Arguably the most influential Greek orator and general of his day, Pericles was termed the “first citizen of Athens” by no less than the contemporary historian Thucydides (who did, however, view politics as based upon self-interest and fear, so some allowances should be made for his opinion). Thoroughly self-serving, Pericles made the Delian League – which was to continue the fight against Persia – into an Athenian proto-empire. Too, he sought to make Athens the artistic and cultural center of Greece, and was fairly successful at that. And for his support of fledgling Athenian democracy, he has been termed a “populist” (at which he himself would surely laugh).
Born around 495 BC in Cholargos, a suburb of Athens, Pericles was the product of the union between the general and politician Xanthippus and Agariste, a daughter of the powerful Alcmaeonidae family. Herodotus and Plutarch both report that Agariste dreamed a few nights before Pericles’ birth “that she had borne a lion.” Whether the vision related to his future prowess, or the fact that he was born with an unusually large skull – thus the reason contemporary comic authors referred to him as “Squill-head,” so named for the Greek squill, or sea onion (so it was cruel, it was still funny) – Pericles was an introverted youth, who enjoyed practicing rhetoric with the philosopher-scholars his family could afford as tutors.
Given his family connections, it was perhaps inevitable that Pericles would enter the Athenian political arena. At some point in his early 30s he served as leading prosecutor of Cimon, a leader of the conservative faction who had been accused of neglecting Athens’ interests in favor of his own. Although Cimon was acquitted, two years later Pericles managed to have his rival ostracized (expelled from the city for a decade) on charges of Cimon’s aiding Sparta. With that, Pericles became one of the leading lights in Athens’ democratic movement, promoting a populist social policy.
Pericles spent the next decade consolidating his position, and currying favor with the lower classes. One of his first sponsored decrees used state funds to pay for admission to the theater for the poor; another offered generous wages for any who would serve as jurymen in the Athenian high court. In league with other “democrats” (promoting the demos, or commoners), Pericles moved to curtail the role of the Areopagus, the aristocratic council that governed the city, and elevate the Ecclesia, the Athenian assembly. It was crucial, in his view, for Athens to favor the public, which he viewed as an untapped resource and the vital element in future Athenian dominance of Greece. In this, bit by bit, he gave the lower classes access to the political system and public offices from which they had heretofore been barred. So it can be argued that the roots of Western democracy lay in the dreams of empire.
In all this politicking, he proved himself a masterful orator, bringing both the skills of the sophist and the logic of the philosopher (and he’d been taught by the best of both) to his speeches. His detractors claimed, however, that his consort Aspasia actually wrote many of his famous speeches – a grave insult to any statesman that they owed their success to a woman, especially in Athens where women were second-class citizens (at best). Outrage over the murder of Ephialtes, an early leader of the democratic movement, gave Pericles the opportunity to consolidate his authority. Without Cimon or others around to oppose him, the now unchallenged leader of the “democrats” became the unchallenged (if one knew what was good for one’s fortunes) leader of Athens.
Following the defeat of the second invasion by Persia and the withdrawal of Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies, in 479 BC Pericles cobbled together the Delian League, a military alliance of the Aegean city-states to protect Greek interests … or, at least, those that mattered to Pericles. Following a failed attack on the Persians in 454, Athens pushed hard to transfer all of the League’s treasury – amassed from the collection of phoros (“taxes”) by members for the rebuilding of temples destroyed by the Persians – from Delos to Athens. Three years later, another decree by Pericles imposed Athenian weights and measures throughout the League.
Pericles set about using the treasury for the glory of Athens, tapping it to fund various building projects, most notably a bunch of structures on the city’s Acropolis: the temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheum, and the massive Parthenon, begun about 447 BC. He argued that the allies were paying Athens for their defense (it did have the largest fleet) and since that was the case he didn’t have to account for how the money was spent. He also used funds (both his own and the League’s) to support the famed playwrights Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes (who weren’t getting rich off all those free performances). Sculptors such as Phidias and Myron beautified the city with works in marble and stone. The philosophers Protagoras, Zeno, and Anaxagoras were personal friends of Pericles, although the great Socrates held himself aloft from the fawning. It could be argued that Pericles funded the Golden Age of Greece … using other people’s 9000 talents of gold.
By this point, Pericles had been elected strategos (general) in 458 of the combined forces of Athens and its allies. And soon enough he set off the first Peloponnesian War, at least he did according to Thucydides and to Plutarch, although they were hardly objective observers. Pericles, by all accounts, was convinced that a war for the control of Greece between Sparta and Athens was inevitable. And so he dispatched Athenian forces in 433 to support Corcyra in its squabble with Corinth, a Spartan ally. Perhaps Pericles was looking for a fight, and when Athens rejected Spartan’s demands to cease-and-desist the Peloponnesian League and Delian League had at it. Sparta ravaged the Attica countryside; Pericles evacuated all the people into Athens and prepared to wear down the Peloponnesians. But, in 429 BC, plague struck the crowded city. Among those it claimed … Pericles, who couldn’t debate with an enterobacterium.