The Wisdom of the Greek City States

In the Federalist Papers, our Founding Fathers consulted the wisdom of the Ancient Greek city-states when writing our own Constitution. They learned a lot. They knew what they were doing.

This comes from the transcript of President Trump’s comments during a commemoration of Greek Independence day at at the White House last Thursday (3/22). After only a short delay ancient historians jumped on the comments to point out the deeply troubling, if still persistent notion that Greece is the origin of Western Civilization. It is easy to chalk this up to this specific audience since Ancient Greece would be the appropriate topic for this setting, but doing so forgives a vision of Greece that not only diminishes the contributions of Asia and Africa, but also skips directly from the “wisdom of the ancients” to the Greek War of Independence in the 19th century when they could again be cast as the heroic resisters of oriental despotism.

Greece is only the origin of Western Civilization when it is convenient.

This is not meant as an attack on President Trump specifically, but a general observation about the ways in which political addresses reinforce pernicious historical myths, regardless of whether the line is deliberate or a careless addition. The nature of “Western Civilization” and clash of civilizations are among the worst offenders of this rhetoric, but they are hardly alone.

The line that jumped out to me most, however, was the one quoted above, that the founding fathers looked to the wisdom of Ancient Greece in the Federalist Papers, leading to a scattered and ad hoc Twitter thread, collected and expanded upon here.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 9:

It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy

Hamilton, in Federalist 6:

The celebrated Pericles, in compliance with the resentment of a prostitute, at the expense of much of the blood and treasure of his countrymen, attacked, vanquished, and destroyed the city of the SAMNIANS. The same man, stimulated by private pique against the MEGARENSIANS, another nation of Greece, or to avoid a prosecution with which he was threatened as an accomplice of a supposed theft of the statuary Phidias, or to get rid of the accusations prepared to be brought against him for dissipating the funds of the state in the purchase of popularity, or from a combination of all these causes, was the primitive author of that famous and fatal war, distinguished in the Grecian annals by the name of the PELOPONNESIAN war; which, after various vicissitudes, intermissions, and renewals, terminated in the ruin of the Athenian commonwealth…

…Sparta, Athens, Rome, and Carthage were all republics; two of them, Athens and Carthage, of the commercial kind. Yet were they as often engaged in wars, offensive and defensive, as the neighboring monarchies of the same times. Sparta was little better than a wellregulated camp; and Rome was never sated of carnage and conquest.

Hamilton and James Madison are more charitable to Greece in Federalist 18, where they look at the Delphic Amphictyony as a parallel to the Confederation of American States. The Amphictyony, they say, preserved the independence of the Greek states while offering them a means to provide common defense.

Very different, nevertheless, was the experiment from the theory. The powers, like those of the present Congress, were administered by deputies appointed wholly by the cities in their political capacities; and exercised over them in the same capacities. Hence the weakness, the disorders, and finally the destruction of the confederacy. The more powerful members, instead of being kept in awe and subordination, tyrannized successively over all the rest. Athens, as we learn from Demosthenes, was the arbiter of Greece seventy-three years. The Lacedaemonians next governed it twenty-nine years; at a subsequent period, after the battle of Leuctra, the Thebans had their turn of domination.

It happened but too often, according to Plutarch, that the deputies of the strongest cities awed and corrupted those of the weaker; and that judgment went in favor of the most powerful party.

Even in the midst of defensive and dangerous wars with Persia and Macedon, the members never acted in concert, and were, more or fewer of them, eternally the dupes or the hirelings of the common enemy. The intervals of foreign war were filled up by domestic vicissitudes convulsions, and carnage.

After the conclusion of the war with Xerxes, it appears that the Lacedaemonians required that a number of the cities should be turned out of the confederacy for the unfaithful part they had acted. The Athenians, finding that the Lacedaemonians would lose fewer partisans by such a measure than themselves, and would become masters of the public deliberations, vigorously opposed and defeated the attempt. This piece of history proves at once the inefficiency of the union, the ambition and jealousy of its most powerful members, and the dependent and degraded condition of the rest. The smaller members, though entitled by the theory of their system to revolve in equal pride and majesty around the common center, had become, in fact, satellites of the orbs of primary magnitude.

Thus, they conclude: “Had Greece, says a judicious observer on her fate, been united by a stricter confederation, and persevered in her union, she would never have worn the chains of Macedon; and might have proved a barrier to the vast projects of Rome.”

