Ancient Greece : Pericles (Part III)

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.” — Read the full interview.

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

Copy of Egg and Dart 300

In case you missed them : Pericles Part I and Part II.

Pericles - poly pb 194X302

Surely the greatest bequest of Pericles to our age was his incorruptibility
 — if for nothing else, then for this we feel his absence.

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In 431 b.c., Pericles was seeing the justification of his building programme in its sheer magnificence. As thirty years before, however, the Peloponnese was tense.

The Great Peloponnesian War (431-404)

During the period between the wars Athens continued her expansion, particularly in the Greek West, which much alarmed Spartan important ally Corinth, metropolis (mother city) of the dominant polis in Sicily, Syracuse (which would feature later in the naval fortunes of Athens). There ensued a chain of events, apparently disconnected, that — rather as those leading to the First World War — would precipitate conflict and end, after only fifteen, the thirty-year peace agreed in 446.

Corinth, in response to the Athenian expansion to the West, especially in connexion with a dispute over Corcyra (modern Corfu), threatened to leave the Peloponnesian League, unless Sparta went to war with Athens. A break-up of the League would imperil Sparta’s hold on the Peloponnese for she relied heavily upon the maintenance of a string of oligarchic governments that denied their populations any political power.

Athens, meanwhile, hoping to destabilize Megara’s oligarchy — a democratic Megara might become an ally and, by virtue of her location on the Isthmus of Corinth, be able to block any assault upon Attica from Thessaly or the Peloponnese — imposed economic sanctions upon her, banning her merchants and vessels from Athens and the ports of the allied and dependent states. This was the final straw : in 431 the conflict began.

War and plague

Pericles, perhaps having in mind the success of a similar move by Themistocles a half-century before, persuaded the Athenians to abandon rural Attica and to congregate in Athens, the Piraeus and the land enclosed by the impregnable Long Walls that joined them ; time however, as we shall see, was against him.

The Phaleric Wall was abandoned, the entire population of Attica being crammed in to the area bounded by the other walls, the northern and southern about 200 yards apart.

Although many might be unaware of the link between Pericles and the monuments on the acropolis at Athens, most must know of the funeral oration he delivered, at the end of the first year of this protracted war, in honour of those fallen in the Athenian cause. We learn of it from the noble historian Thucydides (born in the early 450s), who, although he idolized Pericles, has a reputation for the veracity of his reporting (in particular for his not ascribing the outcome of ventures to the whim of the gods). In this speech, which departs from the customary format of Greek eulogy, Pericles praises Athens and her values, returning to the subject — the fallen — to explain their self-sacrifice by reference to their love of these values. (More)

In the second year of the war a plague broke out in Athens, compounding the hardship already endured by the swollen population of the city. The surviving records call it simply he nosos (‘the disease’) ; although most modern works refer to bubonic plague, it might well have been any disease associated with over-population and inadequate sanitation, such as resulted from the concentration of the Attic population within the Athenian citadel.

Dissatisfaction with and resentment of the position in which the Athenians now found themselves resulted in their depriving Pericles of his position as strategos (general) and imposing an extremely large fine. Within a year, however, he had been re-instated as general, his fine remitted. A few months later both his legitimate sons died of the plague ; he was inconsolable and soon succumbed to it himself.

Map - Peloponnese

The sometimes quite savage war would continue for another quarter-century with a break of about five years in the middle. In 416, because she refused to join the Athenian military alliance, the Athenians sacked the island of Melos, killing or enslaving the entire population. In the following year they would mount a naval expedition to Sicily that would end in disaster at the hands of Syracuse.

Sparta, ever a reluctant colonizer, was even a fairly reluctant victor, twice during the second phase of the war offering peace to Athens. Ultimately victorious, however, in 404 she would establish an oligarchic government at Athens (‘The Thirty’) and Athenian domination of Greece and the Aegean would be over.

Although we learn most of what we know of the life of Pericles from Thucydides (a younger contemporary), we cannot altogether discount the views of Plato writing in the fourth century : in his view Pericles had been a demagogue and could not escape a share of the blame for a war that would turn out to be disastrous.  (Sound familiar ?)

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Pericles at home

Pericles was a very private man and, although his friends included the greatest philosophers and artists of the day, was said to shun contact generally — devoting himself to politics, to which his contribution was huge.

He was said not to leave home except to walk to the agora or the Pnyx (the places of political business) ; to be a man of great industriousness but one whose favour could not be bought.


Acropolis seen from the agora
The remains of the Athenian agora,
the acropolis in the background

Early in his marriage he was amicably divorced ; his wife’s name is lost to us but they had two sons, Paralus and Xanthippus, both of whom (as mentioned above) died of the disease that engulfed Athens in the second year of the war.

He spent most of his adult life with Aspasia, a reportedly cultured woman from Miletus (sc. not an Athenian citizen), to whom he was devoted ; she bore him a son (also named Pericles). (Pericles the younger was admitted to Athenian citizenship shortly before his father’s death, although this called for amendment of the law enacted at the urging of Pericles himself.)

Our heritage

The life of the Athenian empire had not been long : the Roman, still in the future, would last much longer, as would others in the East. What had been born in fifth-century Athens was the basis of modern Western civilization : not just a form of government — initiated over the previous century-and-a-half by Draco, Solon and Cleisthenes and nurtured by Ephialtes and Pericles — that would evolve to be what we now call democracy (although its modern form might baffle all those just mentioned) ; literature, theatre, architecture and other art throughout Europe descend from counterparts in this ancient world.

The most valuable tradition bequeathed to us by Pericles — as by Solon, Cleisthenes and even Pisistratus before him — must surely be his incorruptibility. If for nothing else, then for this we feel his absence.

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Further reading

The Classical World, Lane Fox, Robin (Allen Lane, 2005)

A master writer on ancient history

Athens — A History, Waterfield, Robin (MacMillan, 2004)

A lively and detailed account, much recommended, but look out for the unorthodox Romanization of Greek words

A History of the Archaic Greek World, Hall, Jon (Blackwell History of the Ancient World, 2007)

Not so much a story of the ancients as an insight in to the methods of historians

An impressive article — as so many on Wikipedia — with its own list of further reading

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3 thoughts on “Ancient Greece : Pericles (Part III)”

  1. Archaic and ancient lessons of the past but not irrelevant – I can see why Boris is so hooked on these heroes of the Greek World

  2. Who knows with Boris ? I think we’ll just have to listen to the programme.

    A notice will appear on this site as soon as we have confirmation of the date of his transmission. All we know at the moment is that the series of a hundred programmes — one for each of a hundred objects selected from the British Museum’s collection — is set to start on January 18.

    Ancient history is quite fortunate here, having been given around sixty hours’ transmission time.

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