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Pericles the Great Leader o Athens

Pericles is considered the most illustrious political figure of ancient Greece who managed to change the face of Athens both in its political trajectory and in its intellectual and artistic course, granting the city of Athens its Golden Age.

According to historians, Pericles is estimated to have been born between 495-490 BC. He belonged to an aristocratic family, as his father, Xanthippus, was from the priestly lineage of the pericles, possessing great wealth and having served as a general for the Athenians in major victories such as that of Mycale in 479 BC. His mother, Agariste, came from the family of Cleisthenes.

Being a descendant of the Acamantides tribe, Pericles received an excellent education. His teachers included Anaxagoras, Zeno of Elea, and Damon. With them, Pericles cultivated his mind and broadened his horizons while honing his judgment on matters that might have seemed obscure and incomprehensible to most. This cultivation of his intellect endowed him with boundless calmness and perseverance.

These last qualities are highlighted by the incident of an unknown man who began to insult Pericles. The man followed him throughout the day, even reaching the doorstep of his home. Nevertheless, Pericles did not respond to the harsh accusations but instead, when night fell, instructed a servant to escort the abuser safely to his home.

His great talent was none other than his eloquence and rhetorical prowess. The Athenians stood mesmerized by his speeches. He didn’t need to try hard to persuade his audience, as the serenity he exuded and his clear meanings, in contrast to the wooden rhetoric of his opponents, were enough to win the favor of his listeners.Many described him as powerful, but Pericles’ true strength was not only physical but primarily intellectual.

His involvement in public affairs began initially in 472 BC when he sponsored a trilogy by Aeschylus. Later, despite his aristocratic lineage, he sided with the democratic political faction led by Ephialtes at the time.

Pericles was particularly active and politically engaged. He believed that being in politics, he should have as his primary goal the common good of the Athenian citizens. Indeed, he was the one who accused the oligarchic Cimon of involving Athens in the Messenian War, resulting in Cimon’s exile from Athens and the democrats prevailing in the city.

All kinds of passions that were natural to appear in a people who ruled over such a large state, he alone had the natural ability to direct them in the proper way.

For this he used mainly hope and fear as rudders, either to curb the insolence of the citizens or to moderate their discouragement and comfort them. He thus showed that rhetoric is, according to Plato, a means for the education of souls and that its main task is to direct morals and passions, as if they were some tones and sounds of the soul that must be touched and manipulated in the most appropriate way.

The reason for his success was not simply the power of his speech, but, as the historian Thucydides says, the reputation he acquired from his way of life and the confidence he gained as a man who was clearly and completely uncharitable and superior to money. While he made the city, which was great, three-sized and infinitely rich, and while he surpassed in power many kings and tyrants, some of whom even left large inheritances to their children, he did not increase by one drachma the property that his father had left him.

Pericles soon became the next leader of the democrats, gaining the favor of most Athenians, who honored him by electing him as general for consecutive years.

His leadership of the city is remembered in history as the Golden Age of Pericles. His integrity and the sharpness that characterized him gave Athens its most creative and productive years, which changed the course of Greek history, reaching its present form after successive socio-political transformations.

Pericles’ vision for Athens was ambitious and multifaceted. He sought to establish the city as a beacon of democracy and cultural excellence, striving to ensure that its citizens enjoyed both political empowerment and intellectual enrichment. One of his most notable achievements was the expansion and solidification of democratic institutions.

Recognizing the potential dangers of power concentration, Pericles implemented a series of reforms that redistributed power more evenly among the citizens. He significantly enhanced the roles of the Ecclesia, the popular assembly, and the Heliaia, the people’s court, thus ensuring that the governance of Athens was more directly influenced by its populace.

By reducing the powers of the Areopagus, an aristocratic council that had traditionally wielded considerable influence, Pericles curtailed oligarchic dominance and promoted a more egalitarian political landscape.

Pericles also introduced measures to combat social inequality and support the less privileged members of Athenian society. The establishment of ‘misthophoria’—the payment for public service—allowed poorer citizens to participate in civic duties without financial hardship.

This reform not only democratized public office but also fostered a sense of inclusivity and civic responsibility. Furthermore, Pericles instituted the practice of selecting officials by lot, ensuring that public offices were accessible to a broader segment of the population, not just the wealthy and influential. This innovation aimed to prevent the monopolization of power by a few and to promote meritocracy and fairness.

