Biography of Pericles (c. 495–429 B.C.E.)

Leader of Classical Athens during the Periclean Age

Anaxagoras and Pericles, engraving from Greece, Pictorial, Descriptive, and Historical, 1841, by Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885)
Anaxagoras and Pericles, engraving from Greece, Pictorial, Descriptive, and Historical, 1841, by Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885). De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana / Getty Images

Pericles (sometimes spelled Perikles) lived between about 495–429 B.C.E. and was one of the most important leaders of the classical period of Athens, Greece. He is largely responsible for rebuilding the city following the devastating Persian Wars of 502–449 B.C.E. He was also Athens' leader during (and probably fomenter of) the Peloponnesian War (431–404); and he died of the Plague of Athens that ravaged the city between 430 and 426 B.C.E.

He was so important to classical Greek history that the era in which he lived is known as the Age of Pericles.

Greek Sources about Pericles

What we know of Pericles comes from three main sources. The earliest is known as the Funeral Oration of Pericles. It was written by the Greek philosopher Thucydides (460–395 B.C.E.), who said he was quoting Pericles himself. Pericles gave his speech at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian war (431 B.C.E.). In it, Pericles (or Thucydides) extols the values of democracy.

The Menexenus was probably written by Plato (ca. 428–347 B.C.E.) or by someone who was imitating Plato. It too is a Funeral Oration citing the history of Athens, and the text was partly borrowed from Thucydides but it is a satire ridiculing the practice. Its format is a dialogue between Socrates and Menexenus, and in it, Socrates opines that Pericles' mistress Aspasia wrote the Funeral Oration of Pericles.

Finally, and most substantially, in his book The Parallel Lives, the first century C.E. Roman historian Plutarch wrote the Life of Pericles and a Comparison of Pericles and Fabius Maximum. English translations of all of these texts are long out of copyright and available on the Internet.

Family

Through his mother Agariste, Pericles was a member of the Alcmeonids, a powerful family in Athens, who claimed descent from Nestor (king of Pylos in The Odyssey) and whose earliest notable member was from the seventh century B.C.E.

The Alcemons were accused of treachery at the Battle of Marathon.

His father was Xanthippus, a military leader during the Persian Wars, and the victor at the Battle of Mycale. He was the son of Ariphon, who was ostracized—a common political punishment for prominent Athenians consisting of a 10-year banishment from Athens—but was returned to the city when the Persian Wars began.

Pericles was married to a woman whose name is not mentioned by Plutarch but was a close relative. They had two sons, Xanthippus and Paralus, and divorced in 445 B.C.E. Both sons died in the Plague of Athens. Pericles also had a mistress, perhaps a courtesan but also a teacher and intellectual called Aspasia of Miletus, with whom he had one son, Pericles the Younger.

Education

Pericles was said by Plutarch to have been shy as a young man because he was rich, and of such stellar lineage with well-born friends, that he was afraid he'd be ostracized for that alone. Instead, he devoted himself to a military career, where he was brave and enterprising. Then he became a politician.

His teachers included the musicians Damon and Pythocleides. Pericles was also a pupil of Zeno of Elea, famous for his logical paradoxes, such as the one in which he was said to have proven that motion can't occur.

His most important teacher was Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428 BCE), called "Nous" ("Mind"). Anaxagoras is best known for his then-outrageous contention that the sun was a fiery rock.

Public Offices

The first known public event in Pericles' life was the position of "choregos." Choregoi were the producers of ancient Greece's theatrical community, selected from the wealthiest Athenians who had a duty to support dramatic productions. Choregoi paid for everything from staff salaries to sets, special effects, and music. In 472, Pericles funded and produced the playwright Aeschylus' play The Persians.

Pericles also gained the office of military archon or strategos, which is usually translated into English as a military general. Pericles was elected strategos in 460, and he remained that for the next 29 years.

Pericles, Cimon, and Democracy

In the 460s, the Helots rebelled against the Spartans who asked for help from Athens. In response to Sparta's request for help, Athens' leader Cimon led troops into Sparta. The Spartans sent them back, probably fearing the effects of Athenian democratic ideas on their own government.

Cimon had favored Athens' oligarchic adherents, and, according to the opposing faction led by Pericles who had come into power by the time Cimon returned, Cimon was a lover of Sparta and a hater of the Athenians. He was ostracized and banished from Athens for 10 years, but eventually brought back for the Peloponnesian Wars.

Building Projects

From about 458–456, Pericles had the Long Walls built. The Long Walls were about 6 kilometers in length and built in several phases. They were a strategic asset to Athens, connecting the city with Piraeus, a peninsula with three harbors about 4.5 miles from Athens. The walls protected the city's access to the Aegean, but they were destroyed by Sparta at the end of the Peloponnesian War.

On the Acropolis at Athens, Pericles built the Parthenon, the Propylaea, and a giant statue of Athena Promachus. He also had temples and shrines built to other gods to replace those that had been destroyed by the Persians during the wars. The treasury from the Delian alliance funded the building projects.

Radical Democracy and Citizenship Law

Among the contributions made by Pericles to the Athenian democracy was the payment of magistrates. This was one reason the Athenians under Pericles decided to limit the people eligible to hold office.

Only those born to two people of Athenian citizen status could henceforth be citizens and eligible to be magistrates. Children of foreign mothers were explicitly excluded.

Metic is the word for a foreigner living in Athens. Since a metic woman couldn't produce citizen children when Pericles had a mistress Aspasia of Miletus, he couldn't or, at least, didn't marry her. After his death, the law was changed so that his son could be both a citizen and his heir.

Artists' Depiction

According to Plutarch, although Pericles' appearance was "unimpeachable," his head was long and out of proportion. The comic poets of his day called him Schinocephalus or "squill head" (pen head). Because of Pericles' abnormally long head, he was often depicted wearing a helmet.

The Plague of Athens and the Death of Pericles

In 430, the Spartans and their allies invaded Attica, signaling the start of the Peloponnesian War. At the same time, a plague broke out in a city overcrowded by the presence of refugees from the rural areas. Pericles was suspended from the office of strategos, found guilty of theft and fined 50 talents.

Because Athens still needed him, Pericles was then reinstated, but then, about a year after he lost his own two sons in the plague, Pericles died in the fall of 429, two and a half years after the Peloponnesian War began.

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

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Gill, N.S. "Biography of Pericles (c. 495–429 B.C.E.)." ThoughtCo, Feb. 5, 2018, thoughtco.com/pericles-leader-of-athens-120215. Gill, N.S. (2018, February 5). Biography of Pericles (c. 495–429 B.C.E.). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pericles-leader-of-athens-120215 Gill, N.S. "Biography of Pericles (c. 495–429 B.C.E.)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pericles-leader-of-athens-120215 (accessed May 23, 2018).