February 15, 2018, by Helen Lovatt

Russians as Spartans? – or Putin the tyrant?

Edmund Stewart on Boris Johnson’s latest allusions to the ancient world

In a recent interview with the Times, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson once again looked to the ancient world in an effort to explain modern Russia and its relations with the West.

“I was reading Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War. It was obvious to me that Athens and its democracy, its openness, its culture and civilisation was the analogue of the United States and the West. Russia for me was closed, nasty, militaristic and antidemocratic – like Sparta.”

The Greek historian continues to be as influential as ever in the minds of today’s statesmen and has even given his name to the so called ‘Thucydides trap’. This is the doctrine that current and emerging powers are inevitably drawn into conflict. The resulting comparison between ancient Athens and Sparta and the modern USA and Russia or China is truly disturbing.

Oligarchs and Tyrants 

Yet is this equation between the militarism of Sparta and the belligerence of Putin in the Ukraine and Syria truly warranted? The Peloponnesian War, as Thucydides describes it, saw a clash between proponents of two different constitutions, democracy and oligarchy, each backed by two major powers, Athens and Sparta. The modern battle of ideologies – between democracies who look to the USA for leadership and the dictators, like Bashar al-Assad, who depend on Russia – resembles superficially the world of Thucydides. But that does not mean that Sparta is like modern Russia. On the contrary, Sparta was an oligarchy with a balanced constitution, by which power was distributed between a number of parties, including not one king but two, as well as the five ephors elected to represent the citizen body. In Russia, on the other hand, one man holds a grip on power that is almost total: Vladimir Putin. Since 1999 he has based his legitimacy on legal magistracies: the positions of Prime Minister and President of the Russian federation. Yet in reality his power rests on the theft of property, both public and private, the corruption of the judiciary and the use of force, as Garry Kasparov has well documented. He has most probably ordered the murder of opponents, such as Boris Nemtsov and Alexander Litvinenko, and imprisoned others, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky and, most recently, Alexei Navalny. Russia was certainly never a democracy, but it was once an oligarchy, in which a few powerful men controlled much of the state’s interests, especially in oil and gas. Putin has further enriched loyal supporters and driven into exile those oligarchs who could not stomach his rule, such as Khodorkovsky. The Greeks had a word for this kind of behaviour too and it is not oligarchy: it is tyranny.

Tyrants in Athens: The Pisistratidae

The tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who murdered Hipparchus the son of Pisistratus and were popularly (and incorrectly) credited with freeing Athens from tyranny.

In Thucydides’ day there were few tyrannies, but the Athenians could remember a time when they were ruled in a similar way by one family, the Pisistratidae. Like Putin, Pisistratus did not claim to rule the state or own the title of tyrant. Instead he and his family monopolised the key magistracies in Athens and shared them with other powerful oligarchs, particularly the Alcmaeonidae. But as in modern Russia, this pretence of legitimacy served to strengthen their position and was combined with the judicious use of occasional force. In the end, the Alcmaeonidae were exiled too. The tyrant was not someone who held a political office, like a king or president, but merely a man who desired power and wealth to such an extent as to be eventually willing to commit any crime to soothe his greed and the inevitable fear of retribution. Thus the chorus of Sophocles’ play Oedipus the Tyrant tell us that ‘hybris (outrage) breeds the tyrant’, much as Lord Acton held that ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. The former Soviet dissident and Israeli politician Natan Sharansky has shown, in his book The Case for Democracy, that tyrants generally exhibit this common pattern of behaviour, that they support each other in their struggles with their own populations and that they are inherently hostile to democracies and any who oppose their will. By studying ancient political history, as my students do in the Greek Tyrants module at Nottingham, we can see that the tyrant is a figure found not only in many countries, but also in many ages. It is even possible that the Greeks were more alive to the dangers of tyranny than today’s democrats.

Posted in Classical receptionClassicsGreek HistoryGreek literature