Pericles (also spelled Perikles) (ca. 495-429 B.C.E., Greek: Περικλῆς, meaning "surrounded by glory") was a prominent and influential statesman, orator, and general of Athens during the city's Golden Age-specifically, the time between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. He was descended, through his mother, from the powerful and historically influential Alcmaeonid family.

Pericles had such a profound influence on Athenian society that Thucydides, his contemporary historian, acclaimed him as "the first citizen of Athens." Pericles turned the Delian League into an Athenian empire and led his countrymen during the first two years of the Peloponnesian War. The period during which he led Athens, roughly from 461 to 429 B.C.E., is sometimes known as the "Age of Pericles," though the period thus denoted can include times as early as the Greco-Persian Wars, or as late as the next century.

Pericles promoted the arts and literature; this was a chief reason Athens holds the reputation as the educational and cultural centre of the ancient Greek world. He started an ambitious project that built most of the surviving structures on the Acropolis (including the Parthenon). This project beautified the city, exhibited its glory, and gave work to the people.1 Furthermore, Pericles fostered Athenian democracy to such an extent that critics call him a populist.23

Early years

Pericles was born around 495 B.C.E., in the deme of Cholargos just north of Athens.α› He was the son of the politician Xanthippus, who, although ostracized in 485-4 B.C.E., returned to Athens to command the Athenian contingent in the Greek victory at Mycale just five years later. Pericles' mother, Agariste, was a scion of the powerful and controversial noble family of the Alcmaeonidae, and her familial connections played a crucial role in starting Xanthippus' political career. Agariste was the great-granddaughter of the tyrant of Sicyon, Cleisthenes, and the niece of the Supreme Athenian reformer Cleisthenes, another Alcmaeonid.β›4 According to Herodotus and Plutarch, Agariste dreamed, a few nights before Pericles' birth, that she had borne a lion.56 One interpretation of the anecdote treats the lion as a traditional symbol of greatness, but the story may also allude to the unusual size of Pericles' skull, which became a popular target of contemporary comedians.67 (Although Plutarch claims that this deformity was the reason that Pericles was always depicted wearing a helmet, this is not the case; the helmet was actually the symbol of his official rank as strategos (general)).8

"Our polity does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. It is called a democracy, because not the few but the many govern. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition."Pericles' Funeral Oration as recorded by Thucydides, 2.37γ›; Thucydides disclaims verbal accuracy.

Pericles belonged to the local tribe of Acamantis (Ἀκαμαντὶς φυλὴ). His early years were quiet; the introverted, young Pericles avoided public appearances, preferring to devote his time to his studies.9

His family's nobility and wealth allowed him to fully pursue his inclination toward education. He learned music from the masters of the time (Damon or Pythocleides could have been his teachers)1011 and he is considered to have been the first politician to attribute great importance to philosophy.9 He enjoyed the company of the philosophers Protagoras, Zeno of Elea and Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras in particular became a close friend and influenced him greatly.1012 Pericles' manner of thought and rhetorical charisma may have been in part products of Anaxagoras' emphasis on emotional calm in the face of trouble and skepticism about divine phenomena.4 His proverbial calmness and self-control are also regarded as products of Anaxagoras' influence.13

Political career until 431 B.C.E.

Entering politics

In the spring of 472 B.C.E., Pericles presented the Persae of Aeschylus at the Greater Dionysia as a liturgy, demonstrating that he was then one of the wealthier men of Athens.4 Simon Hornblower has argued that Pericles' selection of this play, which presents a nostalgic picture of Themistocles' famous victory at Salamis, shows that the young politician was supporting Themistocles against his political opponent Cimon, whose faction succeeded in having Themistocles ostracized shortly afterwards.14

Plutarch says that Pericles stood first among the Athenians for 40 years.15 If this was so, Pericles must have taken up a position of leadership by the early 460s B.C.E. Throughout these years he endeavored to protect his privacy and tried to present himself as a model for his fellow citizens. For example, he would often avoid banquets, trying to be frugal.1617

In 463 B.C.E. Pericles was the leading prosecutor of Cimon, the leader of the conservative faction, who was accused of neglecting Athens' vital interests in Macedon.18 Although Cimon was acquitted, this confrontation proved that Pericles' major political opponent was vulnerable.19

Ostracizing Cimon

A modern statue of Pericles in modern Cholargos (Pericles' avenue). The name of the suburb dates to ancient Athens, but the ancient deme of Cholargos, which belonged to the tribe of Acamantis, was near modern Kamatero or Peristeri.

