It’s difficult to imagine the Golden Age of Athens without a leader like Pericles at the helm. Historian Thucydides, a contemporary of the ruler, called him “the first citizen of Athens.” An extremely popular leader, he was noted as a great orator and someone who openly espoused the greatness of Athens.
His accomplishments were various and included the arenas of politics, culture and war. He ruled Athens from approximately 461 to 429 BC. He died, as did his sister and his two legitimate sons, from a terrible plague that ravaged Athens.
Pericles led Athens in approximately 20 military campaigns. He was not an impulsive general. A cautious strategist, he held true to Themistocles’ belief that Athenian military might was anchored in its superior navy. On the battlefield, he was not known as a risk taker. He was not interested in expanding Athens’ empire but in preserving it.
In terms of the Peloponnesian War, he held to a defensive strategy. Pericles focused on reinforcing the walls of the city, wearing down the Spartan attackers and holding true to the Megarian Decree, which was the fiat that convinced Sparta and other city-states to form an alliance and attack Athens.
However during the Peloponnesian War, Sparta managed to breach the walls of Athens twice while Pericles was in command. The second time was in 430 BC. Instead of battling the Spartan army, the Athenian ruler took a naval expedition of 100 ships to the Peloponnesian coast where they attacked and looted the area.
And although the people of Athens were unhappy with his leadership and put him on trial that year, they re-elected him to the position of strategos (general) the very next year. In 429 BC, for the final time, he led his city-state’s military in the war.
Pericles statesmanship has been defined in many ways. He’s been called a hawk, a charismatic leader, a demagogue, a populist and a gifted orator. He was known for being unscrupulously honest. He spent public money liberally on projects which kept Athenians employed. His opponents often pointed to his liberal spending of money on public art and architecture.
Pericles mother, Agariste, came from a wealthy, powerful family. This helped his father, Xanthippus, focus on a political career. The social and financial position of Pericles’ family ensured that he would be able to garner a solid education. As a youth through the influence of his mother, he developed a reputation for staying under control, focused and calm when under pressure. He was trained in philosophy, music and rhetoric. All of these elements would help make him a superior statesman.
It was sometime in the 460s BC that he became a political figure in Athens. Under Pericles, Athens became exceptionally wealthy by charging the innumerable islands in the Aegean tribute, which was a yearly tax that ensured each island community that Athens would protect them from invasion by the Persians and others. These tributes made the Athenian treasury swell and financed the numerous public building projects and festivals sponsored by the city-state.
As a young man, Pericles produced Aeschylus’ The Persians at the City of Dionysia. Along with illustrating his taste and respect for dramatic art and for Athen’s Father of Tragedy, Aeschylus, his involvement confirmed the fact that Pericles possessed financial power.
Under his rule, Athens developed numerous building projects, which symbolized its financial, cultural and artistic prowess. During the Golden Age of Athens, the Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike and Erechtheum building projects were all undertaken.
The Parthenon sat on top of the highest point in Athens, the Acropolis. In it was housed the Athenian treasury. It was dedicated to the city’s protector—the goddess Athena. The Erechtheum was a large sacred temple built into the north side of that same hill. The Temple of Athena Nike, for whom Athens was named, was constructed on the top of the Acropolis.
Pericles projects involved the finest architects, sculptors and artists in Athens. They also employed much of Athens. For Pericles, this building program illustrated the greatness of a city-state that had created an empire. It was the city-state that he had served and led for much of his adult life.
It was customary in Athens for close relatives to marry. Pericles followed this custom, however his wife’s name is unknown. We do know that she was married once before she and Pericles were joined. They had two boys, Paralus and Xanthippus, and then sometime around 445 BC Pericles divorced her, giving her to another husband.
Pericles was in love with and had a long time affair with Aspasia of Miletus. She is said to have been a prostitute and a madam, although many modern scholars refute this. The couple lived together as if they had married. Some believe they did marry, although this is debatable.
The Age of Pericles
Pericles was such an influential leader that an entire era has been named after him. His untimely death at the hands of a plague that ripped through and weakened the city-state for numerous years is thought to have compromised Athens’ chances of winning the Peloponnesian War. After his death, Athens slowly fell into decline, until by the end of the century they had lost the war, were in a terrible economic depression and were decimated as a military power.
In his time, the man who many consider to be one of the greatest statesmen to have ever lived was instrumental in creating, celebrating and exemplifying the Golden Age of Athens.