Tag Archives: Athens

The Fourth of July and Ancient Greece and Rome

One of my personal traditions for the 4th of July is watching 1776.  For those who are unfamiliar with this movie, it is based on the 1970s musical of the same name and starts the recently deceased Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson.  In part because of the era when this musical was written, it takes a more open-eyed view of the events of the Spring of 1776 leading up to the Declaration of Independence — including the flaws of the founding fathers, the difficulty in getting the resolution on independence passed, and how slavery almost prevented independence.

Aside from its willingness to confront the history mostly head on — it acknowledges the existence of a faction in the Continental Congress that was more interested in compromise than independence but glosses over the large loyalist contingent in the country as a whole — another interesting thing about the musical numbers is that the last musical number — sung by John Adams — includes some allusions to the Roman Republic.  At the time of the framing, Rome and Athens were seen as models of ancient democracies and what could go wrong with them.  This admiration can be seen in Washington identifying himself with Cincinnatus — an early Roman statesman who was called to serve Rome in a time of crisis — receiving emergency powers — who resigned to return to civilian life when the crisis had passed and the three authors of The Federalist Papers using the pseudonym Publius.  Putting aside the fact that, in reality, both Rome and Athens were much less democratic than the United Kingdom, a major interest of the framers (discussed at length in their writings) was why Athenian democracy and Roman democracy ultimately fell and what that meant for the new country that they were building.   In both cases, the problem was that the small country became an empire.

In the case of Athens, Athens sought to use its preeminent position after the Persian Wars for its own benefit at the expense of its supposed allies (who quickly became client states) and its neighbors.  The result of this “Athens First” policy was to encourage revolts in the subject states and an anti-Athens alliance among its neighbors leading to constant warfare until another regional power crushed all of the Greek city-states.  In the end, putting Athens First did not make Athens Great Again. Continue Reading...

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