Biography of Pericles, Leader of Athens

Full color depiction of Pericles standing in Athens speaking to the masses.

 GONZOfoto / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Pericles (sometimes spelled Perikles) (495-429 B.C.E.) 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 to 449 B.C.E. He was also Athens' leader during (and probably an agitator of) the Peloponnesian War (431 to 404). He died during the Plague of Athens that ravaged the city between 430 and 426 B.C.E. Pericles was so important to classical Greek history that the era in which he lived is known as the Age of Pericles.

Fast Facts

Known For: Leader of Athens

Also Known As: Perikles

Born: 495 B.C.E.

Parents: Xanthippus, Agariste

Died: Athens, Greece, 429 B.C.E.

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 the 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. The text was partly borrowed from Thucydides, but it is a satire ridiculing the practice. Its format is a dialogue between Socrates and Menexenus. 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. This was 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. This was a common political punishment for prominent Athenians consisting of a 10-year banishment from Athens. He was returned to the city when the Persian Wars began.

Pericles was married to a woman whose name is not mentioned by Plutarch, but who 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. Zeno was 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 B.C.E.), 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 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 remained in that role 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. 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 was eventually brought back for the Peloponnesian Wars.

Building Projects

From about 458 to 456, Pericles had the Long Walls built. The Long Walls were about 6 kilometers in length (about 3.7 miles) 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

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 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. 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.

Sources

  • Mark, Joshua J. "Aspasia of Miletus." Ancient History Encyclopedia, September 2, 2009. 
  • Monoson, S. Sara. "Remembering Pericles: The Political and Theoretical Import of Plato's Menexenus." Political Theory, Vol. 26, No. 4, JSTOR, August 1998.
  • O'Sullivan, Neil. "Pericles and Protagoras." Greece & Rome, Vol. 42, No. 1, Cambridge University Press, JSTOR, April 1995.
  • Patzia, Michael. "Anaxagoras (c. 500—428 B.C.E.)." Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and its Authors.
  • Plato. "Menexenus." Benjamin Jowett, Translater, Project Gutenberg, January 15, 2013.
  • Plutarch. "Comparison of Pericles and Fabius Maximus." The Parallel Lives, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1914.
  • Plutarch. "The Life of Pericles." The Parallel Lives, Vol. III, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1916.
  • Stadter, Philip A. "Pericles Among the Intellectuals." Illinois Classical Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1/2 (SPRING/FALL), University of Illinois Press, JSTOR, 1991.
  • Stadter, Philip A. "The Rhetoric of Plutarch's 'Pericles.'" Ancient Society, Vol. 18, Peeters Publishers, JSTOR, 1987.
  • Thucydides. "Pericles' Funeral Oration from the Peloponnesian War." Ancient History Sourcebook, Book 2.34-46, Fordham University, Internet History Sourcebooks Project, 2000.