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.
Further Reading on Pericles
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).