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
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
- 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
- He extended the authority of the people by increasing the power of the popular
- 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
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
"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."
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.