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Pericles - Athenian Statesman and General
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.
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
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:
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
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:
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.
For further information on the Pericles and the Peloponnesian War, the reader is advised to consult Thucydides's work,
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