On Tuesday 3 November, the American people will vote Donald Trump out of office. The queues of people waiting to cast their ballot are emotional to see. The videos and photos circulating online are a stark reminder of the importance of democratic institutions and the need for popular support to protect them.
At times like this we might reflect on the nature of democracy: what it is and where it comes from. Democracy is one of those loaded terms which carry an ideological weight, but whose definition remains slippery.
The word Democracy conjures up images of freedom, equality and rights. Perhaps ideals that around the world become more distant as time passes. Perhaps by returning to its historical roots, we can begin to unpin what it actually is.
The origins of this important idea are complicated, the authors of a brilliant comic published by Bloomsbury want you to understand.
Democracy is produced by the team behind Logicomix, the breathless story of Betrand Russell’s search for meaning. This is a well researched and well thought out tale which is also an excellent read. It lacks some of the sensationalism of Murena and some of the humour of Asterix but it makes up for this in its intellectual depth. The success of Logicomix shows that there is a massive audience for this type of work.
The frames have an anarchic energy, with expressive caricatures resembling Japanese manga. The palette is earthy but not dull and Ancient Greece is presented in all its playful colour.
It was first published in 2015, a year that might be considered by future historians as the last year of a world in crisis. In 2020, as I write my review, it’s hard to read back to a time before the ravages of Right-Wing populism, ecological collapse and Covid-19. Nevertheless this type of work has become more important. In the UK, our local “strong man” Boris Johnson quotes Greek for its intellectual authority and poses while doing his exercises, when not hiding in fridges. This book cuts beneath the type of posturing, which implicit or not, fascists like him use to justify their positions.
The comic is framed as a story within a story. On the eve of Battle of Marathon, Leander narrates his life to his friends in the Athenian army, fellow hoplites like himself. He saw his father killed in the fallout following the assassination of the tyrant Hipparchus, whose brother Hippias soon gains power.
This is no simple good triumphing over evil type of comic.
The Battle of Marathon is often presented as the battle between Democracy and Authoritarianism, between East and West. John Stuart Mill famously said “even as an event in British history, [It was] more important than the Battle of Hastings”.
These ideas increasingly took on harder elements during the colonial period when countries like Britain and France invaded countries in the region. The accretion of negative values has only extended throughout the twentieth century as the importance of the region grew with the exploitation of petroleum oil.
It is ironic that one of our main sources for the Greek and Persian wars was Herodotus who had a profound respect, knowledge and love for “Eastern” cultures. Plutarch even called him a Persian-lover.
The history of the period presented in this comic is more complicated. Athens itself is riven between different factions. Leander follows Cleisthenes who is himself a complex man, both cynical and idealistic, an effective political leader but vividly human. He was a member of the aristocratic Alcmaeonid clan who opposed the Pisistratidae clan to which Hippias belonged. The tyrants supported the rural poor, the Hill Dwellers (Hyperakrioi). This led to charges of popularism.
At the heart of the Athenian “democracy” were questions not just of rule, but to what end is politics for.
Aristotle, writing centuries later, outlined his theory of government arguing that there were three ideal forms of government: monarchy, aristocracy or democracy. Each could be transformed into the three negative forms of tyranny, oligarchy and mob-rule (ochlocracy) when they were directed towards the interests of the ruler rather than the common good.
The Athens of Democracy is largely white, but the authors explore themes of race. Leander’s father owns two African slaves, who are both members of the family. Gavrion is often called lad, a translation of the Greek term pais which disguises the more derogative “boy” which could also refer to a child. Nefert, the family’s Egyptian slave, is the only female family member we see. Leander calls her affectionately, “you naughty old girl”.
Athens is portrayed as a cosmopolitan city watched over by a Scythian police force. Although the Persian characters are not really characters in the book, they are never presented as strange or Other as in 300.
The roles for women are limited. Danae, an intellectual and cultured Hetaira runs against the patriarchal society, but sadly falls foul of it towards the end. The goddess Athena is also an important character, but obviously not one contained by human society. Hero, a young lady with whom Leander falls in love, is set to become a priestess at Delphi. She displays acumen and resilience, which are assets in her role at Delphi but might have been put to greater use in a society in which women could become part of the political elite.
Ultimately the book makes clear that Democracy in Greek terms did not mean full franchise, but merely an extension of some power and privilege to specific sections of Athenian society identified as Citizens.
This is not a bleak story, but it is nevertheless clear eyed about the limitations and restrictions of ancient politics. That about 20 years of complex history told clearly in comic book form reveals the strength of this book.
All photos used under Fair Use.