Pericles (ca. 495-429 B.C.) was the leading statesman of Athens for an unprecedented period and brought it to the height of its political power and its artistic achievement. The years from 446 to 429 have been called the Periclean Age.
Pericles was the son of Xanthippus, a distinguished statesman and general of aristocratic family (probably the Bouzygae), and Agariste, a niece of the famous statesman Cleisthenes, the leader of a powerful clan, the Alcmeonidae. He inherited great wealth; indeed, as a young man, he financed the costly production of Aeschylus's play The Persae in 472. Pericles received the best education available, studying music under Damon and mathematics under Zeno of Elea, a pioneer in theoretical physics.
Eminently fitted for a public career, Pericles chose to follow the example of Cleisthenes and advocate a more advanced democracy.
Champion of Radical Democracy
Pericles became prominent first in the law courts, where he prosecuted the leading statesmen and finally Cimon, the leading conservative power. In the Assembly, Pericles advocated hostility toward Sparta and radical constitutional reform at home. He worked in close association with Ephialtes, an older and more established leader of democratic views. They were both elected generals for a year sometime before 462, and in 462-461, when Cimon was the most influential of the generals in office, they made a concerted attack upon him.
A crucial decision on foreign policy was in the making—whether to prosecute the war against Persia as the leader of a coalition of maritime states and as the nominal partner of an inactive Sparta, or to attack Sparta, exploit the coalition for that purpose, and make war with Persia a secondary matter. The issue in home policy was between the status quo, with the Areopagus Council acting as a brake on democratic radicalism, and an unimpeded implementation of majority decisions in the Assembly.
The two issues were inextricably linked not only by past history but also by ideological and material considerations. These issues were to face Athens throughout the life of Pericles, but the fateful step was taken in 462-461, at a time when Persia was on the defensive and Sparta was crippled by the effects of earthquakes, followed by internal dissension.
Sparta's appeals to Athens, its ally, for help against the uprising were granted on the advice of Cimon and against the advice of Ephialtes. While Cimon and the army were serving in Laconia in 462, Ephialtes and Pericles carried out their radical democratic reforms, stripping the Areopagus Council of all constitutional powers and making the authority of the Assembly and the Heliaea (people's courts) absolute.
Meanwhile, in Laconia, Sparta dismissed the Athenian army under Cimon's command. This insulting treatment enraged Athens. In spring 461 Cimon was ostracized, and Athens made alliances with Sparta's enemies, Argos and Thessaly. At this time Ephialtes was assassinated, and Pericles, in his early 30s, became the undisputed leader of the radical democrats.
Legislator of Domestic Affairs
The political career of Pericles after the ostracism of Cimon divides into two parts. The first ended in 443, when he secured the ostracism of his leading opponent, Thucydides. Pericles also passed further legislation against the Areopagus, introduced pay for political services, and in 451 restricted Athenian citizenship to children of Athenian parentage on both sides. He was entrusted with special financial responsibilities as commissioner for the building of the Long Walls, linking Athens to the Piraeus, and as commissioner for the building of the Parthenon and the Propylaea on the Acropolis from 447 onward. It is not known how far he was involved in the implementation of the war on two fronts—against Sparta in Greece and against Persia in Egypt, which resulted in a stalemate on land in 457 and a heavy defeat in Egypt in 454.
Pericles played a leading part in the critical years following 454. His founding of Athenian colonies on the territories of Athens's "allies" was a key factor in converting a coalition into an Athenian empire. He certainly approved of Athens's appropriating the allied moneys, and he advocated their use for domestic purposes. He proposed the recall of Cimon, which resulted in victories over Persia and a truce with Sparta. Pericles's own operations as a military commander in western waters in 455 and 454 were successful.
Between 448 and 446 Pericles is associated with the renewal of hostilities with Sparta. He began with a diplomatic offensive, offering to all Greek states the freedom of the seas and the celebration of the end of the Persian Wars—an event marking the conclusion of the Peace of Callias with Persia early in 448. When diplomacy failed, Pericles commanded an expedition to Delphi which reversed Sparta's policy there and made the renewal of hostilities almost inevitable. In 447-446 the storm broke: Athens's power in Boeotia collapsed; Euboea revolted; Megara broke free from Athenian occupation; and Sparta, at the head of its Peloponnesian coalition, invaded Attica.
In command of an Athenian army Pericles crossed to Euboea and then rushed back to face the enemy in Attica. To everyone's amazement the Spartan king withdrew his army. The miracle was never explained, although Pericles was said by some to have bribed the king. In any case Pericles hurried back to Euboea and stamped out the revolt. Peace was obtained in 446. Athens had lost most of its gains, but its empire was recognized. Pericles's general policy was finally approved by the ostracism of Thucydides in 443.
