Faces of Greece: Pericles

pericles

Throughout history, there have been individuals who have left a lasting impact on their era. Pericles, a name associated with the greatness of ancient Athens, was undoubtedly one of them. His accomplishments are essential to Greece’s Golden Age, a time of numerous political, artistic, and intellectual advancements. Today, we explore the life and works of Pericles, one of the most influential Greek politicians to this day, as we know it from Thucydides, Plutarch, and other historians.

10 Facts about Pericles:

  1. Pericles was a statesman born into a highly-influential family of politicians
  2. His name translated to “the one of exceeding glory” or simply “far-famed”
  3. Pericles has been described “the first citizen of Athens” by historian Thucydides
  4. The politician has influenced an entire era known as the “Golden Age of Pericles”
  5. Athens became the epicenter of democracy and culture thanks to Pericles
  6. Pericles is best remembered for his building program on the Acropolis Hill
  7. The politician played a crucial role in the course of the Peloponnesian War
  8. The Athenian statesman managed to have most of his opponents ostracized 
  9. Pericles’ wife, Aspasia, was often criticized for being a non-Athenian
  10. The Athenian statesman died in 429 BC from the Plague

Born in Aristocracy

In 495 BC, the wealthy Athenian politician Xanthippus and Agariste, a descendant of the noble Alcmaeonid clan, welcomed their baby boy into their family. His name was Pericles, which translates to “the one of exceeding glory”. According to Herodotus, a few nights before the day of his birth, Agariste dreamed that she give birth to a lion cub instead of a human baby. This fact can only bring Alexander the Great to mind, whose mother had dreamt that her womb was struck by Zeus’ lightning. Indeed, with a glorious name and a symbolic dream right before his birth, Pericles was set to be one of the most glorious individuals in the world; his name is remembered to this day.

Growing up, it was obvious that Pericles was a natural-born leader. He was not only charismatic but also well-educated. Thanks to his family’s fortune, he had the privilege to study next to great philosophers, such as Protagoras, Zeno, and Anaxagoras. He was also a talented musician, which increased his overall popularity. 

Entering Politics

One of the early steps in his political career was his association with the democratic leader Ephialtes. Together, they worked to reduce the power and influence of the aristocratic Council of the Areopagus, which had held significant sway in Athens. Their efforts led to the Ephialtic Reforms in 462 BC, which curtailed the authority of the Areopagus and strengthened the democratic governance of Athens. The ancient Greek politician has since been remembered as one of the most democratic figures to have ever existed.  

Pericles later held various political positions, including serving as a Strategos (military general) and a member of the Boule (the Athenian Council). He consistently advocated for the interests of the common citizens and played a pivotal role in shaping Athenian democracy during his time in politics.

Becoming Strategos

His ascent to leadership continued, and by the mid-5th century BC, Pericles was the de facto leader of Athens. He held the office of Strategos for numerous years, making him one of the most influential statesmen in the city’s history.

The Greek historian Thucydides was an admirer of Pericles. However, not everyone liked him. Plato, for example, has quoted Socrates saying in his dialogue “Gorgias”  that “Pericles has made the Athenians idle, cowardly, talkative, and avaricious, by starting the system of public fees”.

The Delian League and the Periclean Building Program

Pericles is also known for asserting Athenian control over the Delian League. That was a type of confederacy of ancient Greek city states led by Athens and based on the island of Delos. It was founded in 478 BC to unite the Athenians and the islanders of the Aegean Sea against the Persians. However, it didn’t take long until some of the islanders became dissatisfied with the league, due to the common funds being used to upgrade the infrastructure of Athens. 

Indeed, Pericles initiated a building program to restore various temples that had been destroyed in the past by the Persians. During what is known as the golden age of Athens, various architectural wonders appeared in the city. These include the marble temple of goddess Athena, known as the Parthenon, which still overlooks the city of Athens from the Acropolis Hill.

The Peloponnesian War

Although Pericles is now remembered positively for the Athenian building program that resulted in the creation of such marvelous works of architecture, he is often blamed for a strategic move that resulted in catastrophe. That is no other than the Athenian war against Sparta, which, according to Plutarch and Thucydides, was initiated by Pericles. The Athenian Strategos was alarmed by the power oligarch Sparta was gaining and viewed the city-state as a threat to Democratic Athens. As Thucydides describes in the “History of the Peloponnesian War”, “(…) the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon (Sparta), made war inevitable”.

The Peloponnesian War, as it is known, lasted over 20 years and it was separated into three phases. It caused at least 18.000 deaths in the battleground and an unknown number of civilian casualties. In 404 BC, the Spartan general Lysander demolished the walls of Athens and the war resulted in the end of the Delian league. Athens and its allies were now ruled by the so-called Thirty Tyrants regime, which did not last for more than a year. In 403 BC, the Athenians overthrew the Tyrants and democracy was re-established. The financial, military, and moral costs of the war, however, were obvious. Despite that, during the war, Athens continued being a cultural center. For example, the events inspired numerous ancient Greek plays, including the famous “Lysistrata” by comedian Aristophanes. 

Pericles’ Legacy

Regardless of the result of the Peloponnesian War, the costly building program, and the dissatisfaction of the Athenian allies over their taxation, Pericles is still remembered as one of the best political figures in the world. His Democratic reformations have inspired modern politics and his focus on education, the arts, and philosophy, has made Athens a major cultural center over the centuries. His name is associated with the classical period of Greece, which has influenced the West as no other. Our modern civilization’s respect on the arts, history, philosophy, and science, can all be attributed back to this era, with Pericles leading the way.

Pericles lived a long life next to his wife Aspasia and had at least three sons. He departed the world of the living and reached hysterophemia in 429 BC, after contacting the mysterious microorganism that caused the infamous Plague of Athens, a pandemic that killed one quarter of the Athenian population.  

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Marialena Perpiraki is a journalist and writer from Athens, Greece. In 2020, she founded Helinika as a cross-media platform.

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