Ancient History & Civilisation


Pericles and Athens

Only Athens, among city-states of our day, is superior to the reports of her when she comes to the test; she alone causes no indignation in any enemy who comes against her, such are those from whom he suffers damage; nor is she blamed by those who are her subjects, as if they are being ruled by those who are unworthy to rule. Our power has great testimonies to it and is not without witness, so we will be admired both by those of our own time and those to come. We do not need Homer to praise us nor anyone else whose poetry pleases for a moment, whereas the truth will damage the impression the poet gives of the facts. For we have compelled all the land and the sea to be accessible to our daring and everywhere we have, together, set memorials of our successes and our failures.

Pericles, in the Funeral Speech of 431/0,
according to Thucydides, 2.41.2–3

From the 450s until 429 the most famous Athenian politician was Pericles, so much so that this era is often known nowadays as the age of ‘Periclean Athens’. The Emperor Hadrian was well aware of Pericles’ example. Among his special favours for Athens, Hadrian may even have modelled his ‘Panhellenic’ role for the city on a project which biographers had ascribed to Pericles himself. Pericles has continued to inspire the modern world. In 1915, during the war with Germany, buses in London displayed a translation of the fine words on freedom which were ascribed to Pericles’ famous Funeral Speech.

The real Pericles is more elusive. He was born in the mid-490s to a noble father, Xanthippus, and a mother of the noble, but controversial, Alcmeonid lineage. As a young man, he was shaped by two particular changes: the Athenians’ new prominence, won by their role in defeating the Persian invasions, and the growing confidence of their democracy since Cleisthenes’ reforms in 508 BC. Athenians, Pericles saw, were special, as even their fellow Greeks conceded, sometimes grudgingly. Democracy was now the well-founded setting for a politician’s career and it was a fantasy of the ‘good’ to believe that it would disappear. It was in Pericles’ youth, in the 480s, that popular activity had intensified, with the spate of ostracisms proving that the Athenian people could now vote to expel even the most noble individuals from their assemblies. In 489 Pericles’ father had already exploited popular opinion by prosecuting no less a hero than Miltiades, the great victor of Marathon, before a popular court. In their assemblies, as Cleisthenes intended, the majority voting of the people was now the judge of what should happen. Someone, therefore, who could win the people’s trust would be far more effective than an old-fashioned aristocrat, however brave he might be in war and athletics and however well connected in the wider Greek world.

Such trust would only be won by public speaking, proposing policies to the assembly which appealed and were then found to succeed. Political successes had not started to depend on the written word and its dissemination: at Athens, political writings were left to theorists and oligarchic sympathizers who were not in the political mainstream. The decrees passed by the assembly were displayed prominently on whitened boards in the public agora so that ‘anyone who wished’ could look at them. More Athenians could read, in my view, than could write, but it is likely that most of the assembly-voters had never troubled to read a literary text. Somebody could be found to read a decree on display and recite it for the less able, but if Pericles had tried to campaign by issuing written manifestos, he would have missed most of his political voters. The circulation of book-scrolls, the scenes of reading and writing on Athenian vases, the texts of the orally performed masterpieces which we now read and admire are evidence of the literate habits of only a small educated minority.1 Political culture was oral.

The two lessons of Pericles’ youth, the pre-eminence of Athens and the public role of each adult Athenian male, were to shape his political vision. Our supreme evidence for his words and deeds lies in the histories of his admiring younger contemporary, Thucydides (born c. 460–455 BC). Thucydides revered Pericles’ oratory, his cool applied intelligence, his immunity to bribes and corruption and his ability (the young Thucydides thought) to control and lead the fickle people so that politics among the Athenians ‘were becoming the rule of one man’.2 In Thucydides’ eyes, it also helped that Pericles was ‘one of us’, an aristocrat who was a brave and able general. But Thucydides did not go unchallenged and the views of Plato the philosopher proved more powerful, though written a generation after Pericles’ death.

