Corrupt Leaders Make Corrupt Countries: An Ancient Course on Leadership

Archilochus, fr. 114

“I don’t love a tall leader, or one striding far,
Or one who takes pride in his hair or shaved head.
No, give me a shorter man, who looks bowed near the shins
But who is sure on his feet, and strong of heart.”

οὐ φιλέω μέγαν στρατηγὸν οὐδὲ διαπεπλιγμένον
οὐδὲ βοστρύχοισι γαῦρον οὐδ’ ὑπεξυρημένον,
ἀλλά μοι σμικρός τις εἴη καὶ περὶ κνήμας ἰδεῖν
ῥοικός, ἀσφαλέως βεβηκὼς ποσσί, καρδίης πλέως.

In this famous fragment from Archilochus, many readers have sensed the kernel of a debate about what kind of a man should lead. Even more, this has been seen as a possible debate between an Achilles-type and an Odysseus. Regardless of the specific reference, it is clear from this poem and many others that the ancient Greeks were intensely involved with exploring what kind of a man should wield power in their cities and why.

Works and Days, 217-229

“Oath runs right alongside crooked judgments.
But a roar comes from Justice as she is dragged where
bribe-devouring men lead when they apply laws with crooked judgments.
She attends the city and the haunts of the hosts
weeping and cloaked in mist, bringing evil to men
who drive her out and do not practice righteous law.
For those who give fair judgments to foreigners and citizens
and who do not transgress the law in any way,
cities grow strong, and the people flourish within them;
A child-nourishing peace settles on the land, and never
Does wide-browed Zeus sound the sign of harsh war.”

αὐτίκα γὰρ τρέχει ῞Ορκος ἅμα σκολιῇσι δίκῃσιν·
τῆς δὲ Δίκης ῥόθος ἑλκομένης ᾗ κ’ ἄνδρες ἄγωσι
δωροφάγοι, σκολιῇς δὲ δίκῃς κρίνωσι θέμιστας·
ἣ δ’ ἕπεται κλαίουσα πόλιν καὶ ἤθεα λαῶν,
ἠέρα ἑσσαμένη, κακὸν ἀνθρώποισι φέρουσα,
οἵ τέ μιν ἐξελάσωσι καὶ οὐκ ἰθεῖαν ἔνειμαν.
οἳ δὲ δίκας ξείνοισι καὶ ἐνδήμοισι διδοῦσιν
ἰθείας καὶ μή τι παρεκβαίνουσι δικαίου,
τοῖσι τέθηλε πόλις, λαοὶ δ’ ἀνθεῦσιν ἐν αὐτῇ·
εἰρήνη δ’ ἀνὰ γῆν κουροτρόφος, οὐδέ ποτ’ αὐτοῖς
ἀργαλέον πόλεμον τεκμαίρεται εὐρύοπα Ζεύς·

We have blogged before about how one can use texts from the ancient world to explore modern questions about leadership. We have also blogged about an ongoing project with Norman Sandridge on teaching a course about Leadership in the Ancient World. Over the past year a group of us have pursued these ideas further. This fall, a new  course on Leadership, designed and offered collaboratively at seven universities, looks at the questions, problems, and promises of using the ancient world to reflect on our modern politics, leadership, and social organization.

Here’s a link to the open-source material for the course.

Here’s Norman’s discussion of it, it rocks.

And here are some more passages to think about!

Xenophanes, Fragment 2. 16-19

“Swiftness of feet—the thing honored most in all of man’s acts of strength in the contest—could never make a city governed well.”

οὐδὲ μὲν εἰ ταχυτῆτι ποδῶν, τόπερ ἐστὶ πρότιμον,
ῥώμης ὅσσ’ ἀνδρῶν ἔργ’ ἐν ἀγῶνι πέλει,
τούνεκεν ἂν δὴ μᾶλλον ἐν εὐνομίηι πόλις εἴη·


Xenophon, on Leadership and Rebellion (Cyropaedia, 1.1-3)

“Consider how many democracies have been dissolved by people who wish to be governed in some other way than democracy and also how many monarchies and oligarchies are torn down by the people and how, of those who have attempted to rule as tyrants, some have quickly failed on their own while others who rule for any amount of time at all are a source of wonder, considered to be wise and lucky men. Expect to learn the same things in private homes: both masters who have more and those who have less, still are not able to rely on even a few to obey them for long.

[Xenophon extends the analogy to herdsmen and notes that animals rely on men and trust them against external threats…]

Men rise up against no one more readily than those they believe are trying to rule them. When we reflect on these facts, we conclude only that man naturally is better at governing all the other living things except for himself.”

