Ancient Greece : Pericles (Part I)

Boris Johnson has often spoken of his love of Greek history and of Pericles in particular.

When asked who his historical pin-up was and why, he replied: “Pericles. Look at his Funeral Speech: democracy; freedom — champion stuff.” See here for the full interview.

A few years ago he went to the British Museum and bought a bust of Pericles and here is his story.

The Age of Pericles

The words `fifth-century Athens’ conjure up many things : fine art ; the birth of the western world’s theatre ; war (rarely was there not conflict in the ancient world, particularly in Greece) ; literature. In the field of politics, however, Pericles is the name that comes to mind : he dominated political life for three decades and his influence continued to be felt for a quarter-century after his death ; his legacy to politics survives to this day.  He is the third of our contenders for the title `Father of Democracy’.

Pericles — whose name may be loosely translated as ‘all glorious’ — was born around 495 in the Attic deme of Cholargos (about 4 miles NW of the Athenian acropolis), the son of gentle folk :  Xanthippus (who had distinguished himself at Mycale, one of the battles that in 479 brought Persian domination of the eastern Mediterranean to and end) and Agariste of the ever controversial Alcmaeonid line.

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Sparta and the helot uprising

Even a brief description of the life of Pericles cannot begin without reference to his political rival Cimon — aristocratic son of the victor at Marathon, Miltiades — whose successful military ventures in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and across the northern Aegean between 478 and 463 B.C. laid the foundations of the Athenian naval empire that would later help to fund the democratic reforms introduced by Ephialtes and Pericles, not to mention the latter’s building programme.

The great rival of Athens was the polis (city-state) of Sparta, which led the Peloponnese League ; Sparta — whose political system, in contrast to the new democracy in Athens, was an oligarchy — had a particular problem with the major part of her population, the helots. (Helots were akin mediaeval serfs.)Unlike the slaves of Athens (and later of Rome), who had been brought from all parts of the world and had no common language, Sparta’s helots were largely from the conquered neighbouring land of Messenia : they were Greeks, with much — including language — in common ; there was ever present the threat of rebellion.   Treehelm
Sparta’s peculiar form of government — which puzzled many even in ancient times — set her apart from most of Greece, including many of the poleis within the League : the adoption by many cities, including Athens, of forms of democracy and even tyranny left conflict simmering just below the surface.In around 464, Sparta’s helots, encouraged by the chaos resulting from a severe earthquake, rebelled and within months she called upon her allies for assistance. Cimon, prominent in Athenian politics but sympathetic to the Spartan cause, led an Athenian hoplite force to her aid. The Athenian soldiers, however, cannot have failed to remark that the rebel helots were fellow Greeks under oppression : the Spartans, realizing that here was a potential ally of their own rebels, sent Cimon back to Athens.The Athenians responded to this Spartan insult by forming alliances with Sparta’s enemies and allies alike. Athens and Corinth had hitherto had in common animosity toward Megara, which lay between them ; Athens’ forming an alliance with Megara now propelled Corinth in to the Spartan camp. By 460 the situation had turned to war.
Click on map to enlarge
Click on map to enlarge

The progress of democracy

Democracy is sometimes said to have started with the Athens of Pericles ; he might better be seen as a runner in a relay race, taking the baton and, as it were, making a good fist of his leg.

Pericles's workplace - the agora at Athens - to-day
Pericles’s workplace—the agora at Athens—as it is today

Around the turn of the sixth century Draco and Solon had created the system of government that would become the Athenian democracy. At the end of the century Cleisthenes had introduced far-reaching reforms. (More.)

The democracy of to-day is often called a ‘representative’ democracy, i.e. the people elects representatives, who go on to create legislation and to run the country.


In the Athenian model, on the other hand, every legislative decision was, in effect, arrived at by plebiscite : any adult male citizen could, assuming he had the time, attend and vote in the Assembly. (To-day , as we know, even when the British people is promised one, a plebiscite is — how might we put it ? — unlikely.) The closest thing in the modern World was the system that, until a few years ago, existed in the more rural parts of Switzerland : the Gemeinderat, which used to be held in the square of a canton’s principal town.