Around 462-461 B.C.E. the leadership of the democratic party decided it was time to take aim at the Areopagus, a traditional council controlled by the Athenian aristocracy, which had once been the most powerful body in the state.20 The leader of the party and mentor of Pericles, Ephialtes, proposed a sharp reduction of the Areopagus' powers. The Ecclesia (the Athenian Assembly) adopted Ephialtes' proposal without strong opposition.21 This reform signalled the commencement of a new era of "radical democracy".20 The democratic party gradually became dominant in Athenian politics and Pericles seemed willing to follow a populist policy in order to cajole the public. According to Aristotle, Pericles' stance can be explained by the fact that his principal political opponent, Cimon, was rich and generous, and was able to secure public favor by lavishly bestowing his sizable personal fortune.18 The historian Loren J. Samons, argues, however, that Pericles had enough resources to make a political mark by private means, had he so chosen.22

In 461 B.C.E., Pericles achieved the political elimination of this formidable opponent using the weapon of ostracism. The ostensible accusation was that Cimon betrayed his city by acting as a friend of Sparta.23

Even after Cimon's ostracism, Pericles continued to espouse and promote a populist social policy.21 He first proposed a decree that permitted the poor to watch theatrical plays without paying, with the state covering the cost of their admission. With other decrees he lowered the property requirement for the archonship in 458-457 B.C.E. and bestowed generous wages on all citizens who served as jurymen in the Heliaia (the supreme court of Athens) some time just after 454 B.C.E.24 His most controversial measure, however, was a law of 451 B.C.E. limiting Athenian citizenship to those of Athenian parentage on both sides.25

"Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us."Pericles' Funeral Oration as recorded by Thucydides (II, 41) γ›

Such measures impelled Pericles' critics to regard him as responsible for the gradual degeneration of the Athenian democracy. Constantine Paparrigopoulos, a major modern Greek historian, argues that Pericles sought for the expansion and stabilization of all democratic institutions.26 Hence, he enacted legislation granting the lower classes access to the political system and the public offices, from which they had previously been barred on account of limited means or humble birth.27 According to Samons, Pericles believed that it was necessary to raise the demos, in which he saw an untapped source of Athenian power and the crucial element of Athenian military dominance.28 (The fleet, backbone of Athenian power since the days of Themistocles, was manned almost entirely by members of the lower classes.29)

Cimon, on the other hand, apparently believed that no further free space for democratic evolution existed. He was certain that democracy had reached its peak and Pericles' reforms were leading to the stalemate of populism. According to Paparrigopoulos, history vindicated Cimon, because Athens, after Pericles' death, sank into the abyss of political turmoil and demagogy. Paparrigopoulos maintains that an unprecedented regression descended upon the city, whose glory perished as a result of Pericles' populist policies.26 According to another historian, Justin Daniel King, radical democracy benefitted people individually, but harmed the state.30 On the other hand, Donald Kagan asserts that the democratic measures Pericles put into effect provided the basis for an unassailable political strength.31 Cimon finally accepted the new democracy and did not oppose the citizenship law, after he returned from exile in 451 B.C.E.32

Leading Athens

Ephialtes' murder in 461 B.C.E. paved the way for Pericles to consolidate his authority.δ› Lacking any robust opposition after the expulsion of Cimon, the unchallengeable leader of the democratic party became the unchallengeable ruler of Athens. He remained in power almost uninterruptedly until his death in 429 B.C.E.

First Peloponnesian War

Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends
Pericles, Aspasia, Alcibiades and friends viewing Phidias' work. Alma-Tadema, 1868, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Pericles made his first military excursions during the First Peloponnesian War, which was caused in part by Athens' alliance with Megara and Argos and the subsequent reaction of Sparta. In 454 B.C.E. he attacked Sicyon and Acarnania.33 He then unsuccessfully tried to take Oeniadea on the Corinthian gulf, before returning to Athens.34 In 451 B.C.E., Cimon is said to have returned from exile to negotiate a five years' truce with Sparta after a proposal of Pericles, an event which indicates a shift in Pericles' political strategy.35 Pericles may have realized the importance of Cimon's contribution during the ongoing conflicts against the Peloponnesians and the Persians. Anthony J. Podlecki argues, however, that Pericles' alleged change of position was invented by ancient writers to support "a tendentious view of Pericles' shiftiness".36

