Our Young Folks' Plutarch - Rosalie Kaufman


Pericles was fortunate in being the son of people who were not only nobly born, but who knew the advantages of a good education for their child. They therefore took pains to have him well taught, and engaged learned masters for that purpose. It seems strange that a philosopher should give music lessons, but one who bore the name of Damon actually taught Pericles to play upon the lyre. To be sure, he was something besides a musician, for he gave his pupil instruction in politics as well, and in course of time he came to be regarded as such a dangerous meddler in state affairs that he was banished for ten years by ostracism.

Zeno, another learned man, taught Pericles natural philosophy, but it was Anaxagoras who did him the greatest service by developing the noblest traits of his character and instilling into his mind the best of principles. He taught his pupil how to find natural causes for events which frightened the ignorant, and showed him the absurdity of putting faith in anything supernatural.

The superiority of Pericles was felt by all who came in contact with him, and he had the gift of oratory, which was an immense advantage. He was so eloquent, and his voice was so well trained, that he could hold the attention of his hearers by the hour, and never failed to produce the effect he desired.

For many years Pericles took no decided stand in state affairs, but proved himself a brave soldier on the battlefield. When Themistocles was banished from Athens, however, and Aristides was dead, he came forward as the leader of the common people in opposition to Cimon, who headed the nobles.

He had never been a member of the Areopagus, which we know was composed of Archons, and he had not been appointed to that position. He lessened the power of that court, and had more trials conducted by the people. This was all very well so long as Pericles lived, but the effect was bad, because it encouraged bribery, and as those who had not been accustomed to power gained wealth in this way, they became extravagant and luxurious; this led in time to the downfall of the Athenian commonwealth.

We have mentioned the eloquence of Pericles and the influence it had on his hearers. Thucydides was once asked which was the better wrestler, Pericles or himself. He answered, "When I throw him, he says he was never down, and persuades the very spectators of his fall to believe him." His power was so great that he caused the banishment of Cimon, by accusing him of treasonably favoring the Lacedæmonians, though he had won several glorious victories, had filled Athens with money and spoils of war, and had made an able defence when the charge was brought.

Cimon was banished by ostracism, as we have seen in his life, but before the ten years expired a war broke out between the Athenians and the Lacedæmonians, and he entered the ranks with his countrymen, anxious to prove his loyalty. The friends of Pericles forced him to retire, but when the Athenians were defeated the majority clamored so loudly for the recall of Cimon that Pericles was obliged to gratify them. Besides, Cimon was so popular with the Lacedæmonians that he induced them to make peace, which Pericles, whom they hated, could not have done.

Cimon died at the isle of Cyprus while conducting a fleet, and then Thucydides, a near relation of his, was chosen to lead the opposition, partly because a wise politician was needed to prevent the power of Pericles from becoming absolute. Thucydides did not possess Cimon's talent for war, but he was an able statesman, and preserved the balance of power in the government by composing his party of men superior in rank and dignity. So there were two distinct parties in Athens, one called the people, the other the nobility.

The former was headed by Pericles, who did his best to retain his popularity by means of shows, games, feasts, and processions. His aim was to keep the populace amused and occupied. He sent out six vessels every year on an eight months' voyage, manned with a large number of citizens, who were paid for their services and were given this opportunity to become experienced seamen. Many colonies were established in the neighborhood by him, not only to keep foreign nations in awe, but to get rid of those Athenians who had no occupation and were likely to become mischievous in consequence.

The name of Pericles will be remembered forever in connection with the magnificent temples and public buildings he caused to be erected. In this way he gave employment to a vast number of mechanics and trades-people, who vied with one another in producing beautiful and good work. Thus money circulated freely among persons of every rank and condition, and a taste for magnificent designs was encouraged. The work was done well, and at the same time with marvellous rapidity.

The Thucydides party saw Athens daily growing in beauty, but they complained of the expense, and accused Pericles of wasting the public funds simply for the sake of opposing him. When the charge was brought, he rose in the open assembly and asked the people whether they thought he had laid out too much money. "A great deal too much," they replied. "Then let it be charged to my account," said Pericles, "and let the inscription on the buildings stand in my name."

He was a good judge of human nature, and knew perfectly well that the vanity of the Athenians would not let them submit to his having the glory alone, so he was not surprised when they exclaimed, "No, spend on; use what you please of the public treasure; spare no cost until the work is done!"

