Ancient Athens, Pericles, and the Alcmeonids

Parthenon facade / Wikimedia Commons

The career of Pericles and of the extension of Athenian democracy that took shape under his direction.

By Dr. Charles W. Fornara
David Benedict Professor of Classics
Professor of History
Brown University

By Dr. Loren J. Samons II
Professor of Classical Studies
Boston University


In 432 B.C. , just prior to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, the Spartans escalated their diplomatic offensive against the Athenians by reminding them that their leader Pericles was polluted by a curse, and they demanded the expulsion from Attica of the sacrilegious family of the Alcmeonids (Thuc. 1.126f.). If their demand were ignored, as they thought it would be, they might thereby at least inject a premonition of supernatural agency into a debate hitherto conducted along pragmatic and rational lines. Dread of the agos, the curse, if not sufficient to prompt second thoughts about the propriety of the leadership of Pericles, might introduce a higher level of apprehension in this time of crisis.[1] The background of the agos is well known. Two hundred years before, as both Herodotus (5.71) and Thucydides (1.126.3–12) inform us, this family had been stained by the pollution of impious blood-guilt because the head of the house had murdered suppliants after promising them their lives. As a result, the Alcmeonids were twice expelled from Athens, once shortly after the event and again at the time of the revolution of Cleisthenes, himself an Alcmeonid. Pericles, as a direct descendant on his mother’s side, was believed to have inherited this stain.[2]

From a modern point of view, the idea that Pericles lay under a curse because of sacrilege committed two hundred years before by maternal relatives seems as implausible as the corollary that the city could itself be polluted by the contamination of his presence. Many features, however, of Athenian judicial practice remind us of the tenacity of this ancient belief. An unclean person, or even an object (Aeschin. 3.244), was held to defile the public places of a city and had to be expelled in order to protect the community from harm.[3] The theme is frequent in drama, an obvious example being Sophocles’ play, Oedipus the King. The tragedy begins with a hero who, unknown to himself, has fallen under a curse because he killed the father whom he did not know and took in marriage the woman who was his mother. Now king of Thebes, he is directly responsible for the plague desolating his city. Correspondences between the tragedy and contemporary events may not be accidental. Though the date of the play is not fixed by ancient authority, the scourge afflicting Thebes has been plausibly associated with the plague that descended on Athens just after the Peloponnesian War began.[4] It is possible, therefore, to identify the noble and tragic figure of Oedipus with the great Athenian statesman Pericles. The connection, of course, need assume no more than Sophocles’ transmutation of contemporary conditions and situations in order to invoke resonances that would reach the hearts of his audience. There is, in any case, no doubt that the revival of the charge of pollution against the Alcmeonids provoked more psychological stress in the Athenians than Thucydides implies in 1.126. For though, as a rationalist of the new school, which tended to be impatient of supernatural causes, Thucydides may have been disdainful of the superstition, he nevertheless considered it significant enough to be worth mention, making the point more than once that Pericles was held responsible by some Athenians for the onset of the plague (2.59.2, 64.1). The interplay of human and divine, reflected in the charges and countercharges leveled by both sides before the opening of the war, should not be taken by the modern reader as a mere exercise in propaganda.[5]

Family continuity in the matrilineal as well as the patrilineal line of descent is presupposed by the Spartan demand for the expulsion of the Alcmeonids. Not only is it a matter of an ancestral curse “which for almost two centuries continued to be the aýōs and which came to the surface in every great crisis”;[6] the agos had implications in its own right for the peculiar circumstances surrounding the family and the policies it was compelled to follow or eschew. Although it is impossible as well as improper to explain Pericles’ orientation solely or even primarily by way of his family tradition, his possession of a unique heritage remains a vital consideration. His systematic divergence from aristocratic interests and his commitment to the extension of the power of “the many” may, in part, have been inspired by the sense of alienation he inherited from his maternal ancestors; it may even be the case that it played a part in the much-heralded aloofness that characterized his social life (Plut. Per. 4–5, 7).

The Alcmeonid Family and Athens

Painting depicting the Athenian politician Pericles delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly / Wikimedia Commons

The ambiguous position held by the family (oikos ) or, perhaps, clan (genos) of the Alcmeonids[7] in the political history of archaic Athens can be explained partially by the fact that its ambition, one of the salient characteristics of the house, was more extravagant than apparently was warranted by its position in Athenian society. The Alcmeonids claimed descent from the royal house of the Neleids of Pylos; several of their name are said to have served as life-archons before the archonship became annual in 682/1; their family also traced itself to an Alcmeon who lived in the time of Theseus. But these traditions are weakly affirmed and insubstantial.[8] The more solid evidence suggests that they are in fact subsequent to the preeminent position obtained by the family in the sixth century. Thus, unlike other great aristocratic families, the Alcmeonids reveal no connection with any of the local cults of Attica. They boast no descent from the mythical ancestor who typically established such cults and transmitted their control to the appropriately descended families. As J. K. Davies has aptly stated, the political techniques applied by the Alcmeonids during the sixth century “are the hallmark of a family bent on maintaining and extending its power, prestige and political influence, but precluded from exercising effective power in its own homeland through cults and phratries in the way which was open to the old established units of Athenian politics.”[9]

On the other hand, there is no disputing the Alcmeonids’ enormous power in the sixth century, and it is possible that, though they were barred from control of the machinery of the archaic state by their exclusion from the inner circle of the nobility, they drew comparable prestige from another source. The early and intimate relations of the Alcmeonids with the august shrine of Delphi may be inferred from the constant association of the two throughout the course of the sixth century. The inference is speculative, but something of this nature seems required to explain the great power of this house in (what is for us) the dawn of Athenian history.

It certainly cannot be said of Megacles I, the first Alcmeonid known to us, that in his quest for power he was either discriminating in his choice of means or successful in their adoption, for it was he who brought the agos on his family, sometime between 632 and 624.[10] He became embroiled in the Cylonian affair, the earliest event of Athenian history known to us even rudimentarily. Indeed, we would not know even the little we do about this abortive attempt at tyranny were it not for the fact that the Cylonian affair became an inseparable part of the aetiology of the curse of the Alcmeonids. It was the agos that interested the general public for whose benefit Herodotus (5.71) and Thucydides (1.126.3–12) established the literary record. For all their agreement in outline, however, their accounts are curiously discrepant. Both historians agree that Cylon had gained an Olympic victory (which we can date to 640), and that he aspired to become tyrant of Athens. Both historians also agree, unequivocally, that the sacrilegious murder that ensued placed a curse on the clan. Neither writer, however, names Megacles. (We know his name from Plut. Sol. 12.1; it must have appeared in the Atthidographic literature.) On the other hand, Herodotus implies (simply from the conjunction of sentences in 5.71) that Cylon sought the tyranny because he was exalted by the Olympic victory. Thucydides, whose treatment is more extended, introduces the further information that Cylon was the son-in-law of the tyrant of Megara (1.126.3), had consulted the oracle at Delphi, and had been told by Apollo to seize the acropolis “during the greatest festival of Zeus” (126.4). From this point their narratives differ radically. Herodotus writes that Cylon,

backing himself with a group of men of his own age who had sworn to act together, tried to seize the acropolis. Unable to secure its possession, he sat as a suppliant next to the statue of the goddess. The prytanies of the naukraries, who in fact were in charge of Athens at that time, raised up these men on the assurance that they would not be subjected to the death penalty. The Alcmeonids bear the blame of murdering them.

Thucydides dates the plot to coincide with an Olympic festival and gives a more circumstantial picture of the siege of the acropolis. But he also adds that Cylon and his brother managed to escape (126.10). He asserts that the suppliants had been led from the altar (of Athena Polias) after the Athenians saw them dying (of starvation) in the temple “on condition that they suffer no harm.” He concludes with the remark that “some” of the conspirators were slain “at the altars of the Dread Goddesses [the Erinyes] as they descended from the acropolis” (126.10f.). Thucydides also replaces the prytanies of the naukraries with the archons: “at that time the nine archons managed most of the political affairs” (126.8).

Though some scholars have discerned “apologetic” purposes behind Herodotus’s account, especially with regard to the prytanies, it is difficult to see how the nomenclature used by either historian affects the nature of the deed or the responsibility of the Alcmeonids, for no attempt is made by either writer to exculpate them, however much they may differ in their conception of the machinery of the archaic state.[11] A less tortuous explanation for this difference between the two historians is that Thucydides has taken pains to correct misinformation that was current at the time and that he also may or may not have read in the history of Herodotus.[12] Thucydides was vain about his knowledge of Athenian antiquities, and we need not doubt that he willingly seized the opportunity to illustrate how uninformed the Athenians were about their own history (cf. 1.20). Whether his own account is free from blemish is another matter, for he has left unclear how the allegedly collective action of the archons interlocks with the apparently gratuitous sacrilege of one of them.[13] However this may be, the curse itself is incontestable; henceforth the Alcmeonids would be branded by it.

Draco, the creator of the conceptualization and formulation of the Draconian constitution / Wikimedia Commons

The immediately subsequent fortunes of the Alcmeonid house are very obscure. We do not know, for instance, to what extent, if any, this disastrous episode and the vendetta prompted by it influenced the publication of Dracon’s homicide laws.[14] At some point in time, however, not long after the commission of the sacrilege, the Alcmeonids were subjected to a trial that rendered the formal verdict that the clan was accursed (Arist. Ath. Pol. 1 ). The Alcmeonids were sent into “eternal banishment,” and the bones of their forefathers were disinterred and cast away. Epimenides of Crete, a magic worker, then ritually purified the city (Ath. Pol. 1); according to Diogenes Laertius 1.110, the Delphic oracle designated Epimenides for the task.

It is reasonable to infer that these events took place in the direct aftermath of the explosion that produced them, since the miasma threatening the community obviously required swift action. The difficulty is the association of Epimenides with Solon that we find in Plutarch (Sol. 12.4–6) and Diogenes Laertius 1.110, for it suggests that the expulsion and the purification occurred in the context of Solon’s reforms—a generation after the event—a time that seems problematically late. But the synchronism is intrinsically suspect. Combinations of the Wise Men of Antiquity are often arbitrary.[15] Moreover, this particular conjunction shows signs of manipulation, for in order to associate the two figures, Solon and Epimenides, Epimenides needed to be granted a truly Methuselan longevity.[16] It is therefore methodologically proper to accept the tradition of Epimenides’ activity in Athens because of the Cylonian affair, rejecting at the same time the affiliation with Solon, and thus to place the purification closer in time to the sacrilege than the epochal year 594.

