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The ancient history of now

What can Europe’s classical history tell us about Putin and Xi?

Image: The New European

In 1984 Orwell wrote that, “Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past”. Russians and Chinese, just like the Greeks and the Romans before them, have a deep, rich history, which they have exploited in different ways. Rome and Greece were confident in their heritage and maintained a stable relationship for centuries. In contrast, present day Russia, a declining power, and China, a rising one, both see themselves as essentially vulnerable and as a result they use aggression and expansionist policies to confront what they see as a hostile world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s relentless hostility towards Taiwan are both examples of this insecure belligerence, and they are both accompanied by national narratives of grievance, which are promoted by Moscow and Beijing. The problem for them is that those stories are starting to diverge from reality.

If Orwell was correct and the past gives a route to understanding the future, then the ancient Greek experience feels especially instructive, as it seems to suggest why both Putin and Xi are likely to fail – their extreme political and ideological rigidity. By the fourth century BC, the Mediterranean was scattered with Greek city states and, of these, Athens emerged as the most prominent. Flushed with success after its victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC, the city became the home of extraordinary cultural achievements. Athens saw the birth of tragedy, citizen democracy and the building of the Parthenon. 

Despite the humbling of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, two great philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, emerged in the fourth century. The dazzling intellectual vibrancy of Greek culture is indicative of a society not short on confidence. There was none of the extreme touchiness that we now see emanating from Putin and Xi – instead the Greeks simply assumed that their culture, with its wealth of intellectual accomplishment, was superior to those around it. The people whose unintelligible mumblings offended the Greek ear were simply dismissed as barbaroi.

But no amount of cultural splendour could resist the weight of Rome, and from the second century BC Greece was subject to brutal Roman conquests. Often a captured city was razed to the ground (in the case of Greece, Corinth in 146 BC) and its inhabitants, and according to the historian Polybius even the dogs, were slaughtered. Like their Greek contemporaries, the Romans were not prone to self-doubt, particularly when it came to their right to rule. The intention of Rome was “to spare the humble and to subdue the proud,” as the poet Virgil patriotically, if deceptively, put it. After their defeats, the Greeks knew that there was no sense in opposing Roman hegemony, what Plutarch called “the boots over our heads”.

And having brought the population to heel, Rome used a provincial system of rule under which governors appointed by Rome collaborated with local elites whose status remained intact. Unlike successive Chinese governments, which have attempted to crush the cultures of Tibet and Xinxiang, Rome was not interested in eradicating cultural or religious differences, meaning that Roman rule remained light and local cultures survived. While opposition, such as in Judaea in the first century AD, was suppressed, the legions were deployed not as occupying forces but removed to the vulnerable borders of the empire, on the eastern frontier with Persia and in the north along the Rhine and Danube. 

While Chinese Communism and Putin’s authoritarian regime now force their respective populations into a state of crushed ideological uniformity, across the Roman empire religious cults were welcomed and integrated – there was even an enormous temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis in the centre of Rome. Roman pragmatism was seen at its best in the reign of the emperor Hadrian (ruled 117-38). Not only was he a lover of Greek culture, showering his patronage on the Greek cities, but he ended what Virgil had described as an empire without limits. No further conquests were to be planned, the borders were to be defended (Hadrian’s Wall, AD 121) and the legions kept in readiness for assaults. The result was prosperity within the Mediterranean, the mare nostrum, now that it had become a free trading area policed by the Romans.

What was also remarkable was the degree of collaboration between Athens and Rome. The austerity of Stoicism, born in Athens, attracted Roman intellectuals such as Seneca and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. As my forthcoming book, Children of Athena, argues, the Greek intellectual tradition survived in the Greek east during the centuries of the Roman empire, even though the Romans often derided the Greek habit of endless unresolved discussions. It is a measure of the depth of Greek culture that the Christian convert Clement of Alexandria (died in c. 215) quotes 348 different classical authors in his surviving works. The vast majority of texts, of course, have now vanished: scrolls had to be recopied and even then were vulnerable to damp and fire. Yet most buildings of the classical era remained intact – there were still some 1,000 statues on the Athenian Acropolis in the fifth century AD.

