The greatest Athenian statesman, living c495–429 B.C. . Despite his aristocratic blood, he entered politics as a left-wing radical and by the mid-440s B.C. was preeminent in the government, steering Athens through its heyday of power and cultural achievement. More than any other individual, Pericles shaped classical Athens as a radical Democracy and naval power, as a center of learning, and as a city of architectural splendors, ascending to the Parthenon. Pericles' ambitious vision created this Athens that (to use his own phrase) was an Education to the rest of Greece. Yet he ended his days in disfavor, after his belligerence toward other Greek states had provoked the Peloponnesian War and his defensive military strategy had brought plague and demoralisation to his city.
Pericles never held any such post as "president" of Athens, since no such job existed under the democracy. His highest title was strategos , "military general, " a post to which the Athenians elected 10 different men annually. Unlike most other generals, however, Pericles was elected at least 20 times; we know that he served without interruption from 443 to 430 B.C..
Pericles' source of power was the demos —the common people, the mass of lower- and middle-income citizens. He was a politician they trusted to protect them against the rich and to guide the city. A rigorously intellectual man, Pericles was an accomplished orator, whose speeches in the public Assembly could sway his listeners to vote for his proposals.
Most of our knowledge of him comes from the Athenian historian Thucydides (1), who wrote ca. 430–400 B.C. , and from the biographer Plutarch, who wrote ca. 100 CE . Thucydides is especially helpful because he knew Pericles personally and understood his politics. Some details are added by other writers and by inscriptions recording Periclean-inspired legislation.
Pericles' father was Xanthippus, a distinguished Athenian soldier-politician. Pericles' mother was Agariste, a niece of the Athenian statesman Cleisthenes (1) and a member of the noble clan of the Alcmaeonids. The family's wealth and influence no doubt helped Pericles enter politics, but he soon disassociated himself from the Alcmaeonids and from other right-wing connections.
At about age 23 he served as choregos (paying sponsor) for Aeschylus' stage drama The Persians (472 B.C.). Pericles' involvement in this politically charged play identifies him as a follower of the beleaguered left-wing Athenian statesman Themistocles. In the 480s B.C. Themistocles had pushed two interrelated programs—radical democracy and a buildup of the navy. The lower-income citizens who followed Themistocles were the same men who served as crews in the labor-intensive warships. Gradually Pericles emerged as Themistocles' political heir.
In 463 B.C. , at about age 32, Pericles (unsuccessfully) prosecuted the conservative leader Kimon for bribery. The following year Pericles assisted the radical reformer Ephialtes in proposing legislation that dismantled the power of the Areopagus. Ephialtes' death and Kimon's Ostracism (both in 461 B.C. ) left Pericles as the foremost Athenian politician. His influence can be seen in the next decade, in Athens' left-leaning domestic policies and in its bellicose stance toward Sparta and certain other Greek states, such as Aegina.
In 461 B.C. Pericles urged the creation of the Long Walls, which were to stretch four miles from Athens down to its harbor at Piraeus. Completed ca. 457 B.C. , the walls turned Athens into an impregnable naval fortress. They also brought Piraeus' laborers and citizen-sailors more directly into Athenian politics.
Circa 457 B.C. Pericles sponsored a bill creating jury pay. This important democratic measure effectively opened jury duty to lower-income citizens. It was probably also Pericles who, sometime in the mid-400s B.C. , instituted public assistance for the poorest citizens.
By 460 B.C. Athens had slipped into an undeclared war against Sparta and its allies. Repeatedly elected as general, Pericles led a seaborne raid against the enemy city of Sicyon (ca. 454 B.C. ) and led an Athenian fleet to the Black Sea to make alliance with Greek cities there that could supply precious grain to Athens (ca. 452 B.C. ).
Circa 449 B.C. Pericles convinced his fellow citizens to accept an offered peace with Persia, officially ending the Persian Wars. To mark the event and to glorify the city, Pericles initiated a public building program, directed by the sculptor Phidias. This program—which created most of the famous buildings still standing today on the Athenian Acropolis—amounted to a show of dominance over Athens' Greek ally states in the Delian League. The league had been formed (ca. 478 B.C. ) as a mutual-defense alliance against Persia, but now Pericles was demonstrating that, rather than reduce or forgive the allies' war dues on account of the new peace, Athens would continue collecting dues and would use them as it pleased.