Plutarch states that Cimon struck a power-sharing deal with his opponents, according to which Pericles would carry through the interior affairs and Cimon would be the leader of the Athenian army, campaigning abroad.37 If it was actually made, this bargain would constitute a concession on Pericles' part that he was not a great strategist. Kagan believes that Cimon adapted himself to the new conditions and promoted a political marriage between Periclean liberals and Cimonian conservatives.32

In the mid-450s the Athenians launched an unsuccessful attempt to aid an Egyptian revolt against Persia, which led to a prolonged siege of a Persian fortress in the Nile River Delta. The campaign culminated in a disaster on a very large scale; the besieging force was defeated and destroyed.38 In 451-450 B.C.E. the Athenians sent troops to Cyprus. Cimon defeated the Persians in the Battle of Salamis, but died of disease in 449 B.C.E. Pericles is said to have initiated both expeditions in Egypt and Cyprus,39 although some researchers, such as Karl Julius Beloch, argue that the dispatch of such a great fleet conforms with the spirit of Cimon's policy.40

Complicating the account of this complex period is the issue of the Peace of Callias, which allegedly ended hostilities between the Greeks and the Persians. The very existence of the treaty is hotly disputed, and its particulars and negotiation are equally ambiguous.41 Ernst Badian believes that a peace between Athens and Persia was first ratified in 463 B.C.E. (making the Athenian interventions in Egypt and Cyprus violations of the peace), and renegotiated at the conclusion of the campaign in Cyprus, taking force again by 449-448 B.C.E.42 John Fine, on the other hand, suggests that the first peace between Athens and Persia was concluded in 450-449 B.C.E., as a result of Pericles' strategic calculation that ongoing conflict with Persia was undermining Athens' ability to spread its influence in Greece and the Aegean.41 Kagan believes that Pericles used Callias, a brother-in-law of Cimon, as a symbol of unity and employed him several times to negotiate important agreements.43

In the spring of 449 B.C.E., Pericles proposed the Congress Decree, which led to a meeting ("Congress") of all Greek states in order to consider the question of rebuilding the temples destroyed by the Persians. The Congress failed because of Sparta's stance, but Pericles' real intentions remain unclear.44 Some historians think that he wanted to prompt some kind of confederation with the participation of all the Greek cities, others think he wanted to assert Athenian pre-eminence.45 According to the historian Terry Buckley the objective of the Congress Decree was a new mandate for the Delian League and for the collection of "phoros" (taxes).46

"Remember, too, that if your country has the greatest name in all the world, it is because she never bent before disaster; because she has expended more life and effort in war than any other city, and has won for herself a power greater than any hitherto known, the memory of which will descend to the latest posterity."Pericles' Third Oration according to Thucydides (II, 64) γ›

During the Second Sacred War Pericles led the Athenian army against Delphi and reinstated Phocis in its sovereign rights on the oracle.47 In 447 B.C.E. Pericles engaged in his most admired excursion, the expulsion of barbarians from the Thracian peninsula of Gallipoli, in order to establish Athenian colonists in the region.448 At this time, however, Athens was seriously challenged by a number of revolts among its allies (or, to be more accurate, its subjects). In 447 B.C.E. the oligarchs of Thebes conspired against the democratic faction. The Athenians demanded their immediate surrender, but, after the Battle of Coronea, Pericles was forced to concede the loss of Boeotia in order to recover the prisoners taken in that battle.9 With Boeotia in hostile hands, Phocis and Locris became untenable and quickly fell under the control of hostile oligarchs.49 In 446 B.C.E., a more dangerous uprising erupted. Euboea and Megara revolted. Pericles crossed over to Euboea with his troops, but was forced to return when the Spartan army invaded Attica. Through bribery and negotiations, Pericles defused the imminent threat, and the Spartans returned home.50 When Pericles was later audited for the handling of public money, an expenditure of ten talents was not sufficiently justified, since the official documents just referred that the money was spent for a "very serious purpose." Nonetheless, the "serious purpose" (namely the bribe) was so obvious to the auditors that they approved the expenditure without official meddling and without even investigating the mystery.51 After the Spartan threat had been removed, Pericles crossed back to Euboea to crush the revolt there. He then inflicted a stringent punishment on the landowners of Chalcis, who lost their properties. The residents of Istiaia, meanwhile, who had butchered the crew of an Athenian trireme, were uprooted and replaced by 2000 Athenian settlers.51 The crisis was brought to an official end by the Thirty Years' Peace (winter of 446-445 B.C.E.), in which Athens relinquished most of the possessions and interests on the Greek mainland which it had acquired since 460 B.C.E., and both Athens and Sparta agreed not to attempt to win over the other state's allies.49