The nature of the next series of events is harder to enucleate. The Alcmeonid clan, sent into “eternal exile” reemerges as a powerful force in Attica in the middle of the sixth century as if the banishment had never occurred (indeed, Herodotus, our source for this material, seems oblivious to it). About thirty years after Solon’s reforms, Megacles II, the son of Alcmeon, is installed in Attica, enjoying a position of dominance in the region of the seacoast (paralia ).[17] What is more, he has already succeeded in an illustrious marriage (c. 575) by becoming the husband of Agariste, the daughter of the powerful and splendid tyrant of Sicyon, Cleisthenes the Orthagorid (Hdt. 6.126–30). This marriage, furthermore, if we can trust Herodotus, was secured in the face of competition for the hand of Agariste by the sons of the greatest magnates of Hellas. But the fortunes of Megacles provide us merely with a lower terminus, for we can trace the apparent rehabilitation of the family to an earlier date than the time of this marriage. Almost twenty years before it, around the date of Solon’s reforms, Megacles’ father, Alcmeon, must have already been admitted back to Athens. For he served as leader of the Athenian contingent in the Sacred War fought by Delphi against Crisa (c. 591).

The information about Alcmeon’s part in the Sacred War (Plut. Sol. 11.2) seems authentic, for it reached Plutarch not by way of Alcmeonid family tradition (which might well be suspect) but from records kept by the Delphians themselves. The datum is also supported by a number of interlocking considerations in which Delphi figures centrally—namely, the marriage alliance of Megacles with Cleisthenes of Sicyon, who had also participated in the Sacred War;[18] an allegation in Herodotus 6.125.2 (see below) that Alcmeon was able to exploit his interest with Delphi to benefit Croesus; and signs of a close relation between the Alcmeonids and Delphi when this family first helped to rebuild the temple at Delphi (destroyed by fire in 548) and later enlisted Delphic support to bring an end to the Peisistratid tyranny in 511/10.[19] It appears certain, therefore, that the Alcmeonids had been permitted to return to Athens sometime before Alcmeon’s participation in the Sacred War. If we bear in mind the tradition that the Sacred War was proposed on the motion of Solon (Plut. Sol. 11), the inference is warranted that the Alcmeonids had been allowed to return to Athens in a period of amnesty or civil reconciliation entailed by Solon’s reforms. Alcmeon could not otherwise have represented Athens in the war, and much less could his son, as a landless fugitive, have competed successfully for the hand of a tyrant’s daughter. On the other hand, we cannot assume that the Alcmeonids also received “absolution” from the curse, for that is incompatible, as we shall see, with the repetition of the charge in subsequent times. The fact of their return guarantees only that their civic disabilities were revoked; neither the city nor the pythochrestoi could remove the agos from Alcmeon.[20]

Solon and Croesus, by Gerard van Honthorst (1624) / Kunsthalle Hamburg, Wikimedia Commons

Allusion has been made to Herodotus’s report of Alcmeon’s service to Croesus as an intermediary between Croesus and Delphi. The episode, which is an aetiological story about how the Alcmeonids acquired their wealth, deserves attention, and may best be presented in Herodotus’s own words (6.125).

Now the Alcmeonidae were, even in days of yore, a family of note at Athens, but from the time of Alcmaeon, and again of Megacles, they rose to special eminence. [Alcmeon,] . . . when Croesus the Lydian sent men from Sardis to consult the Delphic oracle, gave aid gladly to his messengers, and assisted them to accomplish their task. Croesus, informed of Alcmaeon’s kindnesses . . . sent for him to Sardis, and, when he arrived, made him a present of as much gold as he should be able to carry at one time about his person. Finding that this was the gift assigned him, Alcmaeon . . . prepared himself to receive it in the following way. He clothed himself in a loose tunic, which he made to bag greatly at the waist, and placing upon his feet the widest buskins that he could anywhere find, followed his guides into the treasure-house. Here he fell to upon a heap of gold-dust, and in the first place packed as much as he could inside his buskins, between them and his legs; after which he filled the breast of his tunic quite full of gold, and then sprinkling some among his hair, and taking some likewise in his mouth, he came forth from the treasure-house, scarcely able to drag his legs along, like anything rather than a man. . . . On seeing him, Croesus burst into a laugh, and not only let him have all that he had taken, but gave him presents besides of fully equal worth. Thus this house became one of great wealth, and Alcmaeon was able to keep horses for the chariot-race, and won the prize at Olympia. (trans. Rawlinson)

The anecdote is interesting from several perspectives. It illustrates, in the first place, the detachment oral tradition allows from the historical reality forming its basis. Few would doubt the existence of a residual core of historical truth in this story; yet chronology does not permit a meeting between Croesus, who ruled in the mid sixth century, and the father of Megacles II—at least in the time-frame presupposed by Herodotus.[21] Probably, if there literally was a meeting, Alcmeon met Alyattes, Croesus’s father, for it is easily comprehensible that the more famous monarch replaced the less spectacular ruler for the benefit of the story. Croesus had acquired the reputation of host par excellence to Hellenes on the grand tour; if Solon could meet Croesus, his contemporary Alcmeon could do so too.

The same impulse explains how a visit from Alcmeon to the Lydian court transformed itself into explanation of the springs of Alcmeonid wealth. Certainly the story is fictional in the form in which it appears; it reminds us of a comparable fiction told about Callias Lakkoploutos (Plut. Arist. 5), who allegedly filched his wealth from treasure buried on the field of Marathon. The anecdote not improbably originated in circles hostile to the Alcmeonids, for what is alleged of Alcmeon is the polar opposite of Solonian sophrosyne and hardly the act of a civilized guest-friend.[22] But the invention of the tale in this peculiar form has its positive side as well: it hints that the great wealth of the Alcmeonids was not readily accounted for in the usual terms—that is, the possession of great tracts in Attica like those of the other Eupatrids. The story has deeper meaning; the gold of Lydia apparently serves as a symbol of the influence of the Alcmeonids at Delphi, which allegedly facilitated the gift. Herodotus’s testimony (6.125) to the help provided by Alcmeon to Lydian embassies at Delphi is the most compelling part of the story because it must ultimately be based on the prestige Alcmeon won at Delphi from his participation in the Sacred War—if, in fact, his selection as leader of the Athenian force does not presuppose a still earlier link between the family and Delphi. For it is surely odd that a representative of a family recently driven from Athens for impiety was selected by the Athenians as their military leader in such a cause, and the explanation must be that Alcmeon was chosen because he was requested by the local officials at Delphi.

The marriage of Alcmeon’s son, Megacles, with Agariste, the daughter of Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon, c. 575 (Hdt. 6.126–30) is another instance of the central importance of Delphi to the fortunes of the Alcmeonids. For Cleisthenes of Sicyon was also closely linked with Delphi. He played a significant part in the Sacred War[23] and, perhaps not coincidentally, was the first chariot victor to be crowned by the reconstituted Amphictiony (Paus. 10.9.7). He also seems to have extended the influence of Delphian Apollo into Sicyon. And so Megacles, the son of the man who became the benefactor of Lydian royalty because of his interest with Delphi, became the son-in-law of Apollo’s champion at Sicyon! The “wedding of Agariste,” brilliantly described by Herodotus, made the name of the Alcmeonids “resound through Hellas” (6.131.1), and must have operated like a catapult for the fortunes of the family, raising it to the social level of the Philaid clan, which boasted a comparable association with the tyrants of Corinth.[24]

How the Alcmeonids proceeded so brilliantly when they simultaneously stood under the curse of Athena Polias is difficult to understand. The stain seems to have mattered neither to Delphi nor to Cleisthenes, who understood that it would inevitably be transmitted to his grandchildren. Indeed, the charge of pollution was leveled against his grandson, Cleisthenes the Athenian reformer, with the result that he was driven out of Athens in the midst of his revolutionary efforts (Hdt. 5.70–72). The charge must be taken seriously. Since the political manipulation of a religious belief, far from invalidating the force of that belief, is a confirmation of its potency, the explanation is inadequate that the curse really did not matter, was a mere “impiety,”[25] so that the attack against the younger Cleisthenes was simply “political propaganda,” empty of religious content. The curse did matter; in addition to this manifestation of its importance, and its reemergence as a weapon against Pericles, it also affected (as we shall see) the conduct of Peisistratus towards his Alcmeonid wife. The situation is puzzling: how did the Alcmeonids, and the Athenians, reconcile normal citizenship, residence in Attica and the tenure of magistracies (Alcmeon’s strategia ), with the agos?

Modern bust of Cleisthenes, known as “the father of Athenian democracy”, on view at the Ohio Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio / Wikimedia Commons

The problem is limited to Alcmeonid residence in Attica, for beyond its limits the family could function normally. Just as an exile with unclean hands could be purified so as to live in a new community without contaminating it (Hdt. 1.35.1–2), so the Alcmeonids, after the Cylonian affair, must have been liberated from the effects of the agos when beyond the frontiers of Attica. Delphic Apollo was under no compulsion to recognize an offense committed against Athena Polias. Similarly, no bar existed to prevent the grandson of Cleisthenes the Orthagorid, if he became the tyrant’s heir, from ruling in Sicyon,[26] where he would be unaffected by the Athenian local curse. But as the expulsion of the younger Cleisthenes from Athens suffices to show, the curse continued to be regarded as a source of pollution in Athens itself. Yet how can this be reconciled with Alcmeon’s return to Athens or, minimally, with his deputization as an Athenian general in the first decade of the sixth century? One would suppose that the curse either was eliminated as a danger to the state or that it was not. If it had been, the charge against Cleisthenes in 508/7 would have been derided and ignored. Yet that is not what happened. Apparently, therefore, Alcmeon’s return was accomplished in such a way as to mask the problem but not to exorcise it. A political agreement was reached or a consensus established that somehow obviated the issue. It may be relevant that we know of only two occasions in which a demand was placed on the Athenians to expel the “accursed” and that on both occasions the demand was made by Sparta, an alien community. For all of the bitter strife involving the Alcmeonids in the political struggles of Athens, the demand was never made by a citizen,[27] while when made by the Lacedaemonians it was never denied. Yet since it was Isagoras, Cleisthenes’ opponent, as Herodotus informs us (5.70.2), who put Cleomenes up to it, the inference seems inescapable that the Athenians were formally bound by common agreement against any direct utilization of the curse as a political weapon, even though its existence was recognized. But how all of this was managed is a mystery about which Athenian tradition is obtuse and uninformative.

Alcmeon’s visit to Lydia and his son’s celebrated marriage float timelessly in the historical record. After the Cylonian affair the Alcmeonids make their reappearance in the local Athenian tradition when Peisistratus first succeeded in becoming tyrant of Athens in 561/60. The hiatus in our knowledge of the family’s activities in their own homeland between the time of Alcmeon’s participation in the Sacred War and Megacles’ involvement in the dynastic struggles culminating in Peisistratus’s rise to power is explained by the simplifying tendencies of oral tradition. The local inhabitants of Attica or, rather, of Athens, well remembered certain kinds of traditions if they fell into either of two categories. They were apt to remember epochal transitions in which the minimum of salient facts necessary for the comprehension of events solidified, as it were, around the events themselves. They also cherished the recollection of the colorful and singular experiences enjoyed by one or another of their great families. The popular mind enjoyed provocative or aetiological stories about the nobility and, in fact, since the stories were about “their” nobles, the citizenry took civic pride in telling them over and over again. For us, Herodotus’s history gains an added dimension of interest because of his tendency to isolate these categories. When he made his inquiries into one natural subject or another (epochal developments, family history), he presented these recollections as he heard them, without synthesizing in the way of a modern historian.

