Review of sources on Greek Classics
The glory experienced by Greece reached its height in the 5th century BC, in Athens, under the leadership of the statesman Pericles. He opened Athenian democracy to the ordinary citizen, he built the magnificent temples and statues on the Acropolis, and he created the Athenian empire. The figure of Pericle was not ordinary one and contained a decent amount of controversy. Burn in his work Pericles and Athens describes this period of Athens development as: “The crowning success of continuity and moderation at Athens comes after the triumph of democracy, in the lifetime of Pericles, in the fact that most (though not all) of the old families accepted and worked the democratic constitution; a fact of which Pericles himself is the most conspicuous example” (Burn, xvii). Knowledge of the life of Pericles derives largely from two sources. The historian Thucydides admired him profoundly and it is difficult to find any criticism in his works on Pericles’ biography. That is, probably, why his account suffers from the approach, which concentrates exclusively on Pericles’ intellectual capacity and his war leadership, omitting biographical details, which Thucydides thought irrelevant to his theme. These gaps are partly filled by the Greek writer Plutarch, who, 500 years later, began writing the life of Pericles to illustrate a man of unchallengeable virtue and greatness.
If to compare Plutarch’s and Thucydides’ accounts of the events leading up to the war, we can notice some incompatibility even if ignoring the obvious difference of emphasis, which would be natural as between a biographer and a strict scientific historian. Thus, Burn describes such inconsistency by two different approaches applied by Plutarch and Thucydides to the reasons of war. Plutarch mentions that Pericles at the end of his life deliberately involved his country in a war, because his political position was being dangerously attacked through prosecutions of his friends, and he thought a war would divert people’s attention from certain deficiencies in his own accounts. On the other hand, Thucydides, not only gives no mention of this alleged reason for Pericles heading the warparty, he gives explicit statements that Pericles was the most influential political leader in Athens at the time, so that the enemy, made vigorous but unsuccessful attempts to shake his position by propaganda. (Burn, 1949) Scrutinizing all pros and cons of Pericles government we still cannot help but admit his weight and historical importance for the development of Athens. Pericles’ biography to great extent reflects the development path followed by Athens during the second half of the 5th century BC.
Background and early political activity
Pericles was born in Athens in about 494 BC to a family of wealth and position. His father, Xanthippus, was also a statesman, and his mother, Agariste, was a member of the politically powerful Alcmaeonid family. Perhaps outbid in his search for popular support, Xanthippus was ostracized in 484 BC, though he returned in 480 to command the Athenian force at Mycale in 479, probably dying soon after. From him Pericles may have inherited a leaning toward the people, along with landed property at Cholargus, just north of Athens, which put him on rather high level in terms of wealth. His Alcmaeonid mother, Agariste, provided him with relationships of sharply diminishing political value and her family curse, a religious profanation that was occasionally used against him by his enemies.
The first known date in his life is 472 BC, when he paid for the production of the playwright Aeschulys’, Persian trilogy. Nothing further is known until 463, when he unsuccessfully prosecuted Cimon, the leading general and statesman of the day, on a charge of having neglected a chance to conquer Macedonia; this implies that Pericles advocated an aggressive policy of expansion for Athens. Only rumor associates him directly with the political convulsion of the next two years, which drove Cimon into exile, swung Athens away from its alignment with Sparta, and decisively strengthened the democratic elements in the Athenian constitution. Pericles was first elected strategos, or general, in 458. Generals were elected yearly to devise and carry out the strategy necessary to manage the affairs of state at home and abroad. Pericles won reelection frequently for about 30 years. In a time of kings and tyrants as rulers, his policy at home was to place the state in the hands of the whole body of citizens under the rule of law.
The Assembly made the laws, the Council of 500 executed them, and popular courts judged those who broke them. In 451 or 450 Pericles carried a law confining Athenian citizenship to those of Athenian parentage on both sides. It is difficult to fond any background to this proposal. A correct assessment is vital for understanding Pericles, but explanations vary considerably; some argue that Pericles was merely forging a low-level political weapon for use against Cimon, who had a foreign mother. (Burn, 38) The upper classes certainly had no prejudice against foreign marriages; the lower classes may well have had more, and, on the whole, it is possible to view Pericles here as championing exclusivist tendencies against immigrants who might break down the fabric of Athenian society.
Recovery of Athens’ pre-eminence
About this time the war with Persia finally ended. The Delian League, a confederation of Greek city-states, had been formed against Xerxes and the Persians. Each of the states was assessed according to its ability to pay. Some of the larger islands, such as Naxos, were able to contribute their own ships, but most could not. Instead they contributed money, and Athens built the ships in its shipyards and recruited crews. Pericles increased the size of the navy and instituted payment of wages to crewmen. In 454 the treasury of the league was transferred from Delos to Athens. Hostilities among the Greek states had also come to an end in the Five Years’ Truce of 451. Pericles now embarked on a policy designed to secure Athens’ cultural and political leadership in Greece. Pericles used the defense money to rebuild the temples of the gods that had been destroyed by the Persians in 480. In 447 work started on the Parthenon. The Acropolis project was to include, among other things, a temple to Victory and the Propylaea (started 437), the entrance gateway, far grander and more expensive than any previous Greek secular building. Pericles realized his ambition to make Athens, “the queen of Hellas,” (Burn, 138) not only the most beautiful but the most powerful of the Greek states. By 438 the Parthenon was complete, with most of its sculpture. The whole of this work, says Plutarch, was organized and directed by Pheidias, the sculptor friend of Pericles. Pheidias also wrought the huge, severe, bronze statue of the armed Athene that stood near the entrance to the rock; a figure sixty feet high, the gleam of whose spear and helmet were visible to sailors on a clear day many miles out at sea. Burn considers Pheidias’ work on the Parthenon to be “an example of the fact that in art also, as in other human achievements, the genius depends for his opportunities on the whole condition, the whole level of achievement, of society in his time” (147-148).