No democrat himself, Plato insisted that Pericles had been a flattering ‘demagogue’ who had misled the Athenians and corrupted them. He could not be exempted from the blame for the Athenians’ eventual defeat by the Spartans in the ensuing Peloponnesian War. Later authors tried to reconcile these opposing views by claiming that Pericles had begun as a ‘demagogue’, as Plato complained, but had then attained the Olympian pre-eminence which the young Thucydides so admired. The most suggestive personal memoir of Pericles survives from a non-Athenian contemporary, the amiable Ion of Chios. On meeting Pericles, Ion found his company ‘insolent and extremely conceited and there was considerable disdain and contempt for others mixed in his arrogant manners’.3 Other famous Athenians, including the dramatist Sophocles, were much more to Ion’s taste.

Pericles, we may infer, knew that he was gifted with no ordinary aims and responsibilities. He was said to be a single-minded politician who would walk only down the street which led from his house to the city’s political centre. He is also said to have avoided social occasions if possible: popular politics were a serious, full-time business. His best friends included visiting intellectuals, people like Damon the musical theorist or the philosopher Anaxagoras who enraged the common man by claiming that the ‘divine’ sun was only a lump of burning matter. If Pericles relaxed, it was not with his wife, whom he divorced amicably, but with his famous mistress, Aspasia, who had come over from elegant east Greek Miletus. We hear of Aspasia as a wise authority on the pitfalls of matchmaking between couples or on the secrets of being a good ‘wife’. The comic poets in Athens had a field day, claiming that she coaxed Pericles into various foreign wars, that she taught him oratory and philosophy, that she procured girls for him, that she ran a brothel on the side and even, in a mock trial-scene, that she was guilty of ‘impiety’ against the gods. Posterity has liked to imagine her running a salon of good taste and intelligent talk, but actually we know nothing about her. With delicious malice, Plato later credited her with an eloquent ‘Funeral Speech’ of her own, in praise of Athens.4 Wickedly, he was making fun of the real Funeral Speeches by Pericles, one of which had been immortalized by Thucydides’ Histories. At least we can say that Pericles did love the woman. He is the first man in history who is said to have always given his lady friend a passionate kiss on his way out to work in the morning and another on his return home each evening.5 No source connects him with any homoerotic interest in boys.

Pericles’ sons were thick and undistinguished, the home-life was nothing special, so what was ‘Periclean’ about what we call Periclean Athens? Pericles was elected as a general, and in the 430s he was elected year after year: he was, however, only one of a board of ten. He held no special position and his public achievements had to depend on his oratory in the big public assemblies. It is clear that he was only one voice among a much wider group of important leaders, some of whom advised some of his same policies. He could never decide something and impose it, as a modern Prime Minister does on his Cabinet. Nonetheless, there is a distinctive thread in what we know of the Athenians in the later 450s until c. 430. It is Pericles, surely, who put it into words and helped people to opt for what they had dimly wanted and would never have expressed so clearly.

In their foreign policy, Athenians were (arguably) not just Pericleans. Like Pericles himself, they were loyal heirs of Themistocles. Peace was agreed with the Persian king in 450/49 BC, as the older Themistocles would have approved; so, too, approaches from potential allies in the Greek West were acted on in the 440s and 430s and an Athenian general was even briefly active in Naples: there are hints, no more, that Themistocles, too, was interested in the scope of the Greek West. In Greece, Pericles was remembered for a truly Themistoclean remark: ‘already I see war bearing down from the Peloponnese.’6 The Spartans, he meant, were the enemy and for the remark to have any point he must have uttered it long before the fateful war which began in 431. If Athenian expansion meanwhile upset Sparta’s allies in the northern Peloponnese, so be it. As Themistocles’ example had shown, there was scope for subverting their pro-Spartan governments and even for bringing them over to Athens’ side. Pericles had lived through the slow war in Greece against the Spartans and their allies between 460 and 446. It would have convinced him of the scope for sheltering the Athenians behind their impregnable Long Walls, Themistocles’ creation, and resisting Spartan land-invasions. They could survive there through their naval supremacy, Themistocles’ legacy, and with it they could always import food. If they were allied to a friendly neighbouring Megara, they could anyway block Sparta’s easy access into Athenian territory: they could ‘win through’ without a pitched battle. If Spartans did try to ravage Attica, cavalry would be turned on them to drive them off. The Periclean years see a sixfold increase in cavalry numbers and the new ‘insurance’ scheme for their horses.7 Pericles was not a lower-class bigot.