The Alcmeonids are a case in point. When in 6.125ff. Herodotus’s subject was the Alcmeonids as a family (apropos of the shield incident at Marathon), his inquiries into the antecedents of the family are presented in a historical vacuum without reference to data known to him from other contexts, all of which could have been consolidated into one coherent discussion. But that was not the method he chose to employ, preferring instead to set out one independent tradition after another. Thus, when he sought information about the family history of the Alcmeonids, he was told the anecdotes about Alcmeon’s wealth and how Megacles won Agariste by default.[28] Popular memory preserved the story about Alcmeon and remembered something as well about the connection with Delphi; it misrecollected the appropriate monarch of Lydia and knew nothing of the command held by Alcmeon in the Sacred War. In this context it forgot about the curious relationship of Megacles and Peisistratus, though it did, of course, recall that Cleisthenes the reformer was the grandson of the tyrant of Sicyon. But an independent source, in which popular memory focused on epochal change, supplied Herodotus with the information about Megacles. Thus, in 1.59ff. Herodotus provides this supplementary material in connection with the story of Peisistratus’s rise to power and his ultimate retention of the tyranny after two reverses. Megacles’ involvement in these episodes, both as he appears in 1.59.3 and in 60.2, 61.1, is an integral part of that epochal development and was recollected as such in the popular memory. That is why the Alcmeonids seem to emerge on the Attic seacoast c. 561 as if they had dropped from the moon. From the time of Alcmeon’s command against Crisa or, rather, his visit to Lydia, nothing had been accomplished by the family that was either sufficiently interesting in itself or connected with independently critical developments to secure its place in the oral tradition.

Herodotus 1.59.3 presents Megacles to us as a dynast in control of the region of the seacoast of Attica (paralia ) who was engaged in a struggle with another figurehead, Lycurgus son of Aristolaidas, the leader of the “men of the plain” (pediakoi ). The civil discord engendered by this battle between local dynasts provided Peisistratus with the opportunity to engineer his own elevation to the tyranny. He was a member of the old aristocracy and had acquired a brilliant reputation as a military leader. He announced the intention of acting as the champion of hitherto unrepresented Athenians (“men beyond the hills,” hyperakrioi or diakrioi ) and fomented a conspiracy in Athens that enabled him to seize the acropolis and assume the position of tyrant. After ruling the city for a short time, he was driven out by the combined forces of the men of the seacoast and plain. The local dynasts, this time, proved too strong for him.[29]

Herodotus’s account of the sequence of these events, though brief, is self-consistent and credible. The city of Athens adopted tyranny in a moment of civil crisis created by the incessant strife of the great landlords in control of the surrounding territory, and it backed a man of aristocratic family and great prominence, possessing resources of his own, who could be trusted to neutralize the turbulent dynasts of the country in order to provide tranquillity and the rule of law in the city. Comparable events occurred somewhat earlier elsewhere in Greece and the parallel of the Italian city-states of the Quattrocento springs to mind mutatis mutandis. However, because Aristotle, building on Herodotus, injected an anachronistic interpretation of these events and, in addition, misconceived their more precise sequence, much modern ingenuity has been expended to puzzle out the mutual relations between the three “parties” or “localities” and the ideological affinities of various segments within each of them. In our opinion notions of political coloration are out of place in the period and irrelevant to the nature of the crisis. Aristotle’s belief that the Alcmeonids of the seacoast were “moderate,” Peisistratus “radical,” and Lycurgus an “oligarch” is a clear use of judgment a posteriori. Peisistratus, as we suppose, was champion of the interests of the city while his opponents were driven by family self-interest; the real question was whether the countryside would rule the town or the town the country. Fortunately for Athens, the interests of civilization prevailed when the city chose the way of tyranny. For in those times, no less than in those of Solon, a tyrant was needed to enforce the laws of the city and counterbalance the predatory aristocracy, and Peisistratus, for a time, achieved this end. That is the historical importance of Herodotus’s declaration that Peisistratus ruled (the first time) “neither disrupting the existing magistracies nor making changes in the established laws” (1.59.6). It should not surprise us that Herodotus couched negatively the positive contribution of Peisistratus, for tyranny was detestable to him and, though he affirmed this laudatory memory of Peisistratus’s behaviour, he inverted its emphasis. But the affirmative verdict puts it all in a nutshell.

Athenian ostrakon (piece of pottery inscribed with the name of a politician proposed for exile by popular vote, the so-called “ostracism”). This specimen propose the name of Megacles, who was submitted to the vote in 487 BC. / Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto, Ancient Agora Museum in Athens, Wikimedia Commons

Megacles was a creature of his time—namely, an ambitious aristocrat intent on increasing the power of his family, as he made evident by the next step he took. For after Peisistratus’s first expulsion from Athens, Megacles made the infamous bargain to return him to the tyranny on condition that Peisistratus marry his daughter.

No sooner, however, was [Peisistratus] departed than the factions which had driven him out quarreled anew, and at last Megacles, wearied with the struggle, sent a herald to Pisistratus, with an offer to reestablish him on the throne if he would marry his daughter. Pisistratus consented, and on these terms an agreement was concluded between the two. . . . [61.1] Pisistratus, having thus recovered the sovereignty, married, according to the agreement, the daughter of Megacles. As, however, he had already a family of grown-up sons, and the Alcmaeonidae were supposed to be under a curse, he determined that there should be no issue of the marriage, and he consequently had intercourse with her in an abnormal fashion. . . . Megacles, indignant at receiving an affront from such a quarter, in his anger instantly made up his differences with the opposite faction, on which Pisistratus . . . took himself out of the country. (Hdt. 1.60.1–61.2; trans. Rawlinson)

The sudden turnabout by Megacles is surprising. If we dismiss, as we should, the ubiquitous notion that the son-in-law of Cleisthenes, tyrant of Sicyon, was temperamentally or ideologically averse to tyranny, his behavior requires special explanation. After Peisistratus had been driven out of Athens, Megacles was in sufficient strength to prevent his return. Now it is generally understood that the aristocratic code was built on the acceptance of peer-equality and a corresponding unwillingness to tolerate the promotion of a rival to a higher station.[30] Yet Megacles’ collaboration with Peisistratus instantly relegated him to a position of distinct inferiority. The marriage could not even provide a claim on the tyranny by way of an heir, since Peisistratus had grown children already in the house, and few, in any case, are the men of real ambition and power who are prepared to trade their personal supremacy for a remote and contingent hope.[31]

What, then, was the quid pro quo of the marriage alliance? The problem, thus framed, finds its tentative resolution in the explanation for the dissolution of the union between Megacles’ daughter and Peisistratus—fear of the transmission of the curse. The agos was apparently the central consideration making the alliance a valuable prize for the Alcmeonid. Megacles himself had managed to secure a brilliant marriage with a woman wholly unconnected with the Athenian aristocracy But her prestige and influence remained back in Sicyon. If the Alcmeonids were to flourish in the city-state of Athens, and not merely in their ancestral sphere of influence, the leaders of the family needed to weave a net of alliances with the other great families. But the taint of the curse introduced a complicating factor, for the transmission of the agos to all progeny arising from intermarriage with the clan was ineluctable.[32] It was a high price to pay and the quid pro quo would need to be substantial. Hence, we believe, the marriage arrangement between Peisistratus and Megacles, for by it Peisistratus was enabled to regain the tyrant’s throne and the Alcmeonids secured a vital connection with the ruling house. Yet it is notable that Peisistratus accepted even this bargain with the mental reservations that resulted in a second frustration of his hopes, leading to his ejection from Athens for a second time.

Peisistratus returned to Athens to stay in 546, after the “battle” of Pallene, really a misnomer since the opposition to his return was so halfhearted as to provoke sarcasm from Herodotus (1.63.1). For our purposes the most interesting aspect of the tradition about his return is the agreement of the ancient sources, after Herodotus 1.64.3, that the Alcmeonids now chose self-exile in preference to servitude to Peisistratus and remained out of the country until they returned to liberate it.[33] By the lucky chance of the discovery of a fragment of an Athenian archon list we possess incontrovertible knowledge of the falsity of this tradition, for a Cleisthenes—certainly the son of Megacles and the democratic reformer of 508/7—is shown by the fragment to have been eponymous archon of Athens in 525/4.[34]

The discovery of Cleisthenes’ presence in Peisistratid Athens confronts us with a problem of source-criticism, for we have the option of reconciling this new datum as best we can with the Herodotean tradition claiming self-exile for the Alcmeonids in 546 by assuming their return sometime thereafter before 525; alternatively, we may decide that Herodotus was radically misinformed about the exile, which really took place at a later time—in 514, after the murder of Hipparchus, the brother of the tyrant Hippias, when we know that the tyranny turned harsh and there occurred a general emigration of the aristocrats, which undoubtedly included the Alcmeonids. Normally, our preference would be to follow Herodotus, for it is arbitrary to “correct” a tradition to suit ourselves when our source is well-informed and reconcilement is theoretically possible. In this instance, however, not only does the information from the archon list prove that Herodotus misunderstood the situation but there is ample evidence that the story about the “exile,” which easily lent itself to exaggeration, figured centrally in Alcmeonid apologetics.

To understand the genesis of this tendentious tradition, we must move downwards in time to 490 B.C. and consider the story about the notorious shield signal displayed to the Persians at the battle of Marathon, an act of betrayal of the Athenian demos imputed to the Alcmeonids.[35] Herodotus describes this matter in 6.121–24:

I find it amazing and I do not accept the story that the Alcmeonids ever displayed a shield to Persians by prearrangement because they wished the Athenians to be in the power of both the barbarians and Hippias [the Peisistratid]. These are the men who appear to be tyrant-haters as much or more than was Callias the son of Phainippus. . . .

. . . So I find it amazing and I do not accept the slander that the very men displayed the shield who fled the tyrants for the entire period and by whose contrivance the Peisistratids lost the tyranny. Thus, indeed, these men were the ones who secured the freedom of Athens far more than did Harmodius and Aristogeiton, as I judge. For by killing Hipparchus, they made the rest of the Peisistratids more savage and not in the slightest way stopped them from ruling. On the other hand the Alcmeonids indubitably stopped the tyranny, if as is the case these are truly the ones who persuaded the Pythia to begin every injunction to the Lacedaemonians with the order to free the Athenians, as has been earlier revealed by me.

But, you might allege, perhaps they betrayed the fatherland because they had some grievance with the demos. Yet there were no other men among the Athenians who were more distinguished than they or others who were more honored. Therefore reason does not dictate that the shield was displayed by the efforts of these men for reasons of the kind alleged. The shield was shown and this cannot be disputed. In fact it happened. However, I can say no more than I have about who was the shield-displayer.

