Who was Pericles?

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Pericles (495-425 BC) is considered by many to be one of the great statesmen who ever lived not only in Ancient Greece but in the history of Western Civilization. There are many who claim that the 5th century BC Athenian led his city-state to an unparalleled era of power and prosperity. It was common for historians to unreservedly praise the Athenian f as a great democratic leader. Moreover, many credited him with leading Athens to a golden age of culture and artistic achievements. However, there are some who dispute the greatness of Pericles and assert that he was at least partially responsible for the collapse of its Empire. This article examines Pericles' impact on the city-state, its culture, politics and his role in its ultimate defeat in the Second Peloponnesian War.

Bust of Pericles

Athens in the 5th century BC

The city-state played a leading role in the defeat of the Persian Invasion and it emerged as the de-facto leader of the Greek world after Sparta withdrew from offensive operations against Persia. Athens became the leader of the Delian League and continued the war against the Persians. Athens was a democracy, but it was very different from modern conceptions of democracy. All the citizens participated in the administration and the government of the city-state[1]. Citizens were elected every year to a range of posts, from that of general (strategeos) to municipal officials. The citizens sat in a council that voted on the policies and laws of the city. They even voted on criminal cases and decided who could be exiled from the city and even executed. However, women and foreigners could not be citizens and Athens was a slave-owning society. In the Fifth Century BC, the economy of the city-state flourished thanks to maritime trade, the silver mines, and industry. Athens was the undisputed maritime power in the Eastern Mediterranean and this was the source of its security and wealth[2].

The life of Pericles

Pericles was born into one of Athens’ most prominent families. His father Xanthippus was a hero of the Persian Wars and his mother was a member of the noble Alcmaeonidae clan[3]. He was highly educated and moved in the same circles as some of the leading Athenian philosophers such as Anaxagoras. It seems probable that he gained military experience while still a young man. Pericles used his financial wealth to sponsor Aeschylus's play, The Persians. This play was seen as supporting the popular party in the city. Pericles soon became the leader of this party in the city, despite his wealthy background. His main opponent was the leader of the conservative party, Cimon. From 463 and 461, Pericles worked to prosecute Cimon, for failure to protect the city’s interests in Macedonia. He eventually secured the expulsion of Cimon from Athens, after a public vote. Pericles was a capable general and led a successful military campaign. He was elected a general, every year, for the rest of his life. He was to lead Athenians land and naval expeditions many times and typically with great success. Pericles was very popular because of his great ability as an orator, his speeches could persuade the citizenry of Athens to follow his policies [4]. He was never officially the leader of the city, but his abilities made him the most influential person in the city for decades. Pericles played a leading role in the formulation of a peace treaty with the Persians and also the end of the First Peloponnesian War with Sparta and her allies. This was to lead to almost two decades of peace, which resulted in a brief but glorious cultural flourishing in the city. Pericles was an imperialist and he wanted to turn Athens into an Empire. He sponsored invasions of Cyprus and Egypt, during the 440s BC. In 454 BC, he was the chief instigator of the decision to move the treasury of the Delian League from Delos, to Athens. This and other policies, over a number of years, turned what had once been an anti-Persian alliance into the Athenian Empire. Pericles ordered the brutal suppression of any Athenian subject-city or island who wanted more autonomy or independence. The treasury of the Delian League was used to finance great building projects in the city, such as the Acropolis. Pericles was determined to beautify the city which also benefitted it economically. As Athens's power grew, Sparta felt isolated and threatened. When its ephors and kings demanded some concessions in relation to Megara, Pericles refused and in 431 BC, war broke out between the two most powerful Greek states. Sparta invaded Attica and raided the countryside around Athens. Pericles was able to persuade the Athenians not to fight the Spartans on land but to withdraw to the city and use its navy to harass the enemy and to keep the city supplied by sea[5]. The Athenian statesman knew that the Spartans had a larger and better field army. His strategy, sometimes named after him, he argued would eventually lead to the Spartans losing a war of attrition, because Athens had more resources. However, this was not a popular strategy and he was briefly deposed from office in 430 BC, but he was later recalled. In 429 BC, disaster struck Athens, a plague ravaged the city. Pericles two legitimate sons died in the plague and up to one-third of the population perished. A few months later Pericles also died of the plague, while his city was in a life-or-death struggle with Sparta. His death left the city leaderless and none of his successors could match his abilities and this was a factor in Athens defeat by Sparta.

Pericles: the democrat

Traditionally, Pericles was regarded by historians as a great democrat. He was seen as encouraging and enabling the participation of the ordinary citizens in the democratic process, not only as electors but as active participants [6]. He enabled civic participation by subsidizing service on juries and also for other civil roles. This meant that municipal service was no longer the preserve of the rich who could afford to serve in juries or offices without pay. Moreover, he was able to limit the power of the aristocracy in politics. Pericles believed based on his surviving speeches which are mainly recorded in the works of the historian Thucydides, argue that freedom was essential for the individual and that democracy was necessary for a vibrant and successful society. The Athenian historian quotes the stateman as saying “Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free” [7]. His views and oratory did much to democratize Athens and they still inspire democrats to this day. However, many argue that Pericles was not a true democrat and claim that he was a populist and a demagogue. He used his power of oratory to become the almost unquestioned ruler of Athens. This is a fact that is even recognized by his admirer Thucydides.