Final battle with the conservatives

In 444 B.C.E., the conservative and the democratic faction confronted each other in a fierce struggle. The ambitious new leader of the conservatives, Thucydides (not to be confused with the historian of the same name), accused Pericles of profligacy, criticizing the way he spent the money for the ongoing building plan. Thucydides managed, initially, to incite the passions of the ecclesia in his favor, but, when Pericles, the leader of the democrats, took the floor, he put the conservatives in the shade. Pericles responded resolutely, proposing to reimburse the city for all the expenses from his private property, under the term that he would make the inscriptions of dedication in his own name.52 His stance was greeted with applause, and Thucydides suffered an unexpected defeat. In 442 B.C.E., the Athenian public ostracized Thucydides for ten years and Pericles was once again the unchallenged suzerain of the Athenian political arena.52

Athens' rule over its alliance

Pericles wanted to stabilize Athens' dominance over its alliance and to enforce its pre-eminence in Greece. The process by which the Delian League transformed into an Athenian empire is generally considered to have begun well before Pericles' time,53 as various allies in the league chose to pay tribute to Athens instead of manning ships for the league's fleet, but the transformation was speeded and brought to its conclusion by measures implemented by Pericles.54 The final steps in the shift to empire may have been triggered by Athens' defeat in Egypt, which challenged the city's dominance in the Aegean and led to the revolt of several allies, such as Miletus and Erythrae.55 Either because of a genuine fear for its safety after the defeat in Egypt and the revolts of the allies, or as a pretext to gain control of the League's finances, Athens transferred the treasury of the alliance from Delos to Athens in 454-453 B.C.E.56 By 450-449 B.C.E. the revolts in Miletus and Erythrae were quelled and Athens restored its rule over its allies.57 Around 447 B.C.E. Clearchus proposed the Coinage Decree, which imposed Athenian silver coinage, weights and measures on all of the allies.46 According to one of the decree's most stringent provisions, surplus from a minting operation was to go into a special fund, and anyone proposing to use it otherwise was subject to the death penalty.58

It was from the alliance's treasury that Pericles drew the funds necessary to enable his ambitious building plan, centered on the "Periclean Acropolis," which included the Propylaea, the Parthenon and the golden statue of Athena, sculpted by Pericles' friend, Phidias.59 In 449 B.C.E. Pericles proposed a decree allowing the use of 9000 talents to finance the major rebuilding program of Athenian temples.46 Angelos Vlachos, a Greek Academician, points out that the utilization of the alliance's treasury, initiated and executed by Pericles, is one of the largest embezzlements in human history; this misappropriation financed, however, some of the most marvelous artistic creations of the ancient world.60

Samian War

A 20 drachma coin of the Hellenic Republic picturing Pericles

The Samian War was the last significant military event before the Peloponnesian War. After Thucydides' ostracism, Pericles was re-elected yearly to the generalship, the only office he ever officially occupied, although his influence was so great as to make him the de facto ruler of the state. In 440 B.C.E. Samos was at war with Miletus over control of Priene, an ancient city of Ionia on the foot-hills of Mycale. Worsted in the war, the Milesians came to Athens to plead their case against the Samians.61 When the Athenians ordered the two sides to stop fighting and submit the case to arbitration at Athens, the Samians refused.62 In response, Pericles passed a decree dispatching an expedition to Samos, "alleging against its people that, though they were ordered to break off their war against the Milesians, they were not complying".ε› In a naval battle the Athenians led by Pericles and the other nine generals defeated the forces of Samos and imposed on the island an administration pleasing to them.62 When the Samians revolted against Athenian rule, Pericles compelled the rebels to capitulate after a tough siege of eight months, which resulted in substantial discontent among the Athenian sailors.63 Pericles then quelled a revolt in Byzantium and, when he returned to Athens, he gave a funeral oration to honor the soldiers who died in the expedition.64

Between 438 B.C.E.-436 B.C.E. Pericles led Athens' fleet in Pontus and established friendly relations with the Greek cities of the region.65 Pericles focused also on internal projects, such as the fortification of Athens (the building of the "middle wall" about 440 B.C.E.), and on the creation of new cleruchies, such as Andros, Naxos and Thurii (444 B.C.E.) as well as Amphipolis (437 B.C.E.-436 B.C.E.).66

Personal attacks

Aspasia of Miletus (c.469 B.C.E.-c.406 B.C.E.), Pericles' companion

Pericles and his friends were never immune from attack, as preeminence in democratic Athens was not equivalent to absolute rule.67 Just before the eruption of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles and two of his closest associates, Phidias and his companion, Aspasia, faced a series of personal and judicial attacks.