These skeletons of men who were killed with their hands tied may be some of Cylon’s supporters. / Wikimedia Commons

In this fashion Herodotus guarantees that opinion contemporary with the battle charged the Alcmeonids with the responsibility for the traitorous signal by the glitter of light upon a shield. The fact is corroborated for us by the use of the ostracism against the clan after 490, by a curious allusion to the troubles of the family in a poem by Pindar,[36] and by the apparent disappearance of its members from the political arena in the next decade. Now Herodotus, in expressing his disbelief in the truth of the accusation, points to the unwavering opposition of the Alcmeonids to the tyranny “for the whole period” of tyrannic rule, and he also alludes to their role in the liberation of Athens. The logical connection is that the Alcmeonids could hardly have Medized, betrayed Athens to Datis, when the intention of the barbarians was to restore the superannuated Hippias to his tyranny and the Alcmeonids were tyrant-haters “who fled the tyrants for the entire period.”

A common view[37] holds that Herodotus’s report is, in effect, an “echo” of the Alcmeonid defense delivered in 490, and that although this defense requires a certain degree of adjustment in the light of the historical record, its burden is substantially accurate. No one will defend himself with assertions patently falsifying events within the living memory of his accusers. But does it not follow with equal force that if it is alleged (by Herodotus) that a defense was made that we know to have been false, the possibility becomes real, if not necessary, that the defense he records could not have been delivered in 490? And is not that possibility enhanced when we take into account the fact that sixty years had elapsed between the alleged defense of 490 and its publication after 431? We have no warrant to attribute to Herodotus, long after the event, the uncontaminated recollection of an apologia delivered in 490 and (on that hypothesis) presumptively true. Nor can the apologia, as formulated by Herodotus, be regarded as a plausible defense if delivered in 490 when its central core is historically false and would have been recognized as such at the time it was allegedly delivered.

In 490 it is inconceivable that the Alcmeonids could have attempted to prove that they could not have displayed the shield signal by urging their anti-tyrannist sentiments in the manner presented by Herodotus. The Athenians remembered that Megacles had been the son-in-law of Peisistratus, and they knew as well that Cleisthenes had held the archonship in 525 when Hipparchus was tyrant of the city. They also remembered that after founding the democracy, Cleisthenes or his agents sent an embassy to Sardis “in the hope of making a treaty with the Persian king” (Hdt. 5.73).[38] Now these data—and the charge of Medis ade in 490, which seems to presuppose them—are all we possess of the historical record; in their light, Herodotus’s defense would have been as preposterous at the time of Marathon as it seemed credible if developed thirty or forty years later, when the exact limits of the “exile” became susceptible to exaggeration.[39]

It is doubtful whether the actual apology of the Alcmeonids in 490 can be extracted from Herodotus’s simplified and erroneous account of it. But one negative conclusion seems safe: they did not claim exile “throughout the entire period.” Probably they dwelt on features of their past history redounding to their benefit, such as their endurance of voluntary exile after 514 and their indisputable (though vicarious) contribution to the liberation of Athens in 511/10.[40] After 490, the duration of the exile could grow more and more indefinite until it became categorical. Thus in the fourth century Isocrates (16.26) could claim that the Alcmeonids had endured a forty-year exile.

Such a transformation of the tradition presumes, reasonably enough, that the display of the shield ceased to be a controversial issue after Xerxes’ defeat. No evidence suggests that the vituperation continued into Herodotus’s time. His ignorance of the material evidence and the prejudice originally prompting the charge implies the absence of current controversy. He has a simplified version of only one side of a historical debate; that which had been the Alcmeonid defense against charges positively framed had evolved into a truism celebrating the greater glory of the family. In the popular mind, it would appear, two salient “facts” were assimilated: recollection of the treasonable behavior apparently committed by the Alcmeonids and the belief that, guilty or not, the family had avoided contact with the tyranny by enduring exile from the time of Pallene. That the latent contradiction inherent in the acceptance of both assumptions is by no means self-evident can be seen from its easy acceptance by modern scholars who seek to harmonize the discord.[41]

To the extent that Herodotus’s “defense” is a simplification and distortion of the true history, it becomes justifiable to correct it inferentially. One may therefore suppose that the Alcmeonids remained in Athens after the battle of Pallene and that Cleisthenes’ archonship signals their prior accommodation with tyranny. The archonship was not, in other words, the result of a “union of hearts,” as it has been called,[42] marking Cleisthenes’ return from exile and sudden reconciliation with the tyrants who (on this view) sought the support of the emigrés after Peisistratus’s death in 527. There is no reason to doubt, apart from the inaccurate apologia, that the Alcmeonids earlier came to terms with Peisistratus himself, while the archonship of 525 simply proves that Cleisthenes was a “safe man” in the time of transition (cf. Thuc. 6.54.6). We may infer, therefore, that there was one exile only, not two, and that it began in 514, when the murder of Hipparchus ended the truce between tyrant and aristocracy, resulting in the exile of many of the clans, those Eupatrids whose deeds at Leipsydrion were remembered in song.[43] Herodotus’s error, and the modern doublet of a single exile prompted by it, should be dropped from the historical record.

Coinage of Athens at the time of Cleisthenes. Effigy of Athena, with owl and ΑΘΕ, initials of “Athens”. Circa 510-500/490 BCE / CNG, Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most peculiar fact about Cleisthenes, the collaborator and the revolutionary, is his lack of importance in fifth-century tradition. Herodotus, who, of all authorities, should have told us much about him, is not only brief in his characterization but cynical and negative as well. Cleisthenes’ revolution is described as the culmination of a personal struggle with Isagoras, and even the great tribal reform is provided with a contemptuous explanation (5.69). That such denigration is not accidental is assured by Herodotus 6.123, the passage already discussed concernin the Alcmeonid defense. When the Alcmeonids defended themselves against an attempted subversion of the democracy by pointing (as we infer) to their exile after 514 and their role in the liberation, they apparently omitted, incredibly, all reference to the very act that should incontestably have proved their devotion to the demos: it was Cleisthenes the Alcmeonid who had established the democracy. If ever an argument from silence has cogency, it is here. Cleisthenes’ actions could not be urged in defense because in all probability his behavior was a precondition of the charge. The explanation for the silence enshrouding Cleisthenes’ name is that he was believed to have betrayed the government. That, indeed, is the burden of Herodotus 5.73—the symbolic surrender by Athens to the king of Persia—conduct that modern scholars, like Herodotus (by his silence) unjustifiably extenuate.[44] Thus a cloud descended on the reputation of the family a decade and more before the episode at Marathon, the probable explanation of our deep ignorance of Megacles’ other children—Aristonymus, Euryptolemus, and Hippocrates—whose names we know only because of their more notorious or celebrated progeny. Callixenus, for example, the son of Aristonymus, is represented among the extant ostraka with more frequency than anyone but Themistocles himself.[45] Hippocrates son of Megacles we know because his son, Megacles, was ostracized four years after Marathon, in 487/6 (Ath. Pol. 22.5). Agariste, his daughter, is of course best known of all, because she became the wife of Xanthippus and the mother of Pericles.

It is a very dubious record indeed, and one that only deteriorated because or in spite of the great efforts made by the Alcmeonids around the time of Marathon.

The almost complete absence from the political scene after 480 of the descendants of the family is very remarkable. In spite of intermittent political activity . . . and of the clear survival of the family wealth into the late fifth century, the family seems never to have recovered politically from the disastrous effects of its pro-Persian policies after 507 (Hdt. v.73), from the loss of public confidence in its integrity after Marathon (Hdt. vi.121f.), and the subsequent onslaught by ostracism launched in the 480s. . . . By 470, if not before, the family was politically bankrupt.[46]

We are now in a position to form a notion of the context in which Pericles advanced from youth to manhood.[47] Strictly speaking, to be sure, Pericles was Alcmeonid only on his mother’s side, and could point with pride and assurance to the achievements of his father, Xanthippus son of Ariphron, the victor of Mycale, who had been honored by the Athenians with statue set up by them on the acropolis (Paus. 1.25.1).[48] But our definitions of “family” can hardly supersede the impressions and understandings of the contemporary Athenian public. It is plain enough that the special interest devoted to this great family derived from Pericles’ association with it, as Herodotus announced in a well-known passage (6.131);[49] and we have already observed the importance ascribed to Pericles’ Alcmeonid heritage in the vituperation immediately preceding the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War.[50] The (conjectural) effect on Pericles of his peculiar ancestry can await brief discussion at the conclusion of this chapter; for the moment we may note a suggestive passage in Plutarch where he makes the point that Pericles did not engage in a political career in the normal course of events because he worried how the demos would receive him.

For he looked very much like the tyrant Peisistratus. Very old men were amazed at the similarity of his voice, which was sweet, and his readiness of tongue and rapidity in conversation. Since he was rich and of splendid birth and possessed friends of great power, he avoided politics in the fear of being ostracized. (Per. 7.1–2)

Plutarch’s assertion seems credible because it appears to be the reflection of sound retrospective analysis of Pericles’ career coupled with actual knowledge of the age of his entrance into politics. If accurate, it hints at the stigma attaching to Pericles because of the actions and the fortunes of his mother’s family.

Pericles’ Political Career

Bust of Pericles bearing the inscription “Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian”. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from ca. 430 BC / Photo by Jastrow, Vatican Museums, Wikimedia Commons

No student of the career of Pericles and of the extension of Athenian democracy that took shape under his direction can but be astonished by the paucity of evidence that has survived antiquity. It is a real paradox that the “Age of Pericles” presents to us a lacunose record disposing itself into a series of problems that resist solution because of our inadequate understanding of the chronology of Pericles’ career and the intent and, sometimes, the dates, of his major legislation. Thus, although his first political action may more or less reliably be set in the year 463,[51] we do not know his age at the time[52] or even whether he acquired political importance immediately thereafter. That assumption has indeed been made, for it is often supposed that he participated with Ephialtes in the great reform of 462/1, when the Areopagus was deprived of its power and the new era of radical democracy commenced.[53]

In this connection it has even been argued (by H. T. Wade-Gery) that one of Pericles’ major pieces of legislation, the introduction of jury pay for the Athenian citizen body, occurred before rather than after 462/1, developing out of his (alleged) conflict with Cimon son of Miltiades, the leading politician in Athens until his ostracism in 461.[54] We shall have occasion to examine this measure more closely in chapter 2,[55] where we give our reasons for placing the enactment well after the date of Ephialtes’ reform, though it can be stated here that the main prop of Wade-Gery’s thesis, Plutarch, Pericles 9.1–5, rests on misunderstanding or carelessness by Plutarch of his main source, Aristotle, Ath. Pol. 27. But the real sequence should not be a matter of doubt. Aristotle in Politics 1274a7–11 is decisive as to the order of events. Speaking of the danger implicit in Solon’s distribution of jury powers to the people, Aristotle observes that these powers expanded and eventually brought democracy. He adds by way of explanation that, after Solon, “Ephialtes and Pericles curtailed the boule of the Areopagus and Pericles had the juries given pay; in this fashion, each of the demagogues brought onward the democracy by expansion of its current state.”