A final contest took place between Thucydides and Pericles to see which should be banished by ostracism. It resulted in the defeat of the former and the breaking up of his party, leaving Pericles in absolute command, which continued during forty years. He governed wisely, never stooped to a bribe, and influenced his people, often against their will, to take steps that he knew to be of advantage to them. With all his power, he did not enrich himself, yet he knew the value of money, and was careful that the sum his father had left him should not be wasted or lessened. He had a valuable servant, named Evangelus, who managed his private purse excellently, took care that the proper economy was practised in his household, and superintended the cultivation of his lands.

Pericles gave proof of a good heart once when his old tutor, Anaxagoras, fancying himself neglected, determined to put an end to his life. It was the custom among the ancients when they resolved, for one reason or another, to die, to cover up their heads and starve themselves. When Pericles heard of the resolution of Anaxagoras, he hastened to his house, entreated him to change his mind, and used every argument he could think of to make him do so. At last he asked what would be the fate of his administration if he should be deprived of so valuable a friend and counsellor. Then the old man uncovered his head, and said, "Ah, Pericles! those that have need of a lamp take care to supply it with oil." The ruler never forgot to provide for the sage after that.

Pericles gained confidence by the caution he displayed in military matters, for he would never engage in a fight unless sure of success, and he made so many expeditions with his powerful fleet that the kings and chiefs of the various barbarous nations in the neighborhood of the Euxine Sea were forced to feel the power and greatness of the Athenians. He was wise in restraining his countrymen from seeking foreign conquest, and always told them that they would find occupation enough at home if they would keep the Lacedæmonians in check. They were soon convinced that he was right, for various Greek nations invaded their territory, but they were so successful in repulsing them all, that the Lacedæmonians consented to a truce with them for thirty years.

As soon as this was done, Pericles ordered an expedition against Samos. The pretext he gave was, that when he had commanded the Samians to put an end to the war with the Milesians they had not obeyed; but it is probable that he was persuaded to take this step by Aspasia, who was a Milesian woman.

Aspasia was a very remarkable woman, and Pericles was in love with her. She was noted for her wisdom and political ability, and the most learned Athenians flocked to her house with their wives, considering it a privilege to be allowed to listen to her discourse. Socrates was one of her visitors, and Pericles often sought her advice.

He was victorious as usual, established a popular form of government in the island, and then returned to Athens, taking with him fifty of the principal men and fifty children as hostages. But the Samians revolted again, and by some secret means recovered their hostages. Then Pericles went to fight them a second time, gained another victory, took possession of their harbor, and laid siege to the city of Samos. But he made a mistake, as even the wisest will at times, and, leaving a small part of the fleet to guard the harbor, he sailed out to give battle to the Phœnicians, who were coming to the relief of the enemy. While he was gone, Melissus, a distinguished philosopher, persuaded his countrymen not to wait quietly and merely defend themselves when an attack came, but to rise and give battle to the Athenians. They did so, and gained the victory, taking many prisoners and destroying the greater part of the enemy's fleet.

No sooner did the sad news of defeat reach Pericles than he returned with eighty ships, completely routed the Samians, and blocked up their town by building a wall around it. But his men murmured at the waste of time, and it was so difficult to keep them from making an assault, that Pericles divided his army into eight parts, and ordered them to draw lots to see which should fight. The division that drew a white bean were to feast and enjoy themselves while the others fought. In allusion to this custom, a day of happiness and festivity was called a white day by the ancients. The siege lasted nine months before the Samians surrendered.

On his return home, Pericles had a very imposing ceremony performed in honor of those Athenians who had fallen in the Samian war, and delivered a remarkable funeral oration, which certain chroniclers state was composed by Aspasia.

Some time after this the Peloponnesian war broke out, and there can be no doubt that Pericles was the author of it. Many causes are given for this war, but it is not easy to discover the real one. Some historians say it was connected with Phidias, the great sculptor, who superintended the splendid buildings for which Athens is indebted to Pericles. They tell us that when the sculptor was engaged upon a statue of Minerva, he was accused by a rival who was envious of him of stealing some of the gold intended for the adornment of the statue. Pericles was a good friend to Phidias, and knew that the charge was false; he therefore ordered the gold to be weighed, and Phidias had so disposed of it around the figure of the goddess, which was of ivory, that the task was easy. The innocence of the sculptor was proved; but then fault was found with him for introducing a likeness of himself and of Pericles in a prominent position among the figures that adorned the walls of the Parthenon, or temple of Pallas, which was built under his supervision. The principal objection was made to a figure of Pericles, who is represented fighting an Amazon, because it gave a false idea of history, and took from Theseus, the founder of Athens, the glory of having combated with that race of warlike women.

