It is frequently a misfortune to have very brilliant men in charge of affairs. They expect too much of ordinary men. — Thucydides

Pictures from Greek Life and Story - Alfred J. Church

A Statesman and His Friends

Pericles is the most striking, though not, perhaps, the most admirable figure in Greek history. The date of his birth is not known, but it was certainly early in the fifth century, and may be conjecturally assigned to the year 495. It was somewhere about 469 that he took part for the first time in public affairs; the occasion is unknown, but he died in the autumn of 429, and his political life lasted, we are told, for forty years.


As I am not writing a history of Greece, or even a biography of Pericles, I need not narrate the events of the earlier part of this period. It will suffice to say that the assassination of Ephialtes in 453, left him the acknowledged head of the democratic party. Ephialtes had not a tenth part of his genius, but he was a man of more popular manners and better suited than his high-born colleague to play the part of a democratic leader, and had he lived he might have continued to hold the first place in public esteem. On the other hand the death of Cimon in 449, while it threw the leadership of the aristocratic party into feebler hands, left Pericles beyond all question the most distinguished person in Athens. This rank he continued to hold for the last twenty years of his life. His popularity varied; sometimes it was all that he could do to hold his own against his enemies; but he never ceased for a moment to be the greatest man in the country.

It was not long before his statesmanship was severely tried. The supremacy which Athens had established over Bœotia was destroyed by the disastrous defeat of Coronea. A few months afterwards Eubœa revolted, and without Eubœa as a granary Athens could hardly exist; Megara expelled the Athenian garrison, and to crown all, the Spartans, under the command of their king Pleistoanax, invaded Attica. Pericles, who had been sent to reduce Eubœa, hurried back to Athens. His return was followed by the retreat of the Spartan army. There is very little doubt that the king or his adviser was persuaded of the necessity for this movement by a bribe. It is recorded that when Pericles came to pass his accounts he refused to explain how he had expended a certain sum. He had devoted it, he said, to a "necessary purpose," and the people, among whom the bribery was probably an open secret, accepted the statement. The danger past, he returned to Eubœa, reduced the whole island to submission in a very short time, and settled its future relations to Athens on terms highly advantageous to the ruling state.

Early in 449 peace was concluded with Sparta, and Pericles had leisure to devote himself to domestic politics. He began by doing on a large scale what Cimon had sought to do by private munificence—he won the hearts of the poorer citizens. For many, provision was made by allotments of land in Eubœa and elsewhere; many more, about five thousand in all, derived a regular income from serving on juries. Various courts of law had taken over most of the jurisdiction of the Areopagus, and the jurymen that sat in them were now paid. A vast system of public works was also carried out. Pericles devoted the surplus income that came in from the Confederacy of Delos to the adornment of the city. Athens assumed an appearance of splendour such as no other town in Greece could rival; the expenditure set a large amount of money in circulation, while the strangers who thronged to it brought no small contribution of wealth. Even the pleasures of the people were provided for. The drama was the favourite amusement of Athens; the expenses of the theatre were defrayed out of the charge made for tickets of admission, but that none might be debarred from this pleasure by poverty, every citizen was entitled to an allowance sufficient for the purchase of a ticket. In 443 the aristocrats made an effort to overthrow their great adversary. An ostracism was proposed and accept; but the result was a disastrous disappointment. It was their own leader who had to go into exile.

Peace at home naturally led to enterprise abroad. Pericles found occupation for the adventurous spirits at Athens, and for those who for various reasons desired a fresh start in a new country, in the foundation of the Italian colony of Thurii. Of this I shall speak in a subsequent chapter. Wilder schemes of adventure—and there were dreams of conquest in Africa and Sicily—he steadily discouraged. In 439 a formidable attempt on the part of Samos to assert its independence was crushed. Samos was the most powerful member, after Athens, of the Delian Confederacy, and its complete subjugation greatly strengthened the position of the Imperial city. The operation was conducted throughout, and, it would seem, most skilfully conducted, by Pericles. Scarcely less important was the foundation during the years 437-435 of colonies on the northern coast of the Ægean. This Sea had now become, to adapt a phrase in modern politics, an "Athenian Lake." A footing was also obtained on the western coast of Mainland Greece. The Acarnanians, a half-barbarous tribe, but possessing excellent military qualities, became allies of Athens.

