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Pericles - Athenian Statesman and General

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Pericles1 was the leading Athenian statesman of the mid-to-late 5th Century BC, a period now known as the Athenian Golden Age. Athens was one of the most powerful of the Greek city states and as leader, Pericles was directly involved in all the major events of the era, such as the Peloponnesian War2. Pericles also oversaw the transformation of the Delian League (an Athenian-led organisation dedicated to protecting its members from the Persians) into a genuine Athenian Empire.

Most of our information on Pericles comes from the contemporary historian Thucydides and the Roman biographer Plutarch.

Background and Personal Life

Pericles was born into a powerful, aristocratic Athenian family, the Alcmaeonids, at around 495 BC. His father, Xanthippos, was a respected Athenian commander and his mother, Agariste3, was the niece of Cleisthenes, a famous Athenian who had led reforms to the Athenian democracy. Pericles married and had children but divorced his wife and became Aspasia's4 lover, an educated courtesan who ran a brothel. They had children together.

He also had some famous and influential friends, including Anaxagoras, a philosopher and scientist and Pheidias, the sculptor who created the great golden statue of Athena at the The Parthenon.

Pericles the General

Pericles was elected year after year to serve as a Strategos or General - at one stage, he was elected for 14 consecutive years. Although he was one of ten generals, he was considered to be their unofficial leader, as his colleagues had a great respect for him because of his military success. He led the armies of Athens in the field on several occasions:

  • In 446 BC he led the army against a revolt on the nearby island of Euboeia, which was attempting to leave the Delian League. While he was en route, the Spartans and their allies invaded Attica, the land of Athens. Pericles turned the army around to face the Spartans. However, they did not fight, and both contemporaries and modern historians suspect that Pericles bribed the Spartan king to return home without a battle. Many now considered a war between Athens and Sparta to be inevitable, and Pericles' actions gave Athens more time to prepare. He then returned to Euboeia and defeated the rebels.

  • Pericles successfully led the Athenian forces from 440 to 439 BC to put an end to the revolt of the island of Samos, once a powerful ally but now a dangerous enemy.

  • In about 436 BC, Pericles led Athens' almost invincible navy to the Black Sea to visit Athens's corn suppliers. The Athenian population was too large to be supported by home-grown corn, so they imported it from the Black Sea area. The security of this supply was a very important part of all Athenian foreign policy. The aim of the trip was to show locals Athens' power, so that they would not be tempted to jeopardise the all-important grain supply.

  • Pericles also came up with the Athenian strategy for fighting in the Peloponnesian War. He knew that the Spartan-led Peloponnesians were much stronger on land than the Athenians and their allies, while the Athenians were virtually unbeatable at sea. So, he adopted a defence strategy, ensuring that as many citizens as possible stayed within Athens' city walls and guarded the city. He would not be lured to fight an infantry battle that Athens would surely lose, even when the Peloponnesians burnt the crops and homes of the rural Athenians and he was being urged to lead the army out against them. While the Peloponnesians were on Athenian land, the Athenians launched reprisal naval raids against their territory of which Pericles led at least one in person.

Pericles the Orator

Pericles' political power came not only from his influence and success as a general. He was also a great public speaker, capable of persuading the Ecclesia (a gathering which all citizens could attend where major decisions were made) to follow him. His skill as an orator came to the fore when he was chosen to give the The first funeral speech of the Peloponnesian War of the Peloponnesian War. Funeral speeches were an Athenian tradition. The bones of all the soldiers who had died for Athens that year were collected and carried in a funeral procession, where a leading Athenian would make a speech praising their valour. It was a very important and solemn occasion.

Pericles the Politician

Pericles realised that to be truly powerful he would have to introduce policies which would benefit the Athenian masses - the ordinary people. This was in stark contrast to most previous politicians, who were, like Pericles, wealthy and aristocratic, but were more concerned with taking care of their own class, the minority, rather than the ordinary people. For example, Pericles proposed a motion to recall his political rival Cimon from exile when he understood that this was what the people wanted.