A cursory glance at the Federalist papers shows an engagement with Greece, but only as a flashing warning sign for what not to do. So much for the wisdom of the Greek city states.

Mass Persuasion (again)

Sometimes when you see a theme, it starts to appear everywhere. That is what is happening with the ancient Greek truism that people in a crowd are more vulnerable to persuasion in a way that the individual is not. Two more instances:

The Athenian ambassadors spoke as follows: “Since the speeches are not going to happen before the majority, there is no way for us to deceive the listeners and seduce the masses once and for all with uninterrupted speech safe from cross-examination (for we know that this is the reason we have been led before the few)…

οἱ δὲ τῶν Ἀθηναίων πρέσβεις ἔλεγον τοιάδε. ἐπειδὴ οὐ πρὸς τὸ πλῆθος οἱ λόγοι γίγνονται, ὅπως δὴ μὴ ξυνεχεῖ ῥήσει οἱ πολλοὶ ἐπαγωγὰ καὶ ἀνέλεγκτα ἐσάπαξ ἀκούσαντες ἡμῶν ἀπατηθῶσιν (γιγνώσκομεν γὰρ ὅτι τοῦτο φρονεῖ ἡμῶν ἡ ἐς τοὺς ὀλίγους ἀγωγῆ)…

Thucydides 5.85, in the opening gambit of the Melian Dialogue.

And the common people marveled [at the arrival of Alcibiades and Chalcideus] and were concerned. The conspirators had arranged that the council happened to be in session, and Chalcideus and Acibiades gave speeches, saying that many more ships were on their way and concealed the naval blockade around Speiraium. So first Chios and afterward Erythrae revolted from Athens.

καὶ οἱ μὲν πολλοὶ ἐν θαύματι ἦσαν καὶ ἐκπλήξει: τοῖς δ᾽ ὀλίγοις παρεσκεύαστο ὥστε βουλήν [τε] τυχεῖν ξυλλεγομένην, καὶ γενομένων λόγων ἀπό τε τοῦ Χαλκιδέως καὶ Ἀλκιβιάδου ὡς ἄλλαι [τε] νῆες πολλαὶ προσπλέουσι καὶ τὰ περὶ τῆς πολιορκίας τῶν ἐν τῷ Σπειραίῳ νεῶν οὐ δηλωσάντων, ἀφίστανται Χῖοι καὶ αὖθις Ἐρυθραῖοι Ἀθηναίων.

Thucydides, 8.14.2, at the outset of the Ionian War.

The fate of oratory

There was much hand-wringing over Donald Trump and the fate of oratory during the 2016 campaign, leading to the ever-present and ever-painful game “which ancient person does modern politician X best resemble?” There were a lot of Roman names being tossed about, but the debate usually wandered its way over into the Athenian Assembly. This makes sense. The Assembly was the stage for some of the greatest speech writers of all time and Athens a place where the study of rhetoric began. The orators who took that floor, men like Demosthenes, Aeschines and Hyperides, have been canonized for their skill, and we have only second-hand reports about the speeches of their predecessors such as Pericles and Alcibiades who dominated the Athenian body politic for decades, for better and for worse.

Modern commentators tend not to put Trump on such a pedestal, instead often making the comparison with Cleon, the up-jumped son of a leather tanner who Thucydides calls the bloodiest man in Athens. Cleon is mocked by Thucydides and others, including the comic poet Aristophanes, for his vulgarity, his brutality, and his authoritarian leanings. Cleon:Trump starts to sound like an apt parallel, but I hasten to add that it comes with several caveats: a) we know about Cleon almost exclusively from hostile sources; b) the built in assumption for the comparison is that Cleon was dramatically inferior to Pericles; and c) even for the orators whose speeches survive we don’t know what was said in the Assembly, how it was presented, or what people said in response.

Taken into the modern world, labelling Trump Cleon was part and parcel with lamenting the deplorable state of modern oratory, particularly during the last presidential election cycle. Like many, I was appalled by much of what was said and none of the speeches is going to go down as an example for the ages, let alone coin a term the way that Demosthenes’ Philippics (speeches against Philip) did. And yet, oratory, in the words of Sam Seaborn, should raise your heart rate, oratory should knock the doors off the place. By all accounts, Trump did this whatever you think of the actual message. The election demonstrated some of the worst features of demagoguery, and there were plenty of opinion pieces that dealt with that topic and other legacies of classical antiquity.

