Pericles (c.495-429 BC)

Pericles (c.495-429 BC) was an Athenian statesmen and general largely responsible for the development of the mature form of Athenian democracy, the restoration of the city after the Persian sack of 480 and the rise of the Athenian Empire, but also for the outbreak of the Great Peloponnesian War, which ended with the destruction of that empire and the temporary humbling of his city.

Pericles's father was Xanthippus, a wealthy Athenian with estates at Cholargus, north of Athens, and commander of the Athenian forces at the naval battle of Mycale in 479. His mother was Agariste, a member of the controversial Alcmaeonid aristocratic family, a powerful clan at the time of his birth, but a declining power after that.

Very little is known about his early life, other than his education by the musical theorist Damon.

Regions of Ancient Greece
Regions of
Ancient Greece

Pericles first appears in the historical record in 472, when he sponsored the production of the playwright Aeschylus' Persian trilogy. By this point his father had almost certainly died, leaving Pericles as head of his family and a very wealthy man. Despite this he was associated with the democratic facton in Athens.

He next appears in 463 when he prosecuted the successful Athenian commander Cimon for failing to take a chance to conquer Macedonia in the aftermath of his successful siege of Thasos. The prosecution failed, but it did signal the hostility between the two men. Despite that Pericles doesn’t appear to have been involved in the ostracism of Cimon.

In 461 the democratic leader Ephialtes was assassinated. Pericles appears to have succeeded him as leader of the democratic faction in Athens, although with some powerful rivals. The following year saw the outbreak of the First Peloponnesian War (460-445), an intermittent conflict. Athens was already involved in the later stages of the Greco-Persian War (fighting in Egypt in the period after 460), so was now fighting on two fronts.

Pericles doesn't appear to have taken much of an active part in the Peloponnesian War. He took part in a naval expedition in the Corinthian Gulf in 454, which saw the Athenians defeat the Achaeans, but fail to achieve their wider objectives and was repulsed at Oeniadae.

In 451 he was involved in the recall of Cimon, who was given command of a renewed attempt to help the Greeks of Cyprus. Cimon died during this expedition, removing one of Pericles's main rivals.

In 451 or 450 Pericles passed what has become one of his more controversial laws, limiting Athenian citizenship to people with Athenian parents on both sides. The motives for this law are unclear. It might have been an attack on the aristocracy, where foreign marriages were more common (Cimon's mother was from Thrace), or an attempt to protect the Athenian system against large scale immigration. It doesn't appear to have been followed by any period of discrimination against non-Athenians, who still appear playing important roles in the city.

In 451 Athens and Sparta agreed a Five Years' Truce, suspending fighting in the First Peloponnesian War. This was followed by the end of the long Greco-Persian War in 448, probably with the formal Peace of Callias. This presented Athens with something of a problem. The city gained a great deal of income from tribute provided by the anti-Persian Delian League (the treasury was transferred from Delos to Athens in 454). With the war over there was no need for the tribute. Pericles responded by calling a conference to discuss how to rebuild the buildings destroyed by the Persians, and how to thank the gods for the victory. The answer, unsurprisingly, was to continue the tribute, much of which was used to rebuild the buildings on the Acropolis. Work on the Parthenon began in 447, as did work on the gold and ivory statue of Athena that the new temple was to house. There was some opposition to this work within Athens, but the leader of the opposition was ostracised in 443.

Pericles put a great deal of effort into glorifying his city. He introduced musical contests to the Panathenaea festival, promoting it as a rival to the Olympics.

Pericles' plan led to trouble with the members of the league, who now found themselves increasingly part of an Athenian Empire. Pericles responded partly by creating Athenian colonies around the empire and partly with military force. In 447 or 446 Boeotia rebelled against Athens and defeated an Athenian army at Coronea. Next to revolt was the island of Euboea, north of Attica, and a vital position on Athens's vulnerable trade route with the Black Sea. The city of Megara, west of Athens, soon followed. Pericles led an army to the island, but had to return to the mainland after the rebellion in Megara and the decision of Sparta to intervene in the war (ending the peace of 451).

Pericles decided to sacrifice Megara and keep Euboea. The Thirty Years' Peace of 446-445 finally ended the First Peloponnesian War. Athens agreed to give up most of her mainland empire in return for a free hand in the maritime empire. The Spartans accepted the deal and returned home. This allowed the Athenians to re-conquer Euboea, securing the grain route, but the loss of Megara meant that she was vulnerable to attack from the Peloponnese. Part of Pericles' reaction to this increased vulnerability was the construction of a third Long Wall, linking Athens to the port of Piraeus and allowing the city to withstand length sieges.

His main military achievement came after the revolt of Samos in 440. Pericles commanded the fleet that eventually defeated the rebels and forced Samos back into the empire. This was a long, costly, campaign, and perhaps a foretaste of the war to come.

By 433 tensions was rising again and Athens put her finances on a war footing. One cause of tension was Pericles' insistence that all trade from Megara should be excluded from the Athenian Empire. Athens formed an alliance with Corcyra, and act that triggered fighting against Corinth. Sparta accused Athens of being the aggressor, and Pericles convinced the Athenians to stand their ground. War was clearly imminent, but it was unexpectedly triggered when Thebes, one of Sparta's allies, attacked Plataea, an Athenian ally in 431. This marked the start of the Great Peloponnesian War, a conflict that would eventually touch most of the Greek world.

This was the final test of Pericles' plans for Athens. His plan was largely defensive. The countryside of Attica was to be abandoned to the Spartans, and the Athenians would retreat within their walls. Their naval power would allow them to withstand any length of siege, although the loss of the countryside strained Pericles' popularity. It isn't clear how Pericles planned to win the war, unless it was by wearing down Sparta's willingness to fight.

Pericles' plan had disastrous results for Athens. In 430 a plague broke out in the overcrowded city, killing a quarter of the population. At this point the Athenian fleet had won no victories, and Pericles was deposed from office and fined. He was soon recalled, but died in the autumn of 429.
Pericles was portrayed by Thucydides as a rare combination of caution, moderation in action and stability of character with great imagination and intellect. He was responsible for a golden age of Athens, with building and drama thriving and philosophers attracted to the city, but he was also an imperialist whose hard line attitude to the members of the Delian League and Athenian Empire created enemies for Athens, and who was partly responsible for the outbreak of the disastrous Great Peloponnesian War, which would eventually end in 404 with Athens besieged and starving, her Empire lost, her walls dismantled and her fleet lost. 

He was the guardian of Alcibiades, the key Athenian commander in the later stages of the Great Peloponnesian War, but didn't manage to imbue him with his sense of hard work and responsibility.

From around 445 until his death he lived with Aspasia of Miletus, his mistress. She was often blamed for Pericles' mistakes, and their son Pericles had to be legitimised as a result of his father's own citizenship law.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 May 2017), Pericles (c.495-429 BC) ,

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