POLITICS: The art or science of government; the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy; the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government.
"Politics are almost as exciting as war, and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times."
Sir Winston Spencer Churchill 1874-1965 Remark: 1920
Federal Election Day in Canada. I'm writing this with the background sound of the winning party (our new Prime Minister) making his victory speech, interspersed with the cheers of the crowd. No, I didn't vote for this Party because their leader is a right-wing Conservative who opposes a lot of rights such as gay marriages, "Pro Choice" for abortions, and is inclined to favour policies of our Southern neighbour in regards to the war in Iraq and other issues. (See how long it takes before he's in Bush's pocket like Tony Blair.) At least the Party I voted for got 10 new representatives elected who include a fine woman from my district who is always there acting on behalf of the poor, elderly and working-class people.
It so happens that while all these weeks of Campaigning have been going on, I've been delving into the politics of ancient times. While I listened to the political rhetoric, watched the politicians posturiing, making promises that may or may not be kept (likely not); and slamming each other I couldn't help but make a few comparisons. Things don't really change. There's always corruption. Good men get taken down when the populace turns against them.
In the case of my novel, one of the victims of the citizen's fickleness was the military governor of Athens, Phokion, a man of great integrity, elected as stageiros many times, and one who always tried to put the good of the people first. In the end, he became another victim in the power struggle between Alexander's Successors.
In this scene, which takes place in Athens, the City Councillors have just received news that the Macedonian army is approaching the city. They had been issued an edict by Polyperchon, the Macedonian Regent, offering them a return to democratic rule and allowing a number of exiles to return to their homes. (The exiles, mostly democrats, had been driven off their land by the aristocrats who favoured the oligarchies and supported the occupation of Athens by the Macedonian garrison.) The Councillors accuse Phokion of not acting by refusing to accept the edict and insisting the garrison be removed.
"You see!" shrilled an elder Councilman, wagging a finger in Phokion's face. "It is your fault this has happened. You should have made it clear to Polyperchon that the terms of the edict are unacceptable to us."
"Yes!" shouted Chares, a stout balding man, one of his most vocal opponents. "It seems the Macedonians have deployed more troops to increase their military power here. We have demanded that the garrison be removed but you, Phokion, seem to be sided with the aristocrats who are friends of Macedon. Are you a coward, Phokion? Have you lost your spirit?"
Phokion responded to the insult in his usual terse and dignified manner. He peered at them sternly under his thick brows and retorted. "You may call me a coward, Chares, and a man of no spirit because I have refused to act irrationally on these important issues. You can not make me bold, and I cannot make you cowards. But we kow very well what each of us really is."
Charles laughed at his reply. "You lower your brows, Phokion, and put on airs as though you were above us and you show us this by ignoring our demands."
"At least this brow of mine has never caused you any harm, Chares, but the laughter of those who are now sneering at me has given the city plenty to regret. Do not forget that Athena, our city's Patron Goddess, presides over the arts of both war and peace. I have sought to find a peaceful solution, one that will benefit Athens and satisfy Macedon."
One of the staunch democrat senators stood to speak. "We have had enough of Macedonian domination. We want to rule our city by our own democratic laws."
"My friend," Phokion replied. "First, make sure of your own safety. It is better to intercede with the Macedonians than to fight them. It is my recommendation that the Athenians fight using words, in which we have an advantage, not weapons, in which we are inferior."
The Hall burst into a hostile cacophony of hisses and cat-calls.
"You can make me act against my wishes," Phokion said, his voice loud and formidable as a general addressing his troops. "You will never make me speak against my judgement. I will not allow my fellow citizens to destroy themselves even if you wish it so."
He leaves the Council Hall and makes his way up to the Pnyx Hill where a huge crowd has gathered. The General in charge of the Pireaus and the district of Munychia where the garrison is located is about to make a speech.
General Dercyllus height and brawn made him an imposing figure. His booming voice rang out over the Assembly.
"In the past weeks, I have observed a steady deployment of troops from the garrison at Munychia to the island of Salamis. Even as I speak, the harbour at Zea is full of Macedonian warships. It is rumoured that Kassandros will soon return from his mission to Asia Minor with more naval reinforcements. I saw we should seize the port and make it secure before we are surrounded on both land and sea."
The crowd roared their support in a cheer that resounded from the heights of the Acropolis rock.
