The Greeks

A few months ago we watched The Greeks, a PBS (American public television) series which I bought on DVD because Ross was studying ancient Greek history. From this account, it appears that the Athenians invented not only democracy, but also politics as we know it today.

The way PBS tells the tale, Themistocles, an Athenian who fought in the first war in which the Athenians trounced the numerically-superior Persians, expected that Persia would one day return to take revenge. All his fellow citizens were content to believe that, once beaten, the Persians would never be heard from again. When the Athenians stumbled upon a silver mine near their city, Themistocles wanted to use the unexpected windfall to build warships. But he knew that his fellow citizens didn’t take the Persian threat seriously, so he invented a different threat: he convinced them that they were in danger from a small neighboring state, and should build the world’s largest fleet of warships to use against those people.

The Athenians fell for it. They voted to built ships, and the fleet was completed just in time for the Persians’ return (and defeat at Salamis). So we have an early example of a politician tricking the voters into something that he believes is good for them. In this case, he was right. But, far more often, even politicians who start out with the finest intentions fall prey to the “anything to get re-elected” syndrome. And many (e.g. Italian prime minister Berlusconi) get into politics for motives having little to do with the civic good.

You might want to have a look at: The Buying of the President 2004: Who’s Really Bankrolling Bush and His Democratic Challengers–and What They Expect in Return by Charles Lewis

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