Aristotle’s formulation, which imparts historical perspective, implies the temporal separation of one reform from the other, first that of the Areopagus, then that providing for jury pay, and his evidence must take precedence over speculation about the complex topical arrangement that appears in Ath. Pol. 27. But not only is it premature to assign a major legislative act of Pericles’ to the late sixties; as we shall see, the tradition associating him with Ephialtes in the attack on the Areopagus in 462/1 is sufficiently suspicious as to render it probable that Pericles’ legislative activity actually began no sooner than in the early fifties.

To question the association of Ephialtes and Pericles in the attack on the Areopagus in 462/1 may well appear, at first sight, to be little more than an exercise in hypercriticism. Very little, it might be supposed, would be gained or lost by the assumption of their collaboration except the pleasant association of Pericles with an epochal measure suitable to

his political orientation. Yet the question deserves attention, for it affects our general estimation of the shape and character of Pericles’ career in the fifties and, no less important, supplies an opportunity to test the quality of our tradition. Now modern scholars almost universally bring the date of significant Periclean measures, especially the decree about jury pay, into close temporal relation with the reform of 462/1, as if they were logically concomitant,[56] and that presumption is greatly assisted by the vision of Pericles as a powerful political personality operative in the late sixties serving as the adjutant of Ephialtes. Our own belief is that Pericles’ radical measures about misthos (public pay) belong late in the fifties, if not thereafter, for we suppose that this ideological departure, though it presumed the destruction of the Areopagus, was not a mere consequence of its fall but in fact represents a new orientation towards public expenditure presupposing, among other things, access to the allied treasury. Our reasons will be presented in due course (chapter 2); our object here is to demonstrate how very tenuous is the evidence usually accepted as sufficient to indicate the association of Pericles with Ephialtes. Grounds for skepticism arise from the fact that the tradition is weakly and selectively asserted when not implicitly contradicted by our sources; in a word, it appears to be nothing more than an unsupported inference.

The temptation will have been irresistible for fourth-century critics to associate the great leader of democratic Athens with the epochal political event of the first half of the fifth century. Certainly the available biographical/political data rendered the assumption tenable, for it was known that Pericles had come forward politically just before the year 462/1 in the prosecution of Cimon,[57] while, on the other hand, his legislative career was indisputably in place in the 450s, shortly after the assault on the Areopagus had been successfully launched and Cimon had fallen to ostracism. But if Pericles had indeed been involved in this period of political convulsion, one would expect a firm tradition testifying to it. Instead we find something quite different and rather peculiar. To be sure, in the important passage already quoted, 1274a8, Pericles as well as Ephialtes is credited with the reform. But Pericles’ name looks as if it has been added as an afterthought[58]


and, in any case, his position is secondary to Ephialtes. The implication of his secondary status would be negligible were it not for the remarkable treatment this subject receives in Ath. Pol. 25–27. Chapter 25 describes Ephialtes’ attack on the Areopagus without mention of the name of Pericles (though in 25.3 Themistocles is introduced, impossibly, as a participant); chapter 26 descends in time from the destruction of the Areopagus to Pericles’ citizenship law of 451/50 (26.4)—the first mention of his name. In chapter 27, devoted to Pericles’ demagoguery in the 50s,[59] it is also said that “he took away some powers of the Areopagites,” and is by no means clear that this reference is intended to coincide with the material provided in chapter 25. Thus Pericles’ alleged complicity in the attack on the Areopagus is ignored when the subject is the Areopagus, Ephialtes (and Themistocles) having been given the responsibility for the assault, while it is only when the subject turns to Pericles himself that we are offered halfhearted and vague expression of his alleged activity against this council.

Areopagus / Photo by Ken Russell Salvador, Wikimedia Commons

Let us pass on to certain remarks made by Plutarch in the Pericles. In 7.8 we read that Pericles liked to have other people do his work for him, “of whom one, they say, was Ephialtes, who destroyed the power of the boule of the Areopagus” (cf. Moral. 812d). Again, in 9.5, where Plutarch speaks of Pericles’ opposition to Cimon, his demagogic measures and his attack on the Areopagus (an inflation of Ath. Pol. 27.3f., where the Areopagus is not mentioned),[60] the crucial phrase is Pericles’ removal of the power of this boule “through Ephialtes.” To this we must add the negative evidence of Ath. Pol. 35.2. The Thirty Tyrants are here said to have attempted to restore the “ancestral constitution” and to have “abrogated the laws of Ephialtes and Archestratus [otherwise unknown] concerning the Areopagites of the Areopagus.” In this critical passage, Pericles is passed over in silence.

The picture, surely, is one in which Pericles’ presence has been limned because it was inferred that he must have played a part in a movement that seemed so Periclean in its spirit and direction that his involvement followed of itself. Is it not equally apparent that the evidence would have been of a more substantial nature had Pericles actually been the associate of Ephialtes? And if he had been his associate, the emphasis certainly would have shifted, and the great politician would have been known for the reform, Ephialtes going the way of Archestratus. Instead we have a reverse tendency, culminating in the assertion of Idomeneus of Lampsacus (FGrHist 338 F 8 = Plut. Per. 10.7) that Pericles killed “his friend and associate,” Ephialtes, “out of jealousy and envy of his reputation.” The transparent creation of a tradition specifically attaching Pericles to this reform, on the one hand, and the inability of the man of greater fame to crowd out the truly responsible agent, make the conclusion reasonable that Pericles was associated by ancient writers with the attack on the Areopagus in spite of the absence of any sign of his involvement in the affair simply because the idea was attractive and seemed appropriate. Hence the invention of the tradition that filled the gap by making Pericles operate from behind the scenes, a mere expedient, this, to “explain” why Pericles’ name was not connected with Ephialtes’ legislation.[61] If this ancient theory will not be taken as the certain sign of inferential speculation—the desire to fill the historical record with plausible guesses—one can only wonder what more is required. In this connection, Plut. Per. 7.1, which implies that Pericles delayed his political debut beyond the normal date, becomes an important testimony. This tradition may also be based on inference. But, if so, it was intended to serve as an alternative explanation for the same curious lack of knowledge about Pericles’ early days that generated the theory that he manipulated others and did not himself step to the forefront. The existence of this tradition thus confirms our argument that the other is a fabrication intended to fill a lacuna. The negative implications of our assessment of both traditions nevertheless yields a valuable result: it confirms that Pericles entered on his political career comparatively late—that is, after the Ephialtean reform.

Our sources tell us little of Pericles’ rise to power in the fifties, though it was a period of great activity for him and importance to the Athenian community. This was the decade in which the principle of misthos, or state payment for public service, was proposed and carried, and the Athenians entered in consequence on the direct enjoyment of the benefits of empire. Yet our record is woefully meagre. The ancients convey the impression that Pericles’ domination over the political scene, when Cimon was in ostracism,[62] swung into balance again on Cimon’s return in 452, and that a delicate equilibrium continued after Cimon’s death and his replacement as a leader of the “better people” by Thucydides son of Melesias (Plut. Per. 11.2).[63] That view cannot be refuted, but it seems unlikely enough to deserve brief comment.

The tradition that Pericles and Cimon carved Athens into separate and independent spheres—domestic and external—when Cimon returned to Athens, has the taint of wishful thinking by conservatives.[64] Pericles’ control over the voters can only have intensified in the fifties, when, in addition to the First Peloponnesian War, which yielded Megara, Aegina, and Boeotia to Athens, the Athenians began construction of the Long Walls and Pericles initiated his domestic legislation. Cimon’s return to Athens after an absence of ten years does not constitute an argument favoring the assumption that the conservatives regained the power they had lost in 462.[65] The ancients would naturally infer something of the kind, magnetized as they were by the spell of Cimon’s name, while moderns are inclined to view the cessation of hostilities with Sparta and the renewal of open warfare with Persia as a mark of the resurgence of Cimon’s influence and as the sign of a modification, if not a change, in the direction of Athenian foreign policy. But the peace with Sparta that Cimon helped to negotiate was to all appearance a nonpartisan objective, not a conservative triumph, and with regard to Persia, Pericles had excellent reasons for pressing the war; that policy was mandatory if Artaxerxes was to be brought to the peace table.[66]

Nor did Thucydides son of Melesias pose any perceptible danger to Pericles’ predominance after Cimon’s death. We may infer from his opposition to the building program, which proved futile, that he attained symbolic importance, perhaps as the “conscience of the conservatives.” To such a position, glory but not much power attaches. Both the glory and the lack of power are reflected in the tradition, which speaks in general and inflated terms of this political figure.[67] The exception is Satyrus, FHG III F. 14, who preserves the information that Thucydides was responsible for the trial of Anaxagoras for impiety. It is difficult to evaluate this unsupported testimony: if authentic, as is probable enough, the trial should be set before Thucydides’ ostracism (conventionally set in 444), not after Thucydides’ return.[68] But this victory, if it occurred, is less a manifestation of Thucydides’ political power than of the inherently conservative religious views of the Athenians, which he tapped successfully. Pericles and his friends were certainly not immune from attack at any time; predominance, even great predominance, is not equivalent to absolute rule. The important consideration is that Thucydides’ successful prosecution does not in this instance represent a dazzling partisan victory. Indeed, Thucydides’ incapacity to galvanize an effective opposition is implicit in the story (Plut. Per. 11.2) that he attempted to organize a clique of conservatives to act in unison against Pericles. The tradition seems credible, though it has been doubted,[69] and the implication it carries is that special measures were necessary if Pericles were to be stopped. But it was Thucydides who failed in the great test of 448 and who suffered ostracism shortly thereafter. It appears, therefore, that Thucydides’ appeal in the literature, from Stesimbrotus of Thasos, who included Thucydides’ name in the title of his political pamphlet, to Aristotle, Plutarch, and beyond, was essentially as a symbol of the opposition to Pericles from the right, which was effectively overridden.

Bust of Pericles with the Corinthian helmet in the Berlin Antikensammlung / Photo by Honza78, Wikimedia Commons

As stated, however, modern scholars take a different view,[70] despite the endlessly victorious career of Pericles, the nature of which inevitably suggests that if he had reason to fear for his popularity, the threat lay to his left and not to his right (cf. Plut. Per. 33, 35, for the mention of Cleon). Evidence to support this view is very hard to find. Apart from the existence of the inefficacious Thucydides (schol. Wasps 947), we have only uncertain conjecture about the possible significance of Pericles’ tenure of the strategia for fifteen years in a row—443/2–429/8 (Plut. Per. 16.3). That knowledge of this feat provided the ancients with a convenient means to divide Pericles’ career into two halves, the first embodying his “demagogic” side, the second, his development into a “statesman,” is beyond dispute; as we shall see shortly, it was incumbent on the ancients to posit a transformation of this type. But why moderns follow suit is harder to understand. Pericles was not elected to the strategia, in which ten positions were open, in direct competition with Thucydides. In all probability, election to the strategia was now open to all Athenians without regard to tribe and, in any case, Pericles’ tribe was Akamantis, whereas Thucydides’ was Antiochis, so that even if election partially remained a tribal competition (the exception, on that view, being the so-called strategos ex hapanton ),[71] Pericles and Thucydides competed in separate spheres. In other words, the fifteen-year tenure of the strategia, whatever else it may imply, has nothing to tell us of Pericles’ relative position in Athens vis-à-vis Thucydides in the prior period. Moreover, it can hardly be alleged that the apparent absence of Pericles’ name in the strategic lists of 444 (and perhaps prior years) indicates that he had been turned away by the voters. We cannot infer the infliction of a grave political setback for Pericles when we do not even know whether he found it desirable, before 443, to hold the strategia continuously. The fact that the strategia was a high political-military office does not require that the leading politician of Athens, especially if he were not cast in the mold of Cimon (cf. Plut. Per. 11.1), serve as a member of the board at all times. Pericles’ real power arose from his control of the ecclesia,[72] and there is no reason to believe that he found it convenient in the fifties to detach himself from this arena.