Pericles’ firm, reasoned insistence on this strategy went with something new and more profound than Themistocles’ opportunism on the international scene. When a noble Athenian colleague, Callias, pulled off the coup of a peace-agreement with Persia in 449, Pericles replied by summoning a Greek congress to Athens to discuss the rebuilding of Athens’ ruined temples, the offering of new sacrifices to the gods and the free and peaceful use of the seas. The implication was that the Athenians’ allies would continue to pay tribute to the Athenians for these ends, in a continuing Hellenic League which would have Athens at its centre. Predictably, Sparta refused to attend, but in 449 the new temples did start to be built on Athens’ Acropolis, financed by her allies’ continuing payments. The peace with Persia was presented as a ‘victory’, and so the Athenians’ previous oath never to rebuild their ruined shrines was overtaken by a new building-programme. For Pericles, Athens was the great centre of the free Greek world and was deservedly the ruler of so many Greek allies. He was impressively hard-headed about the need to retain the Athenians’ alliance, or ‘Empire’. All attempted revolts were repressed: even her subjects, he says in Thucydides’ memories of him, agreed that they were being ruled by ‘people who were not unworthy to do so’.8 Athenians should ‘love’ their city and its power. Athens was remarkable for its new beauty, for the character of its inhabitants and their exceptional grace, skill and mutual tolerance (slaves, after all, were simply objects). With varying degrees of probability, we can ascribe to Pericles a scattered range of proposals for his fellow Athenians’ benefit. From c. 448 BC onwards Athenian settlers were sent out to new settlements or to land-holdings in the territories of Athenian subjects: the policy was probably Pericles’. Most of the settlers were drawn from the poorest classes and by renting out their new land abroad they were raised to a better standard of living. Since the early 450s Athenians who served on the many juries in the city’s law courts were paid a small daily fee for doing so: this state-pay is a Periclean proposal. In due course, all Athenians would be given the sum needed to buy their ‘tickets’ for the dramas and events at Athens’ major city-festivals: it is disputed, but in my view probable, that Pericles was responsible.

The definition of Athenian citizenship was also tightened on his advice. It was Pericles’ own proposal that only the children of an Athenian citizen-father and an Athenian mother would be Athenian citizens themselves. This law of Pericles was prospective, applying to children born from 451 BC onwards, and so it was popular enough to be voted in by the existing citizenry. Probably, as we have seen, its main aim was to encourage Athenian men to take Athenian brides, and the topic was more urgent when so many Athenians were receiving new plots of land to rent or cultivate abroad. Families, Pericles realized, did not want to be left with unmarried daughters while their males took foreign wives: the tighter requirements of citizenship would also keep up the Athenians’ sense of group identity.

Through all of these innovations runs a principled belief that the citizens of Athens are special, that each adult male is capable of responsible political duties, that they should be rewarded for their role, and that the arts help to honour the gods and to civilize their beneficiaries. Pericles himself served prominently on the commission to oversee the splendid new buildings on the Acropolis. He was a close friend of the great sculptor Pheidias and he was identified with the proper conduct of the building-programme. Under his general guidance, the robe which young Athenian girls wove for the goddess Athena was transferred to her new ‘house’, the Parthenon, where it would hang as a huge backcloth behind Pheidias’ enormous new statue of the goddess.9 Just below the Acropolis, Pericles also proposed the building of a special Odeon, supported on a forest of columns. It became a venue for musical contests in the great festivals, although comic poets alleged that it was a conceit, modelled on the captured tent of the Persian King Xerxes.