Dercyllus continues his speech and reveals a plan to arrest the garrison commander and seize the garrison. Phokion protests, reminding the Athenians of how the Thebans and their city were destroyed when they had tried to overthrow the Macedonians.
"I warn you, it will be hubris to overstep your authority, Dercyllus. In the past I have always dealt fairly with Philip, and Alexander. And when Alexander was away on campaign, Antipater. I will also negotiate peacefully with Polyperchon. I will not agree to make war on Macedon or to seize the garrison. Remember what happened to the Thebans? They were destroyed when they tried to rebel." He was aware he was trembling, and sweat trickled from his brow in spite of the coolness of the day.
Dercyllus refuses to listen and the crowd backs him up.
Amid their hostile insults and jeers, Phokion stepped down and made his way along the stony path from the Pnyx toward the sanctuary of his home on the Hill of the Nymphs. He felt angry, but reminded himself of his duty. What should he do to combat Dercyllus' threats? He was friends of both men, and it was not in his nature to turn traitor. But he must warn Nikanor of the dangers he faced if he addressed the Council in Pireaus.
When he arrived home, he ordered a messenger to be sent to the garrison with an invitation to Nikanor of Strageira to dine with him that night.
During the course of the dinner, Phokion conveys a warning to the garrison commander.
He spoke slolwy, measuring each word. "I am an Athenian, and you are not. I have lived long enough to know this: nothing is stronger in the Athenians than their will to possess their own city. When Macedon put the garrison here, they made themselves enemies who are only biding their time before they revolt. You can see this now -- that the City is about to erupt. Beware, Nikanor, of malice at your back. The demos is like a pack of wolves ready to take anyone down who opposes them."
"I will keep my guard, Sir, "Nikanor said. "I do not wish to work against the Athenians. We were posted here to protect them."
"Protect them? Against whom?"
"Against themselves, Sir. You know their history. And you remember well what befell the Thebens when they rebelled against Alexander."
Phokion raised his brows. " Is that a veiled threat, my dear boy?"
Nikanor shifted uneasilty. "No, Sir. Just a reminder."
Phokion's gaze met his eye-to-eye. "Then call your Council tomorrow if you must. But let me warn you again. There are many who will not agree to your terms, no matter how beneficial to the City you might believe them to be." He put out his hand to shake Nikanor's. "You know I have always been a friend of Macedon. Both Philip and Alexander treated me with honour and respect. But times have changed, my boy, and I am not so old and foolish to know how the tide can turn even on those we have counted as our friends. Heed my warnings. Do not underestimate your enemies or the civic pride of the Athenians."
They walked together to the gate, then stopped. Nikanor turned to him with a wrinkled forehead. "Are you sure? About my enemies?"
"My boy, I have been a general for as long as you have lived. I know when the adversary is about to strike. " He put his hand on Nikanor's shoulder. "When I was young I studied at Plato's school. I was a friend of the philosophers. Your adopted father, Aristotle and I had a common kindredship. I regard you almost as a son and I do not wish harm to befall you. Nor do I want my people to open the gates to another holcaust such as befell Thebes."
The half-moon had risen late, shining faintly over the olive groves and pine forested slopes of the mountains. It was a mild evening with just a hint of Spring dampness in the air. Phokion looked across toward the steep western scarps of the Rock, Athens' stronghold, and could see a faint glimmer of light glowing from the sacred fire in the Goddess' temple.
The two men exchanged formal courtesies. Phokion shook the Commander's hand and bade him farewell. He watched Nikanor until he disappeared down the darkened path, then he turned and went back into his house.
His wife, Arete, was kneading dough at the wooden table preparing tomorrow's bread. He put a new log on the fire and stood awhile watching as the flames ignited the dry bark His mind slipped back, recalling his conversation with the garrison commander. He had done what he had thought best to do -- given Nikanor a subtle warning, because he knew that General Dercyllus planned to arrest him at the Council meeting tomorrow. Was he wrong to betray one friend for the sake of another so as not to put his city in further jeopardy?
"Oligarchy: A government resting on a valuation of property, in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it." The Republic VIII 550C
"Democracy, which is a charming form of government, full of varieity and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequal alike." Ibid 558C
"When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader." Plato 428-348 B.C. The Republic bk VIII, 566E.