In the forties, moreover, he held other offices, closely supervising the building program.[73] Quite probably he preferred to remain at home. The report of his continuous tenure of the strategia may, therefore, be misleading, carrying the unintended implication that Pericles’ prior experience with strategic elections was checkered. That should follow only if the ancients reported that at one time or another Pericles had been rejected by the voters. The absence of any such tradition renders the usual interpretation of this datum unnecessary and capricious.

What, then, of the prevalent ancient belief that the ostracism of Thucydides resulted in an alteration in the character of Pericles’ political psychology? This view, which we find in its embryonic state in Ath. Pol. 28.2, is best expressed by Plutarch in the Pericles 14.3–15.1 (cf. 6.3, 16.3):

At length, coming to a final contest with Thucydides which of the two should ostracise the other out of the country, and having gone through this peril, he threw his antagonist out, and broke up the confederacy that had been organised against him. So that now all schism and division being at an end, and the city brought to evenness and unity, he got all Athens and all affairs that pertained to the Athenians into his own hand, their tributes, their armies, and their galleys, the islands, the sea, and their wide-extended power, partly over other Greeks and partly over barbarians, and all that empire, which they possessed, founded and fortified upon subject nations and royal friendships and alliances.

After this he was no longer the same man he had been before, nor as tame and gentle and familiar as formerly with the populace, so as readily to yield to their pleasures and to comply with the desires of the multitude, as a steersman shifts with the winds. Quitting that loose, remiss, and, in some cases, licentious court of the popular will, he turned those soft and flowery modulations to the austerity of aristocratical and regal rule; and employing this uprightly and undeviatingly for the country’s best interests, he was able generally to lead the people along, with their own wills and consents, by persuading and showing them what was to be done; and sometimes, too, urging and pressing them forward extremely against their will, he made them, whether they would or no, yield submission to what was for their advantage. (trans. Dryden)

In estimating the value of this passage, two considerations must be kept in mind. History, as the ancients viewed it, was propelled by famous names. It was inconceivable to Aristotle, for instance (see Ath. Pol. 28.2) and other writers of the fourth century (e.g., Ephorus) that the return of Cimon in 452 or the inheritance of his place by Thucydides would not of itself have resulted in a divided city, or that the politics of a city divided could in fact remain majoritarian. We can understand the predispositions standing behind this ancient notion but can find nothing in the historical record to suggest its propriety to the period 452–c. 444. Aristotle’s list of the opposing leaders of the demos, on the one side, and of the “well born and rich and respectable,” on the other, is purely schematic; the ostracism of a famous name served paradoxically as a guarantee of the power of the victim, though he had lost the most critical of elections, just as modern scholars often (and, apparently, erroneously) suppose that the return of the victim somehow establishes, tout court and without evidence, his accession to real power and influence. Dynastic politics of the type tacitly assumed, however, seem to have lost their effectiveness in 462/1; the Athenian demos, in the ecclesia and, later, in the dikasteria, implemented its will without the traditional regard for representatives of the great families. If a scion of an illustrious house wished for power in Athens after 462, however much his birth might recommend him, he needed to be a “leader of the people.”[74]

Secondly, the nature of the tradition about Pericles and the alleged alteration of his regime into one of “aristocratic” character makes clear that it was contrived not from the evidence but from a desire to reconcile two competing views of the statesman. Pericles’ career presented a problem to the historical and philosophical critics of the fourth century. His dominance prior to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, the ease with which he could be distinguished from the demagogues who succeeded him on his death, and his association with Athens at the apex of its development, something regarded with nostalgia and awe by his fourth-century epigoni, required that he be treated with respect. For later writers like Plutarch, Thucydides’ famous words in 2.65.5–8 became dogma;[75] in the fourth century it was enough that Pericles guided Athens without a serious rival, was celebrated as the “Olympian” in comic literature, and was well remembered, probably exalted, in the oral tradition. Yet it was also clear to the critics that Pericles had been a demagogue responsible for the radicalization of the city-state. It therefore became desirable to resolve what in essence was an intellectual and literary problem centering on the apparent metamorphosis of the great politician, and the dividing line could plausibly be drawn at the year of the ostracism of Thucydides son of Melesias. The elimination of Pericles’ “powerful” rival left him, as it appeared, without opposition, permitting him to rise above faction and, in the words of Thucydides, “to lead the people rather than to be led by them.” In this way, the great statesman could be viewed not as a divisive figure but as a leader of the city as a whole. The conservative intellectual establishment of the fourth century could allege that he too had become an elitist, an aristocrat in control over the popular element, and not its creature. The development of the schema should not delude us; we need not suppose, on the basis of the rhetoric, that Pericles underwent a change in the forties. His domestic, imperial, and Spartan policy continued as before.

The gate of the Ancient Roman Agora of Athens / Photo by C messier, Wikimedia Commons

None of this should be taken to imply that Pericles maintained “absolute dominance” at any time. Though he was called so, he was not the tyrant of Athens, and the demos could be fickle. His opponents attacked his friends successfully, and the restrictions in comedy applied 440–438/7 (schol. Ar. Ach. 67) suggest pressure and criticism owing to the unpopularity of the Samian War. Since Pheidias went into exile in 438/7 and the comic poets were assailing Pericles for his bondage to “Omphale” at that time,[76] it is likely enough that Pericles faced, and surmounted, a crisis in this period. But, in general, it is hard to believe that the man who survived a catastrophe of the dimensions of the Egyptian Expedition in 454, who dominated the domestic political scene from the 450s to 431, and who had the influence to bring about a war in 431 that posited the destruction of Attica as a matter of course had much to fear from any political opponent from the time he followed Damon’s advice and distributed “its own property” to the people.


The career of Pericles, viewed, as it were, from the outside, naturally manifests little sign of the effects on him of his peculiar family tradition. If, after our review, we were to attempt to set down, in anticipation of what is to follow, some of the family traditions Pericles inherited on the Alcmeonid side, what features are most likely to have impressed themselves upon him?

If the existence of the curse affected him personally, probably it reinforced his naturally rationalistic turn of mind. The man whose circle included Anaxagoras and Damon, and who evinced qualities that inspired Thucydides, will have greeted traditional ideas skeptically and have discounted supernatural agency as a matter of course. But the inheritance of a curse cuts deep; the experiences of his maternal ancestors cannot but have sharpened his impatience with contemporary representatives of the older ways of thought, making him naturally inclined to disparage their ideas and ethos. Cimon and Thucydides son of Melesias inhabited a different world from his; Herodotus and Pericles will have found each other congenial company only if they met very briefly and then but once.

If Pericles scoffed at the agos, his contempt for the aristocracy that, in the sixth century at least, isolated his family, would not have been the less real because the superstition was rooted in the conventional religious life of the times, and his sympathies with the class to which he belonged by birth must have been exiguous. We do not believe, today, in the efficacy of curses, but if ever a case history existed of the isolation of a family of wealth and prestige that had incurred a dreadful curse, it is that of the Alcmeonids. A common thread unites the manifestations of their political virtuosity: the absence of fixed and reliable associations with the Athenian nobility. In this respect, one element of his family tradition fused with another, for the absence of common understanding with the nobility was reinforced by the record of the family in championing the demos. We have no desire to romanticize Megacles II, and every reason to suppose that his actions were self-serving. The fact remains that by choosing Peisistratus over the local dynasts, the Athenian citizenry profited greatly. The association of Cleisthenes with the Peisistratids tells the same tale, as does, later, Cleisthenes’ establishment of the democracy. Whatever flirting with tyranny there may have been in 490, Pericles’ heritage placed him squarely on the side of the demos .

There is also the question of Sparta. We should allow for some pre-determination of his sympathies in this direction. Cleisthenes had been expelled from Athens by the Lacedaemonians as one polluted by a curse and unfit for Athenian society; the Lacedaemonians had not only been the friends of Cleisthenes’ enemies (Isagoras and the emigrés), but were the proudest and most powerful representatives of a form of government to which Athens, in Pericles’ younger days, was becoming the antithesis. Here too it is possible to detect a fusion of attitudes resulting in a powerful controlling idea. Ancestral tradition and fervent patriotism united in an intractable and defiant hostility to Sparta, leading to the wars of the 450s and 431.

The impression conveyed of Pericles in the pages of Plutarch and our other sources is of a man detached from society, indifferent to conventional opinions and devoted, at all cost, to what he conceived to be the role and destiny of his city. It seems indisputable that such a man was the product of his family tradition no less than of the times he shaped so signally.