῎Εννοιά ποθ’ ἡμῖν ἐγένετο ὅσαι δημοκρατίαι κατελύθησαν ὑπὸ τῶν ἄλλως πως βουλομένων πολιτεύεσθαι μᾶλλον ἢ ἐν δημοκρατίᾳ, ὅσαι τ’ αὖ μοναρχίαι, ὅσαι τε ὀλιγαρχίαι ἀνῄρηνται ἤδη ὑπὸ δήμων, καὶ ὅσοι τυραννεῖν ἐπιχειρήσαντες οἱ μὲν αὐτῶν καὶ ταχὺ πάμπαν κατελύθησαν, οἱ δὲ κἂν ὁποσονοῦν χρόνον ἄρχοντες διαγένωνται, θαυμάζονται ὡς σοφοί τε καὶ εὐτυχεῖς ἄνδρες γεγενημένοι. πολλοὺς δ’ ἐδοκοῦμεν καταμεμαθηκέναι καὶ ἐν ἰδίοις οἴκοις τοὺς μὲν ἔχοντας καὶ πλείονας οἰκέτας, τοὺς δὲ καὶ πάνυ ὀλίγους, καὶ ὅμως οὐδὲ τοῖς ὀλίγοις τούτοις πάνυ τι δυναμένους χρῆσθαι πειθομένοις τοὺς δεσπότας…

ἄνθρωποι δὲ ἐπ’ οὐδένας μᾶλλον συνίστανται ἢ ἐπὶ τούτους οὓς ἂν αἴσθωνται ἄρχειν αὑτῶν ἐπιχειροῦντας. ὅτε μὲν δὴ ταῦτα ἐνεθυμούμεθα, οὕτως ἐγιγνώσκομεν περὶ αὐτῶν, ὡς ἀνθρώπῳ πεφυκότι πάντων τῶν ἄλλων ῥᾷον εἴη ζῴων ἢ ἀνθρώπων ἄρχειν


Onasander on A General’s Power of Speech (Strat. 1.16)


Onasander was a Greek writer of the first century CE who wrote on Plato put also wrote a short treatise on the art of Generalship. That’s pretty much the beginning and the end of what is known about him.

“[A general] should be prepared to speak. It is from this that I believe the greatest aid will come from a leader’s work. For, if a general is stationing his men in battle, his persuasive words make them contemptuous of danger and eager for honors. A strident trumpet does not move the soul to the throng of battle in the same way as a speech uttered on the contest of bravery instills a combative spirit against danger. If some hardship should befall the army, the comfort of a speech will shore up their souls; and a general’s rather deft speech is not less capable of treating the suffering of soldiers than the doctors who attend to wounds. For doctors minister to these men only with medicine while the general reinvigorates the weary and restores those who have lost heart. Just as it is harder to treat unseen diseases than obvious ones, it is also more difficult to restore a spirit from despair with an encouraging speech that it is to address a clear physical malady. No land nor city will field an army without generals nor even choose a general who cannot speak effectively.”

[ι′] λέγειν δ’ ἱκανόν· ἔνθεν γὰρ ἡγοῦμαι τὸ μέγιστον ὠφελείας ἵξεσθαι διὰ στρατεύματος· ἐάν τε γὰρ ἐκτάττῃ πρὸς μάχην στρατηγός, ἡ τοῦ λόγου παρακέλευσις τῶν μὲν δεινῶν ἐποίησε κατα-φρονεῖν, τῶν δὲ καλῶν ἐπιθυμεῖν, καὶ οὐχ οὕτως ἀκοαῖς ἐνηχοῦσα σάλπιγξ ἐγείρει ψυχὰς εἰς ἅμιλλαν μάχης, ὡς λόγος εἰς προτροπὴν ἀρετῆς ἐναγωνίου ῥηθεὶς αἰχμάζουσαν ἀνέστησε πρὸς τὰ δεινὰ τὴν διάνοιαν, ἄν τέ τι συμβῇ πταῖσμα περὶ τὸ στρατόπεδον, ἡ τοῦ λόγου παρηγορία τὰς ψυχὰς ἀνέρρωσε, καὶ πολὺ δὴ χρησιμώτερός ἐστι στρατηγοῦ λόγος οὐκ ἀδύνατος ὥστε παραμυθεῖσθαι τὰς ἐν στρατοπέδοις συμφοράς, τῶν ἑπομένων τοῖς τραυματίαις ἰατρῶν· οἱ μὲν γὰρ ἐκείνους μόνους τοῖς φαρμάκοις θεραπεύουσιν, ὁ δὲ καὶ τοὺς κάμνοντας εὐθυμοτέρους ἐποίησεν καὶ τοὺς ἐρρωμένους ἀνέστησε· καὶ ὥσπερ τὰ ἀόρατα νοσήματα τῶν ὁρωμένων δυσχερεστέραν ἔχει τὴν θεραπείαν, οὕτως ψυχὰς ἐξ ἀθυμίας ἰάσασθαι λόγῳ παρηγορήσαντα δυσκολώτερον, ἢ σωμάτων φανερὰν ἐξ ἐπιπολῆς θεραπεῦσαι νόσον. οὐδὲ χωρὶς στρατηγῶν οὐδὲ μία πόλις ἐκπέμψει στρατόπεδον, οὐδὲ δίχα τοῦ δύνασθαι λέγειν αἱρήσεται στρατηγόν.

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