Along with perpetual side-eye and exclamations of disbelief (he said WHAT??) and the the explosive growth of fact-checking services, one of the developments in the past year or so has been a cottage industry dedicated to combing through speeches and social media to find a person saying the exact opposite of whatever it is they just said. Trump was obviously the main target of this practice, but it has also extended to other politicians and his political appointees, including, most recently, Anthony Scaramucci’s tweets. In turn, this has led some to scrub their social media profiles to eliminate contradictory, embarrassing, or politically disadvantageous comments, which brings me back to Ancient Greece.

The public speeches are one part of the presentation for Donald Trump (or anyone else), the social media persona is a second. Leaving aside that people are allowed to change their mind, it is absolutely reasonable to plumb both categories and hold politicians to account for inconsistencies and other problematic statements. At the same time, when reading the speeches of the Attic orators, the lack of internal consistency from speech to speech is striking. These are historical records in the modern sense, but rather works of persuasion that provide some insight into their contemporary times. One might still be tempted to denounce the speaker, berating him with a series of facts, and that may well have happened, but the speeches also serve as a microcosm of a broader ancient Greek relationship with truth, past of present.

This was particularly true in terms of foreign policy in ancient Greece. Launching a rhetorical assault on another city, praising the same city as a reliable ally, and inventing a mythological genealogy that links the two are not mutually exclusive depending on what context is needed for a given speech. The sheer amount of data that exists in the modern world dwarfs that of the ancient, making these blurred lines much clearer and allowing one to trace the lineage of a given statement, but the relationship to facts bears remarkable similarity.

Rhetoric, anyway, is alive and well.

Civilization and its antecedants

Before I ever considered the possibility that I could become a historian, I played games. This is a normal progression for a young person, and being someone who already loved history, I naturally gravitated to historically themed games, including fighting games like Dynasty Warriors (Three Kingdoms era China) and the Age of Empires series. I still enjoy both of those sets of games, but in more recent ages, I have particularly come to like civilization building games like Europa Universalis and, of course the Civilization series. Earlier this week I was looking through online forums and other resources to satisfy my curiosity about how the series portrays Greece—the topic of a future post, in all likelihood—and stumbled across an online emulator of the original Civ game. Naturally, I gave it go.


The title sequence starts in space, panning into the galaxy. Starting a new game picks up where the title leaves off, this time centering on the earth, which the player watches evolve. Over the top is narration:

In the beginning, the Earth was without form, and void.

But the Sun shone upon the sleeping Earth and deep inside the brittle crust massive forces waited to be unleashed.

The seas parted and great continents were formed. The continents shifted, mountains arose. Earthquakes spawned massive tidal waves. Volcanoes erupted and spewed forth fiery lava and charged the atmosphere with strange gases.

Into this swirling maelstrom of Fire and Air and Water the first stirrings of Life appeared: tiny organisms, cells, and amoeba, clinging to tiny sheltered habitats.

But the seeds of Life grew, and strengthened, and spread, and diversified, and prospered, and soon every continent and climate teemed with Life.

And with Life came instinct, and specialization, natural selection, Reptiles, Dinosaurs, and Mammals and finally there evolved a species known as Man and there appeared the first faint glimmers of Intelligence.

The fruits of intelligence were many: fire, tools, and weapons, the hunt, farming, and the sharing of food, the family, the village, and the tribe. Now it required but one more ingredient: a great Leader to unite the quarreling tribes to harness the power of the land to build a legacy that would stand the test of time:


Most of the conversations I’ve had about Civilization style games have revolved around their vision of history. In short, technology trees promote history as linear, progressive, teleological, despite also serving as a way for the designers to balance game-play. While acknowledging that game balance is a) difficult to attain, and b) critical to a game’s success, this presentation of history is open to criticism. Again, this is a topic for another time. Here I am taken by this opening conceit of Sid Meier’s Civilization series.

The sequence actually begins before the earth is formed. The game asserts that there is potential—seemingly for its exploitation by humans, the “intelligent” race. There is a slight concession to the improbabilities of evolution, but accepts humans as fait accompli. After all, this is a game about CIVILIZATION.