In the second part of Pericles's political career, from 443 to 429, he was the leading personality in Athens. His foreign policy was to suppress any revolt in the Athenian empire and to resist Sparta. When Samos revolted in collusion with Persia, Pericles acted boldly and successfully as commander of the Athenian forces, and the punishment of Samos was a warning to others. He paraded the naval power of Athens with an expedition in the Black Sea (ca. 437), and he advised Athens to make alliances with Corcyra (Corfu), a leading naval power in the west, in 433. This alliance was within the letter of the treaty of peace with Sparta, signed in 446-445, but contrary to its spirit.
Diplomatic and military incidents followed which resulted in war with Sparta and its allies in 431. Pericles's strategy was an offensive by sea, avoidance of battle on land, and control of the empire. Its adoption led to the concentration of the Athenians inside the walls of Athens. There plague struck down a third of Athens's armed forces, two sons of Pericles among them. The people turned against him for the first time. He was fined but reelected general for 429, the year of his death. He had been unhappily married and lived with a leading courtesan, Aspasia. He was buried near the Academy.
The form of democracy which Pericles developed in Athens used majority rule more fully than any constitution since then. Yet Pericles dominated the people; in conditions of complete political equality and freedom, he imposed his will and maintained his policy. To admirers of democracy he is almost without a peer. The society which he led was imbued with his ideas—an overmastering love of Athens, a passionate belief in freedom for Athenians, and a faith in the ability of man.
Pericles's trust in the intellect was shared by Athens's leading thinkers. His love of Athens found expression in the conception and the details of the Parthenon and the Propylaea. He was a frank imperialist, enlightened perhaps, but severe. He courted war, when he thought war would win advantages for Athens. As a strategist, he is certainly not above criticism, and in the long run his policies brought not victory but a disaster which shattered the power and degraded the democracy of Athens.
Ancient sources on Pericles are Thucydides and Plutarch. A good account of Pericles's life and work is by Edward Mewburn Walker and Frank Ezra Adcock in The Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 5 (1927). Studies of Pericles and his time include Evelyn Abbott, Pericles and the Golden Age of Athens (1897); Compton Mackenzie, Pericles (1937); Andrew R. Burn, Pericles and Athens (1949); Victor Ehrenberg, Pericles and Sophocles (1954); C. A. Robinson, ed., The Spring of Civilization: Periclean Athens (1955); and Henry Dickinson Westlake, Individuals in Thucydides (1968). □
Pericles was the leading statesman of Athens and brought it to the height of its political power and artistic achievement. The years from 446 to 429 b.c.e. have been called the Periclean Age.
Early life and family
Pericles was the son of Xanthippus, a statesman and general of an upper class family (probably the Bouzygae), and Agariste, a niece of the famous statesman Cleisthenes, the leader of a powerful clan, the Alcmeonidae. Pericles inherited great wealth; as a young man, he put up the money for the costly production of Aeschylus's play The Persae in 472 b.c.e. Pericles received the best education available, studying music under Damon and mathematics under Zeno of Elea. His greatest influence was a scholar named Anaxagoras, who taught him how to make speeches and was a model of the calm style that Pericles would use in politics. In his pursuit of a public career, Pericles chose to speak out in favor of a more advanced democracy.
Champion of democracy
Pericles became prominent in the Assembly, where he called for constitutional reform. He worked closely with Ephialtes, an older and more established leader of democratic views. They were both elected generals sometime before 462. In 462–461 they decided to attack Cimon, a leading conservative (one who believes in maintaining things as they are) and the most powerful of the generals in office, by accusing him of bribery. However, he was cleared of the charges. Later, Sparta's appeals to Athens for help against an uprising there were granted on the advice of Cimon and against the advice of Ephialtes. When the Athenian army under Cimon's command arrived to help, Spartan leaders changed their minds and dismissed them. This insulting treatment enraged the people of Athens and disgraced Cimon.
While Cimon and the army were off to help Sparta in 462, Ephialtes and Pericles carried out their extreme democratic reforms, stripping the Areopagus Council of all constitutional powers and making the authority of the Assembly and the Heliaea (people's courts) absolute. Athens also made alliances with Sparta's enemies, Argos and Thessaly. At this time Ephialtes was assassinated, and Pericles became the undisputed leader of Athens.
Legislator of domestic affairs
Pericles passed further legislation to weaken the Areopagus Council, introduced pay for political services, and restricted Athenian citizenship to children whose mothers and fathers were both Athenian. He also changed the Delian League, a collection of city-states bound together with Athens to stand against Persia, into an Athenian Empire. He collected annual payments from the member states to maintain a fleet of ships, and the money left over was used to improve Athens. Pericles oversaw the construction of many famous and beautiful temples and public buildings in Athens, including the Parthenon.
Pericles eventually proposed the recall of Cimon, which resulted in victories over Persia and a truce with Sparta. Pericles's own operations as a military commander in western waters in 455 and 454 were successful. However, it is not known how much Pericles was involved with later wars fought on two fronts—against Sparta in Greece (resulting in neither side winning) and against Persia in Egypt (which resulted in a heavy defeat).
