Pericles

Definition

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published on 02 September 2009
Pericles ()

Pericles (495–429 BCE, whose name means "surrounded by glory") was a prominent statesman, famous orator, and general (in Greek 'Strategos’) of Athens during the Golden Age of Athens. So profound was his influence that the period in which he led Athens has been called the 'Age of Pericles’.

This statesman’s influence on Athenian society was so great that Thucydides, his contemporary admirer and historian, called him "the first citizen of Athens". Pericles led the Delian League forward to form the Athenian empire and guided his countrymen during the first two years of the Peloponnesian Wars.

Pericles promoted the arts, literature, and philosophy and gave free reign to some of the most inspired writers and thinkers of his time. During the Age of Pericles, Athens blossomed as a center of education, art, culture, and democracy. Artists and sculptors, playwrights and poets, architects and philosophers all found Athens an exciting and enlivening atmosphere for their work. Athens under Pericles saw the building of the Acropolis and the glory of the Parthenon. The playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes (in short, all of the great Greek writers for the stage) invented theater as it is known in the modern-day. Hippocrates (who inspired the Hippocratic Oath still taken by physicians today) practiced medicine in Athens then while sculptors like the famous Phidias (who created the statue of Zeus at Olympia, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, as well as the statue of Athena Parthenos for the Parthenon) and Myron (who produced the masterpiece Discus Thrower) worked in their marble and stone. The great philosophers Protagoras, Zeno of Elea, and Anaxagoras were all personal friends of Pericles (Anaxagoras especially, who influenced Pericles’ public demeanor and acceptance of fate, especially after the death of Pericles’ sons) and Socrates, the man considered the 'father of western philosophy', all lived in Athens at the time.

Pericles family's nobility, prestige, and wealth allowed him to pursue his inclination toward education, and he is recognized as the first politician to attribute great importance to philosophy.

Pericles family's nobility, prestige, and wealth allowed him to pursue his inclination toward education, and he is recognized as the first politician to attribute great importance to philosophy as a practical discipline which could help guide and direct one’s thought and actions rather than a mere speculative past-time or the trade of the Sophists.

Pericles’ early years were quiet and the introverted young man took to avoiding public appearances and speeches, instead preferring to devote his time to his studies. Later in life, this initial shyness would lend credence to the claims of his detractors that his consort Aspasia taught him how to speak and wrote his speeches for him (it was a grave insult to a man of Athens, especially a statesman, to claim a woman was responsible for his successful career).

At the beginning of 431 BCE Athens entered into the long, drawn-out Peloponnesian Wars with Sparta. Thucydides recorded Pericles’ famous Funeral Oration given at the service for the Athenian dead in which he said, in part, “Grief is felt not so much for the want of what we have never known as for the loss of that to which we have been long accustomed.” It was shortly after this speech that Athens itself would lose what it was accustomed to as the tide of the war turned against it. In 429 BCE the plague struck the city and Pericles was among the victims.

Bereft of his leadership, the Athenians made mistake after mistake in their military decisions leading eventually to their defeat by the Spartans in 404 BCE, the destruction of their city’s walls, and their occupation and rule by Sparta. In his histories, Thucydides makes abundantly clear what a disaster Pericles’ death was for Athens in that those who came after him desired to be popular rather than effective, and in so doing doomed the city to ruin. With the death of Pericles, his 'age’ ended and Athens fell into an intellectual, cultural, and spiritual darkness which the Athenians would struggle with over the next 30 years. It culminated in the execution of Socrates in the year 399 BCE.



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Timeline

Visual Timeline
  • c. 495 BCE
    Birth of Pericles.
  • 470 BCE
    Pericles enters politics.
  • 463 BCE
    Pericles is the leading prosecutor of Cimon.
  • 462 BCE - 461 BCE
    Radicalisation of democracy in Athens; Cimon exiled, Pericles comes to exercise influence.
  • c. 462 BCE - 458 BCE
    Pericles introduces democratic institutions in Athens.
  • 461 BCE
    Pericles leads the democratic party and ostracizes Cimon.
  • 461 BCE - 429 BCE
    Pericles is ruler of Athens.
  • 460 BCE - 429 BCE
    The Age of Pericles. Athenian Agora is rebuilt, construction of Parthenon.
  • 454 BCE
    Pericles leads his first military expedition in Sicyon and Acarnania.
  • 453 BCE
    Pericles erects trophy at Nemea after Athenian victory over the Sikyonians.
  • 448 BCE
    Pericles leads the Athenian forces in the Battle of Delphi.
  • 447 BCE
    Barbarians are expelled from Gallipoli by Pericles' army.
  • 28 Jul 447 BCE
    Construction of the Acropolis of Athens begins under Pericles' leadership.
  • 440 BCE
    Pericles leads the Athenian navy in the Samian War.
  • 431 BCE
    Athens invades Megara.
  • 429 BCE
    The death of Pericles from the plague.
  • c. 425 BCE
    Kresilas sculpts the idealised portrait statue of Pericles which in antiquity was much copied as a bust.

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