Phidias, who had been in charge of all building projects, was first accused of embezzling gold intended for the statue of Athena, and then of impiety, because, when he wrought the battle of the Amazons on the shield of Athena, he carved out a figure that suggested himself as a bald old man, and also inserted a very fine likeness of Pericles fighting with an Amazon.68 Pericles' enemies also found a false witness against Phidias, named Menon.

Aspasia, who was noted for her ability as a conversationalist and adviser, was accused of corrupting the women of Athens in order to satisfy Pericles' perversions.6970 Aspasia was probably a hetaera and ran a brothel,7172 although these allegations are disputed by modern scholars.7374 The accusations against her were probably nothing more than unproven slanders, but the whole experience was very bitter for Pericles. Although Aspasia was acquitted thanks to a rare emotional outburst by Pericles, his friend, Phidias, died in prison and another friend of his, Anaxagoras, was attacked by the ecclesia for his religious beliefs.68

Beyond these initial prosecutions, the ecclesia attacked Pericles himself by asking him to justify his ostensible profligacy with, and maladministration of, public money.70 According to Plutarch, Pericles was so afraid of the oncoming trial that he did not let the Athenians yield to the Lacedaemonians.70 Beloch also believes that Pericles deliberately brought on the war to protect his political position at home.75 Thus, at the start of the Peloponnesian War, Athens found itself in the awkward position of entrusting its future to a leader whose preeminence had just been seriously shaken for the first time in over a decade.9

Peloponnesian War

Main article: Peloponnesian War

The causes of the Peloponnesian War have been much debated, but most ancient historians laid the blame on Pericles and Athens. Plutarch seems to believe that Pericles and the Athenians incited the war, scrambling to implement their belligerent tactics "with a sort of arrogance and a love of strife".στ› Thucydides hints at the same thing; although he is generally regarded as an admirer of Pericles, Thucydides has, at this point, been criticized for bias towards Sparta.ζ›

Prelude to the war

Anaxagoras and Pericles by Augustin-Louis Belle (1757-1841)

Pericles was convinced that the war against Sparta, which could not conceal its envy of Athens' pre-eminence, was inevitable if not to be welcomed.76 Therefore he did not hesitate to send troops to Corcyra to reinforce the Corcyraean fleet, which was fighting against Corinth.77 In 433 B.C.E. the enemy fleets confronted each other at the Battle of Sybota and a year later the Athenians fought Corinthian colonists at the Battle of Potidaea; these two events contributed greatly to Corinth's lasting hatred of Athens. During the same period, Pericles proposed the Megarian Decree, which resembled a modern trade embargo. According to the provisions of the decree, Megarian merchants were excluded from the market of Athens and the ports in its empire. This ban strangled the Megarian economy and strained the fragile peace between Athens and Sparta, which was allied with Megara. According to George Cawkwell, a praelector in ancient history, with this decree Pericles breached the Thirty Years Peace "but, perhaps, not without the semblance of an excuse".78 The Athenians' justification was that the Megarians had cultivated the sacred land consecrated to Demeter and had given refuge to runaway slaves, a behavior which the Athenians considered to be impious.79

After consultations with its allies, Sparta sent a deputation to Athens demanding certain concessions, such as the immediate expulsion of the Alcmaeonidae family including Pericles, and the retraction of the Megarian Decree, threatening war if the demands were not met. The obvious purpose of these proposals was the instigation of a confrontation between Pericles and the people; this event, indeed, would come about a few years later.80 At that time, the Athenians unhesitatingly followed Pericles' instructions. In the first legendary oration Thucydides puts in his mouth, Pericles advised the Athenians not to yield to their opponents' demands, since they were militarily stronger.81 Pericles was not prepared to make unilateral concessions, believing that "if Athens conceded on that issue, then Sparta was sure to come up with further demands."82 Consequently, Pericles asked the Spartans to offer a quid pro quo. In exchange for retracting the Megarian Decree, the Athenians demanded from Sparta to abandon their practice of periodic expulsion of foreigners from their territory (xenelasia) and to recognize the autonomy of its allied cities, a request implying that Sparta's hegemony was also ruthless.83 The terms were rejected by the Spartans, and, with neither side willing to back down, the two sides prepared for war. According to Athanasios G. Platias and Constantinos Koliopoulos, professors of strategic studies and international politics, "rather than to submit to coercive demands, Pericles chose war."82 Another consideration that may well have influenced Pericles' stance w