Public remonstrance within empire
There was domestic criticism, however. Thucydides, son of Melesias (not the historian) and a relative of Cimon, who had inherited some of his political support, denounced both the extravagance of the project and the immorality of using allied funds to finance it. Pericles argued that the allies were paying for their defense, and, if that was assured, Athens did not have to account for how the money was actually spent. The argument ended in ostracism in 443; Thucydides went into exile for 10 years, leaving Pericles unchallenged. It cannot be determined whether the glamour of the project had completely caught Athenian imagination or whether Pericles was now simply thought to be indispensable. Plutarch attributed to Pericles a desire to stimulate economic activity and employment in Athens. (Plutarch, 192) There was also some initial allied resentment at the continuation of tribute, and some scattered revolts. Pericles met the situation in part by extending a network of Athenian settlements throughout what may now be called the empire, thus strengthening Athenian control and providing new land for the growing Athenian population. In establishing one of these, Pericles engaged in his most admired campaign, the expulsion of barbarians from the Thracian Chersonese (Gallipoli). For Athens, the essential loss was that of Megara, which meant that a Spartan army could appear in Attica at any time. That Pericles doubted the stability of the settlement and saw the need to develop an alternative basic strategy for Athens is shown by his immediate construction of a third Long Wall to improve the defences of Athens and the port of Piraeus. Henceforth, in effect, Athens could be turned into an island at will. Now Pericles had moved from his youthful demagogy to a more middle ground in politics. Athens was, Thucydides says, in name a democracy but, in fact, governed by its first man. Though Athenian democracy never gave more than severely limited powers to the executive, the assembly gave Pericles what he wanted. Thucydides, obsessed with the power of intellect, takes little note of the need of a statesman to work hard, and it is Plutarch who provided the glimpses of a man who took no interest in his own estates, who was never seen on any road but that to the public offices, and who was only recalled to have gone to one social occasion, which he left early.
Pericles’ personal life
This picture is softened somewhat by what is known of his personal life. The identity of his wife, however, though certainly of wealth and high birth, is unknown. He married her in his late 20s but, as they were incompatible, divorced her some 10 years later. Close to 50, he took Aspasia of Miletus into his house. By his own law, marriage was impossible, and, after the death of his two legitimate sons, their son Pericles had to be legitimated. Although Aspasia is clouded by scandal and legend, it is easy to believe she possessed great charm and intelligence. Her own behaviour and Pericles’ attitude toward her were surprising phenomena in Athens, where upper class women were kept secluded. That Pericles was known to kiss her on leaving for and returning from work gave rise to speculation about her influence on him and, thus, on Athenian politics.
Threat of war
Meanwhile, there had been a serious possibility that Sparta and its allies might intervene on this occasion, but they did not, and the Thirty Years’ Peace was upheld until the end of the 430s. Tension grew as the decade progressed, particularly with regard to Corinth, Sparta’s ally, whose interests conflicted more obviously with those of Athens. By 433 the situation was serious enough for Athens’ finances to be put on a war basis, and, thereafter, the drift to war continued. Pericles’ policy was one of firmness, coupled with careful manipulation of the diplomatic position to keep Athens technically in the right. Pericles determined to enforce decrees excluding Megarian trade from the Athenian Empire, the decision which was a puzzle for his contemporaries. Thucydides tells just enough to make his own interpretation plausible, that Megara was a small matter in itself but crucial as a symbol of Athenian determination to maintain its position. Burn suggests that consideration of Megara’s strategic importance, consistently undervalued by Thucydides, may suggest further the possibility that the Megarian Decrees were not the immediate cause of the war but the first blow in a war Pericles thought inevitable and that began in spring 431. (Burn, 204) Pericles’ main strategic ideas are clear. He was an admiral rather than a general, and Athens’ naval resources were immeasurably superior to its land power. He would evacuate the Athenian countryside, bring the population into the Long Walls, decline battle with the Spartan army, and rely on the fleet to assure Athenian food supplies. Expenditure on building had been counterbalanced by annual savings from the tribute, and enough capital had been reserved, he thought, for a long war, though expenditure turned out heavier than he could have calculated. There are some indications that Periclean strategy included more aggressive elements, such as the recovery of Megara, which would have considerably improved Athens’ position. This strategy, however, had marked political weaknesses. The Athenian population had deep roots in the countryside, and great firmness was required to bring them to abandon their land to Spartan ravages without a fight. The middle-class army suffered in morale, and the living conditions of the lower classes, though they were allowed activity in the fleet, deteriorated in the overcrowded city. The overcrowding had an unforeseeable consequence in a plague, which in the second summer of the war took a quarter of the population.
Weakness of Pericles’ policy
No obvious success counterbalanced the discomforts of war, and Pericles was deposed from office and even fined 50 talents on a charge of embezzlement. Only a few weeks later the people repented and reinstated him with greater powers than before. But weakness from an attack of plague killed Pericles the following autumn. The speeches of Pericles were not written down and preserved. However, Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War provides some idea of Pericles’ power as an orator. After the first campaigning season of the war, he had delivered the funeral speech over the fallen. They had fallen, he said, in preserving a way of life that he described in detail. Athenian life often fell short of this Periclean ideal, but he conceived it with clarity and made it generally recognized.
Work Cited List
Burn, A. R. Pericles and Athens. New York: Macmillan, 1949.
Plutarch, Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Revised by Arthur Hugh Clough, Translated by John Dryden. New York: Modern Library, 1932.
Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1950