The Greeks had a strong sense of their own history, but it provided a backdrop, and was not used to give comforting reassurance that future glories were in store. Around 100AD, when the orator Dio of Prusa gave his lecture in front of the statue of Zeus at Olympia, the sculpture was already over five hundred years old. In his Panathenaicus, the orator Aelius Aristides (died in 181) enthused over the past glories of Athens and did so in the classical Greek of five hundred years earlier. Despite having been overtaken by Rome, Greek culture retained a strong self-confidence, and was at peace with its varied heritage.

Xi Jinping’s China conveys no such confidence. The Communists came to power in 1949, having chased their Nationalist opponents to the island of Taiwan, where their descendants remain, an agonising rebuke to the notion of China’s all-encompassing revolution. The Party’s rule on the mainland has been a tempestuous mix of brutal crackdowns and sudden changes of ideological direction. Following the turmoil of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, China’s ambition to become an economic and technological superpower was initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. The introduction of capitalist policies – famously Deng argued that it did not matter whether a cat was black and white so long as it caught mice – enabled China to become one of the world’s most successful economies, relieving much of its population from abject poverty.

But Deng’s achievements have been destroyed by Xi’s increasingly nationalist isolation. In his decade in power, Xi has not only acted ruthlessly to suppress dissent in Hong Kong and Xinxiang, but has narrowed the recent history of China to focus on the eternal triumph of the Party, so that it is no longer possible to openly discuss the disastrous Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square. Triumph can only result from contest, which is why Xi has made Taiwan a central part of his foreign policy. The increasing paranoia of the leadership has only been intensified by the recent stagnation of the Chinese economy. Just as the mass of the population has risen from poverty, they might well slip back into it, which would be, from Xi’s perspective, a political disaster. Although neither the United States nor Japan has a formal treaty of alliance with Taiwan they would feel obligated to defend this pro-western state. 

Just as disturbing is China’s ambivalent response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While China claims neutrality there is evidence of disguised trading links. Putin’s recent meeting with Kim Jong Un would have met with Chinese approval. The Russian President has also agreed to visit China in October for the Belt and Road Forum, the first overseas visit since his warrant for arrest for war crimes. 

During his time in office, Putin has relentlessly manipulated Russia’s past. In a brilliant survey, Memory Makers, The Politics of the Past in Putin’s Russia, Jade McGlynn explores how Putin has refashioned Russia’s history so as to present it as “a single stream”, a thousand years of uninterrupted history, from Prince Vladimir (Prince of Novgorod 970-1015) to Vladimir Putin himself. He has elevated the Great Patriotic War – the Second World War – to become the central achievement of the Russian state and political obedience has been equated with allegiance to this belief. Putin has also presented the invasion of Ukraine not only in terms of restoring traditional, and historically justified, Russian hegemony in the region but as a continuation of the fight against Nazism. And yet Russian soldiers were not welcomed as liberators of Ukraine as the official narrative suggested they would be. Putin’s story was blown apart by war.

The relationship between Greece and Rome shows that effective administration which allowed elites and other cultures to survive, the maintenance of free trading networks and pragmatism free of prejudice provided a degree of stability that lasted for centuries. Rome was founded in the eighth century BC and while the western empire only fell in the fifth century AD, the Greek east, which transformed into the Byzantine empire, survived until 1453, when Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks. 

In contrast to Greece and Rome, China and Russia have inflexible histories and brittle, paranoid political cultures. The gap between the stories that Xi and Putin tell their populations and the reality of the world as it is could easily get out of hand – and destroy them. What comes after that is anyone’s guess. 

The Children of Athena: Greek Intellectuals in the Age of Rome by Charles Freeman will be published on 9 November (Head of Zeus)

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