Phidias was thrown into prison, where he died. Aspasia was accused of impiety, because she believed in one God and had formed new opinions about the appearance of the heavenly bodies. Pericles pleaded for her, and she was acquitted, but he knew that he could not succeed so well in the case of his old tutor, Anaxagoras, who also believed in the unity of God, so he caused him to leave the city. Pericles now began to fear that, as his friends were attacked one after another, his turn would come next, and therefore to engage the public attention in a different quarter he hurried on the war. This he did by refusing certain demands made by the Lacedæmonians, who soon showed themselves resolved upon violating the Thirty Years' Truce in consequence.

They invaded Attica with a tremendous army under the command of Archidamus, and the Athenians would have given them battle on their own territory if Pericles had been willing, but we know that he never went into any engagement unless he felt sure of success. He did not feel so on this occasion, and said to his countrymen when they urged him, "When trees are trimmed they will grow again, but when men are cut off the loss is not easily repaired."

It required great firmness to withstand all the unjust charges that were brought against him, but Pericles would not move until he felt sure that he was right. He fitted out a hundred ships, and sent them against Peloponnesus, but he chose to stay and keep the reins of government in his own hands until he was rid of the enemy. However, after the fleet had gained some victories, he attacked Megara and laid the whole country in ruins. The war would soon have come to an end had it not been for the breaking out of a terrible pestilence, which carried off no less than a fourth of the population. It was a strange disease introduced from Asia, and the Athenian physicians did not know how to treat it. Those who were fortunate enough to recover from an attack were often entirely deprived of memory, and while the fever lasted many raved against Pericles, who they declared had brought on the epidemic by crowding such an immense number of people together during the summer. Of course those who lived outside the walls had flocked to the city for protection when the war began, and were penned up in huts and cabins, there not being houses enough to accommodate them. These had no occupation, and it was believed that their mode of life, which encouraged laziness and kept them indoors instead of in the pure open air to which they had been accustomed, had gone far towards increasing the plague.

Hoping to remedy the evil, and at the same time to annoy the enemy, Pericles manned a hundred and fifty ships, and when all were ready went on board his own galley prepared to lead them. Suddenly there was an eclipse of the sun. This was regarded by the superstitious soldiers as a bad omen, and caused the greatest consternation. Observing that his pilot was affected like the rest, Pericles took off his cloak, held it over the man's eyes, and asked him whether he found anything to terrify him in that, or considered it a bad omen. The pilot answered in the negative. "Then what is the difference between this and the other darkness, except that something bigger than my cloak has caused that one?"

Nothing remarkable resulted from this expedition, and the Athenians were so disappointed on account of it, and so many of them died of the epidemic, that Pericles was requested to resign his command. This was decided by vote, as well as the fine he was required to pay. Cleon, who afterwards became general, opposed Pericles more than any one else.

After a time the people began to see the importance of the policy of Pericles, and he was reelected general. But he was not long to enjoy his return to favor, for the loss of many friends by the epidemic, as well as of several members of his family, besides other serious domestic troubles, kept him at home for a year, and at last he was struck down with the disease himself. When he was dying, some of the principal citizens who sat by his bed spoke of his virtues, his exploits, his victories, and the splendid buildings he had erected in Athens while he was commander-in-chief. After listening in silence to all they said, he replied, "I am surprised that while you praise me for acts in which Fortune did her share, you take no notice of the greatest and most honorable thing of all, that no Athenian through my means ever put on mourning."

This great general died in the third year of the Peloponnesian war, and his loss was greatly felt by his countrymen. Even those who chafed under his authority when he was alive were forced to acknowledge after he was gone that where severity was required no man had ever been more moderate, and that in cases where mildness would answer no man had better preserved his dignity. What had been termed tyranny had supported the state, and, after the death of Pericles, wickedness and corruption set in, which there was no one capable of checking. All historians do not agree that he was a great politician, but none can deny that he was a man of genius, and a liberal patron of the arts and of literature.