Ancient History & Civilisation


The man who acted as commander in chief of all the physical and spiritual forces of Athens during her greatest age was born some three years before Marathon. His father, Xanthippus, had fought at Salamis, had led the Athenian fleet in the battle of Mycale, and had recaptured the Hellespont for Greece. Pericles’ mother, Agariste, was a granddaughter of the reformer Cleisthenes; on her side, therefore, he belonged to the ancient family of the Alcmaeonids. “His mother being near her time,” says Plutarch, “fancied in a dream that she was brought to bed of a lion, and a few days after was delivered of Pericles—in other respects perfectly formed, only his head was somewhat longish and out of proportion”;10 his critics were to have much fun with this very dolicocephalic head, The most famous music teacher of his time, Damon, gave him instruction in music, and Pythocleides in music and literature; he heard the lectures of Zeno the Eleatic at Athens, and became the friend and pupil of the philosopher Anaxagoras. In his development he absorbed the rapidly growing culture of his epoch, and united in his mind and policy all the threads of Athenian civilization—economic, military, literary, artistic, and philosophical. He was, so far as we know, the most complete man that Greece produced.

Seeing that the oligarchic party was out of step with the time, he attached himself early in life to the party of the demos—i.e., the free population of Athens; then, as even in Jefferson’s day in America, the word “people” carried certain proprietary reservations. He approached politics in general, and each situation in it, with careful preparation, neglecting no aspect of education, speaking seldom and briefly, and praying to the gods that he might never utter a word that was not to the point. Even the comic poets, who disliked him, spoke of him as “the Olympian,” who wielded the thunder and lightning of such eloquence as Athens had never heard before; and yet by all accounts his speech was unimpassioned, and appealed to enlightened minds. His influence was due not only to his intelligence but to his probity; he was capable of using bribery to secure state ends, but was himself “manifestly free from every kind of corruption, and superior to all considerations of money”;11 and whereas Themistocles had entered public office poor and left it rich, Pericles, we are told, added nothing to his patrimony by his political career.12 It showed the good sense of the Athenians in this generation that for almost thirty years, between 467 and 428, they elected and re-elected him, with brief intermissions, as one of their ten strategoi or commanders; and this relative permanence of office not only gave him supremacy on the military board, but enabled him to raise the position of strategos autokrator to the place of highest influence in the government. Under him Athens, while enjoying all the privileges of democracy, acquired also the advantages of aristocracy and dictatorship. The good government and cultural patronage that had adorned Athens in the age of Peisistratus were continued now with equal unity and decisiveness of direction and intelligence, but also with the full and annually renewed consent of a free citizenship. History through him illustrated again the principle that liberal reforms are most ably executed and most permanently secured by the cautious and moderate leadership of an aristocrat enjoying popular support. Greek civilization was at its best when democracy had grown sufficiently to give it variety and vigor, and aristocracy survived sufficiently to give it order and taste.

The reforms of Pericles substantially extended the authority of the people. Though the power of the heliaea had grown under Solon, Cleisthenes, and Ephialtes, the lack of payment for jury service had given the well to do a predominating influence in these courts. Pericles introduced (451) a fee of two obols (34 cents), later raised to three, for a day’s duty as juror, an amount equivalent in each case to half a day’s earnings of an average Athenian of the time.13 The notion that these modest sums weakened the fiber and corrupted the morale of Athens is hardly to be taken seriously, for by the same token every state that pays its judges or its jurymen would long since have been destroyed. Pericles seems also to have established a small remuneration for military service. He crowned this scandalous generosity by persuading the state to pay every citizen two obols annually as the price of admission to the plays and games of the official festivals; he excused himself on the ground that these performances should not be a luxury of the upper and middle classes, but should contribute to elevate the mind of the whole electorate. It must be confessed, however, that Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch—conservatives all—were agreed that these pittances injured the Athenian character.14

Continuing the work of Ephialtes, Pericles transferred to the popular courts the various judicial powers that had been possessed by the archons and magistrates, so that from this time the archonship was more of a bureaucratic or administrative office than one that carried the power of forming policies, deciding cases, or issuing commands. In 457 eligibility to the archonship, which had been confined to the wealthier classes, was extended to the third class, or zeugkai; soon thereafter, without any legal form, the lowest citizen class, the thetes, made themselves eligible to the office by romancing about their income; and the importance of the thetes in the defense of Athens persuaded the other classes to wink at the fraud.15 Moving for a moment in the opposite direction, Pericles (451) carried through the Assembly a restriction of the franchise to the legitimate offspring of an Athenian father and an Athenian mother. No legal marriage was to be permitted between a citizen and a noncitizen. It was a measure aimed to discourage intermarriage with foreigners, to reduce illegitimate births, and perhaps to reserve to the jealous burghers of Athens the material rewards of citizenship and empire. Pericles himself would soon have reason to regret this exclusive legislation.

