Lessons from ancient Greece to a changing world



Since the beginning of civilization, mankind has faced many catastrophes such as wars, catastrophes and epidemics. These events produce various impacts ranging from the creation of new political configurations, the modification of global geopolitics, the generation of economic shocks, the modification of the relations between actors, the modification of the way of conceiving the environment or simply from the transformation of our social habits. The question is: what can we learn today from the past?

Ancient Greece, and in particular the fall of Athens, can provide us with information on how we deal with geopolitics today in the context of a global pandemic. Immediately after the start of the Peloponnesian War, General Pericles died from an as yet undetermined plague that arrived in Athens. And that was the start of change.

The wars of the Peloponnese

Athens had long since reached its golden age, and Pericles was working on building a city-state and civilization as a model for ancient Greece: democracy, good foreign relations, recognized culture and the development of philosophy. A change of leadership due to the death of General Pericles changed the leadership of the ancient world and redistributed the balance of power.

Athens and Sparta were two of the most powerful cities in ancient Greece and, as such, were still in conflict. With a system of strategic alliances – mainly military, but also economic – the two city-states came up against war between 431 and 405 BC. The Peloponnesian War had two periods of combat, separated by a period of peace that lasted six years (“The Peace of Nicias”).

During the first period of the war, General Pericles’ strategy to fight the Spartans centered on naval confrontation. It was an obvious strength, given that the Spartans could easily have defeated them on the ground. Nonetheless, this required Pericles to assemble all the citizens within the walls of the Acropolis. It might have worked as an initial strategy, but a plague hit Athens in 430 BC, creating disaster for Hellenic civilization. It was a complicated situation, with over 30,000 dead, including General Pericles, and Attic civilization was on the verge of disappearing from history.

After Pericles’ death, the leadership of Athens was fractured, but at the same time, fear of the plague led the Spartans to halt their invasion of Athens, as their troops did not want to come into contact with disease. With new leadership in Athens, the strategy changed to become more aggressive against the Spartans until the Nicias Peace Agreement was signed. The war resumed six years later, involving additional Allied cities, and ended when Spartan General Lysander defeated the Athenian fleet in combat, forcing it to surrender.

What were the consequences? Major changes in the political configuration. After their victory, the Spartans installed an oligarchic system with the “Thirty Tyrants” regime in Athens, thus creating a temporary suspension of democracy. This resulted in the decline of Athens as an epicenter of cultural development, the stronghold of Pericles’ leadership, and the Athenian Golden Age. In other words, changes inspired by a competition for power and accelerated by the effects of a scourge.

A world in shock

More than 2,400 years later, we are facing a pandemic that has already triggered marked economic and geopolitical changes. Following the COVID-19[female[feminine crisis, the configuration of centers of power around the world risks becoming even more unstable, with leaders facing political opposition resulting from decisions made during periods of lockdown. In addition, a major economic crisis seems to haunt many countries already suspended in fragile systems of cooperation.

Like ancient Greece, where city-states created networks for military and economic development, today’s world has learned that integration can bring many benefits to society. The European Union (EU) is a model of regional integration in the world, including good practices for dealing with the financial crises facing its members. However, when it comes to situations that deeply and directly affect the population – for example the waves of migration in 2015 due to conflicts in the Middle East, or now with new social and health restrictions – the EU appears. weak and ill-prepared.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were no clear, unified decisions, and the EU only reacted with late responses. Although knowledge of the growing number of Covid-19 cases spreading around the world was already available in January and February 2020, policy decisions on containment did not come until March and were taken by national governments. No clear leadership has been prepared to deal with the problems at European level. Responses to this challenge relied on locally managed health systems in each Member State and, as a result, the treatment of the pandemic has remained largely uncoordinated at European level.

Much later, an agreement on a common European response arrived, with a set of measures taken on all fronts: economy, health, borders and mobility, and the fight against disinformation. But the war was fought in the political arena and no one wanted to lose power. Governments have started negotiations and initiated alliances to find the best ways to recover economically. They have also deployed “border control diplomacy” to maintain the illusion of control over the unforeseen mobility of the virus itself. Once again, health measures returned to the national level, anchored in a political game of borders and presented in a discourse of economic (in) stability.

Be prepared to tackle inequalities

Another major impact of the Covid-19 crisis is its effect on the global economy. The pandemic reveals inequalities at all levels, including in the area of ​​public finances. While some developed countries may rely on currency reserves or solidarity plans at supranational levels, many other countries are navigating their own sea of ​​historic international debt. The result is a pandemic which affects the least developed countries enormously.

The United Nations Development Program is already working on analyzing the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable populations. Some key impacts are the losses for temporary workers who are affected due to reduced mobility, the fact that many low-skilled workers cannot work from home, and the evidence that the poorest are the hardest hit.

Beyond the pandemic, governments are struggling to manage the situation as best they can by taking urgent action. Despite these efforts, the world Bank predicted a global recession, with particular economic difficulties for developing countries. This includes significant pressure on health and social security systems and tight financial constraints, as well as increasing levels of indebtedness to cope with emergencies and recovery.

By the time COVID-19 arrived in our world, we were already engaged in many critical situations, similar to the political clashes of ancient Greece. We have historically struggled for changes, including less energy-intensive development following the oil crises of the late 1970s, heightened environmental awareness resulting from concern over the impact of climate change, and challenges to meeting climate goals. sustainable development of the United Nations. Collective approaches to many of these issues were the subject of international agreement and seemed to be a model for the future.

As in the days of Pericles, the world today is facing new struggles. What is the role of a pandemic in today’s even more complex world? Will the pandemic trigger a change for the better that will not simply remain an inconsequential event in human history? The first lesson we can learn is to prepare for unforeseen events and deal with uncertainty in advance. And we must learn to move the discussion forward on a model that prioritizes the common good of society, setting aside political tensions and competition for power.

Written by Matias Barberis Rami, Junior Officer at EuroScience.

Matias Barberis Rami
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