Dom and Boris have forgotten their ancient history (again!)

As I write we are into our sixth day of … well, I’m not quite sure what to call it.  ‘Domgate’?  ‘The Great Barnard Castle Eye-Test Scandal’?  ‘From “Odyssean project”  to “Achilles’ heel”in 260 miles’?   You can choose one of the above or make up your own.

I have written before about the way in which lawcourt trials from ancient democratic Athens resonate with some very recent examples of  hubris on the part of certain powerful, wealthy and famous public figures.  But this latest example is in a league of its own.  And one thing’s for sure: although Dominic Cummings got a First in Ancient and Modern History from Oxford, and Boris Johnson has a 2.1 in Classics from the same university, neither of them seems to have learned a key lesson which the texts of Athenian forensic oratory repeatedly convey to anyone who is in the business of ensuring that rules created to ensure public security and safety in times of crisis are successfully adhered to.

Let’s look at Lysias’ speech 14 as just one example. This is a prosecution speech written for a client in a case brought by a team of Athenian citizens against Alcibiades the younger (son of the famous Alcibiades), probably in 395 BC.  Alcibiades stood accused of dereliction of military duty, a very serious offence in an ancient city-state which had no professional standing army. In classical Greece, free adult citizens were required to answer the call to fight in defence of their city, because they were the only ones who enjoyed the full rights and privileges which came with their citizen status.  If you refused to serve, you could be prosecuted (this was called astrateia). And once you were in a battle, you knew you could be prosecuted for lipotaxion (‘leaving the ranks’) if you decided to retreat without being ordered to do so.

Now, Alcibiades hadn’t deserted the front line in the heat of battle.  Rather, the formal charge was that he was called up to serve as a hoplite (heavy-armed infantry) but had dodged that official draft by blithely joining the cavalry instead, and without observing a strict requirement that all prospective cavalry officers first pass through a public scrutiny procedure.  Now, there are a few things that you need to know here: cavalrymen came from the wealthiest class of Athenian citizens; the cavalry class were often under suspicion of having colluded in the short-lived but bloody oligarchic coup of 404/3 BC; and ‘hoplite phalanx’ warfare was seen as much more cool and ‘down with the people’ than fighting on horseback. ‘Cavalry class’ citizens would sometimes make it clear in court cases that they had on occasion served with the lower-class heavy hoplite infantry, because that kind of fighting was seen as much more dangerous, altruistic and courageous than charging around on a horse with your posh mates. (This was a bit of an exaggeration: cavalrymen did get killed too, and their actions were sometimes crucial to military success).

But if it sounds to us as if Alcibiades had done something that was not that bad – to have bent the rules a little rather than engaging in outright draft-dodging – think again, and read this extract from Lysias’ prosecution speech:

You should bear in mind that if everybody is allowed to do whatever he likes, there will be no point in having laws, or meeting as an Asssembly, or electing generals.  I am surprised, gentlemen of the jury, that anybody thinks it right to convict someone assigned to the front line who retreats to the second line under enemy attack, but to pardon a person assigned to the hoplites who is found in the cavalry.  In my opinion, gentlemen, you are judging cases not simply on account of individual defendants but so as to encourage improvement among those whose discipline is poor.  If you punish those who are unknown, none of the others will behave better, because nobody will hear about the offences you have condemned; but if you punish the most prominent among the criminals, everybody will know, and as a result, the citizens will heed this example and become better. (Trans. Stephen Todd)

This is the first part of the lesson which Dom and Boris seem not to have got, and it comes up again and again in different Athenian trial speeches: rules are rules and noone can be seen to be exempt – especially if they are known to everyone in the country. If well-known, prominent rule-breakers are not punished, then everyone will see this.  Others who are disposed towards similar rule-breaking behaviour will think that the city’s threats of legal sanction are not credible.  But if well-known rule-breakers are punished, then the threat of legal enforcement is credible.  That, in turn, encourages discipline in the relevant area of activity.

But Lysias’ speaker hasn’t finished.  He goes on to talk about the hoplites who did obey the call to go into the draft in question, and addresses the mass jury as if some of them were part of it:

Bear in mind, gentlemen of the jury, that some of the soldiers were sick, and others lacked the necessities of life. The former would gladly have remained and been treated in their communities, the latter would gladly have returned home to look after their affairs, others would gladly have fought as light-armed troops, and others would gladly have faced danger among the cavalry.  Nevertheless, you did not dare to abandon the ranks or choose what you pleased. Instead, you feared the laws of the city much more than the danger of facing the enemy. Now you must remember this and cast your vote and make clear to everybody that those Athenians who are unwilling to fight the enemy will suffer very severely at your hands.

Here we can see some of the same reasoning which underpins the public anger being felt right now in the UK against Cummings and Johnson: in our case, lots of citizens had good reasons to break the ‘lockdown’ and thereby improve their own and their families’ physical, emotional and material wellbeing. But they stood their ground for the sake of the wider safety of the community and for the collective good of the country.  And they obeyed rules designed to encourage such behaviour and assist in its enforcement.

But the point here – and it is also made in other public speeches from Athens’ democratic lawcourts – is not just that Alcibiades has shown contempt and disregard for the sacrifice and public spiritedness displayed the men who did not shirk hoplite service.  More importantly, the relevant democratic authority – here embodied by a citizen jury  – must publicly punish anyone who has been found to have needlessly flouted a rule which enshrines a collective commitment to make sacrifices for the public good in a crisis.  Because when legal sanctions against such selfish behaviour lose their credibility, there is  a risk that individuals will no longer trust that their fellow-citizens really do have a firm commitment to make sacrifices for the greater good of the community.  And once that trust crumbles, people may well start reasoning that the sacrifice is pointless.

Johnson seems not to realize that in our attenuated and increasingly out-of-date version of democracy, he is the relevant authority with the power to shore up our commitment to the greater good. And he can only exercise that power by punishing Cummings very publicly.  By defending his senior adviser’s rule-breaking, Boris has effectively decided to undermine his own government’s strategy and messaging.

Luckily for all of us,  you don’t need to study Classics or have read some Lysias to understand this rather basic lesson.  I’m pretty sure that most of the UK dēmos gets it, and that they will stay more disciplined than their elected and unelected overlords for as long as is necessary.