Since any form of government seems good that brings prosperity, and even the best seems bad that hinders it, Pericles, having consolidated his political position, turned to economic statesmanship. He sought to reduce the pressure of population upon the narrow resources of Attica by establishing colonies of poor Athenian citizens upon foreign soil. To give work to the idle,16 he made the state an employer on a scale unprecedented in Greece: ships were added to the fleet, arsenals were built, and a great corn exchange was erected at the Piraeus. To protect Athens effectively from siege by land, and at the same time to provide further work for the unemployed, Pericles persuaded the Assembly to supply funds for constructing eight miles of “Long Walls,” as they were to be called, connecting Athens with the Piraeus and Phalerum; the effect was to make the city and its ports one fortified enclosure, open in wartime only to the sea—on which the Athenian fleet was supreme. In the hostility with which unwalled Sparta looked upon this program of fortification the oligarchic party saw a chance to recapture political power. Its secret agents invited the Spartans to invade Attica and, with the aid of an oligarchic insurrection, to put down the democracy; in this event the oligarchs pledged themselves to level the Long Walls. The Spartans agreed, and dispatched an army which defeated the Athenians at Tanagra (457); but the oligarchs failed to make their revolution. The Spartans returned to the Peloponnesus empty-handed, dourly awaiting a better opportunity to overcome the flourishing rival that was taking from them their traditional leadership of Greece.

Pericles rejected the temptation to retaliate upon Sparta, and instead, devoted his energies now to the beautification of Athens. Hoping to make his city the cultural center of Hellas, and to rebuild the ancient shrines—which the Persians had destroyed—on a scale and with a splendor that would lift up the soul-of every citizen, he devised a plan for using all the genius of Athens’ artists, and the labor of her remaining unemployed, in a bold program for the architectural adornment of the Acropolis. “It was his desire and design,” says Plutarch, “that the undisciplined mechanic multitude . . . should not go without their share of public funds, and yet should not have these given them for sitting still and doing nothing; and to this end he brought in these vast projects of construction.”17 To finance the undertaking he proposed that the treasury accumulated by the Delian Confederacy should be removed from Delos, where it lay idle and insecure, and that such part of it as was not needed for common defense should be used to beautify what seemed to Pericles the legitimate capital of a beneficent empire.

The transference of the Delian treasury to Athens was quite acceptable to the Athenians, even to the oligarchs. But the voters were loath to spend any substantial part of the fund in adorning their city—whether through some qualm of conscience, or through a secret hope that the money might be appropriated more directly to their needs and enjoyment. The oligarchic leaders played upon this feeling so cleverly that when the matter neared a vote in the Assembly the defeat of Pericles’ plan seemed certain. Plutarch tells a delightful story of how the subtle leader turned the tide. “‘Very well,’ said Pericles; ‘let the cost of these buildings go not to your account but to mine; and let the inscription upon them stand in my name.’ When they heard him say this, whether it were out of a surprise to see the greatness of his spirit, or out of emulation of the glory of the works, they cried aloud, bidding him spend on . . . and spare no cost till all were finished.”

While the work proceeded, and Pericles’ especial protection and support were given to Pheidias, Ictinus, Mnesicles, and the other artists who labored to realize his dreams, he lent his patronage also to literature and philosophy; and whereas in the other Greek cities of this period the strife of parties consumed much of the energy of the citizens, and literature languished, in Athens the stimulus of growing wealth and democratic freedom was combined with wise and cultured leadership to produce the Golden Age. When Pericles, Aspasia, Pheidias, Anaxagoras, and Socrates attended a play by Euripides in the Theater of Dionysus, Athens could see visibly the zenith and unity of the life of Greece—statesmanship, art, science, philosophy, literature, religion, and morals living no separate career as in the pages of chroniclers, but woven into one many-colored fabric of a nation’s history.