  1. For the political manipulation of the curse by Sparta, cf. G. W. Williams, “The Curse of the Alkmaionidai—III,” Hermathena 80 (1952), 65–66; Kagan, Outbreak, pp. 317–18 (accepting Thucydides’ interpretation); R. Parker, Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford, 1983), pp. 16–17; and Plut. Per. 33.1–2.
  2. W. G. Forrest, “Themistocles and Argos,” CQ 10 (1960), 233–34, and “Herodotos and Athens,” Phoenix 38 (1984), 4, insists that Pericles had nothing whatsoever todo with the Alcmeonids. Cf. Wade-Gery, Essays, p. 150 n. 1, who believed that the curse was transmitted in both the male and female lines, and Williams, Hermathena 80 (1952), 65–66. Thuc. 1.127.1 is decisive.
  3. Cf. Dem. 23.76; Plato Laws 873e; Paus. 1.28.10, 6.11.6; and, on the subject in general, Parker, Miasma, passim.
  4. Cf. V. Ehrenberg, Sophocles and Pericles (London, 1967), p. 276, who sets the play in 427. B. M. W. Knox, Word and Action (Baltimore, 1979), pp. 112ff., prefers 425. C. Diano, “Edipo figlio della Tyche,” Dioniso 15 (1952), 81ff., offers 411.
  5. The rather casual attitude displayed by Euripides Ion 1260 in a comparable situation will not have been the view of the “unenlightened” in 431; although Parker, Miasma, pp. 16–17, concludes that this curse “had soon ceased to be an actual cause of religious anxiety and become instead an inherited disgrace . . . which enemies would denounce and friends ignore.” The “disgrace,” if that is the right word, cannot be separated from its cause.
  6. Jacoby, Atthis, p. 39.
  7. For this question, see Davies, p. 370, who defends Wade-Gery’s view (Essays, pp. 106–7) that the historical Alcmeonids descended from Alcmeon I, and thus comprised an oikos; so also M. W. Dickie, “Pindar’s Seventh Pythian and the Status of the Alcmaeonids as an oikos or genos, Phoenix 33 (1979), 193–209. Bicknell, pp. 59–60, takes the view that they were a genos. We are undecided, but since the evidence that they comprised a “clan” is shadowy at best, we shall refer to the Alcmeonids as a “family.”
  8. Paus. 2.18.8; Toepffer, pp. 225ff., with chart p. 320; Davies, pp. 368ff., with table 1 (descent from the Neleids); Castor, FGrHist 250 F 4 (Megacles and Alcmeon as the sixth and thirteenth life-archons); the Suda (A 1291–92, Adler), Harp. and Hesych. s.v. “Alkmaionidai” (descent from an Alcmeon coeval with Theseus). But Herodotus (5.62, 6.125) seems to treat the Alcmeonids as an autochthonous Athenian clan. See Toepffer, pp. 226–28 with notes.
  9. Davies, p. 370.
  10. For the date, see Busolt, 2.206 n. 2, Gomme, HCT, 1.428–30; for Cylon’s Olympic victory, see Africanus at Euseb. Chron. 1.198, 31 Schöne.
  11. E.g., Busolt, 2.204 n. 5, and many later writers, notably, Jacoby, RE, Suppl. II, 240. S. D. Lambert, “Herodotus, the Cylonian Conspiracy and the Historia 35 (1986), 105–12, with n. 2, gives more recent bibliography. Lambert recognizes that the passage does not serve an apologetic purpose, but his own explanation (that the prytaneis were substituting for the archons) is inadmissible. It is possible to argue, perhaps, that Herodotus intended to assign “real blame” to the prytaneis, and wished to imply that the Alcmeonids were not wholly to blame for an action taken by a legally constituted agency of the state in which they may or may not have been represented. If that was Herodotus’s intention, he should have expressed it. He should have asserted, for example, that “the Alcmeonids were only ‘following orders’ or were not even a part of this group and have been blamed undeservedly.” Since the passage is not inherently problematical as it reads, a gratuitous interpolation that can only be intended to reverse its ostensible meaning is unjustified. For the naukraries, cf. Fornara 22.
  12. Gomme, HCT, 1.426, supposes that Thucydides corrected Herodotus; Sealey, History, p. 106 n. 5, is more cautious.
  13. L. H. Jeffery’s suggestion Archaic Greece (London, 1976), p. 88, that all the archons may have been Alcmeonids, was long ago considered and dismissed by Toepffer, p. 242.
  14. See R. S. Stroud, Drakon’s Law on Homicide (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968), pp. 70–74; and see Fornara 15B for the law. In general, see Toepffer’s articles in RE 1, s.vv. “Alkmaion” (3) and (4), 1555f., “Alkmaionidai,” 1556f., “Alkmaionides,” 1577, and Attische Genealogie, pp. 225ff.; see also Davies, pp. 368ff.
  15. See, e.g., Plut. Solon 4–6 for the topos with Beloch, 1.2.352ff., and Fornara, Historia 17 (1968), 420f.
  16. This is evident from the ancient disagreement as to whether Epimenides lived for 299, 157, or 154 years (Diog. Laert. 1.111). Beloch, 1.2.359f., in reliance on Plato’s Laws, extended his life still further by placing him in the year 500, consistently with his view that the purification took place in the time of Cleisthenes (pp. 302–6). Hammond, Studies, p. 159, defends 595/4. Cf. Parker, Miasma, p. 211 n. 23, and Jacoby at FGrHist 457, Atthis, pp. 40–41, with nn.
  17. Hdt. 1.59.3, Arist. Ath. Pol. 13.4, schol. Ar. Wasps 1223. Davies, p. 372, C. W. J. Eliot, “Where Did the Alcmaionidai Live?” Historia 16 (1967), 279–86, and Bicknell, pp. 56–57, 74, attempt to locate the residence of the Alcmeonids.
  18. See Busolt, 1.693 n. 4; for the chronology of the Sacred War see Wilamowitz, AuA, 1.10–21; cf. Fornara 16.
  19. Hdt. 5.62–63, 6.123, Fornara 40; see Jacoby, at FGrHist 328 F 115, Atthis, pp. 155f.; cf. Ostwald, Nomos, pp. 138–39.
  20. For the pythochrestoi, see Jacoby, Atthis, pp. 28–41; for the taint on the Alcmeonids, see Busolt-Swoboda, p. 800, with n. 2. Jacoby (pp. 39–41, with n. 225) suggested that the exegetai pythochrestoi were established to allow for the return of the Alcmeonids;even so the curse remained effective (see below); cf. Parker, Miasma, pp. 16–17 (with n. 5 above), and Hammond, Studies, p. 161 (cf. p. 157 n. 2), who (strangely) maintains that Alcmeon served in the Sacred War without having been reinstated in Athens, and claimed the title “general of Athens” (Plut. Sol. 11) “in defiance of his exile.”
  21. Cf. Macan and How and Wells at Hdt. 6.125.3.
  22. Cf. Hdt. 1.30–33 (Solon at Croesus’s treasury); H. Y. McCulloch, “Herodotus, Marathon and Athens” SO 57 (1982), 45, saw the contrast, following H. Strasburger “Herodot und das perikleische Athen,” Historia 4 (1955), 18.
  23. Busolt, 1.693; for what follows, see Busolt, 1.698.
  24. Hdt. 6.128.2; Ed. Meyer, Geschichte des Altertums (Stuttgart, 1937, ed. H. Stier), 3.578, with n. 1; Davies, pp. 295–96.
  25. Wilamowitz, AuA, 1.17.
  26. G. De Sanctis, Atthis (Florence, 1975; rev. ed. S. Accame), p. 363.
  27. Though see n. 48 below for the possible allusion to the curse in an ostrakon.
  28. This is not the place to consider the question of Herodotus’s alleged Alcmeonid sources, but it seems evident that even Jacoby (see, e.g., Atthis, pp. 152–68, 187, 223) went much too far in his willingness to connect Herodotus with Alcmeonid family tradition. There is nothing in the History about the Alcmeonids that Herodotus could not have picked up in an Athenian barbershop. The stories about Alcmeon and even Megacles’ wedding are not pointed in such a way as to redound to the credit of either of them; indeed, the wedding of Agariste is rather more the story of Hippocleides, a Philaid, than it is of Megacles, and the subject, in any case, must have been well ventilated. It is perfectly true that Herodotus defends the Alcmeonids against the charge of treason at Marathon. But one must be very prone indeed to suspect conspiracies to believe that Herodotus could only have accepted the (specious) apologetics if they flowed from Pericles’ mouth. We take it that the Alcmeonid defense prevailed in the public mind and that Herodotus, in repeating it, merely echoed popular sentiment about the family of Athens’s great leader. On Herodotus’s Alcmeonid sources, see R. Develin, “Herodotus and the Alcmeonids,” in Starr Essays, pp. 125–39, who argues for Herodotus’s objectivity; also Fornara, Herodotus, pp. 54–57; for the opposite view, cf. D. Gillis, Collaboration with the Persians, Historia Einz. 34 (1979), pp. 45–58, with literature.
  29. On this and what follows, see Appendix 1; for the importance of the military command in the archaic state as a means to the tyranny, see Arist. Pol. 1305a7ff., 1315b; cf. Arist. Ath. Pol. 17.2; Hdt. 1.59.4. See also ch. 2, p. 58.
  30. The examples are multitudinous, commencing with the Iliad.
  31. Though our tradition is nothing but a bare outline, nothing in it suggests that Megacles needed Peisistratus’s help to maintain control of the paralioi in the face of the renewed stasis with the “men of the plain.” On the other hand, a clear inference from the episode we are discussing is that he was equally unable to overpower the rival stasis. But unless we invent a highly circumstantial and purely gratuitous hypothesis, which would also be one of the best-kept secrets of antiquity, to the effect that Megacles became the power behind the throne and gained more than he lost by this dynastic marriage, further explanation of this transaction is absolutely necessary.
  32. Herodotus in 5.71.1 observes that in 508/7 Cleomenes expelled “Cleisthenes and the [the accursed],” and his use of the plural noun, in such a context, where mention of Cleisthenes alone would ordinarily have been quite sufficient, suggests the expulsion of a wider circle than Cleisthenes’ immediate family. Presumably the group included all matrilineal as well as agnatic descendants of Megacles I.
  33. Hdt. 1.64.3, Arist. Ath. Pol. 19.3, Plut. Solon 30.5, who compounds the error by making the self-exile of the Alcmeonids coincident with the first seizure of the tyranny. Thucydides apparently constitutes an exception; see Fornara, “Two Notes on Thucydides,” Philologus 111 (1967), 294–95.
  34. ML 6, pp. 9–12 = Fornara 23; cf. SEG 10.352, 33.23. See esp. B. D. Meritt, Hesperia 8 (1939), 59–65; Wade-Gery, Essays, pp. 164f.; D. W. Bradeen, Hesperia 32 (1963), 187–208; and K. H. Kinzl, “Notes on the Exiles of the Alkmeonidai,” RhM 119 (1976), 311–14.
  35. For bibliography and discussion on the shield signal and Herodotus’s treatment of the incident, see Gillis, Collaboration with the Persians, pp. 45–58. The more precise purpose of the signal depends on the reconstruction of the sequence of events at the battle of Marathon and immediately after it. On this subject, widely different views have been expressed. Macan, IV–VI, 2.149–248, remains fundamental. See also Hammond, Studies, pp. 170–250; McCulloch, SO 57 (1982), 35–55; and Fornara 48. For the charge of Medism and the Alcmeonids in Athenian politics in general in this period, see D. W. Knight, Some Studies in Athenian Politics in the Fifth Century B.C., Historia Einz. 13 (1970), pp. 13ff.; P. Karavites, “Realities and Appearances, 490–480 B.C. ,” Historia 26 (1977), 129–47; A. J. Holladay, “Medism in Athens, 508–480 B.C. ,”. G&R 25 (1978), 174–91; and G. M. E. Williams, “Athenian Politics, 508/7–480 B.C. : A Reappraisal,” Athenaeum 60 (1982), 521–44.
  36. Pindar Pyth. 7. See Macan, IV–VI, 2.176f. On ostracism and the clan in this period, cf. G. M. E. Williams, “The Image of the Alcmeonidai between 490 and 487/6 B.C. ,” Historia 29 (1980), 106–110; G. R. Stanton, “The Introduction of Ostracism and Alcmeonid Propaganda,”JHS 90 (1970), 180–83; and ch. 2, n. 53, below.
  37. E.g., Jacoby, RE Suppl. II (1913), s.v. “Herodotus,” cols. 443–44. Develin, “Herodotos and the Alcmeonids,” in Starr Essays, pp. 130–33, rejects this notion; so also McCulloch, SO 57 (1982), 45–46.
