What Boris Johnson can learn from Pericles

LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has long hailed the ancient Athenian statesman Pericles as one of his idols, but their careers are now aligning more closely than he would like in the age of the coronavirus.

Both men plunged into high-stakes geopolitical showdowns against an alliance of powerful neighboring states, only to be knocked off course by the onset of a deadly disease.

More than 2,400 years ago, Athens had only just begun a war with Sparta and its allies, when plague swept through the city, killing up to a third of the population. It was one of history’s great reversals. An arrogant imperial city that saw itself as the apogee of the civilized world was immediately debilitated. Two and a half years into the war, Pericles himself died of the disease.

Just as Brexiteers promised that negotiations with the EU would be easy and that Britain would enter a new Elizabethan age after cutting free from Brussels, Pericles was tragically overconfident about his best-laid plans in the early days of the war. He was convinced Athens would have a comfortable edge over Sparta and its allies, thanks not only to its cash and triremes, but also its cultural supremacy.

A rich nobleman who played to a poor support base with legacy building schemes, Pericles was happy to dial up the patriotism. In his most famous speech, Pericles praised Athens as a uniquely superior civilization and democracy. Athenians, he said, “should fall in love” with their city on looking each day upon its “greatness.” That bubble of self-assurance was popped by the plague.

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