3 MAY 2008, Page 25

Ancient & modern

Boris Johnson has vowed as mayor to emulate his hero Pericles, turning London into ‘an education to Britain’ as Athens was (Pericles claimed) to Greece. In one sense this will be difficult since the mayor has limited responsibilities, mainly transport and police, none of which feature in any known Periclean policy document. But if Mr Johnson is referring to a generally Periclean tenor to his period in office, there is much he could usefully achieve.

First, Pericles (like every other Athenian citizen) wielded power over the decision-making Assembly (all Athenian males over 18) only by his ability to persuade it that his policies were best. He was, in other words, a master orator. But he did not try to fine-tune the Assembly. He ignored routine issues and saved himself for the big occasions. Nor was he a populist. In the contemporary historian Thucydides’ judgment, he was a man of ‘high integrity and intelligence’, who ‘saw no necessity to flatter the people; in fact he was so highly respected that he was able to contradict them and provoke their anger’. Bar election time, the art of public political persuasion has been killed by the point-scoring party system. Mr Johnson would do us all a favour if he restored it.

Second, Pericles saw nothing wrong in people enjoying the better things of life. He himself had a deep interest in music, art and philosophy and was responsible for major public buildings like the Parthenon (to teach a proper trade to the unskilled sitting at home doing nothing, says the 2nd-century AD essayist Plutarch). We love beauty, Pericles said, but without extravagance; we love wisdom, but it does not make us soft. Further, he goes on, Athens is a city famous for the number of its games and festivals — far more numerous than anyone else’s — which provide relaxation from hard work.

Incorruptible, austere, serene of temper and with a strong sense of justice, he felt most proud of the fact that, despite the power he wielded, ‘he never gave way to feelings of envy or hatred, nor treated any man as so irreconcilable an enemy that he could never become a friend’ (Plutarch).

So Londoners could indeed do a lot worse than elect an aristocrat and intellectual who became Athens’ greatest champion of the people.

Peter Jones