Ancient and modern

Ancient and modern: Modern Egypt vs ancient Athens

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

Whatever problems Greeks and Romans faced, a politicised priesthood was not one of them. They might have made three observations on Egypt’s current plight.

First, though Roman emperors were autocrats, the plebs regularly expressed their displeasure at them, sometimes in street riots, over matters like food shortages. But they did so fully expecting the emperor to respond. Only very rarely did he fail to do so. He was not that stupid: for all his power, he knew he had to keep the plebs onside. This basic insight seems to have escaped the fanatic ex-president Morsi.


Second, the most important consequence of the Athenian invention of democracy was to generate a politics in which decisions were reached not by force but by public persuasion. So policy was determined not by the sword but by free debate between citizens in the Assembly, followed by a free vote. As a result, the only power that Athens’ big political beasts wielded over the people was their capacity to convince. But Egypt’s generals make their own law and enforce it — the mark of the hated tyrannos the world over.

So the Egyptians are currently trapped: go secular, and be ruled by military tyrants, go Islamic and be ruled by religious fanatics. But it is perfectly possible to reconcile the positions. Gods were to be found in every walk of ancient life, including politics, but the state’s religious life was under full state control. In Athens the citizen Assembly, in Rome the senate or emperor told the priests what to do, not the other way round. If it was felt that a god needed propitiation, or guidance was needed from (say) an oracle, it was a decision for state authorities to manage. The priests simply carried out the appropriate ritual. Even when Christianity became the Roman state religion, church and state had their disagreements but did not polarise into competing camps.

While there are militant Islamists, there will be militant secularists. The dreadful consequence will be that the only guarantor of peace, the laws, will fall silent: silent enim leges inter arma, as Cicero observed.

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