Monday, January 30, 2012

Even Periclean Athens behaved foolishly.

I watched a PBS documentary on Netflix about the catastrophes that befell Periclean Athens. Then yesterday I was wandering around the Met museum, looking at the new Renaissance Portraits Exhibition, the new galleries in the American wing, and then the Classical galleries on the way out.

The classical galleries got me thinking. Consider the clarity and glory of classical Athens at the peak of its achievement. Here was a city that had led the defeat of the terrifying Persian Empire. Athens had become spectacularly wealthy from trade and tribute, and had just finished building the Parthenon. It essentially invented drama and phiIosophy and science. It was in the most remarkable cultural efflorescence there has ever been. 

And within a few years they are huddling inside their walls, dying of the plague while the Spartans ravage the countryside and farms around the city. 

The Parthenon was substantially finished by 438 BC. The plague struck in 430, during the long siege of the city as people crowded inside the walls. The Parthenon was only eight years old when it was surrounded by sickness and hunger and defeat. 

According to Thucydides, morality and social order broke down, as people thought they would soon die anyway, regardless of whether they did right or wrong.

The Peloponnesian war turns Greek against Greek and grinds on for thirty years. Pericles falls ill and dies. The city lurches into the military catastrophe of the Syracusan expedition. Socrates is found guilty of corrupting the young, and executed.

And so I was looking at the vases and other art from Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, and thinking about how such talent also coexisted - or declined - into such idiocy and tragedy. The spectacular glory of Periclean Athens didn't last. 

I also wondered around the Late Roman displays, over by the south-facing windows. A great ungainly, ugly bronze of a late Roman emperor, Trebonianus Gallus, stands there, alongside a sign talking about the chaos of his times, dislocation and breakdown under the Severan Empires. He ruled two years before being killed by his troops in murky circumstances. He looks bloated and crude and misshapen and ugly. 

It makes the idea of a morality pill more attractive, for all the concerns about free will it raises. Then again, someone would start developing amorality pills to give them an edge in power. It is difficult to get people to work well together for long. I'm feeling that at work right now too.

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