We first encounter Pericles as a politician in the early 460s.

Although of noble birth, he was at heart a democrat, politically opposed to the aristocratic Cimon ; he led an unsuccessful prosecution alleging that Cimon had accepted favours from rulers in the northern Aegean.
  A few years later, in 462, he led another prosecution of Cimon, now on the ground of his having favoured the Spartan cause ; the disdain of Athenians for Cimon’s expedition to the Peloponnese led to Cimon’s ostracism. Before his banishment had expired, Cimon came to fight alongside the Athenian force against Sparta at the battle of Tanagra ; Pericles, sensing the people’s distaste at his treatment of Cimon, recalled him from exile before the ten years were up.
Leading the democratic faction in Athenian politics at the time was Ephialtes (not the one said to have disclosed to the Persians a means of circumventing the narrow pass at Thermopylae), who had, inter alia, brought about the transfer of judicial power (except for the most serious crimes) away from the Areopagus, the last bastion of aristocratic influence ; by virtue of his murder in 461 the democratic baton passed to Pericles.

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Read the continuing story of Pericles in Part II.


13 thoughts on “Ancient Greece : Pericles (Part I)”

  1. Wonderful post, thank you
    For the benefit of others the highlighted ‘Pericles’ in the second paragraph leads to a very good YouTube video all about the great man himself!

  2. Off Topic: Battle of Ideas on in London this weekend. See here for details. Suzanne Moore speaking on ‘demonising the white working class’. Loads of other events. Get down to Royal College of Art, London, SW7 2EU (next to Royal Albert Hall) now!

    Great post by the way 🙂

  3. What a refreshing change to hear about the all-glorious Pericles

    A question for the ‘other Pericles’:

    >his influence continued to be felt for a quarter-century after his death

    Could you expand?

  4. @Philipa: Great Festival on topical subjects thanks Philipa – such as “Rethinking education – the new crisis of adult authority in the classroom “

  5. The Parisian bike hire scheme is having terrible problems with bikes being stolen and vandalised. Why does Boris Johnson not think this will happen in London?

    He’s proving kack-handed and feeble at promoting cycling. The Congestion Charge got people on bikes. That wasn’t Boris Johnson.

  6. @Rich:
    Hello, Rich.

    His influence might well be said to have survived him not just by a quarter-century but by millennia ; this, however, is a specific reference to the Second (Great) Peloponnesian War, which we’ll be touching on in complementary articles next week.

