In the 1960s the legendary Canberra teacher and icon Ralph Wilson taught me Ancient History at high school. It was an energising experience. He unveiled the glorious world of classical Greece as preserved in the pages of its great historians Herodotus and Thucydides.
I can now report that the Trump presidency has given these cherished memories a renewed resonance.
Donald Trump’s impact as originally branded was meant to be all about the shock of the old. The Trump era would restore past forcefulness as indicated by the use of a recycled Reagan-era slogan (“Make America Great Again”).
But if we must go retro let us at least learn from the past and avoid its mistakes. Which brings us back to the ancient Greeks.
Greek history in the classical era is packed with themes that resonate in politics today. Social and racial discord. The rise, decadence and fall of states and kingdoms. Military overreach. Destructive factionalism. These topics loom large in Ralph Wilson’s beloved Herodotus and Thucydides.
Another keen student of these two historians was the Oxford professor Antony Andrewes. In 1956 he published a book entitled, intriguingly for students of the Trump era, The Greek Tyrants.
In the context of Trump’s presidency Andrewes’ account of the early Hellenic version of populism and authoritarianism makes compelling reading. The Donald, it seems, has impeccable classical predecessors.
A tyrant wielding political power in ancient Greece, as Andrewes explains, was not necessarily a bloodthirsty megalomaniac.
The lure of authoritarianism arose in the Greek states whenever a failing city or kingdom faced chronic disorder. A desire to escape anarchy led to communities embracing no-nonsense usurpers. These early Greek tyrants who acquired supreme…