Barry McNamara  |   Published September 17, 2020

The Power of Friendships

Classics professor Bob Simmons gets book deal about demagogues, winning friends and influencing people in ancient Athens.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Although it draws upon writers from more than 2,400 years ago, a forthcoming book by Monmouth College classics professor Bob Simmons will offer several parallels to modern times.

Simmons recently secured a book deal with the international publisher Bloomsbury Press to publish Demagogues, Power and Friendship in Classical Athens: Leaders as Friends in Aristophanes, Euripides, and Xenophon. Though primarily scholarly, the book will have considerable relevance to a general audience. It is the product of Simmons dedicating thousands of hours of research over the last 17 years.

BOB SIMMONS: Has book on winning friends and influencing people in ancient Athens due out in 2022... BOB SIMMONS: Has book on winning friends and influencing people in ancient Athens due out in 2022.Currently, a demagogue is defined as a political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument. Simmons’ work, though, reveals the original Athenian demagogues as being quite rational and concerned about the well-being of their cities and nations. They just sought that well-being through primary attention to common Athenian citizens. Among the authors whose works Simmons mined to chronicle these original demagogues’ efforts are Aristophanes, Euripides and Xenophon, all writing in the fifth and fourth century B.C.E.

“I scoured a lot of plays for language that characters representing demagogues use, and then portrayals of them interacting with people,” said Simmons, who joined Monmouth’s faculty in 2014. “What we see is a lot more portrayals of individual interactions between demagogues and common Athenians – a lot of words for ‘friendship’ that come up in the way that they talk about the relationship with common Athenians. Others (in positions of leadership) had much more of a top-down sort of political approach.”

Demagogues in Iowa

That relational style of politics is still happening today, and Simmons said a prime example can be found every four years right across the Mississippi River.

“This is why Iowa is still considered to be so important,” he said of the state’s caucuses, traditionally held at the start of each presidential primary season. “It’s still showing that emphasis on the value of developing that personal touch and the ability to make personal connections with people. … We have evolved into a society in which leaders really do much better if they have that personal touch.”

To form coalitions, demagogues count more on personal connections than political platforms.

“These three authors go with a lot of portrayals putting these demagogic politicians physically close to the people they lead and doing things to make it seem as though they are similar to the people they lead,” said Simmons. “The connection was not, ‘Am I in favor of your policies? Do you do things for me?’ but rather, ‘Are you someone that I feel is a friend of mine?’”

Working connections

That type of connection can carry a politician through some rough waters, said Simmons.

“It’s a lot easier to follow somebody whom one sees as a friend. Even if that person messes things up, you can think ‘Well, my friends mess things up, too.’ They can stick with people and forgive them to an extent if they are looking at these people as friends, more than if they are looking at these people as just a politician.”

It’s a political style that has come under fire, including from the Greek writers Simmons studies in this project.

“At least two of the authors, and probably all three, would say that it’s a problem with democracy,” said Simmons. “It chases out of influence people who aren’t great at this kind of personal touch. There’s a real suspicion in the works that I look at about these demagogic politicians. They seem to be portrayed as manipulating people rather than really doing the right thing.”

“At least two of the authors, and probably all three, would say that it’s a problem with democracy. It chases out of influence people who aren’t great at this kind of personal touch.”
– Bob Simmons 

But it is an effective way to rise to power, said Simmons, particularly within a democracy. He studies that approach, as well as two more violent means of doing so, in a course he teaches at Monmouth called “Tyrants, Assassins and Demagogues: Seizing Power in Ancient Greece.”

The class explores ways that ancient Greeks established influence in innovative ways, some of them violent.

“What are ways to rise to power?” he asked rhetorically. “One can either seize it, or kill people who are in power, or one can try to cultivate support in a less violent or domineering way.”

Demagogues, Power and Friendship in Classical Athens: Leaders as Friends in Aristophanes, Euripides, and Xenophon has a planned June 2022 release.

Listen Up …

Bob Simmons discusses his book. Interview begins at 8:44 mark.

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