Ancient and modern

The ancient Greeks would not have spared Dominic Cummings

6 June 2020

9:00 AM

6 June 2020

9:00 AM

When the PM’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, was discovered to have made his fateful journey to Durham during lockdown, there was uproar. Now that Durham police have judged that trip legal, one might have thought the issue would disappear. But as ancient Greeks knew, such hatreds last a long time. They would have seen three eternal issues at stake here: legal obligations; standing in society; and (most of all) friends and enemies.

The fact that, as the police agreed, Cummings was following government regulations on ‘reasonable excuses’ for his trip to Durham, would have been to the Greeks quite irrelevant. Many ancient surviving court cases suggest that the jurors were being invited to determine not whether the defendant had broken the law, but the value that society placed upon him, whatever he had done. So when an opponent was in the dock for some offence, the arguments on both sides often centred not so much on the charge as the extent to which he had any track record of being useful to the city and identifying his personal interests to those of the whole community.

Since juries were very large in proportion to the citizen population, the chances were that the defendant would be personally known to quite a few, and even if not, his reputation would certainly go before him. Here the all-pervasive culture of Greek morality showed its teeth: that a man was obliged to help his friends (of whom his family was the most precious) and harm his enemies. In those circumstances, it was quite possible for an innocent man to be convicted and a criminal acquitted. Justice did not come into it.

Whatever Cummings does, however justifiable his actions, he has made plenty of enemies among very powerful people and, as in the ancient world, his enemies have only one aim: to destroy him. Hence the mob, from the usual suspects to bishops and ex-Lord Chancellors, continuing to bay for his blood. How long before Gina Miller takes him through the courts?

The ancient is still very modern – though we do not like to admit it.

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