  38. There can be no real doubt about Cleisthenes’ responsibility for this action, though Herodotus skims over the awkward point. It is, of course, an inference, and other formal possibilities exist—e.g., that Cleisthenes died before the embassy was sent. But (to consider that possibility), if Cleisthenes had no part in the dispatch of the embassy, it is hard to see why that important point (to the ancients as to us) was silently passed over; on the other hand, it is easy to understand why his role was suppressed if in fact he had been involved. “Natural inferences” are not always right, but they are superior methodologically to arbitrary suppositions intended to undercut them. Cleisthenes was in power, an embassy was sent, no sign appears in Herodotus’s account of an interruption in Cleisthenic policy; it is therefore reasonable to assign this maneuver to Cleisthenes. Cleisthenes’ motives for the alliance were probably not unworthy. He anticipated and feared another invasion of Attica by the Spartans (cf. D. Kagan, Hesperia 30 [1961], 398). In return for an alliance, consequently, Cleisthenes’ ambassadors gave over “earth and water” to the Great King’s representative, thereby surrendering Athens to the king. The demos, however, refused to pay the price and subjected the envoys on their return, in Herodotus’s phrase, to “tremendous condemnation.” Cleisthenes must have shared it, for he drops from history. The remark in Aelian VH 13.24 to the effect that Cleisthenes fell to ostracism may preserve a faint recollection of his banishment. Cf. R. D. Cromey, “Kleisthenes’ Fate,” Historia 28 (1979), 129–47.
  39. Times had changed sufficiently by c. 460 to make a syllogism of a non sequitur. It was long enough for the charge to have become detached from the particular circumstances that lent it its credibility, and now “the charge” could be presented (merely) as a logical dilemma capable of hypothetical refutation. It was a truism by 460 that tyranny and democracy were natural enemies, and so it became simple enough to persuade first contemporaries and then later writers like Herodotus that no one who had accomplished the liberation of Athens could plausibly be regarded as a friend of tyrants. If further evidence was required, a certain exaggeration of the limits of the exile and discreet silence about one or two counterindications would serve the purpose. The acceptance of this anachronistic judgment is not surprising, even coming from Herodotus, and it is tempting to believe that it was promulgated by Pericles and his supporters when Pericles decided to enter public life.
  40. See n. 19 above.
  41. E.g., Busolt, 2.593 n. 4; J. A. R. Munro, CAH, 4.249f.
  42. Wade-Gery, Essays, p. 164; he borrowed the phrase (as he observed) from W. W. Tarn.
  43. Hdt. 5.55–65, 6.123.1–2; Thuc. 6.54–59; Arist. Ath. Pol. 19.3; see Fornara 39 with literature cited there.
  44. E.g., Davies, p. 375.
  45. ML 21, pp. 44–46; Callixenus 263, Themistocles 568 (totals). For Megacles’ children, see Davies, pp. 376–80. It is impossible to account for the tradition alleging the marriage of Isodice, daughter of Euryptolemus, to Cimon (Plut. Cim. 4.16), a marriage that, if it occurred, took place in the eighties. For this very vexed question, see Davies, pp. 304, 376f.
  46. Davies, p. 381.
  47. See n. 52 below for Pericles’ likely date of birth.
  48. Xanthippus had been ostracized in 485/4 (Ath. Pol. 22.6), two years after his brother-in-law, Megacles, suffered the same fate, and he returned with the other ostracisés on the eve of the invasion of Xerxes (Ath. Pol. 22.8). In general, see Davies, pp. 455f. Xanthippus’s first known public act was to prosecute Miltiades after the failure of the Parian expedition of 489 (Hdt. 6.136). Political affiliation with the Alcmeonids is doubted by Forrest, CQ 10 (1960), 233, but reaffirmed by Bicknell, p. 73f. The ostrakon bearing Xanthippus’s name (Agora Inv. P 16873) may or may not label the recipient “accursed”; see ML, p. 42, and, most recently, T. J. Figueira, “Xanthippos, Father of Perikles, and the Prutaneis of the Naukraroi, Historia 35 (1986), 257–65, who rejects the connection with the Alcmeonid curse.
  49. It is the conclusion of Herodotus’s description of the wedding of Megacles and Agariste: “Thus ended the affair of the suitors, and thus the Alcmaeonidae came to be famous throughout the whole of Greece. The issue of the marriage was Cleisthenes—so named after his grandfather the Sicyonian—who made the tribes at Athens, and set up the popular government. Megacles had likewise another son, whose children were a Megacles and an Agarista, the latter named after Agarista the daughter of Cleisthenes. She married Xanthippus, the son of Ariphron; and when she was with child by him had a dream, wherein she fancied that she was delivered of a lion; after which, within a few days, she bore Xanthippus a son, Pericles” (trans. Rawlinson). On the dream, see Fornara, Herodotus, pp. 53–54.
  50. Fifth-century interest in the figures of past times was, of course, not antiquarian in focus (as it later became for the Atthidographers). The attention paid, for example, by Herodotus to the family of Miltiades (e.g., 6.34–41, 103, 132–37) and of Callias (e.g.,6.121, 7.151) is directly connected with the fortunes of their representatives in contemporary or nearly contemporary Athens. On this matter, as on so many others, Jacoby’s Atthis and his study of Herodotus in RE, Suppl. II (1913) remain indispensable.
  51. See Appendix 2 for Cimon’s trial in 463.
  52. Orthodox conclusions about his date of birth (498 at the earliest, says Davies, p. 457) seem groundless; Pericles may have been born by c. 500 or before it. The choregia of 473/2 (IG ii 2318.9–11) gives the lower terminus of 492/1, for he must have been in his twentieth year to be appointed; he could, of course, have been older.
  53. Busolt, 3.1.261. Meyer, 3.570f., is noncommittal; Beloch, 1.2.154f., introduces Pericles after the death of Ephialtes; Hignett, HAC, p. 197, treats him as a subordinate, possibly a minor player; Rhodes, Boule, p. 202 n. 3, thinks that Ath. Pol. 27.1 derives from a source that credited the reform to Pericles.
  54. Wade-Gery, Essays, pp. 235–38, esp. p. 237; cf. E. Badian, JHS 107 (1987), 9.
  55. See pp. 67ff. below.
  56. An exception is Walker, CAH, 5.101; cf. Jacoby, at FGrHist. 328 F 33 (IIIb 1, p. 319).
  57. See Appendix 2.
  58. So also Hignett, HAC, p. 219n.
  59. See pp. 68ff. below.
  60. See p. 69 below.
  61. Plut. Per. 7.8, Moral. 812d. The tradition is accepted by Busolt-Swoboda, 894 n. 6, among others.
  62. See ch. 4, p. 129.
  63. W. R. Connor, The New Politicians of Fifth-Century Athens (Princeton, 1971), pp. 58–64, infers “alliance” between the Cimonian and Periclean circles; others have emphasized “cooperation” between Cimon and Pericles (e.g., Sealey, Essays, pp. 59–71); on the value of the tradition concerning the rivalry between Thucydides son of Melesias and Pericles, see A. Andrewes, “The Opposition to Perikles,”JHS 98 (1978), 1–8, and F. J. Frost, “Pericles, Thucydides Son of Melesias, and Athenian Politics before the War,” Historia 13 (1964).
  64. See ch. 4, pp. 138f.
  65. We should not be misled by the superficial resemblance of obvious modern analogies, where a ruling party is replaced by the opposition after a lengthy tenure of power. In such cases we would infer (if we did not know) that dissatisfaction with the status quo caused the turnover; but in the present instance the return of Cimon was accidental to the political situation at Athens because it was mandated by the terms of the ostracism law. We therefore may not use the fact of his return as a guide to Athenian political psychology.
  66. See Appendix 7.
  67. Plut. Moral. 802c, Per. 6.2, 8.5, 11; Arist. Ath. Pol. 28.2; schol. Ar. Vesp. 947, Fornara 109. See Andrewes, JHS 98 (1978), 1–8, and Frost, Historia 13 (1964), 385–89.
  68. The date 444/3 is generally assumed for the ostracism; see Wade-Gery, Essays, pp. 240f. for its basis; for a different view, see P. Krentz, “The Ostracism of Thoukydides Son of Melesias,” Historia 33 (1984), 499–504 (437 or 436). Evidence and probability tell against Wade-Gery’s assumption of a trial c. 433 (Essays, pp. 259f.). Ephorus evidently collected material of this type together and conjoined it with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War so that it could function as “causes” of the war. It is disproved, in the case of Pheidias (who was associated by Ephorus with Anaxagoras and Aspasia), by Philochorus, FGrHist 328 F 20, who set Pheidias’s trial in 438/7 (cf. W. Ameling, “Zu einem neuen Datum des Phidiasprozesses,” Klio 68 [1986], 63–66). Probability, furthermore, imperiously suggests that Thucydides son of Melesias attempted to preserve the sanctity of the state (see Jacoby, Atthis, p. 257 n. 119, for a general discussion) when he was at the height of his career, not after the bankruptcy of his political fortunes. The burden of proof that an ostracisé returning (of all times) in 435/4 possessed residual authority sufficient to attack Pericles in this way is too heavy for Wade-Gery to sustain; cf. Gomme, HCT, at Thuc. 2.65.4.
  69. Andrewes, JHS 98 (1978), 1–8.
  70. Cf. ibid. and Frost, Historia 13 (1964), 385–99. Frost, 396–99, also suggests that in 438/7 Pericles was assailed not by the conservatives but by Cleon or someone from his camp. See p. 34 below.
  71. See Fornara, Generals, pp. 19–39, against K. J. Dover, JHS 80 (1960), 61–77; cf. Bicknell, p. 112.
  72. Cf. Busolt-Swoboda, pp. 896f.
  73. Ibid., p. 896, with n. 8.
  74. Old attitudes may have lingered with regard to the conduct of military affairs, and generals may have been elected (like Cimon on his return from the ostracism) because their aristocratic birth was taken as a sign of their ability to lead. This inference is supported by Ps.-Xen. 1.3. A related idea appears in Ath. Pol. 26.1, where Aristotle claims that the weakness of the “better element,” whether of the demos or of the rich, is partly owing to their heavy casualties in war. The point rests on a commonplace in fifth-century Greek thought, which appears, e.g., in Soph. Phil. 446–50.
  75. “Throughout the entire period he held the leadership of the city in peacetime, he led with moderation and preserved the city safely, and it reached its greatest point under his leadership; and when the war broke out he showed himself, in this case too, to have estimated correctly the power of the city. . . . The reason for his superiority to his successors was that, deriving power from his repute and his ability to judge events as well as from the transparent fact that he was completely unbribable, he kept the many in checkwhile still respecting their liberty, and was not more led by the people than he himself led it.” We should observe that Thucydides, unlike later writers, took Pericles as a “whole,” as it were; the antithesis between his prewar and postwar conduct suggests that, as far as Thucydides was concerned, Pericles was essentially the same person as long as he wa. His eminence as a leader of the people, of course, long preceded the ostracism of Thucydides son of Melesias and the alleged metamorphosis.
  76. See Appendix 4.

From Athens from Cleisthenes to Pericles, by Charles W. Fornara and Joren J. Samons II, published by University of California Press (1991), republished by the California Digital Library free to the public.