Category: Persons

Pericles and his circle

Pericles dominated the Athenian political scene for more than 30 years, leading the city to its apogee. Among his most important achievements was his contribution to the entrenchment of democracy, the rise of Athens as a major international military power, the commissioning and overseeing of brilliant building projects. His continued antagonizing of Sparta eventually led to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War.

Formative years

Pericles was born in c. 495. He was the son of Xanthippus and Agariste, who was born to the aristocratic clan of the Alcmaeonids. He was still very young at the outbreak of the Persian Wars, but he was a youth when they ended, when his father distinguished himself as a general during the Battle of Mycale. He was educated by eminent sophists and became a friend of Protagoras, Zeno of Elea, and especially Anaxagoras, who had gained repute for his studies in meteorology and other natural sciences.

His family tradition and his education led him to enter politics on the side of the democratic faction. His father had clashed with Miltiades and his mother’s ancestors had taken a stand against the tyrants. In fact Cleisthenes, the founder of democracy, was her uncle.

Born to an affluent family, he made his first public appearance at a rather young age, as the choregos (=sponsor) of Aeschylus’ Persians, where Themistocles was also praised. He then appeared as the accuser of Cimon, son of Miltiades, who represented the aristocratic faction.

The entrenchment of democracy

At the start of his political career he cooperated with the leader of the democratic faction, Ephialtes. The curtailment of the powers of the Areopagus, which at that time was controlled by the aristocrats, and the ostracism of Cimon, who was accused of being sympathetic towards the Spartans, constituted important stages in the evolution of the city’s polity. These actions, however, led to the murder of Ephialtes, leaving Pericles as the sole uncontested leader of the democratic faction.

In the years that followed he distinguished himself both as a strategos (=general) and a proponent of important decisions regarding the functioning of civic institutions. His new political adversary was Thucydides, son of Melesias, and a relative of Cimon. Their antagonism contributed to the organization of the opposing factions: Pericles gathered around him the supporters of radical reforms, while Thucydides was the champion of conservative politics.

…but the emulous ambition of these two men cut a deep gash in the state, and caused one section of it to be called the ‘Demos,’ or the People, and the other the ‘Oligoi,’ or the Few. (Plutarch, Pericles 11.3, trans. Bernadotte Perrin).

Six years after Ephialtes’ death, it was decided that the income class of the zeugitai would be eligible to participate in the draw for selecting archons – this was the class from which the vast majority of hoplites were drawn. Again following Pericles’ proposal, a stipend was instituted for judicial magistrates; this allowed less prosperous citizens to participate in the courts as judges.

As the number of Athenians had greatly increased (along with their privileges), it was decided, once more following Pericles’ proposal, to accord political rights only to boys of Athenian parentage on both sides.

It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while the law secures equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty a bar, but a man may benefit his country whatever be the obscurity of his condition. (Thucydides 2.37, trans. Benjamin Jowett).
Athens becomes a mighty military power

Pericles was first elected strategos around the time of his collaboration with Ephialtes; following Thucydides’ ostracism, which he had sought, he was continuously re-elected to this office -with only a minor hiatus- until his death. Under this capacity he often played a leading role in various military operations around the Mediterranean. He emerged victorious from his first engagement, an operation against the Sicyonians, although his attempt to capture the Oeniadae was abortive. He scored a number of successes in the so-called Second Sacred War (opposing Sparta’s bid to control Delphi) and distinguished himself during the Chersonesus campaign in the Hellespont, where he saved the Greeks from Thracian attacks. When the Euboeans defected from the Delian League, he turned against them with a great expeditionary force. In the meantime he was forced to deal with the Megarians and the Peloponnesians, convincing them to withdraw without a battle. He then returned to Euboea where he suppressed the rebellion.

His virtues as a military commander became evident during the clash between Athens and Samos, which culminated in a large naval battle and a protracted siege. It is said that he was the first to employ siege engines. He also successfully led the Athenian fleet into the Black Sea.

