Pericles was the greatest statesman of Ancient Athens who brought Democracy to its zenith. He built the most magnificent of the Athenian buildings, and came near to establishing Athenian dominance on the Hellenic world.
What is known of Pericles and his life derives largely from two sources. The historian Thucydides admired him and refused to criticise him. His account is weakened by the fact that, 40 years younger, he had no firsthand knowledge of Pericles’ early career; it suffers also from his approach, which concentrates on his intellectual capacity and his war leadership, omitting biographical details. The gaps are partly filled by Plutarch, who 500 years later, began writing the life of Pericles to describe a man of uncontested virtue and greatness at grips with the fickleness of the people.
Pericles was born sometime around 495 BC into the first generation able to use the mechanism of the popular vote against the old power of family politics. His father, Xanthippus, began his political career by a dynastic marriage into the old and controversial Athenian family, The Alcmeonids. He soon left their political camp, mainly due to disagreement over Persia. Taking up the role of legal prosecutor, he was ostracised in 484 BC (ie, exiled by the people for ten years). He returned to command the Athenian force at Mycale in 479 BC, and probably died soon afterwards.
Pericles inherited property at Cholargus to the north of Athens, making him very wealthy. His Alcmeonid mother, Agariste, provided him with relationships of sharply diminishing political value and her family curse, a religious defilement that was pedalled against him occasionally by his enemies.
The first known date of his life is 472 BC, when he paid for the production of the playwright Aeschylus’ Persian trilogy. Nothing further is known until 463 BC, when he unsuccessfully prosecuted Cimon, the leading general and statesman of the day. The charge was an accusation that Cimon hadn’t exploited an opportunity to conquer Macedon, implying that he advocated an expansionist policy for Athens.
Rise to Democratic Leadership
Pericles succeeded Ephialtes as head of the democratic party in 461 BC, but not as easily as the common story entails. They were men of considerable weight in Athens over the next 15 years. The outbreak of war among the Greek states in 459 BC made military talent a valuable asset, and Pericles only recorded campaign in the next few years was a naval expedition to the Corinthian Gulf in 454 BC, in which Athens defeated Achaea but failed to win more important objectives. Politically he is credited with some kind of rapprochement with Cimon, who is said to have been recalled and allowed to resume the war with Persia, but the date of Cimon’s recall is uncertain.
In 451 or 450 BC Pericles carried a law confining Athenian citizenship to those of Athenian parentage on both sides. Some suggest the move was a political attack on Cimon, who had a foreign mother. The upper classes had no prejudice against foreign marriages, although the lower classes were less tolerant, and the law was popular among them. Athenians were however generally tolerant of their foreign migrants who worked in their navy, public buildings and contributed to the commercial and cultural aspects that made Athens so powerful.
Cimon died sometime after 451 BC, during his last campaigns against Persia. The policy of war with Persia was abandoned and a formal peace was made. The Persian War was ultimately successful, but the city of Athens hadn’t fully rebuilt itself since the Persian sack of 480 BC.
Hostilities among the Greek states had come to an end in the five years truce of 451 BC. Pericles began a policy designed to secure Athens political and cultural leadership of Greece. It had already dominated the alliance that had continued the Persian War after Sparta’s withdrawal in 478 BC, a leadership strengthened by the transfer of the Delian Leagues treasury from Delos to Athens in 454 BC. If peace with Persia did not end the alliance, it may have ended with the annual tribute to the treasury. Whether to regain this tribute, or simply to further Athenian influence, Pericles called a conference of Greek states to consider the rebuilding of temples destroyed by the Persians, the payment of sacrifices due to the gods for salvation, and the freedom of the seas. Sparta would not co-operate, but Pericles continued on the narrower basis of the Athenian alliance. Tribute was to continue, and Athens would draw heavily on the reserves of the alliance for a massive public works programme centred on the Acropolis. In 447 BC, work started on the temple later known as the Parthenon and on the gold and ivory statue of Athena, which it was to house; the Acropolis project was to include among other things; a temple to victory and the Propylaea; the entrance gateway, far grander and more expensive than previous secular Greek buildings.
There was domestic criticism, however. Thucydides, son of Melesias (Not the historian) and a relative of Cimon, who had inherited some of his political support, denounced both the extravagance of the project and the immorality of using allied funds to support it. Pericles argued that the allies were paying for their defence, and, if that was assured, Athens did not have to account for how the money was spent. The argument ended with ostracism in 443 BC; Thucydides went into exile for ten years, leaving Pericles unchallenged.
