Thursday, January 14, 2016

Loren J. Samons II's "Pericles and the Conquest of History"

Loren J. Samons II is Professor of Classical Studies at Boston University. He has published widely on Greek politics and history and on the relationship between ancient and modern democracy. His books include What's Wrong with Democracy? From Athenian Practice to American Worship (2004), Empire of the Owl: Athenian Imperial Finance (2000), and (with C. W. Fornara) Athens from Cleisthenes to Pericles (1991).

Here Samons dreamcasts an adaptation of his latest book, Pericles and the Conquest of History: A Political Biography:
Casting a film about a historical figure obviously presents difficulties. As a historian, I admittedly have a tendency to look to the past for models—admirable things to take as examples and awful things to avoid, to paraphrase the Roman historian Livy. As a lover of older films, I tend to prefer previous generations of actors to the present field. Therefore I will indulge myself in casting Pericles and the Conquest of History using actors from the past.

The man himself must be someone with a compelling voice and imposing demeanor: the Athenians called Pericles “the Olympian.” He must be a convincing military leader and statesman, someone able both to inspire and to upbraid an audience, to lead a people to war and convince them to keep fighting despite significant losses and a plague ravaging their city. I would immediately choose Alec Guinness if he had just a touch more vocal power—the timbre of Gregory Peck or the resonance of Richard Burton. Guinness has the right look, though, and he did a passable job with Marcus Aurelius in the absolutely atrocious The Fall of the Roman Empire. So let’s go with Guinness and hope that the director (let’s choose David Lean, since we’re using Guinness!) can bring out the gravity the vocal performance requires. I have no doubt that Guinness could convey the absolute conviction of the Athenian statesman, while also suggesting that the ongoing war, plague, and the death or exile of many of his friends or family led ultimately to a certain melancholy in the great leader near the end of his life.

Sticking with the David Lean theme, I will choose Anthony Quayle to play Kimon, Pericles’ greatest political and military rival. Kimon was the very picture of an Athenian conservative—a man who preferred friendship to enmity with Sparta and who was still leading Athens in aggressive actions against the Persians at the end of his life. He did not possess Pericles’ sparkling oratorical skills but was a man of virtually unquestioned integrity and generosity.

The love interest in this film will be provided by Pericles’ second wife Aspasia. Athenian comic poets treated her brutally and a tradition maintains that she and Pericles were never formally married, although it has been argued (convincingly, to me) that this represents a misunderstanding of our sources. In my film, they are married, but Aspasia’s connections with the eastern Greek state of Miletus (from which she hailed), her willingness to speak when Athenian women were supposed to be neither seen nor heard, and her spectacular beauty made her an object of jealousy and derision. Pericles loved her passionately and openly, despite the emotional reserve he showed in the rest of his life. For Aspasia, I would cast Irene Papas, a hauntingly beautiful and powerful actress capable of tackling the greatest tragic heroines (of Greek drama or modern film) as well as historical figures like Catherine of Aragon.

The theme of this film will be the danger of greatness. Pericles’ talents and his political honesty carry him to the height of power but also lead Athens into the war that would ultimately ravage her people and destroy her empire. The film will draw heavily on the Athenian historian Thucydides’ suggestion that a man’s—or a state’s—best qualities may lead to unanticipated and terrible consequences.
Learn more about Pericles and the Conquest of History at the Cambridge University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Pericles and the Conquest of History.

--Marshal Zeringue