Pericles's actions on behalf of the Athenian Empire led to increased problems with Sparta. In 447–446 the storm broke within the empire, with many regions rising up: Athens's power in Boeotia collapsed, Euboea revolted, Megara broke free from Athenian occupation, and Sparta invaded Attica. Leading an Athenian army, Pericles crossed to Euboea and then rushed back to face the enemy in Attica. To everyone's amazement the Spartan king withdrew his army. Pericles was said by some to have bribed the king. Pericles hurried back to Euboea and stamped out the revolt. A peace treaty was achieved, but Athens had lost most of its gains.
Pericles's foreign policy was to stop any revolt in the Athenian Empire and to resist Sparta. He paraded the naval power of Athens with an expedition in the Black Sea (c. 437), and he advised Athens to make alliances with Corcyra (Corfu), a leading naval power in the west, in 433. A series of incidents followed that resulted in war with Sparta and its allies in 431. Pericles's strategy was an offensive by sea, avoidance of battle on land, and control of the empire. Inside the walls of Athens, an outbreak of disease struck down a third of Athens's armed forces, two sons of Pericles among them. The people of Athens began to turn against him for the first time. He was fined but reelected general in 429 before dying later that year. The society he led followed his ideas—a love of Athens, a belief in freedom for Athenians, and a faith in the ability of man.
For More Information
Kagan, Donald. Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. New York: Free Press, 1991.
Poulton, Michael. Pericles and the Ancient Greeks. Austin, TX: Raintree/Steck-Vaughn, 1997.
Skeele, David, ed. Pericles: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 2000.
Circa 495-429 b.c.e.
Family Influence . Combining the legislative ability of Solon, the economic understanding of Peisistratus, the political instincts of Cleisthenes, and the military genius of Themisto-cles, Pericles was the consummate politician of Athens’s democracy. He was an Alcmaeonid, a member of one of Athens’s most prestigious, and controversial, families. (Some claimed the Alcmaeonids were cursed from their ancestors’ involvement in the massacre of the followers of the conspirator Cylon in 632 b.c.e.) His father, Xanthippus, played an important role in Greece’s defense against the Persians but was overshadowed by Themistocles, who had once engineered his ostracism.
Man of the People . Pericles began his political career by joining in the prosecution of the statesman and general Cimon, but after Ephialtes’ assassination in 462 b.c.e., he assumed the leadership role of the democratic faction in Athens. He championed the rights of the lower class and undertook various legislative measures that gave Athens’s citizens more effective control of their government and law courts. Pericles also supported a building program that enhanced the city’s beauty and provided a great deal of employment. (Among the edifices erected under his direction were the Acropolis, Parthenon, Pro-pylaea, and Odeon.) He was able to maintain the confidence of the people well enough so that, after having his leading opponent ostracized, he was able to be elected general fifteen years running. He also manipulated Athens’s enemies into fighting only when he felt Athens was really ready.
Intellectual . Although Pericles was married to an Athenian woman, his long relationship with Aspasia, a Milesian, is more famous. Together they were the center of an intellectual circle that included the sophist Anaxagoras and the sculptor Pheidias. At times, he had to take steps to defend both of these men in the courts because of some of their revolutionary ideas.
The Plague . During the early stages of the Second Peloponnesian War, Pericles strove to secure Athens’s cultural and political leadership in Greece. He expanded Athenian naval forces, reinforced settlements abroad, and improved the defenses of Athens and the port of Piraeus by constructing the third Long Wall. Stricken by the plague in 430, he died the next year. The historian Thucydides, a great admirer of Pericles, summarized his influence this way:
By his standing, judgement and financial integrity, Pericles was able freely to control the multitude and to lead them instead of being led by them because he never acquired power by improper means. He was never forced to say anything for their pleasure, but, on the contrary, had so high an estimation that he could say something against them that resulted in anger. Whenever he saw them emboldened at the wrong time and through arrogance, he would reduce them to fear with his words; on the other hand, if they were irrationally frightened, he could at once restore them to boldness. It became in name a democracy, but in fact rule by the first man whom the people trusted.
Cecil Maurice Bowra, Periclean Athens (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971).
A. R. Burn, Pericles and Athens (London: English Universities Press, 1948).
Greek statesman who led Athens to its democratic and cultural golden age, and directed construction of the Parthenon and Acropolis. Pericles rose to power as head of Athens' democratic party in 461 b.c. After the once feuding Greek city-states reached a truce in 451, Pericles worked to establish Athens as Greece's cultural and political center. He called for a massive building project, including the reconstruction of temples destroyed by the Persians, and the magnificent Acropolis and Parthenon were erected. Later, he extended Athenian settlements to accommodate the rapidly growing population, and constructed a third Long Wall to protect Athens and the port of Piraeus. In the late 430s, the Thirty Years' Peace with Sparta was at an end, and Pericles evacuated the countryside, calling his people within the Athens city walls. The city became crowded and unsanitary, and an ensuing plague decimated as much as one-third of the population. Pericles himself became ill and died in 429.