There was initial resentment from the Allies at having to continue the tribute, and some scattered revolts. Pericles met the situation partly by extending a network of Athenian settlements throughout what was now the Athenian Empire, thus strengthening Athenian control and providing new lands for the growing Athenian population. In establishing one of these, Pericles engaged in his most admired campaign, the expulsion of barbarians from the Thracian Chersonese (Modern day Gallipoli). A more serious crisis came in 447 or 446 BC, however, when the cities of Boeotia, under Athenian control since 458 BC, beat a small Athenian army and successfully revolted. Euboea, crucial to Athenian control of the sea and food supplies, and Megara soon followed suit. Megara's strategic importance as a barrier between Athens and Sparta was immediately demonstrated by the appearance of a Spartan army north of the Isthmus in Attica. Pericles reacted swiftly. Although the details are largely unknown, it was agreed that Athens would give up its continental aspirations and pursue a maritime Empire. The Spartan Empire retired, Euboea was quickly reduced, and the arrangement was ratified by the thirty year’s peace. For Athens, the essential loss was that of Megara, which meant that a Spartan army could appear in Attica at any time. That Pericles doubted the stability of the settlement and saw the need to develop an alternative basic strategy for Athens is shown by his immediate construction of the ‘Long Wall’, a four mile wall connecting Athens with the port of Piraeus. This ensured that even when under siege, Athens dominance of the sea ensured she could be supplied via the Aegean.
Political and Military Achievements
After Thucydides’ ostracism, Pericles had little domestic opposition. His position rested on his continual re-election to the generalship and on his prestige, based, according to the historian Thucydides, on his intelligence and incorruptibility. From his youthful radicalism, he had become more moderate as he aged. Athens was, in the words of Thucydides, in name a democracy but governed by one man. Though Athenian democracy never gave more than several limited powers to the executive, the assembly gave Pericles what he wanted. Thucydides, obsessed with the power of intellect, takes little note of the need of a statesman to work hard, and it is Plutarch who provided the glimpses of a man who took no interest in his own estates, who was never seen on any road but that to public offices, and who was only recalled to have gone to one social occasion, which he had left early.
As the building projects continued, Pericles demonstrated Athenian superiority in other ways. In 443 BC, a Pan-Hellenic colony was founded under Athenian leadership at Thurii, in south Italy. It did not, however, form a continuing Athenian influence in the west, as had been hoped. At an unknown date, Pericles led the powerful Athenian navy to the Black Sea to demonstrate Athenian power and secure the corn route from southern Russia. As the buildings on the Acropolis rose, celebrations of the festivals of the Panathenaea grew more and more elaborate, and much was done to enhance the splendour of the mysteries of Eleusis, symbolic, among other things, of the Athenian claim to have brought corn and civilisation to the mainland.
Pericles’ last major campaign was the one interruption in these years. In 440 BC, Samos, one of Athens’ principal allies with a substantial fleet of its own, revolted, and despite a victory by Pericles against superior numbers, the revolt nearly succeeded. The campaign to recover Samos, although long and costly, was completely successful, and became a model against which later Athenian generals measured their achievements.
There had been a serious possibility that Sparta and her allies might intervene on this occasion. They did not, however, and the thirty year’s peace was upheld until the end of 430s BC. Tension grew as the decade progressed, particularly with regard to Corinth, Sparta’s ally, whose interests conflicted more obviously with those of Athens. By 443 BC, the situation was serious enough for Athens finances to be put on a war basis, and thereafter the drift to The Peloponnesian War continued. Pericles pursued a policy of firmness, coupled with careful manipulation of the diplomatic position to keep Athens technically in the right. The firmness was a puzzle to contemporaries, particularly his determination to enforce decrees excluding Megarian trade from the Athenian Empire.
Pericles strategic ideas were clear. He was an admiral rather than a general, and Athens’ naval resources were much superior to its land power. In the event of a siege, he would evacuate the countryside, bring the population into the Long Walls, refuse direct battle with Sparta and use the port to continually supply the city. Expenditure on building had been paid for by annual tribute, and enough capital had been reserved, he thought, for a long war, though expenditure turned out heavier than he had calculated.
The strategy had political weaknesses. The Athenian population had deep roots in the countryside, and it required great firmness to insist they allow their lands be ravaged without a fight. The middle class army suffered in morale, and the living conditions of the lower classes, though they were allowed activity in the fleet, deteriorated in the overcrowded city. The overcrowding had massive consequences in a plague, which in the second summer of the war took a quarter of the population. No obvious success counterbalanced the discomforts of war, and Pericles was deposed from office and fined. He was soon re-elected, but took no new initiatives before his death in Autumn 429 BC.
- Thucydides, Histories, bk. 1-2
- Plutarch, Life of Pericles
- Bowra, C.M, Periclean Athens (1971)
- Meiggs, R., The Athenian Empire (1972)