Culturally, Pericles’ influence was equally transformative. Under his leadership, Athens became a hub of artistic and intellectual activity. He championed the reconstruction of significant structures, most notably the Parthenon, which had been damaged during the Persian Wars.

This iconic temple, dedicated to the goddess Athena, symbolized the city’s resurgence and its dedication to cultural and spiritual pursuits. The reconstruction projects, overseen by renowned artists and architects like Phidias, Ictinus, and Callicrates, reflected Pericles’ commitment to celebrating and preserving Athenian heritage.

Pericles’ support for the arts extended beyond architecture. He introduced the ‘Theorika,’ a fund that allowed even the poorest citizens to attend theatrical performances, thus ensuring that cultural experiences were accessible to all Athenians.

This initiative not only enriched the lives of individuals but also fostered a collective cultural identity. Athens under Pericles became a magnet for intellectuals, artists, and philosophers, who found in the city a conducive environment for creativity and scholarship.

The Peloponnesian War, however, cast a long shadow over Pericles’ later years. The conflict with Sparta and its allies tested his leadership and the resilience of Athenian democracy. During this tumultuous period, Pericles’ strategic acumen was evident in his decision to focus on naval power, recognizing Athens’ superiority at sea compared to the formidable Spartan land forces.

He expanded the jurisdiction of the Ecclesia (Assembly) and the Heliaia (Court) while reducing the powers of the Areopagus, which operated in favor of the oligarchs.

He established the institution of ‘misthophoria’ (payment for public service) to support the weaker social groups and introduced the selection of officials by lot, ensuring that not only the wealthy and influential held such positions, but that all Athenian citizens had equal opportunities. He believed that this way, the worthy would stand out, prioritizing the protection and common good of the city.

Additionally, he helped the underprivileged by distributing any surplus funds from the public treasury and established the famous ‘Theorika’ to enable the poor to attend theater and enjoy cultural events.Furthermore, he distributed land to the landless in regions and cities allied with Athens, thus helping the needy improve their lives.

However, Pericles did not only establish democratic institutions but also promoted a unique intellectual flourishing. During his time, he initiated the reconstruction of artworks and temples. The rebuilding of the Parthenon, after its destruction by the Persians, was his initiative, with Phidias overseeing the project in collaboration with Ictinus and Callicrates.

Athens became a city of arts and intellect, attracting many artists, orators, poets, and painters who chose it as their base of operations. His wife, Aspasia, who loved the arts and had significant artistic training, was a valuable help to Pericles in this regard.

The end of Pericles’ Golden Age is marked by the onset of the Peloponnesian War. In 431 BC, when Archidamus of Sparta campaigned against Athens, destroying everything in his path, Pericles decided it would be wiser to confront him at sea rather than on land, where the Spartans had superiority.

The following year, the war had spread, and Athens mourned its first dead. It was then that Pericles delivered his famous ‘Funeral Oration,’ showcasing his rhetorical talent.

His Death

Pericles died in 429 BC during the early years of the Peloponnesian War. His death marked the end of the Golden Age of Athens, a period characterized by unprecedented political, cultural, and intellectual achievements. The exact cause of his death is not entirely clear, but it is widely believed that he succumbed to the plague that devastated Athens around this time.

The plague, which struck Athens in 430 BC, was a catastrophic event that resulted in a significant loss of life, including many of Pericles’ close family members. The overcrowded conditions within the city’s walls, where Athenians had taken refuge to avoid the Spartan army, contributed to the rapid spread of the disease. The plague claimed the lives of thousands, significantly weakening Athens both militarily and socially.

Despite the severe impact of the plague and the ongoing war, Pericles continued to lead Athens with determination. However, his health eventually deteriorated due to the illness. His death was a significant blow to Athens, as he had been a stabilizing and guiding force for the city-state. His leadership had been instrumental in promoting democratic reforms, cultural development, and the strengthening of Athenian power.

Pericles’ death left a leadership vacuum in Athens, and the city struggled to maintain its previous strength and unity in the face of ongoing challenges. His legacy, however, endured, and he is remembered as one of the greatest statesmen in ancient Greek history, having laid the foundations for Athenian democracy and cultural achievements that continue to be celebrated to this day.