Pericles (also spelled Perikles) (c. 495 – 429 BC, Greek: Περικλῆς, meaning "surrounded by glory") was a prominent and influential statesman, orator, and general of Athens during the city's Golden Age—specifically, the time between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. He was descended, through his mother, from the powerful and historically influential Alcmaeonid family.
Pericles had such a profound influence on Athenian society that Thucydides, his contemporary historian, acclaimed him as "the first citizen of Athens". Pericles turned the Delian League into an Athenian empire and led his countrymen during the first two years of the Peloponnesian War. The period during which he led Athens, roughly from 461 to 429 B.C, is sometimes known as the "Age of Pericles", though the period thus denoted can include times as early as the Persian Wars, or as late as the next century.
Pericles promoted the arts and literature; this was a chief reason Athens holds the reputation of being the educational and cultural centre of the ancient Greek world. He started an ambitious project that built most of the surviving structures on the Acropolis (including the Parthenon). This project beautified the city, exhibited its glory, and gave work to the people. Furthermore, Pericles fostered Athenian democracy to such an extent that critics call him a populist.Early years
Pericles was born in 495 BC, in the deme of Cholargos just north of Athens.α[›] He was the son of the politic Xanthippus, who, although ostracized in 485–484 BC, returned to Athens to command the Athenian contingent in the Greek victory at Mycale just five years later. Pericles' mother, Agariste, was a scion of the powerful and controversial noble family of the Alcmaeonidae, and her familial connections played a crucial role in starting Xanthippus' political career. Agariste was the great-granddaughter of the tyrant of Sicyon, Cleisthenes, and the niece of the supreme Athenian reformer Cleisthenes, another Alcmaeonid.β[›] According to Herodotus and Plutarch, Agariste dreamed, a few nights before Pericles' birth, that she had borne a lion. One interpretation of the anecdote treats the lion as a traditional symbol of greatness, but the story may also allude to the unusual size of Pericles' skull, which became a popular target of contemporary comedians. (Although Plutarch claims that this deformity was the reason that Pericles was always depicted wearing a helmet, this is not the case; the helmet was actually the symbol of his official rank as strategos (general)).
Pericles belonged to the local tribe of Acamantis (Ἀκαμαντὶς φυλὴ). His early years were quiet; the introverted young Pericles took to avoiding public appearances, instead preferring to devote his time to his studies.
His family's nobility and wealth allowed him to fully pursue his inclination toward education. He learned music from the masters of the time (Damon or Pythocleides could have been his teacher) and he is considered to have been the first politician to attribute great importance to philosophy. He enjoyed the company of the philosophers Protagoras, Zeno of Elea and Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras in particular became a close friend and influenced him greatly. Pericles' manner of thought and rhetorical charisma may have been in part products of Anaxagoras' emphasis on emotional calm in the face of trouble and skepticism about divine phenomena. His proverbial calmness and self-control are also regarded as products of Anaxagoras' influence.Political career until 431 BC - Entering politics
In the spring of 472 BC, Pericles presented the Persae of Aeschylus at the Greater Dionysia as a liturgy, demonstrating that he was then one of the wealthier men of Athens. Simon Hornblower has argued that Pericles' selection of this play, which presents a nostalgic picture of Themistocles' famous victory at Salamis, shows that the young politician was supporting Themistocles against his political opponent Cimon, whose faction succeeded in having Themistocles ostracized shortly afterwards.
Plutarch says that Pericles stood first among the Athenians for forty years. If this was so, Pericles must have taken up a position of leadership by the early 460s BC. Throughout these years he endeavored to protect his privacy and tried to present himself as a model for his fellow citizens. For example, he would often avoid banquets, trying to be frugal.
In 463 BC Pericles was the leading prosecutor of Cimon, the leader of the conservative faction, who was accused of neglecting Athens' vital interests in Macedon. Although Cimon was acquitted, this confrontation proved that Pericles' major political opponent was vulnerable.Ostracizing Cimon
Around 461 BC the leadership of the democratic party decided it was time to take aim at the Areopagus, a traditional council controlled by the Athenian aristocracy, which had once been the most powerful body in the state. The leader of the party and mentor of Pericles, Ephialtes, proposed a sharp reduction of the Areopagus' powers. The Ecclesia (the Athenian Assembly) adopted Ephialtes' proposal without strong opposition. This reform signalled the commencement of a new era of "radical democracy". The democratic party gradually became dominant in Athenian politics and Pericles seemed willing to follow a populist policy in order to cajole the public. According to Aristotle, Pericles' stance can be explained by the fact that his principal political opponent, Cimon, was rich and generous, and was able to secure public favor by lavishly bestowing his sizable personal fortune. The historian Loren J. Samons II argues, however, that Pericles had enough resources to make a political mark by private means, had he so chosen.
In 461 BC, Pericles achieved the political elimination of this formidable opponent using the weapon of ostracism. The ostensible accusation was that Cimon betrayed his city by acting as a friend of Sparta.
Even after Cimon's ostracism, Pericles continued to espouse and promote a populist social policy. He first proposed a decree that permitted the poor to watch theatrical plays without paying, with the state covering the cost of their admission. With other decrees he lowered the property requirement for the archonship in 458–457 BC and bestowed generous wages on all citizens who served as jurymen in the Heliaia (the supreme court of Athens) some time just after 454 BC. His most controversial measure, however, was a law of 451 BC limiting Athenian citizenship to those of Athenian parentage on both sides.Leading Athens
Such measures impelled Pericles' critics to regard him as responsible for the gradual degeneration of the Athenian democracy. Constantine Paparrigopoulos, a major modern Greek historian, argues that Pericles sought for the expansion and stabilization of all democratic institutions. Hence, he enacted legislation granting the lower classes access to the political system and the public offices, from which they had previously been barred on account of limited means or humble birth. According to Samons, Pericles believed that it was necessary to raise the demos, in which he saw an untapped source of Athenian power and the crucial element of Athenian military dominance. (The fleet, backbone of Athenian power since the days of Themistocles, was manned almost entirely by members of the lower classes.)
Cimon, on the other hand, apparently believed that no further free space for democratic evolution existed. He was certain that democracy had reached its peak and Pericles' reforms were leading to the stalemate of populism. According to Paparrigopoulos, history vindicated Cimon, because Athens, after Pericles' death, sank into the abyss of political turmoil and demagogy. Paparrigopoulos maintains that an unprecedented regression descended upon the city, whose glory perished as a result of Pericles' populist policies. According to another historian, Justin Daniel King, radical democracy benefited people individually, but harmed the state. On the other hand, Donald Kagan asserts that the democratic measures Pericles put into effect provided the basis for an unassailable political strength. After all, Cimon finally accepted the new democracy and did not oppose the citizenship law, after he returned from exile in 451 BC.
Ephialtes' murder in 461 BC paved the way for Pericles to consolidate his authority.δ[›] Lacking any robust opposition after the expulsion of Cimon, the unchallengeable leader of the democratic party became the unchallengeable ruler of Athens. He remained in power almost uninterruptedly until his death in 429 BC.