The affections of Pericles wavered between art and philosophy, and he might have found it hard to say whether he loved Pheidias or Anaxagoras the more; perhaps he turned to Aspasia as a compromise between beauty and wisdom. For Anaxagoras he entertained, we are told, “an extraordinary esteem and admiration.”18 It was the philosopher, says Plato,19 who deepened Pericles into statesmanship; from long intercourse with Anaxagoras, Plutarch believes, Pericles derived “not merely elevation of purpose and dignity of language, raised far above the base and dishonest buffooneries of mob eloquence, but, besides this, a composure of countenance, and a serenity and calmness in all his movements, which no occurrence whilst he was speaking could disturb.” When Anaxagoras was old, and Pericles was absorbed in public affairs, the statesman for a time let the philosopher drop out of his life; but later, hearing that Anaxagoras was starving, Pericles hastened to his relief, and accepted humbly his rebuke, that “those who have occasion for a lamp supply it with oil.”20

It seems hardly credible, and yet on second thought most natural, that the stern “Olympian” should have been keenly susceptible to the charms of woman; his self-control fought against a delicate sensibility, and the toils of office must have heightened in him the normal male longing for feminine tenderness. He had been many years married when he met Aspasia. She belonged to—she was helping to create—the type of hetaira that was about to play so active a part in Athenian life: a woman rejecting the seclusion that marriage brought to the ladies of Athens, and preferring to live in unlicensed unions, even in relative promiscuity, if thereby she might enjoy the same freedom of movement and conduct as men, and participate with them in their cultural interests. We have no testimony to Aspasia’s beauty, though ancient writers speak of her “small, high-arched foot,” “her silvery voice,” and her golden hair.21 Aristophanes, an unscrupulous political enemy of Pericles, describes her as a Milesian courtesan who had established a luxurious brothel at Megara, and had now imported some of her girls into Athens; and the great comedian delicately suggests that the quarrel of Athens with Megara, which precipitated the Peloponnesian War, was brought about because Aspasia persuaded Pericles to revenge her upon Megarians who had kidnaped some of her personnel.22 But Aristophanes was not an historian, and may be trusted only where he himself is not concerned.

Arriving in Athens about 450, Aspasia opened a school of rhetoric and philosophy, and boldly encouraged the public emergence and higher education of women. Many girls of good family came to her classes, and some husbands brought their wives to study with her.23 Men also attended her lectures, among them Pericles and Socrates, and probably Anaxagoras, Euripides, Alcibiades, and Pheidias. Socrates said that he had learned from her the art of eloquence,24 and some ancient gossips would have it that the Statesman inherited her from the philosopher.25 Pericles now found it admirable that his wife had formed an affection for another man. He offered her her freedom in return for his own, and she agreed; she took a third husband,26 while Pericles brought Aspasia home. By his own law of 451 he could not make her his wife, since she was of Milesian birth; any child he might have by her would be illegitimate, and ineligible to Athenian citizenship. He seems to have loved her sincerely, even uxoriously, never leaving his home or returning to it without kissing her, and finally willing his fortune to the son that she bore him. From that time onward he forewent all social life outside his home, seldom going anywhere except to the agora or the council hall; the people of Athens began to complain of his aloofness. For her part Aspasia made his home a French Enlightenment salon, where the art and science, the literature, philosophy, and statesmanship of Athens were brought together in mutual stimulation. Socrates marveled at her eloquence, and credited her with composing the funeral oration that Pericles delivered aher the first casualties of the “Peloponnesian War.27 Aspasia became the uncrowned queen of Athens, setting fashion’s tone, and giving to the women of the city an exciting example of mental and moral freedom.

The conservatives were shocked at all this, and turned it to their purposes. They denounced Pericles for leading Greeks out to war against Greeks, as in Aegina and Samos; they accused him of squandering public funds; finally, through the mouths of irresponsible comic dramatists abusing the free speech that prevailed under his rule, they charged him with turning his home into a house of ill fame, and having relations with the wife, of his son28. Not daring to bring any of these matters to open trial, they attacked him through his friends. They indicted Pheidias for embezzling, as they alleged, some of the gold assigned to him for his chryselephantine Athena, and apparently succeeded in convicting him; they indieted Anaxagoras on the ground of irreligion, and the philosopher, on Pericles’ advice, fled into exile; they brought against Aspasia a like writ of impiety (graphe asebeias), complaining that she had shown disrespect for the gods of Greece.29 The comic poets satirized her mercilessly as a Deianeira who had ruined Pericles,* and called her, in plain Greek, a concubine; one of them, Hermippus, doubtless in turn a dishonest penny, accused her of serving as Pericles’ procuress, and of bringing freeborn women to him for his pleasure.30 At her trial, which took place before a court of fifteen hundred jurors, Pericles spoke in her defense, using all his eloquence, even to tears; and the case was dismissed. From that moment (432) Pericles began to lose his hold upon the Athenian people; and when, three years later, death came to him, he was already a broken man.

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