September 25, 2011

The Glamour Boy

In the 1930s, Conservative MPs would refer to Anthony Eden and his coterie of friends as glamour boys, good looks but not many accomplishments to back them up. Whether you think that's true or not of Eden, its something that Peter Green argues is true of Alcibiades, the Athenian politician. Green doesn't think much of Alcibiades- the great defector of Athenian politics, the designer of the Sicilian expedition- who seduced everyone in Athenian politics, bar Socrates, and never, according to Green, succeeded in any of his projects. Alcibaides is an interesting figure- he is an important character both in the history of Thucydides and in the philosophy of Plato. What I find fascinating about Green's article though is how the glamour of Alcibiades has lingered down the years, warping the analysis of the historians who have studied the politics of the late fifth century BC.

I find this fascinating because I think its something that effects us all as we look at the past. Strong images and attachments form as you read about actors within history. Anyone who honestly confesses to themselves about how they read or understand history will confess to that attraction to a cause or personality within the past. The personal glamour of someone like Cleopatra for example has warped judgements of Egypt in that period- do you know any other Ptolemaic sovereigns? We see Egypt in the first century BC sometimes through the lens of two relationships- rather than seeing it as a declining power but a power nonetheless. The thing is that glamour is also something that arises from histories- Gibbon acknowledged in his own history of the decline and fall of Rome that he found the histories following Tacitus boring and dull. The primary sources form our judgements particularly of early history: one of the effects of television is perhaps that the glamour of a Blair doesn't have to be transmitted to a future historian through the pen of a Plutarch. One wonders how that direct impact of charisma will affect the judgementsw of future historians.


goodbanker said...

Eden is an interesting character to kick this blog off with. If only he could have settled for "good looks but not many accomplishments" - or even not any accomplishments?! But Suez was such a dreadfully poor decision on his part, on so many fronts (allowing the Soviets to crush Hungary; accelerating British diplomatic and economic decline; undermining trust in politicians and the legitimacy of both Parliament and the United Nations). So history has not looked kindly on him almost from the moment he left office. Despite having to wait 30 years for the Public Records Office (PRO) to confirm absolutely that Eden had colluded with France and Israel, the late Michael Foot was already penning "Guilty Men" in 1957. By the time the PRO opened its files, his reputation was in tatters - and I can't see even the most revisionist historian reversing that.

Gracchi said...

Goodbanker you are entirely right- though that actually brings up another interesting point which is that Alciabedes was responsible for almost as big a disaster- if not bigger- the Sicilian expedition. In a sense the mystery with Eden is how he got that far: ultimately he was linked to appeasement in the thirties- though everyone believed he wasn't because of a lucky resignation- and wasn't that impressive a minister!