All this time, however, there was a steady growth at home of hostility towards the great statesman. The aristocrats had never forgiven him; the extreme faction among the democrats were not satisfied with his rate of advance. A coalition, implying, of course, no real sympathy beyond a common dislike of the object of their attack, was formed between the two. But the attack was not levelled against the man himself; his position was too assured to give any prospect of success: it was directed against his friends.

Foremost among the artists whose genius Pericles had employed to embellish his native city was the sculptor Pheidias. Among his works was the magnificent statue of the Virgin Athené set up in the newly-built temple of the Parthenon. It was thirty-eight feet high, and was of wood, overlaid with gold and ivory. Pheidias was now accused of having embezzled some of these precious substances. On this charge, however, he was able to give a triumphant refutation. At the suggestion of Pericles he had so arranged the covering materials that they could be easily removed. This was now done; they were weighed, and found to exactly agree with the amount of materials handed over to the sculptor. But his enemies had another resource. Among the figures on the shield of the goddess were found portraits of the artist and of his patron. This was made the ground of a charge of impiety; the sculptor was thrown in prison, where he was found dead—by what means was never known—before the day of trial came.

Another object of attack was the philosopher Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras was an Ionian Greek who had come to Athens in his youth, and had been admitted into the intimate friendship of Pericles. The philosophy of Anaxagoras, as we have it described to us by the ancients, is not unlike what we should now call Theism. He believed all things to have been brought into order out of Chaos by a principle which he called Mind or Intelligence. For the Olympian assembly of gods and the powers who in the popular belief was supposed to preside over the processes of nature, he found no place, though he did not deny their existence. The sun, for instance, in his view, was not the chariot of a God, driven day by day to illuminate the world, but a fiery body, sent, in the beginning, on its course by the operation of a creative intelligence, and continuing duly to follow it. This teaching was construed into atheism by conservative religionists at Athens. One of them, Diopeithes by name, proposed that those who denied the existence of the gods and brought forward new theories about the nature of the heavenly bodies should be impeached before the Assembly. Whether he mentioned Anaxagoras by name, we do not know. But the resolution was at once applied to him and he was indicted. He contrived, however, to escape the fate of Pheidias, for though condemned, and imprisoned, he was not long afterwards released, and died in old age at Lampsacus. An unintelligible charge of "Medism" was afterwards brought against him, and he was found guilty in his absence.

A third blow was aimed at Pericles, which must have troubled him still more. He had lived unhappily with his wife, and their marriage had been dissolved by mutual consent. After this separation he lived with Aspasia of Miletus. She was of a rank which made a legal marriage impossible, but the affection between the two was constant and unbroken. She was a woman of great beauty, remarkable ability, and a culture then very seldom found in her sex. She was accused of impiety and of making gain by odious means. Pericles himself appeared to plead her cause. For once he departed from his attitude of dignified reserve, and employed the pathetic appeals, the entreaties, and even the tears which, though permitted by ancient manners to an advocate, seemed scarcely to consist with his character. The judges, moved by an exhibition so unwonted, acquitted the accused.


But now the great statesman's policy was to be put on its trial. He had done his utmost to make Athens an imperial power; and this claim of hers, to rule over cities that by nature—this was the common Greek belief—were independent, was sharply resisted by the rest of Greece. The protest came in the shape of the Peloponnesian war. The causes that brought it about had been long at work; the immediate occasion was the interference of Athens in the affairs of certain colonies belonging to Corinth; the first outbreak will be related hereafter.

Whether the war could have been postponed by concession on the part of Athens, it is impossible to say. But Pericles was against all concession. He was confident in the power of Athens to hold her own, and he probably thought that she was as well prepared to do so then, as she ever would be again. Nor were his calculations mistaken. If he had lived to guide Athenian policy, or if the spirit of his counsels had animated his successors, Athens might well have come out of the great war stronger than she was when she entered it.

Pericles's own life ended in gloom. A great disaster, for which no human foresight could have made an allowance, fell on his country, and he was one of those who suffered most from it. His elder son Xanthippus fell a victim to this disease; and the second son, Paralus, a youth of considerable promise, followed him. At the funeral the father's firmness gave way. When he placed the garland round the head of the dead he burst into tears. The people were touched by the sight. Earlier in the year the reaction against his policy had been so strong that for the first time for twenty years he had not been elected to the post of general, and had been even fined fifty talents. Now the tide turned again. His son by Aspasia was made legitimate and enrolled in his father's tribe.

In the autumn of the same year Pericles died. Whatever his faults he had at least shown a splendid disinterestedness, for it was found, after his death, that he had not added a single drachma to the inheritance received from his father.