The Life and Rule of Pericles

Bust of Pericles bearing the inscription “Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian”. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original from c. 430 BCE / Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican Museums, Wikimedia Commons

Pericles, 494 -429 BCE, was an Athenian statesman, one of the founding fathers of Athenian democracy, a famous orator, and military commander.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 07.25.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

Pericles was born in Athens to a family of aristocrats. He began his political activity by heading the political group, the Alkmeonids. Despite his aristocratic background, he was a supporter of democracy. In the struggle against Kimon, the leader of the aristocratic group, Pericles needed the support of the people. Having achieved the exile of Kimon in 461 BC, he became one of the most influential politicians in Athens and began to carry out a series of reforms that marked an important stage in the democratization of Athenian culture. Pericles positioned himself as the spokesman for the interests of the entire population of Athens, in contrast to his opponent, Thucydides, the successor of Kimon, who relied only on the aristocracy.

After the expulsion of Thucydides, Pericles actually became head of Athens, being the most influential and authoritative politician. The era of the highest flowering of democracy was, at the same time, the era of the predominance of one statesman. Pericles improved the naval power of Athens, remodeled the city, especially the Acropolis, with famous buildings (Parthenon, Propylaea, and others). Under Pericles, Athens reached the highest degree of economic and cultural development (Pericles century). With it, Athens was the largest economic, political and cultural center of the Hellenic world. During this period, Pericles expanded the sphere of Athenian influence and prepared for war with Sparta.

In 431 BC, the Peloponnesian War began. Thanks to the strategy Pericles followed, the Athenians were able to withstand the Spartans, but an epidemic that began in the city jeopardized all his plans. He began to lose his influence in the polis and died in 429 BC, probably a victim of an epidemic. With his death, ended Pericles’ Century, the period of the highest internal flowering of Ancient Greece.

In 448 BC, Phoenicians, allies of Athens, captured Delphi. The Spartans came with the army and again gave Delphi to the Delphic priesthood. But after the Spartans returned to the Peloponnese, the Athenian army entered the Priesthood under the command of Pericles. Thus, Pericles suggested convening an all-Greek congress and discussing issues of the postwar period. Congress had to have a pronounced religious connotation. If the Congress took place, Athens would become the main religious center of Greece, pushing back Delphi. But because of Sparta’s opposition, the Congress did not take place. Then in 447 BC, Pericles suggested restoring the temples in Athens. The program for the reconstruction of the Acropolis was begun after several decades and ended after the death of Pericles.

The Delian League (478 – 431 BC)


Pericles was a man with a clearly expressed rational mindset. He did not believe in superstition and rejected “signs”, trying to explain them logically. At the same time, Pericles was not an atheist, being a religious man.

Already from his youth, Pericles acted as an orator in the people’s assembly and courts, immediately gaining a reputation as a master of eloquence. Eloquence was his natural talent and not the result of special training. In his youth, Pericles received a good education, but in the training of aristocrats, oratory and politics were taught only superficially.

Pericles addresses the agora / Public Domain

Pericles was not a major general. In a purely military sphere, he had no special talents. His most famous military achievement was the conquest of the rebellious Samos, achieved through a long and methodical nine-month siege.

The Beginning of the Peloponnesian War and the Death of Pericles

The Peloponnesian war was the longest and bloodiest conflict in ancient Greece. Almost all Greek states were involved in the war because each of them gravitated either to Athens or Sparta. Democratic policies were usually on the side of Athens; policies with an oligarchic nature, on the side of Sparta. There were exceptions.

In the spring of 431 BC, a large Peloponnesian army under the command of the Spartan king invaded Attica and began to ruin the environs of Athens. All the rural population of Attica was evacuated to Athens in advance for protection provided by the walls. Pericles understood that one should not respond to provocations of the Spartans and start a war. While the Peloponnesians were stationed in Attica, an Athenian flotilla of 100 ships sailed into the sea and cruised around the Peloponnese, striking unexpected blows to the coastal settlements of the Peloponnesians. The Spartans and their allies, not having achieved a general battle, fell back in the fall. Immediately after this, the Athenian army invaded Megarid and devastated the territory.

Next year the Peloponnesians again invaded Attica. The Athenian fleet under the command of Pericles made an expedition to the eastern shores of the Peloponnese. An epidemic ruined all the plans of Pericles. In the religious representations of the Athenians, the plague was regarded as another punishment from the gods. This led to a new attack on Pericles and the loss of their former influence. He was prematurely removed from the post of strategist. Then he was accused of financial abuse. Pericles was sentenced to pay a large fine.

The epidemic claimed the life of Pericles’ eldest son, who had not been on good terms with his father for a long time. However, this loss caused great grief for Pericles. Then his second son died. Now Pericles had no legitimate offspring, and he had to intercede before the people’s congress about conferring civil rights on his youngest son from Aspasia, Pericles the Younger. The request was granted.

In 429 BC, Pericles was again chosen as a strategist. Truly, it was simply the grace of the demos, who believed that Pericles had redeemed his guilt. In tht same year, Pericles fell ill and died in the autumn. It is not known what caused his death – plague or grief.

Originally published by Alcibiades (06.26.2018), About History under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.