Lived:495-429 BC
The great-nephew of Cleisthenes (the founder of Athenian democracy), Pericles led Athens to the height of its political power, wealth, and artistic achievement. He dominated Athenian politics from 460 BC until his death in 429. His policy was that of extending Athenian control over Greece to to the north and their political power in the Delian League, while supporting more democratic reforms in Athens. He saw Athens through the Persian wars, which ended in 448 BC. The 15 years of peace following the wars with Persia are considered to be the Golden Age of Athenian culture, during which time such monuments as the Parthenon and The Temple of Athena Nike were built. Athens became the most populous city-state in Greece, but this power and wealth drew competition from Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, which began in 431 BC. When the Spartans besieged Athens, the harsh conditions inside caused the spread of a plague which killed 1/3 of the population, including Pericles himself in 429 BC. Though Sparta won the war, a popular uprising ultimately liberated the city of Athens and restored the democracy.
Pericles was much criticized by many for instituting salaries for public officials. Up to that time, there was no such payment, which meant that only rich people could afford to take such posts.

His critics said that he was trying to bribe the masses, and that he was corrupting the constitution of Kleisthenes


This was also the name of his son, who became a general in the Athenian fleet and was one of the generals who were executed after the battle of Arginusai

Pericles (495-429 BC) was a Greek statesman whose name was given to the greatest period of Athenian history. He was commander in-chief of all the physical and spiritual forces of Athens during her Golden Age and came to stand for that period highest in classical art and learning.

He was born in Athens some three years before the Battle of Marathon, to the high-ranking noble family of Xanthippus and Agariste. His father has fought at Salamis and had led the Athenian fleet in the Battle of Mycale. Agariste, his mother, was a niece of Cleisthenes, a statesman who had made many reforms in the Athenian government. Pericles' education consisted of music, literature, gymnastics, and philosophy, taught to him by some of the greatest men of his day: Damon the musician, Pythocleides, and Anaxogoras, the philosopher. Throughout his youth he absorbed the rapidly growing culture of Athens and brought together all the threads of Athenian civilization - economic, military, literary, artistic and philosophical. Pericles was probably the most complete man that Greece has ever produced.

When this young statesman began his political career, he attached himself to the party of the Demos - i.e. the free population of Athens. Pericles lost no time in becoming second only to the party leader, Ephialtes. Later in 460 BC when Ephialtes was killed, Pericles became the most powerful man in the state. There were several changes he made as head of state:

  1. Public officials in his day received no pay. However, he passed reforms that called for the price of two obols to be paid out to these officials. (Two obols is equivalent to about 34 cents in today's currency.), and
  2. He extended the authority of the people by increasing the power of the popular courts, and
  3. Pericles' greatest reform came in 457 BC when he allowed the common people to serve in any state office.

Pericles is also considered to be one of the most powerful and eloquent speakers in Greek history. He addressed the Assembly on major issues only and carefully planned every speech so as not to neglect any aspect of education. It is also said that he prayed to the gods frequently asking for guidance that he never would utter a word beside the point. However, his influence was not only due to his eloquence of speech, but also to his probity; he was capable of using bribery to secure state ends, though he never increased his own wealth or estate through his political position. Plutarch says Pericles was "manifestly free from every kind of corruption, and superior to all considerations of money".

Whether it was one of the above mentioned characteristics of Pericles that got him elected and re-elected for thirty years, or something else, it does not matter. He was very popular with the citizens of Athens and used his political position for the betterment of that city. He believed firmly in democracy, commercial expansion and capitalism. However, Athens not only enjoyed the privileges of his democracy but also the advantages of aristocracy and dictatorship. Thucydides the historian described Pericles' administration as having been "Democracy in name, but in practice, government by the first citizen". As leader of this ancient city-state, Pericles developed Athenian democracy, but he also wanted to make his city the most powerful state in Greece. Eventually he did make her the "Education of Hellas".

Through this powerful and eloquent statesman, Athens fully blossomed. Under his leadership the city adorned itself more splendidly than any other in history. Pericles extended the naval and commercial policies of Themistocles (a previous leader); carried out the artistic ideas of Cimon (also a previous leader) and as stated previously, completed the democratic programs of his great-uncle, Cleisthenes.

Pericles, when his political position was secured, turned his attention to economic statesmanship. By making the state an employer for the idle people, he formed a tremendous working class to carry out his plans. Ships were added to the already supreme sea fleet, arsenals were built and a great corn exchange was erected at the Piraeus. Then, to protect Athens from a siege by land, Pericles persuaded the Assembly to supply funds for constructing eight miles of "Long Walls", as they were to be called, connecting Athens, the Piraeus and the Phalerum. The city was enclosed in one huge fortification, whose only opening during war was the harbor, and Athens was already supreme ruler of the seas.

