ca. 495-429 B.C.

Athenian general and politician

Pericles was the leading statesman in the Greek city-state* of Athens for 30 years. Under his leadership, Athens strengthened its control over other city-states and became the center of a mighty empire. Pericles encouraged philosophy* and the arts in Athens. He changed the face of the city with a public building program that created the Parthenon and other magnificent temples on the hilltop known as the Acropolis. Pericles dominated the political, military, and cultural life of Athens for an entire generation. The historian Thucydides reports that from 460 until 429 B.C., the government of Athens was “in name a democracy, but in fact the rule of the first man”—and that man was Pericles.

The Rise of Pericles and Athens. Pericles was born into a distinguished Athenian family. His father, Xanthippus, was involved in the politics of the city-state and commanded a Greek force during a battle of the Persian Wars, and his mother came from a prominent aristocratic* family. The young Pericles received the best available education, with lessons from well-known musicians and philosophers. Throughout his life, Pericles remained deeply interested in the arts and in philosophy. One of his closest friends was the philosopher Anaxagoras. Some historians believe that the teachings of Anaxagoras provided Pericles with the calm, steady sense of purpose that he displayed in his public life, even in the face of severe setbacks and disappointments.

* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory

* philosophy study of ideas, including science

* aristocratic referring to people of the highest social class

Pericles first appeared in Athenian politics around 463 B.C. as a prosecutor of the Athenian general Cimon. He soon became a follower of a democratic reformer named Ephialtes. When Ephialtes was killed a few years later, Pericles assumed the leadership of Athenian public life. A gifted orator*, Pericles quickly became the most popular and influential speaker in the citizen assembly, and he retained that influence until the end of his life. The citizens frequently elected Pericles to the post of strate- gos—one of ten generals in command of the Athenian forces. He held this post almost continuously from 443 B.C. until his death.

During Pericles’ early years in power, Athens rose to its height of importance. Pericles pursued an aggressive foreign policy. He dispatched one navy to fight the Persians in Egypt, and other forces to fight against Phoenicia and Cyprus. At the same time, Athens made war on several states within Greece, capturing some major cities. The Athenians fought battles with the armies of their archenemy Sparta and its allies. Pericles sometimes commanded troops in the field, leading a successful campaign in the Gulf of Corinth in 454 B.C.

Soon after that campaign, however, Pericles and Athens encountered several setbacks. The Persians won a victory in Egypt. Realizing that Athens could not defeat the Persian Empire, Pericles made peace with Persia. He then arranged a meeting in Athens of representatives from all Greek city-states to discuss rebuilding the temples destroyed by the Persians, but Sparta refused to participate, and the project fell through. Tensions mounted between Sparta and Athens. At the same time, the people of Boeotia revolted against Athenian rule. As Pericles tried to suppress the rebellion, Sparta invaded Attica, the region in which Athens is located. Pericles was forced to make a truce with Sparta (perhaps by bribing the Spartan king), and Athens failed to recapture some of the territories it had lost in the rebellion. In 445 B.C., Athens signed the Thirty Years’ Peace with Sparta, giving up control of its conquered land on mainland Greece.

Later Years of Pericles. For many years, Athens had been the leader of the Delian League, an alliance of Greek city-states. Formed in 478 B.C., just after the Persian Wars, the League was originally intended to defend Greece against the Persian Empire. Pericles turned the League into an Athenian empire. He brought the other members of the League under Athenian rule, moved the League’s treasury to Athens, used its funds to rebuild Athenian temples, and declared that the allied states must use Athenian coins, weights, and measures. Members who could not contribute ships to the League’s defense (and therefore rank as equals with Athens) had to pay a tribute* and were reduced to a lower station.

Pericles tightened Athens’s hold on its allies by establishing colonies in regions controlled by the allies. Athenian settlements were established at Brea and Amphipolis in the region of Thrace, and a settlement at Amisus on the south coast of the Black Sea helped to control the shipment of grain from Thrace and the Black Sea. These settlements of Athenian citizens generally occupied the most valuable or strategically important land in the subject state. The colonies, such as the one at Megara near the Gulf of Corinth, served as permanent military bases in states that were supposedly friendly but which might revolt at any moment. Athens acquired land for the colonies by force or as repayment of debts. Pericles was determined not to let Athens lose control of its allies or subject territories. When the island of Samos rebelled and attempted to leave the Delian League in 440 B.C., Pericles led a fleet against Samos and forced the city to surrender, tear down its walls, and repay the Athenians for their losses.

* orator public speaker of great skill

* tribute payment made to a dominant power or local government


At a time when women had little say in public matters, Aspasia, Pericles' mistress, supposedly wielded great influence on Athenian political affairs. The comedies of the day ridiculed her power, accusing her of urging Pericles to attack the island of Samos, as well as blaming her for causing the Peloponnesian War.

If Pericles was an imperial conqueror outside Athens, within the city Weills he was a democratic reformer. He introduced the concept of paid civil service so that citizens who served on juries or public councils received a sum of money for each day of service. He also set up a fund to pay for theater admissions for poorer citizens. As the benefits of citizenship grew, however, Pericles took steps to limit the number of people who could become citizens. In 451 B.C., he introduced a law that restricted Athenian citizenship to those people whose mother and father were both Athenian citizens.

During the 440s and 430s B.C., Pericles launched an ambitious and costly building program that crowned the Acropolis with the Parthenon and other temples. Pericles also supported literature and the arts, which he believed were essential to life in a democracy. Among his friends were the sculptor Phidias and the playwright Sophocles. Periclean Athens was a place of lively debate, intellectual inquiry, and artistic flowering. It was an era which some historians have called the Golden Age of Greece.

By the late 430s B.C., the prospect of war with Sparta loomed over Athens. Believing that war was inevitable, Pericles refused to compromise with Sparta and its allies or to yield to Spartan pressure. In 431 B.C., the long conflict known as the Peloponnesian War broke out, pitting Sparta and its allies against Athens and its allies. Pericles’ strategy was to bring Greek citizens from the countryside into Athens and to avoid battle on land, where the Spartans had superior forces. As long as the Athenian fleet was in full control of the Aegean Sea, Pericles believed, the empire could be held. The first year of the war brought such hardship to Athens that the people threw Pericles out of office. They soon restored him to power, however, perhaps believing that only his leadership could save them. By then, however, a deadly plague* was devastating Athens, and Pericles was one of the many who died. The war he had helped to start would be fought by his successors. (See also Greece, History of.)

* plague highly contagious, widespread, and often fatal disease

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