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Pericles of Athens and his Legacy on Democracy and Politics - by Peter Xiao

When we think about Athens in the 5th century BCE, a man called Pericles often comes to mind. It was under his leadership that Athens reached its Golden Age, in which tragedy, comedy, philosophy and arts flourished. The best symbol of the Ancient Greek cultural heritage today, the Parthenon, was constructed under the archonship of Pericles. It was also under his leadership that the Athenian Empire came into existence and the conflict with Sparta became stronger and more hostile. Pericles was a man surrounded by controversy and yet he is remembered as one of the most influential Greek statesmen in history. Many of his successors looked up to him for inspiration and guidance. Many politicians love to compare themselves with Pericles for their duty and devotion to their state. It is the story of this legendary and influential political figure that this article aims to explore.

Pericles was born in 495 BCE in Athens, Greece. He was the son of the politician Xanthippus and Agariste. Pericles’ mother was related to the controversial noble family of Alcmaeniode. She was also niece to the father of Athenian democracy, Cleisthenes. Given Pericles’ family’s wealth and influence in Athens, he received a very good quality education in his youth. Pericles had studied arts, poetry, music and most importantly philosophy since he was young. He was often accompanied by some of the most popular philosophers of his time. The list includes Protagoras, Zeno and Elea and also Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras was believed to have a close personal connection with Pericles and influenced him greatly.

Pericles officially entered politics in the spring of 472 BCE when he became the choregos (sponsor) of Aeschylus’ famous play the Persians. Plays in Ancient Greece were often related to politics and many of them did carry a political message. Some scholars have argued that Pericles’ political message behind the production of the Persians was to demonstrate his support for the policy of Themistocles and also expressed his personal regret for Themistocles’ ostracism. However, Pericles was still a young man and politically insignificant at the time and therefore he couldn’t do much to change the political development of Athens. Following the ostracism of Themistocles, Athens became relatively friendlier towards Sparta and it was Cimon, the son of Miltiades who now had the greatest political influence in Athens.

The 460s saw the growth in Athenian strength and the fear this triggered in Sparta. In 465 BCE, Thasos, an Athenian ally under the Delian League, rebelled against Athens and asked Sparta for military assistance. The Spartans agreed however, their plan was disturbed by an earthquake in Ithome and the rebellion by the helots (Spartan peasants). The Spartans asked the Athenians for help and Athens sent an expeditionary force under the command of Cimon. The Spartans later changed their mind when they discovered the strength of the Athenian army and began to fear the possibility that Athens and the helots could collaborate on overthrowing Spartan power. They eventually sent away the Athenian force and Cimon was under fierce question and attack in Athens following his recall. Pericles was behind the first prosecution of Cimon in 463 BCE when Cimon was questioned for neglecting vital Athenian interest in Macedon.

461 BCE saw a major change in Athenian politics. The Ephialtic Revolution was taking place in Athens in which the power of the Areopagus (traditional council controlled by the Athenian aristocracy) was reduced and the power of the Ecclesia (public assembly) was increased greatly. The Ephialtic reforms also symbolised a wave of revolution in Athenian politics. The age of old politicians such as Cimon was over, the time of young politicians such as Pericles had come. Many scholars have argued that the reform opened a new era of “radical democracy” in Athens. The power of the demos is now stronger than before and politicians could now use the power of the demos for personal political gain. 461 BCE also saw the ostracism of Cimon. The accusation of Cimon’s ostracism was that he was betraying his city to the Spartans. Given the rise in tension between Athens and Sparta in the 460s, it is not surprising to see that Cimon eventually suffered as a victim of this political hostility.

Following the ostracism of Cimon, Pericles’s power gradually increased and became the unquestionable leader of Athens. He remained the great leader of Athens until his death in 429 BCE In this period he undertook many important political and social reforms that had a huge impact on the development of Athens. One of the most controversial policies initiated by Pericles was the citizenship law in 451 BCE. Under this law, Athenian citizenship would only be given to children whose mother and father both were Athenians. Pericles’ citizenship law aimed to make Athenian citizenship more exclusive and difficult to attain. Pericles was also a firm believer in the security and prosperity of the Athenian Empire. And therefore, Athens under his leadership became more assertive and dominant over its allies in the Delian League. Pericles also used the naval contribution provided by the allies to finance and construct great building projects in the city of Athens. The three most famous buildings of Periclean Athens that survive today are the Parthenon on the Acropolis, the Temple of Poseidon in Sounion and the Temple of Hephaestus in Athens. Pericles aimed to use his grand building projects to increase the love and devotion of the citizens of Athens and to inspire their faith in the Athenian democratic institution.

The most significant event that happened under Pericles’ leadership of Athens was the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BCE. The war broke out as a result of the increase in Athenian strength and the fear this caused in Sparta. Pericles’ unwillingness to back down to the Spartans before the final declaration of war was also pivotal in causing the tensions to rise. Pericles famously advised the Athenian demos that “Your empire is now like a tyranny, it might be wrong to take it, but it is certainly too dangerous to let it go.” In Pericles’ opinion, the security and dignity of the Athenian Empire should always be preserved and therefore it was impossible for him to back down to the Spartan demand to give the Greek allies their freedom. For Pericles, this decision would result in the dissolution of the Athenian Empire: a prospect that he can’t allow to happen.

Athens eventually engaged in the Peloponnesian War for 28 years, and many human lives and fortunes were lost. Pericles himself died in the second year after the Peloponnesian War broke out as a result of the ‘Great Plague' in Athens. Before Pericles passed away, he made the Athenian demos a request to make his son with Aspasia an Athenian citizen. Given the fact that Aspasia was not a naturalised Athenian citizen herself, her son with Pericles could not gain Athenian citizenship according to the Periclean citizenship law. The Athenian demos granted Pericles’ request for the outstanding contribution and service he had made to Athens. Pericles’ legacy is remembered by the generations after him for his political leadership, personal charisma and most importantly his unparalleled oratorical skills. He was the type of leader that many democratic leaders look up to nowadays for inspiration and lessons. His charisma and flaws offer great value for the contemporary audience today and it’s important for people now to have a general understanding of the life of the First Leader of Athens.

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