    So, not wishing to steal the next act’s thunder, so to speak, …

  7. How would Pericles have handled the union and the postal strike? have them strung up or worse I imagine

  8. Now when we think of the Greeks (the ancient type ) we immediately think of great thinkers, philosophers was set in stone (yes i know stone tablets very funny sigh).
    But what was it in fact that these philosophers were learning?
    I doubt very much they had lessons plans and seperate subjects such as science english (or greek lol) and maths. And i am very sure that there was no history lesson after all it would be a very short syllabus would it not?
    For before their time
    (unless by some strange event where their ancestors had made the first computers, well there would’ve been no shortage of ram ) there were not records to my knowledge of the achievements and ways of the elder generation.
    This i suppose does not count in lessons that have been passed down through the ages but basically that’s just as bad as Chinese whispers, i mean, look ho many times the bible has been re-written translated etc etc, or the amount of times our calendar has changed.
    no past knowledge had a lot of restrictions, limited to within the family tree i believe with trades being passed down and improved upon through the ages with application of new technologies. After all surnames were really the recognition of your trade at first bobby baker for instance the local baker ,butcher,smith (blacksmith) i could go on but none of us really want to be subjected to that now do we? No back to my point….
    So what were they learning They had little or no ways of proving their findings whatever they were, i am sure one man could not keep traveling in such a straight path as to navigate a perfect circular track around the diameter of the globe, no that’s just silly.
    so i very much doubt they had teachers to give lessons such as sociology and political technique. No one was really sure of what to do they were just starting out.
    And im very sure sociology was not a core subject.
    in those times you were born you learn t a trade your wife was the keeper of the house and children and maybe earn t a bit of pita bread buy learning to make blankets to sell at he local market, which would for peasants i suppose would be more bartering for food and supplies rather than currency most of the time.
    You worked if you didn’t worked well….you died.
    If a family member became sick or old they would rely upon the good nature of their siblings and children and if they could not be bothered to keep them n food and cloth …you were off on your chariot to the sky.
    so that’s what people did , what they knew, and who was their to teach them anything else?
    Learning was reserved for the more privileged. You could only hope your daughter may find love in a higher place , but even then she may just disown you and then there is one less worker bee for the hive!
    So what could you do to protect yourself apart from join up with like minded people that basically shared anything in common from place of residence to how you named your live stock just to stop the ‘sheep-less’ nights!
    An so groups were formed within land areas then groups within groups such as our modern day religions..
    (stage 1) (2) (3) (4)
    [—-roman catholic[—protestant
    christianty— [—baptist..jehovahswitness
    [—-c of e etc scientology
    etc? etc

    etc etc
    after that we start getting major cults and such like which i suppose is a whole new tree of its own ??
    Excuse my not so educated example but i do find the religion system quite confusing at the best of times , i did try, hey and anyway i need not of drawn up a tree i was talking about something entirely different hmm…. what was i talking about oh yes….

    So blindly joining forces with every tom-icles dick-icles and harry-icles they could just to protect thier well being and hoping to be looked after maybe when thier family flew the coop. Just like unions of the modern day apart from they had no set pension plan and a strike would of had no effect at all!
    This also led to tyrannical rule , no one really knew anymore than thier trade and family unit , or the difference between the male and female form.
    So the first person to come along with a half decent idea and a bit of ‘mojo’ shall we say , people would listen as they did not need to think themselves . well not that exactly but there was no real guidelines to expand upon really, the law was determined by whoever felt like it at the time i will use the phrase again ‘nothing was set in stone’.
    So the real great thinkers were infact the tyrannts as they used a bit of the ole imagination or maybe it had come to them in a dream (or from hallucinations from they vast body odor) who knows ?
    But these guys surely did not sit and learn this this was of thier own making!
    This is until the first forms of government were introduced by one of these thinkers .
    But this was a time for reform leader yes warlord not so much in this case. This guy just wanted a nice life firstly as a noble man he had access to wine women and song now why loose that and go and get killed at the first chance available NO build a structured society where everyone (men that is slightly sexist but never mind lol)
    could sit and discuss what the collective thought was best for their lives. Well why not? Let them quibble amongst themselves while he had a wife and a bit on the side to keep up with (well you never know).
    deep don he may of really been like that what do we have to prove his personality i am under the impression his best friend hasn’t just popped in for a cuppa after he thought up the idea for a time machine?? If he has i do apologize and now feel quite silly lol

