Proud Empires

The Athenian Empire and democracy were tied together by a sense of pride among the Athenians. National pride also served as the fuel for democracy and imperialism in American history, a parallel to Athenian history. In turn, the nation’s status as a democracy and an empire served as a source of pride to its citizens, creating an endless loop.

Evidence of a strong sense of pride within the Athenian city-state is easiest to see in Pericles’ funeral oration, a speech held at a public funeral for fallen soldiers and sailors. It is hard to find a more symbolic representation of national pride than the individual soldier, dedicated to serving in the military for his fellow citizens and their home; it is even harder to find a more significant or moving example of national pride than the sacrifice of that soldier. Thucydides opens his account of the speech with the prologue, “Pericles praises Athens in terms that do great credit to the city and himself” (Thucydides 39). The most influential leader in Athens at the time understands that the best way to relate to and reach his audience is through their shared love of country. The first major talking point of the speech regards how all of their ancestors worked hard to establish the current empire, giving a sense of legitimacy and tradition to the empire. Pericles goes on to remind the audience how they have continued to expand the empire, and then goes on to list “the form of government and the way of life that have made our city great” (Thucydides 40). In these statements, Pericles is using the large and wealthy empire and the democracy of Athens as evidence that Athens is the greatest, drawing out even more of a sense of pride in the audience that they are a part of such a magnificent and powerful city-state.

In America, one example of how national pride supported both the American democracy and the American empire was in the annexation of Hawaii. The entire takeover started because of a sudden boost in national pride, spurred by our crushing victory in the Spanish-American War. Along with this boost in pride came a sudden belief in expansionism, as America attained possession of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines as territories. When American businessmen took over the Hawaiian government in a coup, they proceeded to maneuver through the hoops of Congress and, lacking a two-thirds majority in the Senate, instead passed a joint congressional resolution and took control of Hawaii as a territory. Despite the protests of the Hawaiian natives, we justified our behavior with the reasons that we had voted fair-and-square in our democratic government, and with the belief that these other governments would be lucky to be a part of our empire and governing system. We believed in our own reasoning because our pride did not allow us to accept that another country would rather remain independent than join us; even if they did, we shared the ancient Athenian idea that because of our strength, weaker nations have no choice but to follow along. In fact, the ballot for Hawaii to become a state only had that option; voting to remain a territory was not an option. Today, as national pride falls, American voting is trending lower than ever across the centuries, and President Trump’s albeit far fetched offers to buy Greenland are scorned, showing the impact of a lack of national pride on America’s democracy and empire.

—Seth Viani, 578

I understand that Athens was not a nation, and so did not have ‘national’ pride, but a city-state had a comparable status to nations today, and so for simplicity I sometimes mixed the two.

Pericles and the Plague, Thucydides

One thought on “Proud Empires

  1. The Athenians were incredibly proud of their democracy and the way that it set them apart from everyone else in the world. They would be so proud of their government that they would go spread it to other countries by taking them over which would in turn create more pride for their home state, such is the loop that you mention. The example you provide of America after the Spanish-American war is a direct parallel of how expansionism affects national pride. Coming off of the victory kept patriotism high, which kept American citizens from understanding why a territory such as Hawaii wouldn’t want to join our nation. We wanted to expand our interests with little regard to those we were expanding it to. Just like Athens, America has historically used other territories and nations as a means to achieve its goals. You make a good point that the current lack of support from Americans for pursuing Greenland may be a resemblance of the lack of pride from within.


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