Pericles' imperialism is also evident in the use of Athenian garrison colonies (known as cleruchies) to punish and guard resistant Delian League states. Among the Greek regions that received these hated, land-grabbing, Athenian settler communities were Aegina, Euboea, and the Cycladic island of Naxos.
As reported by Thucydides, Pericles' grim imperialism is summarized in a speech to the Athenian assembly in 430 B.C. , after the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. "It is no longer possible for you to give up your empire, " Pericles told the people. "You hold the empire as a tyrant holds power: you may have been wrong to take it, but you cannot safely let it go." He went on in the speech to glorify Athens as "the greatest name in history … the greatest power that has ever yet arisen, a power to be remembered forever."
Soon after Pericles took over the parental role of Alcibiades, whos mother Deinomache, was a member of the Alcmeonidæ family, her father was Megacles, who was the brother of Pericles' mother Agariste. This explains why, when Alcibiades' father Clinias, who had won fame at the naval battle of Artemisium in 480, was killed at the battle of Coronea in 447, Pericles became his guardian (Alcibiades was about 4 at the time).
In 446 B.C. the Spartans invaded Athenian territory. Although Pericles was able to appease them with bribery and diplomatic concessions, the resulting Thirty Years' Peace was unpopular at Athens. Pericles was attacked by an Athenian right-winger named Thucydides (2)—not the historian, but his maternal grandfather. By 443 B.C. Pericles and his followers had rallied, convincing the Athenian people to ostracize Thucydides.
Having become preeminent, Pericles became inaccessible. The biographer Plutarch records a change in Pericles' personality at this point; no longer the straightforward man of the people, Pericles adopted a formal style that Plutach calls "aristocratic or even kingly." More than just indulging in arrogance, Pericles apparently was seeking to keep control of the people and to make himself impervious to bribery or undue influence. He became known for never accepting an invitation to dinner or to the drinking parties where rich men discussed politics. His cold, rational aloofness earned him the nickname "the Olympian" (as though he were a god of Mt. Olympus).
His supremacy was severely tested by the revolt of the Delian League allies Samos and Byzantium (440 B.C. ). The defeat of Samos required a huge Athenian naval effort, and Pericles' generalship seems to have come in for some criticism on the Athenian comic stage. In 440 or 439 B.C. Pericles sponsored a law suspending the performance of all comedy for three years.
He endured an indirect political attack in around 438 B.C., when his friends Phidias and Anaxagoras were charged with the crime of impiety. Aspasia, Pericles' common-law wife, might have been a third defendant. Phidias and Anaxagoras each departed from Athens at this time.
In the late 430s B.C. , when hostilities with Sparta and Corinth loomed, Pericles apparently saw war as inevitable, and refused to appease. It was undoubtedly he who advised the Athenians to make their fateful defense pact with Corcyra (433 B.C. ), which Corinth found so alarming, and he was likewise the author of the bellicose Megarian Decree (ca. 432 B.C. ), directed against the nearby city of Megara.
When the Peloponnesian War broke out (431 B.C. ), Pericles advised defense by land and offensive strikes by sea. With his faith in Athens' immense resources and fortifications, he convinced the rural citizens to evacuate their homes and contain themselves within the city walls, while the invading Spartans ravaged the countryside. This strategy backfired, however, when plague broke out among the Athenian refugees in their unsanitary encampments and swept the city (430 B.C. ). At the same time, large Athenian expeditions failed to capture either Megara or (in a siege directed by Pericles himself) Epidaurus.
Artwork by Von Folz. Pericles giving the funeral oration. His speech was recorded by Thucydides, and can be read here.
The angry Athenians voted to depose the 65-year-old Pericles from office and fine him a crushing 10 Talents. Relenting, they elected him as general for the following year. But in that year, 429 B.C. , he died, probably of the plague.
Pericles had two sons by an Athenian wife, whom he divorced for Aspasia c450 B.C. by a law of his own sponsoring, Pericles, being an Athenian citizen, could not legally marry Aspasia, who was an immigrant from Miletus. Still, they lived together for 20 years until his death. Their son, named Pericles, was made an Athenian citizen by a special vote of the assembly, but he was one of the six Athenian generals executed by the people after the sea battle of Arginusae in 406 B.C.
Text Citation: Sacks, David. "Pericles." Encyclopedia of the Ancient Greek World. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1995. Facts On File, Inc. Ancient History & Culture. <www.factsonfile.com>.
- ^ Diodorus Siculus Book 7 Chap.7