At this time Pericles also devoted his energies to the beautification of Athens. Sculpture, architecture, drama, and philosophy all flourished wondrously during the thirty years of his leadership. He devised a plan that would utilize the flourishing artistic talent along with the remaining unemployed to rebuild ancient shrines destroyed by the Persians and for the architectural adornment of the Acropolis.

For financing his project Pericles proposed to the Assembly that the treasure of the Delian League, which lay idle and insecure on the island of Delos, be moved to Athens and any part not utilized for common defense should be used to beautify what he deemed the legitimate capital of a beneficent empire. As far as the Athenians were concerned, this was quite acceptable, however, they were loath to spend any great amount on adorning the city.

"Very well," responded Pericles, "let nothing be charged to the public treasure, but all to my own estate, and I will dedicate the public buildings in my name."

Whether it vas surprise in his show of spirit or a desire to get in on the glory, the Athenians shouted their approval, "Spend on and spare no cost til all is finished." (from Plutarch.)

Pericles was the greatest leader and statesman Athens has ever known. He did more for his city and the advancement of Athenian culture and power than any other leader before or after. But his excessive nationalism was also to be the downfall of his beloved city.

Athens at the time of the expulsion of the Persians was empress of Maritime Greece. She was the only city to survive the wars without sustaining too much damage. So Athens became the leader in the Delian Confederacy, when it formed in 477 BC as a defense mechanism should the Persians decide to return. Ionia, though liberated, was impoverished and Sparta was disordered by demobilization and insurrection. All members contributed to the treasure located at Delos and due to the fact that Athens contributed ships, (with Athenian crews) instead of money, dominance of their allies soon followed.

This growth of the Athenian Empire eventually led to the Peloponnesian Wars and the end of the Golden Age of Greece. Athens developed control over commercial and political life in the Aegean. Free trade was allowed during peace time, but only under consent of her government. The destinations of grain and food ships were always determined by Athenian agents. The reason for such control on trade routes stemmed from the fact that Athens depended heavily on imported food, and she was determined to guard those routes by which it came. A fine illustration of this control came when Methone a city to the north, starving with drought, had to ask Athens's leave to import a little corn.

The growing empire also reserved the right to try all cases arising within the confederacy in her own courts, the Athenian mint gradually replaced the previous island coinage, and to top it all off, they moved the treasury from Delos to their own city and used the money to adorn their buildings.

To help maintain control, galleys made the grand tour every year, collecting protection taxes from a dozen or more "allies". However, Athens was very careful to maintain the idea of a defensive "league". When confronted with any rebellions, Athens swiftly suppressed them by force, as she did in Aegina in 457 BC and on Samos in 440 BC.

This inherent contradiction between the worship of liberty and the despotism of empire cooperated with the individualism of the Greek city-states to end the Golden Age of Athens. Pericles knew how to sway a multitude and direct the spirit of many people working together, but his own excessive nationalism to Athens caused him to neglect the other city states and strive for Athenian dominance of the Aegean world. Nationalism and independence developed among these neglected states to the breaking point until 431 BC when Sparta declared war on doomed Athens.




  • Eliot, Alexander, The Horizon Concise History of Greece, New York, American Heritage Publishing Co., 1972, pp 74-88, 96-103.
  • Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1939, pp 245-254, 438-441.
  • "Pericles", The World Book Encyclopedia, 1968, vol. 15, pp 255.


  • He was an influential ruler in Athenian history. In fact, he was so influential that during the time that he ruled (461 ? 429 B.C) it was called ?The Periclean Age? of Athens. Pericles was an elected member to Council to the military committee almost every year during his leadership.

    Pericles was known to be aloof, but his patriotism and eloquence was what won the hearts of the masses?and the ladies (he was known to have mistresses). He created a great naval empire, which aided in the alliance with surrounding cities and with islands in the Aegean Sea. He even built a wall that allowed for safe transportation of goods between Athens and Piraeus. Athens became immersed in a wealth it had never seen before. Literature and art flourished, such as the rebuilding of the Parthenon after it was destroyed during the Persian War.

    Pericles had two policies: to extend democracy in Athens and to make the city the cultural and artistic centre of the Greek world. These two feats he was able to accomplish by remaining steadfast.

    I have paid the required tribute, in obedience to the law, making use of such fitting words as I had. The tribute of deeds has been paid in part; for the dead have them in deeds, and it remains only that their children should be maintained at the public charge until they are grown up: this is the solid prize with which, as with a garland, Athens crowns her sons living and dead, after a struggle like theirs. For where the rewards of virtue are greatest, there the noblest citizens are enlisted in the service of the state. And now, when you have duly lamented, every one his own dead, you may depart.

    This is the finale of Pericles? famous speech about virtues of democratic life, the ?Funeral Oration.? The great leader spoke it after the first year of the Peloponnesian War for all those who died because of it. The words spoken highlighted his charismatic and brilliant career as leader to the Athenians. A few years after this speech was given, Pericles perished in a plague that devastated all Athens.

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