    No seriously, people tend to target others as a way of hiding their own behaviors and cimon seemed to prove this point by opposing the Spartans after all so we cant really say for sure can we??
    And i have the feeling if no one cared about this judgment he would not of botherd to recall him???
    And well if i was cimon i would of been rather too peeved about the whole pa-lava to come back anyway, but maybe the grudge was another thing not yet discovered in those times too?
    And well in-the end had Pericles in fact been the great great thinker he was made out to be ? or was he in fact committing one of the very first acts of plagiarism known to man by taking on someone else s idea adding a few bits and cutting and pasting here and there?
    That my friends is what makes ancient history such an exciting subject! As We do not hold a copy of the ancient Greeks ‘wikipedia’ to hand we can never be really sure of all of the facts. This in turn leads to great discussions theories and articles from many different people making the possibilities are endless! These sort of topics can be debated and debated until the end of time with no one really knowing for sure what exactly went on.
    Then again if we have not managed to destroy our planet with nuclear war or such like in 200,000 years time who knows that our future generations will not be in the same position when explaining our slightly more organized yet still not perfected way of life in times to come.
    Or will they be as we are with the Greeks?
    To them we may be operating on windows 95 and they have bypassed windows 7, 700,000 and even linux 3,ooo,ooo
    and be operating on a whole new platform which is in no way compatible with our neanderthal technology and not even worth attempting a boot disk nor even a data recovery mission, so hopefully we give them the gift the Greeks have given us…..uncertainty!
    Would the ultimate existence not be when we have no need for government or political parties of any sort but instead every human being knowing instinctively what is wrong and right and abiding to these laws with no need for input from any sort of law giver. Paradise if you must.
    But for some reason i do not expect that will ever be the case as human beings seem to thrive on conflict. If you went a whole year without an argument or something turning out not quite so well as you thought would you be happy?
    With no need for debate what would we do to improve our minds and our instinctive yearning for knowledge?
    We as a race learn from each other someone else is always bound to know something that you do not, and to come to the conclusion that they are in fact right about this do we not have to research and debate the point?
    The human mind is advanced but also quite stubborn and we will not give in till we know we are really wrong, even then a lot of us still don’t give in due to principle!
    We All know whats right and wrong, helping our fellow man is right (although not always appreciated) taking the life of another is wrong these are simple things that everyone knows from birth but for some reason we do not adhere to our instincts?? In our hearts we need not be reminded of this deep down we know and if we listened to our selves there would be no reason for these acts to be congratulated nor punishable.

    That’s why we have that little nagging voice that we call a conscience! The fail safe of the human race which makes the guilty confess. But then we contradict ourselves …no wonder we get confused every so often after all establishments such as the church teach forgiveness and provide services such as confession which ultimately tell us
    “well its not a good thing that you converted your brothers wife but if repent than it will be like nothing ever happened” please don’t get me wrong i am not attacking the church we do the same within the courts.
    Who is to say how long you should be punished for an act that you should of known not to do in the first place. Really the real forgiveness comes from within the mind of the offender no one else. you may spend 15 years in prison but live the rest of your life entrapped in guilt in your own mind, which mite i add is a far worse punishment than anything we as a governing power can enforce.
    Anyway…..(sorry about all the waffle (o: )

    The Greeks yes started us on a track which has been changed along the way with both our growing intelligence as a race and with our ever expanding technologies and right to free speech. Although we still cannot prevent crimes would prevention not be better than cure?
    The Greeks did the best they could with the options available to them and gave us many a great thinker and although being so far away still managed to have an impact on our modern lives so they must of been doing something right!
    Maybe if we were able to give our knowledge of human behavior and the workings of the mind to the Greeks without passing down our technology and new found aggression then maybe….just maybe we would of created a easy peaceful life for all?
    Then again…
    its all greek to me!

  9. Great Stuff Sir and just what the public are lacking an insight into our long held Conservative principles.

    Janina I would say just go with the simple truth, let god/dess into your heart and live your life in the light of that received wisdom. Of course we use the Jesus Prayer, and it works just fine, but all true paths will get you there, avoid the cults like a plague.

