The funeral of Phocion.
In the late 4th Century BC, Athens executed its statesman and de facto ruler, Phocion. Phocion served Athens with distinction throughout his political career. His leadership was one of extreme care and justice. His was a frugal life, lived in a simple home, and he refused bribes of all sorts, no matter how grand – everything from small fortunes to his own city-state to rule as he liked he refused.
The Athenians chose him to lead them into battle 47 times as general, the most-selected general in Athenian history. Yet he was not a militaristic man – he argued vehemently against wars he thought were bad for his city-state. And he saved Athens from unwise action repeatedly, as when the Athenians wanted to war with Alexander the Great after Alexander had crushed an uprising in Thebes. “Foolhardy man,” Phocion said to Demosthenes, leader of the provocateurs, “why provoke one whose temper is already savage? Why provoke this Macedonian who is full of limitless ambition? When there is a holocaust on our borders, do you wish to spread the flames to our city as well, by provoking him further? My whole object in taking up the burdens of this office is to prevent this, and I shall not allow my fellow citizens to destroy themselves, even if they wish it.”
The Athenians eventually sent Phocion to intercede with Alexander on their behalf, after he had rebuffed all the other emissaries they sent, and he quickly became one of the men Alexander trusted and respected most, even over most Macedonians. Phocion inspired Alexander to look beyond Greece, challenging him that if his goal was to show the greatness of his armies, why not show it by the conquest of the barbarians? Phocion made necessary compromises to the Athenians’ Macedonian ruler, but he negotiated hard to keep the Athenians mostly free.
Yet, after Alexander died, against Phocion’s warnings, the Athenians rebelled against Macedon, and forced Phocion to lead their armies, contrary to his personal desires. He agreed to serve his people as they wished of him, and crafted a resounding victory against the armies of Macedon. Yet Macedonian reinforcements arrived from Asia, and the Greek army was crushed.
Phocion negotiated a lighter reprimand against the Athenians than there otherwise would have been without his intercession. However, many Athenians were still exiled, and Antipater, the new leader of Macedon, still punished the city-state. Many non-citizen Athenians blamed Phocion for their plight. And this set in motion the political intrigue the next leader of Macedon after Antipater would eventually use to have the non-citizens and exiles of Athens overwhelm the citizens and condemn Phocion to death, while the citizens looked mournfully but helplessly on.
In prison, an executioner administered poison to the accused, but ran short when it came to the last man, Phocion. The executioner then refused to prepare more poison until he was paid 12 drachmas. Phocion summoned one of his friends and asked him to settle the amount, observing that, “A man cannot even die in Athens without paying for it.” After a life spent serving Athens, those in charge of the city now ordered Phocion’s remains buried outside its limits.
I tell you this story (and will tell a few more) in the interest of a simple question I’d like to pose: is it worth it to be the good king?