Between c. 560 and 510 the Athenian tyrants had had a vision of a grander Athens; now for the first time, we find a vision for Athenian citizens. No previous Athenian politician, not even Cleisthenes, is known to have associated with philosophers and intellectuals. Unlike previous aristocrats, Pericles asked for no poems or texts in his honour: he did not even try to inscribe his name on what were seen as the entire citizenry’s buildings. He had an idea of a new community, enhanced by power and by the equal participation of male Athenians. His intellectual contacts extended to Protagoras the philosopher who was invited, posterity said, to write the laws for the new settlement which was sent out to Thurii in south Italy under Pericles’ guidance. In music or political theory, in the use of oratory and sheer reason, Pericles applied a new intellectual clarity. It was the outcome of the Athenians’ new prominence in his lifetime, which drew talented and intelligent experts to his city, attracted by its new power and rewards. He and his friends did not believe in that old archaic bogey, the gods’ willingness to punish them for a distant ancestor’s misdeeds. They had a new classical clarity.

In this company, the random ‘anger’ of the gods was not a convincing ‘explanation of misfortune’: descendants would not be considered liable for their ancestors’ crimes. This clearer understanding of responsibility is for us a hallmark of the change from an archaic to a classical age. At Athens, Pericles and his friends had such understanding, and the important point for our sense of a change is that a few people had it at all, not that most other people in ‘classical Greece’ still entertained the older archaic ideas. In the Greek West, at Selinus, citizens still feared ‘avenging spirits’ in their midst; at Cyrene, they believed a legend of the ‘wrath’ of Apollo which accounted for the city’s foundation and they bothered about rituals to cope with their fears of pollution. At Locri, citizens were still sending a group of their virgin daughters yearly to Troy so as to atone for a ‘wrong’ perpetrated by their ancestors in the mythical age of the heroes.10 The Periclean age was not an age of general Greek enlightenment, but it was an age when intellectuals and their enlightened thinking first flourished around a like-minded political leader.

We hear some of it still in Pericles’ Funeral Speech for 430 BC, which Thucydides presents in his own words while claiming to keep ‘as close as possible’ to the ‘gist of what was actually said’. Thucydides himself heard the speech and, behind Pericles’ fine claims, we can also catch an answer to contemporary critics. ‘We are lovers of beauty, yes, but without extravagance; we are lovers of wisdom, yes, but without being soft.’ In our democracy, any man can contribute, whatever his background, but Athenians are tolerant of fellow Athenians’ private ways and do not resent them if they act for personal pleasure. Freedom pervades both political and private life, but it is a freedom under the law. Athenian liberty is not ‘licence’. The man, however, who refuses to participate in public life is ‘useless’.11 The ideal is not, as theorists have sometimes pretended, ‘public splendour, private squalor’. It is no disgrace to be poor, but it is a disgrace not to try to escape being poor in the first place. Throughout the 430s, the comic poets of Athens and the rival politicians tried to satirize and even to prosecute Pericles, Aspasia and his intellectual and artistic friends. The ‘Olympian’ Pericles, the comedians alleged, was under the sway of his mistress: he started the war with Sparta – why not? – to avoid scandal: his head, even, was ‘squill-shaped’.12 As a ‘squill’, in the ancient Greek flora, was a flower with a rounded, smooth bulb, the meaning is that Pericles had a round, prematurely bald head. He was said to wear a military helmet very often in public, perhaps to hide his baldness as much as to evoke his constant service as a general. The comic satire and the attempted prosecutions are evidence of the freedom for which Pericles spoke so wonderfully. The public loved the poets’ bold ‘tabloid’ humour, but it is Pericles’ vision which has outlived theirs.

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