  10. @Ross J Warren:
    well being an athiest myself i dont tend to believe n a higher power as such…
    my belief if any is an extension of my morals really i think that in the end everyone gets what they deserve.
    If you refer to the song by johnny cash ‘when the man comes around’ it may be a biblical song but the idea of a judgement day seems a very logical idea to me, although cannot tell you who or what i think it is that will judge who is right or wrong, im just really hoping that im right.
    Heaven and hell i believe are here with us on earth we live through hell we live through heaven at different times in our life…..
    We can submit ourselves to both in our minds if neither are present at the time if you refer back to what ive said about conscience.
    some people need their faith to look to so they can feel comforted in knowing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, some need to be organised into groups to educate them on how to live by this faith some dont.
    Many cults yes i agree are quite ‘out there’ and normally are not even based upon reality let alone religion, i suppose you would label pagans a cult although i think they have the right idea what with the summer and winter solstice and such like. That makes sense to me worshipping the things you can see and feel all around you. just as the greeks/egyptians and i suppose the aztecs all had a god for each aspect of life. i see this not so much a being / idol but just a symbol which groups together all aspects and variations of that particular element to make it easier to focus themselves upon. after all we see people and interact with them all the time and know how to act towards, praise, comfort, enrage each other, where as we could not begin to think of how to do the same to say the sun for example.
    Yes we should be grateful for all the different things that have come together to make human life possible , it is in fact a ‘miracle’ that we are here and living at all, if one of these many things was slightly out of sync the human race would never of formed am i not right?
    I dont have bad feelings against religion at all if thats what a person needs deep down to live a happy life then so be it you cannot label anyone wrong or right for thier own beliefs.
    Orders such as the pagans i would call a primary cult wherein they still are worshipping something that does make sense and most of the time are not harming nor offending anyone by their actions. But then we see so many secondary cults where they are not based upon the origional idea of faith but the primary cults and these people seem to get it rather confused and pick out the parts they want to from them, usually resulting in a harmful/ dangerous way of thinking and living their lives.
    Things such as satanism etc well… thats just completely opposite to faith really instead of believing in the greater good they are in fact believing in the evil and all we strive to exclude from faiths.
    All faiths though go on the idea that their is a higher power than them someone who knows and sees all and will look after them and allow them to rest with them when their time is up on this earth, to think the struggle was worth it.
    we may call this power god, jesus, budda mohammed etc but they are all the same in theory.
    Religions just have their own tradditions , their way of worshipping their ‘god’ which they believe is right and there is nothing wrong with that, people so strong in faith would not disagree with my point of view i think as i am not trying to offend nor proove them wrong just live as i feel is right.
    I myself do not need commandments or a holy book or script as the torah or koran to tel me what is right or wrong i know thesethings instinctivly and live my ife by strict morals and codes which i belive are right, i do not steal, kill, commit adultery, turn down someone in need of help even if i will see no personal benefit , that is not what i look for my prize if you may frome helping a fellow man is the way i feel knowing ive done something to help and madesomeone smile even for a while . Even if it is thrown back in my face then well… at least i tried and i am the better man or woman for doing so.
    so i believe any faith would see me as a good person although do not commit myself to worship etc i am doing right which is what religion teaches.
    The only thing that does get me is when someone mis-enterprets their holy book/script etc and translates it wrong leading to them thinking that killing and maming s right and acceptable. These are just easily lead and confused members of a faith and have no effect i believe on how a faith is judged in my mind.
    I hope you agree with me and hope i have not offended anyone by this, im sure i havent but this is my belief just as yours is your point of view.
    If i do look to anyone for guidance i envision my late father and partner may they rest in peace, as i saw them in life and know for a fct they were real as i lived each day and interacted with them , i beieve they guide me through hard times as they are personal to me and have a real connection.
    where as i find it hard to understand how an aall seeing all knowing being can let all theevils of this world continue and watch people in poverty, wars, innocent babies die etc. But then how many people live on this world i dont think its possible to keep a watch over all of us.
    i would be interested on your views on this…
    janina davison-forder

  11. Hello there are some very interesting thoughts on this website Mr Johnson.As the founder of The Spartan Society most of us are ex-forces who now help to educate the public at Museums and Shows around the country.We are based in the Midlands our HQ being at The Lunt Fort Coventry (This is an old purpose built Roman Fort) with an on site Museum.We have a membership of over forty three with ages from seven to seventy with an avid love of history please see our website at If you ever require a visual portrayal of what the Ancient greek Spartans looked like in all their armour we would be only to happy to help out as an honoury Guard.In particuler at perhaps the 2012 olympics or any displays in London. your sincerely Xenophon.

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