It is in the home stretch of the opening sequence that the assertions become more interesting. Society, it tells us, is not a civilization. The former involves people living together for survival, but the latter is something constructed in historical memory out of bricks of literature, written history, and monuments. (Civilization generally forces players to spend time creating technologies for farming and hunting, but never mind that.) This is yet another way that the games prioritize settled societies over nomadic ones, to go along with, for example, barbarians that spawn in territory that doesn’t belong to civilizations.

But then the kicker: none of this, not unity, not the legacy of civilization, not progress, is possible without the guiding hand of a great person (man, usually). Once again, this may be dismissed as a quirk of design in that the leader functionally has no role in game-play. And yet, Civilization sets an individual as the paragon who makes slight modifications of the rules and sets the character of the civilization. Famously, the original settings had passivity and aggression on a loop, so when Gandhi, who had the lowest starting level, became more peaceful he would become hyper-aggressive and India would start slinging nuclear warheads at all available targets. It is compelling game design, to put famous individuals as national characters, despite its manipulation of history just as much as does the equation of nations and “civilizations.” To pick up the Gandhi example again, he is a figure from the creation modern India, while the vast majority of “Indians” would no doubt be horrified to learn that their national character is pacifistic on account of him.

Civilization is a game. I am sure that some people are introduced to history through it and its ilk, but this does not necessarily mean that it need be scrutinized and held to task for historical accuracy. But it is also true that the series takes a rhetorical position with respect to the nature of civilization and the historical processes that create it, in this case before the game has even begun.

Unjust logos and the crowd

Earlier this year I wrote about attacks on education and Aristophanes’ Clouds. As much as I believe other Aristophanic comedies are funnier and that they are better plays, something about 2016 keeps drawing me back to Clouds, a dark portrait of education, as containing nuggets of wisdom about society.

To recap, the conceit of The Clouds is that Strepsiades is in a bind because he is in debt and has lost court cases. His solution is to send his son, Pheidippides, to school that he may learn all the tricks of sophistry, which will make the weaker argument stronger and get him off the hook for debt. At this point in the play, Strepsiades has gone to Socrates’ school the Thinkery to see for himself what he is going to get with this investment.

“Teach him, he has a capacity for sophistry by nature…However, let him learn those two Arguments, the stronger and the weaker, and that the unjust arguments overturn the stronger. If not both, at any rate, [see that he learns] the unjust one completely.” [ἀμέλει δίδασκε, θυμόσοφός ἐστιν φύσει…ὅπως δ᾽ἐκείνω τὼ λόγω μαθήσεται, τὸν κρείττον᾽ὅστις ἐστὶ καὶ τὸν ἥττονα, ὃς τἄδικα λέγων ἀνατρέπει τὸν κρείττονα. ἐὰν δὲ μή, τὸν γοῦν ἄδικον πάσῃ τέχνῃ]

“He will learn them from the Logoi (Arguments) in person.” [αὐτὸς μαθήσεται παρ᾽αὐτοῖν τοῖν λόγοιν.]

“Remember now, that he must be able to speak against every course case.” [τοῦτό νυν μέμνησ᾽, ὅπως πρὸς πάντα τὰ δίκαι᾽ ἀντιλέγειν δυνήσεται]


After a brief exchange, both characters leave the stage and are replaced by personifications of the two Logoi (Arguments).

Just Logos:
“Make room here, show yourself to the onlookers, although you are bold!” [Χώρει δευρί, δεῖξον σαυτὸν τοῖσι θεαταῖς, καίπερ θρασὺς ὤν.]

Unjust Logos:
“Go wherever you want. I will destroy you far more speaking in front of a crowd!” [ἴθ᾽ ὅποι χρᾐζεις. πολὺ γὰρ μᾶλλὀν ᾽ς ἐν τοῖς πολλοῖσι λέγων ἀπολῶ.]


The debate between Just Logos and Unjust Logos continues. Unjust Logos quickly turns to insults (Just Logos is antiquated [ἀρχαῖος]) and profanity, and then slips into an argument filled with non sequitors and false comparisons that rejects Just Logos at every turn. What struck me was how the argument is framed, with Unjust Logos explicitly declaring that his brand of rhetoric works better the bigger the crowd is because the ability of the individual to judge arguments clearly is obfuscated by the emotion of the collective.

Note that Aristophanes does not restrict the strength of Unjust Logos to this setting as often appears in this critique of democracy from ancient Greece to Men in Black, but rather that large crowds magnify its power.