The Athenian Empire

While Pericles may have been a democrat and was a passionate advocate of freedom, he was also paradoxically an imperialist, who advocated the conquest and coercion of other city-states and peoples. From an early date, he advocated an aggressive foreign policy. His ability to dominate the politics of Athens meant that it became an imperialist power, although it must be remembered that the conservatives also supported foreign conquests. However, Pericles was a crucial player in the transformation of the Delian League into a de-facto Athenian Empire. He was the driving force behind the standardization of coinage and weights in the Empire and was determined that the former allies were completely dependent on Athens. Initially, the Delian League was a league dominated by Athens, but Pericles turned it into a formal Empire. This was crucial in the growth and development of the city. However, it alarmed many other Greek city-states and it led to a growing suspicion of Pericles and the Athenians, which was one of the root causes of the Second Peloponnesian War.

Periclean Athens

Pericles was a very cultured man and was widely read in philosophy. His consort, the remarkable Aspasia, was also a very cultured woman, who introduced him to the latest ideas and was also an accomplished writer. Pericles was an early humanist and believed in the dignity and the perfectibility of men and women. He held that the arts and culture were essential and could promote improvements in individual citizens and in the wider society. This was why Pericles sought to democratize culture and enabled ordinary citizens to attend cultural events such as the theatre. Moreover, he was an enthusiastic patron of the arts, education, and culture. In one famous speech, he professed the ambition that Athens ‘be the education of Greece’ [8]. That is, he wanted the city-state to be the cultural center of the Greek world and this, was indeed the case, in the Fifth Century BC. The statesman used his influence to persuade the city’s magistrates to spend civic funds on cultural and artistic projects. Pericles used the treasures of the Athenian Empire to finance many remarkable architectural projects such as the Acropolis, The Parthenon and The Temple of Nike. The plastic arts also flourished and one of the world’s greatest sculptor Phidias worked in Athens during the Periclean Golden Age. The Age of Pericles was also, crucial in the history of theatre. The great tragedians, Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus all worked in Athens, as did the great comic playwright, Aristophanes. Pericles was very liberal-minded for the time and believed in freedom of thought and expression. This made Athens a center of philosophy, and during his lifetime philosophers such as Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Zeno, and the great Socrates all felt free to speculate on the ultimate questions in Periclean Athens. Socrates is regarded as the founder of Western Philosophy. While it seems likely that Athens would have experienced a cultural flourishing after the defeat of the Persians it would not have been as remarkable without the patronage and support of Pericles[9].

The Parthenon

The Second Peloponnesian War

The Golden Age of Athens is commonly regarded as ending with the start of the Second Peloponnesian War. This was a war between Athens and Sparta that engulfed the Greek world for decades. It is widely seen as leading to the decline and fall of the Athenian Empire and the end of its golden age of culture and artistic achievements, especially after the destruction of the Sicilian Expedition (415-413 BC) <Thucydides, 13-18</ref>. The war is commonly seen as been caused by the imperial ambitions of Athens and its desire for constant expansion. This led to fears in Sparta that the Athenians were becoming too powerful and would eventually seek to dominate it. Pericles is seen as provoking Sparta by his expansionary policies and his failure to recognize the independence of other city-states. Moreover, Pericles refusal to make concessions, which were not unreasonable. Pericles believed that if the city followed his strategy, which was based on withdrawing to the walled city and using is navy, it would not be defeated [10]. This did much to persuade the war-party in Athens to adopt a hard-line policy towards Sparta. Pericles was no doubt at least partly responsible for the outbreak of the Second Peloponnesian War. A conflict that was to result in the complete collapse of Athenian power.

The destruction of the Athenian army outside Syracuse


Pericles decisively shaped one of the most remarkable periods in Ancient Civilization. His achievements are substantial and impressive. He dominated Athens and also Greek politics for many decades through his brilliance and oratory. Pericles was a democrat and he demonstrated to Athens, and to posterity, the benefits of democracy and freedom. He is rightly regarded as one of the founders of the democratic tradition in the West. Under his leadership, Athens prospered and flourished. Pericles' patronage and support led to a golden age of culture and art. The Periclean Age decisively influenced Western art, theatre, and philosophy to this day. Pericles was also an imperialist and played a crucial role in the establishment of the Athenian Empire. This ultimately upset the balance of power in the Greek world and first led to the breakdown in relations with Sparta and then to the outbreak of the Second Peloponnesian War. This almost thirty-year-old conflict fatefully weakened the Athenians and led to Spartan hegemony over the Greek city-states. Pericles made Athens the most important cultural, political and naval power, however, he also contributed to its decline and collapse.

Further Reading

Samons II, Loren J., ed. The Cambridge companion to the age of Pericles (Cambrdge, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Park, Sungwoo. "Thucydides on the Fate of the Democratic Empire." Journal of International and Area Studies (2008): 93-109.

Tracy, Stephen V. Pericles: a sourcebook and reader (Stanton, University of California Press, 2009).


  1. Saxonhouse, A. W. (1993). Athenian democracy: Modern mythmakers and ancient theorists. PS: Political Science & Politics, 26(3), 486-490
  2. Wolin, Sheldon S. "Democracy: Electoral and Athenian." PS: Political Science & Politics 26, no. 3 (1993): 475-477
  3. Plutarch, Life of Pericles, 1.5. 6
  4. Plutarch, 6. 4. 1
  5. Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War, 2. 37. 1
  6. Kagan, Donald. Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy (NY, Simon, and Schuster, 1998), p. 124
  7. Thucydides, 2. 37. 1
  8. Thucydides, 2. 37.2
  9. Azoulay, Vincent. Pericles of Athens (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017), p 113
  10. Azoulay, p. 115