In his capacity as general, he was famous above all things for his saving caution; he neither undertook of his own accord a battle involving much uncertainty and peril, nor did he envy and imitate those who took great risks, enjoyed brilliant good-fortune, and so were admired as great generals; and he was for ever saying to his fellow-citizens that, so far as lay in his power, they would remain alive forever and be immortals. (Plutarch, Pericles 18.1, trans. Bernadotte Perrin).
The Parthenon and other monuments

Pericles was not a particularly sociable man. Even in his political appearances he was restrained, choosing to intervene only at crucial and necessary occasions. He was, however, greatly interested in the city’s festivals and the construction of religious edifices.

Through Pericles’ initiative, poor citizens could watch theatrical plays in the city for free. It was also decided to include musical contests in the Panathenaea festival. Using funds from the treasury of the Delian League he launched an ambitious building project on the Acropolis. He made Pheidias superintendant of the construction works, and the project was completed in a very short period of time. Architects Callicrates and Ictinus were commissioned for the construction of the Parthenon, and Mnesicles for the Propylaea. The chryselephantine adorational statue of the goddess was crafted by Pheidias himself. The building project included the Odeion and the Telesterion at Eleusis, as well as the beautification and restoration of many other temples.

These works, albeit greeted with general admiration, exposed Pericles to ferocious attacks. His friend Pheidias was targeted and accused of embezzlement and excesses. According to a tradition (most likely fictitious) he was incarcerated and died of poison. Many other friends and associates of Pericles were attacked whenever the opportunity arose. Anaxagoras faced the gravest risk of all, and he was forced to flee the city. The hetaera Aspasia, who had been living with him ever since his divorce, was put to trial for impiety, and came close to being found guilty. Her beauty and erudition already invited various remarks. She became a friend of Socrates, who according to Plato considered her Pericles’ instructor in the art of rhetoric.

The Peloponnesian War

Athens’ mighty power and her continuous competition with Sparta led to a confrontation between the two most powerful city-states of Greece. The occasion was provided when Athens sent reinforcements to Corfu aiding the island in its struggle against Corinth, and by a decree that debarred Megarians from all markets under Athenian control. In 431 the Peloponnesians, under the leadership of the Spartan king Archidamus, invaded Attica and looted its countryside. Following Pericles’ persistent proposals, the Athenians protected themselves behind their city walls, avoiding any military engagements on land. They did mobilize their fleet though, and pillaged the coasts of the Peloponnese. Pericles led a contingent against the Megarians. As the first year of war was drawing to its close, Pericles chose to deliver his famous funeral oration in honor of Athenian fallen warriors, which has been cited by Thucydides.

In the following year, while Pericles insisted on the same tactic and led the Athenian fleet to the Peloponnese, the city was struck by a great epidemic that decimated its population. Angered and desperate, the Athenians deprived him of his generalship and forced him to pay a fine. One year later, however he was re-elected strategos and was again in charge of the city and its naval operations.

Yet the epidemic raged on, claiming both of Pericles’ legitimate sons; soon after he also fell ill and succumbed to it. The war, which lasted until 404 with small respites, ended in Athens’ crushing defeat.

In his capacity as general, he was famous above all things for his saving caution; he neither undertook of his own accord a battle involving much uncertainty and peril, nor did he envy and imitate those who took great risks, enjoyed brilliant good-fortune, and so were admired as great generals; and he was for ever saying to his fellow-citizens that, so far as lay in his power, they would remain alive forever and be immortals. (Plutarch, Pericles 18.1, trans. Bernadotte Perrin).
Author: Dimitris Kirtatas
  • Podlecki, A. J. Perikles and his circle. Oxon/New York, 1998.
  • Kagan, D. Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. Toronto, 1998.
  • Azoulay, V. Pericles of Athens. Princeton, 2014.
  • Tracy, S. V. Pericles: A Sourcebook and Reader. Berkeley και Los Angeles, 2009.
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