Pericles also spent a great deal of civic money on entertainment for the public such as plays, which made him even more popular. His policies were mostly successful because they provided benefits to the majority and because he was such a persuasive speaker. They included:

  • Providing pay for most Athenian officials: Previously, such positions had been unpaid, meaning that only the rich could really fill them. This change helped to open Athenian democracy to ordinary people. However, some positions - including generals - were not included.

  • Pay for jurors: The jury courts were a very important part of the Athenian state. The pay was very low, hardly enough to live on, but it was better than nothing and became a pension of sorts when they retired.

  • The Periclean building programme: Pericles is thought to have been responsible for proposing the building of the Parthenon and several other historic monuments. This brought a great deal of employment, as well as glory, to Athens.

  • The formation of the Athenian Empire: As mentioned above, it was Pericles who persuaded the people that they should not lose their grip on their Delian League allies, even after the Persian threat had faded and it was this that led the League to become, over time, an Athenian Empire. This brought money (in the form of a tribute from Athens' 'allies' and from the need for Athenian officials to oversee foreign states) and influence to the city.

  • The citizenship law: Pericles proposed a law which said that both parents had to be Athenian citizens in order for their children to be citizens. This new law reduced the number of marriages between Athenians and non-Athenians, made it easier to find husbands for Athenian women and kept wealth within the city. When when his own legitimate sons died (those born to his wife, not to his later lover, Aspasia), Pericles asked for and was granted an exception for his son with Aspasia, otherwise he would have had no heir.

Pericles was so powerful and influential that, after some time, he could contradict the people and do as he thought best rather than what they wanted. However, he was not always successful. For example, when Athens set out to colonise a place called Thourioi in Italy, Pericles proposed that it should only be open to Athenian settlers. Others wanted it to be pan-Hellenic, and this was what happened.

His enemies used Pericles' friends as a way of indirectly getting at Pericles. The sculptor Pheidias was tried for stealing some of the gold intended to pay for the statue of Athena and was jailed despite his innocence. Aspasia was indicted for disrespect to the gods, but was not convicted. Such attacks also implicated Pericles.

There were other influential politicians in Athens. These included Cimon and later Thucydides5, who both made policies which favoured the aristocrats. These rivals ensured that Pericles didn't have things his own way all the time. However, both rivals were eventually ostracised6, leaving Pericles with no real opponents.

According to Thucydides the historian, Pericles was respected as incorruptible, wise, patriotic and forward-looking. He was nicknamed 'the Olympian' because of this and the majesty of his being.

Fall in Popularity

Towards the end of his life, Pericles was used as something of a scapegoat for Athenian losses in the war. Athens also suffered greatly during a plague which hit the city in the war's early years. Due to Pericles' strategy of abandoning the countryside and strengthening the guard of the city, Athens became full of people. As a result, the plague spread quickly. The people were angry and Pericles was fined, but they seem to forgive him, probably because they felt sorry for him - he had lost his sister, his sons by his first wife and other relatives and friends in the plague. He was re-elected general the following year.

However, this stint as leader did not last, as Pericles too died of the plague in the autumn of 429 BC during the third year of the Peloponnesian War, to the great sorrow and detriment of Athens. For a fitting tribute to this great statesman, we leave the last word to the historian, Thucydides:

Pericles indeed, by his rank, ability, and known integrity, was enabled to exercise an independent control over the multitude - in short, to lead them instead of being led by them; for as he never sought power by improper means, he was never compelled to flatter them, but, on the contrary, enjoyed so high an estimation that he could afford to anger them by contradiction... In short, what was nominally a democracy became in his hands government by the first citizen.

More Information

For further information on the Pericles and the Peloponnesian War, the reader is advised to consult Thucydides's work, A translation of Thucydides' book The History of the Peloponnesian War.

1Note that this entry is not about the Shakespeare play, of which the title character shares the same name. They are not the same person.2A long war between Athens and Sparta, where the Greek states found allies amongst themselves. Sparta eventually won the war.3One of the few women to be named in contemporary history.4Another of the few women to be named by historians.5Not the historian.6A period of exile lasting ten years imposed after a vote by the Ecclesia.

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