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The Shadow of the Present

Tony Spawforth—

As I write about the remote past, I never feel that history has repeated itself. Even so, there are times when the Greek and Roman worlds seem to offer an eerie prefiguring of the present.


In 415 BC the adult males who made up the politically empowered citizen body of the Athenian democracy took a fateful decision by the usual method of a show of hands in their sovereign assembly. This was the ancient equivalent of government by referendum.

Earlier they had listened to their political leaders debate the pros and cons of using the mighty Athenian fleet to attack Sicily.  A young and glamorous member of the Athenian social elite argued in favour. Some thought that he hoped to advance his personal ambitions by being given the command.

Then an older politician got up to argue that, to be sure of success, an even bigger and more expensive expedition was needed than the one his rival envisaged. He secretly hoped that this rhetoric would put the Athenians off what he thought was a bad idea.

His words had the opposite effect. Excited by the hope of profit—Sicily was a rich island in those days—and misinformed about the military risk, the citizenry voted in favour. The eventual upshot of this course of action was the total defeat of the Athenian armada and a cruel incarceration of the survivors in the quarries of Syracuse.

Fake News

If democratic freedom of speech could encourage bad decisions, it could also tarnish the glitter of an all-powerful monarch. In the fourth century BC a “sudden flash of lightning” (the words of an ancient writer) lit up the ancient world. Over a mere decade, King Alexander and his Macedonians from northern Greece conquered the mighty Persian Empire—a feat of arms that promptly divided an astonished Greek world.

Greek writers took up the pen, some to praise, others to blame. One of the latter offered a damning image of Alexander at play. Supposedly the young king liked to appear at dinners on a chariot as the Greek goddess of the hunt, in flowing robes and armed with a bow. With its hints of sexual and religious transgression, this playboy image deliberately traduced Alexander.

It seems that what the European invader actually did on the plains of Iraq was take up hunting, Persian-style—as a bowman on a chariot, dressed in the loose robes of a Persian monarch. A hostile and ethnocentric Greek got wind of this broad-minded multi-culturalism, aimed at winning over Asian subjects. He then twisted it into fake news, of the bad sort.


The ancient world was founded on the movement of peoples. The Romans relied on the formidable waters of the Rhine and Danube rivers to manage the migratory pressures on their Empire from Germanic peoples further north.

In AD 378 there was a refugee crisis. Tens of thousands of Goths in desperate flight from the Huns were ferried in makeshift boats across a Danube swollen by rain. A good many drowned.

The emperor gave orders for the distribution of food relief and of land-plots for the newcomers. Other Romans were less humane. Profiteers traded dogs as food in exchange for Gothic children as slaves.

In the longer term, generations of migrations from the north in the fifth and sixth centuries AD changed the Roman empire and laid the foundations of medieval Europe. An historical transformation on this scale does not really lend itself to moral or ethical judgment. It happened.

The ancients believed that reading about the past could not only be entertaining, but also improve our understanding of the present. No modern historian of ancient Greece and Rome can do more than suggest that both parts of this ancient position might still be worth debating.

Tony Spawforth is emeritus professor of ancient history at Newcastle University, presenter of eight archaeological documentaries in the “Ancient Voices” series on BBC2, and author of numerous books, including Greece and the Augustan Cultural Revolution.

Further Reading:

The Story of Greece and Rome

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