially in the use and abuse of the so-called “Thucydides Trap” coined by Harvard’s Graham Allison, which implies that conflict between the United States and China might be inevitable just as war was between Athens and Sparta.
The problem with the “Thucydides Trap” is that, as many scholars of Thucydides, including Donald Kagan of Yale, point out, the Peloponnesian War was not nearly as inevitable as Thucydides implies. Rather, Thucydides proposed his thesis of inevitability — and forever changed the practice of history and political science — in order to exonerate Pericles of blame for the war.
A leader in trouble
Thucydides was really fighting against the attitudes of his fellow Athenians, which survive only in fragments preserved by other authors, especially Plutarch.
Plutarch maintained that Pericles was a hawk because he wanted Athens to go to war, if only because the city would therefore need his leadership.
This leadership was under threat because several of Pericles’ associates faced serious legal trouble.
Phidias, the artistic director of the Parthenon project, was charged with embezzlement; Aspasia, Pericles’ foreign mistress and mother of his children, was accused of impiety, just the sort of charge that later led to the execution of Socrates; and Pericles’ association with the philosopher Anaxagoras was threatened by a motion that all those who didn’t believe in the gods should be publicly censured.
To deflect these charges, Pericles refused to budge on several reasonable demands made by the Spartans, including lifting a cruel embargo against Athens’ tiny neighbour and ally of Sparta, Megara.
Pericles claimed that he had to stand on principle, insisting that any concessions would only encourage snowballing demands from Sparta. Most Athenians, though, suspected that Pericles really had the charges against his friends in mind when he precipitated a war through his hardline position.
It was this common belief against which Thucydides pressed his alternate theory that Pericles was heroic.
Avoiding the Thucydides Trap
Trump has already shown his willingness to deflect criticism and galvanize his base with sabre-rattling speeches, especially against the enemy du jour, North Korea.
After his speech at the United Nations, in which he mocked Kim Jong-un as the “Little Rocket Man,” evangelical pro-Trump stalwart Franklin Graham said that Trump’s words made him proud to be an American.
A decade-and-a-half ago, historians Barry Strauss and David McCann edited a book comparing the Korean War with the Peloponnesian War, two conflicts separated by millennia but demonstrating remarkable parallels.
Let’s hope Trump doesn’t react to the current crisis by forging another parallel between classical Greece and modern America. I, for one, don’t think that a new war with North Korea (let alone China) need be any more inevitable than it was between Athens and Sparta.