Pericles: The Charismatic and Powerful Politician of Ancient Greece
On the eve of his conception sometime in 495 BC, Pericles’ mother Agariste dreamed of giving birth to a lion. It was then, months later, Pericles was born. Pericles (495 BC – 429 BC) was a legend among Athenians who gained popularity for his public speaking abilities, and for attempting to create an Athenian age to be marveled by all. Pericles was surnamed ‘Olympian’ due to his determined nature, and his calm demeanor.
Though Plutarch wrote about Pericles hundreds of years after his death, his work is the most quoted, as only fragments of material evidence exist from Pericles’ lifetime. Shards and fragments have been found with his name on it. Some bills and decrees remain of his legal and political laws, but nothing about his life.
So, what about the gaps that exist in history? What of the coincidences that seemed to play into Pericles’ favor, especially in 461 BC? Could the reason why specific gaps exist be due to Pericles and his faction omitting facts and making sure certain truths never emerged? And could this all be seen in the beginnings of his life as a politician? With the little information from both Plutarch and Aristotle, these may gain some insight into who Pericles was truly and how far he would go for his ambitions.
Early Life of Pericles
As mentioned before, The Greek philosopher Plutarch (45 AD – 120 AD) wrote his lengthy histories on the lives of Pericles and his contemporaries in “The Parallel Lives,” which gave insight to the political world of the fourth and fifth century BC Athens, Greece. Other historians have questioned the Plutarch's bias, but his record is the one which remains the most intact. All other sources from the fourth and fifth centuries have been lost to time or remain as minute fragments. Even Herodotus gives little mention to Pericles’ life, except for a sentence regarding his family lineage.
Painting of Pericles giving the funeral speech. Source: Philipp von Foltz (1852) / Public domain
What is known about Pericles’ life is that his father was Xanthippus, who was a famed general responsible for the conquest of Mycale. His mother was Agarsite of the Alcmaeonidae, who was the great-granddaughter of famed Sicyon tyrant Cleisthenes, as well as the niece to the lawgiver Cleisthenes, who expelled the Peistratidae and reformed laws to the favor of the Athenian people. Both Plutarch and Herodotus mention that his family lineage stems from the tribe of Acamantis from the suburb of Cholargus.
Early in Pericles’ life, he was already showing interest in the art of philosophy and debate. Due to his wealthy upbringing, Pericles had the opportunity to be tutored by some of the greatest minds of Athens. Aristotle had rumored that early in his youth, he was taught by the famed musical sophist Pythocleides, who not only taught him in the art of the lyre but also in the art of debate. However, in other sources, his first sophist mentor was merely named Damon.
In further reading of Plutarch’s work, he mentioned that Pericles was then a pupil of Zeno the Eleatic (490 BC- 430 BC), a pre-Socratic philosopher, who possibly instilled a strong basis in the dialectics of debate. Another philosopher who also inspired much of Pericles' thinking was Anaxagoras, the Clazomenian (510 BC – 428 BC), who was best known for his concept of ‘Nous’ (cosmic wind), which had power over the natural world to maintain balance.
Pericles (in helmet) taking inspiration from Anaxagoras. (Augustin-Louis Belle / Public domain)
Pericles was said to be commanding in his physique, to have an angelic tone of voice, and to speak speedily and insightfully. Still, he was reluctant to debate anyone in detail in fear of making enemies and being ostracized. Instead, he continued his studies of philosophy away from the public eye. His private nature also made him very hesitant to throw large banquets, leading to some ancient critics to rumor of his frugality. However, could this have been the signs of a young Pericles trying to find himself, or could it have been insecurities regarding his unusually deformed head?
Onion Head Pericles
Whether this fact was true or not, what stands as interesting, is in Plutarch's mention of his physique and, therefore, his bias of Pericles being the greatest of Athenian men. This may be the case. However, there is one physical deformity about his head, which even Plutarch cannot avoid mentioning.
Pericles was born with a cranial deformity that made his head long, cone-shaped, and disproportionate to the rest of his body. This is one of the reasons why most busts of Pericles have him wearing a Corinthian helmet slightly tipped above his face. Though many other sources state that the helmet symbolized his prowess in both politics and war, Plutarch himself noted that it was done so to hide the deformity that he contained.
Bust of Pericles with a Corinthian helmet. (Jastrow / Public domain)
So well-known was his deformity that even Attica comedy poets wrote musing Pericles as ‘the Schinocephalus’ or the onion head. Regardless of his deformity, Pericles endured and was respected by many for his ability in the political arena. Perhaps because he was used to the musing of his head. Could this deformity have been one of the major factors leading to his levelheaded manner in debate as well as his long-held reluctance to becoming a public figure? Could the ridicule have tempered him not to be swayed by unpleasurable discussion?
By 460 BC, Pericles finally made his presence in the political arena. A presence that appeared both charismatic and extremely secretive and cunning.
Pericles, the Politician
The political arena of ancient Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries was an unforgiving time of tension that revolved around the delicate balance between the upper elite and those of the lower classes. There was a struggle between empire and democracy to which both governmental methods were frequently debated and tested, even by Pericles among the many years he ruled over Athens.
It was expected that the rich would gain favor in their community by maintaining the naval fleet and funding the religious festivals. The upper elite did this to gain support and popularity by the masses, therefore, becoming demagogues. However, there was also a culture among society to make sure that the power elite remained humble and limited in their pride in their selfless actions.
Phidias showing the frieze of the Parthenon to Pericles and friends. (Public domain)
Still, the political environment was ripe with open slander and ridicule, where some wished to rise to power. As with most political realms, bribery from outside forces, both ally and the enemy, were commonplace and strategically used when necessary to rid opponents.
Around 460 BC, most scholars agree this was the time when Pericles finally partook in politics. He would have been in his 30s. Pericles first showed his support in favor of Themistocles (528 BC - 462 BC) and therefore solidifying himself as a proponent of democracy. Themistocles gained popularity from the lower classes from his naval victories in Salamis. His rival was Cimon (510 BC – 451 BC), son of Militiades, represented the prominent and upper wealthier conservative Athenian classes.
However, shortly after the Persian wars, tensions with the Spartans became more apparent, leading to some distrust of those who favored non-Athenian states. Regardless of this fact, Cimon, who was not only strong with the wealthy elites but also heavily attached to Sparta, slandered Themistocles’ name, accusing him of receiving coin from the Persians. This led to Themistocles’ ostracization from Athens in 471 BC to which he remained in exile until his death.
As mentioned, the influence of international forces was common, and it was almost expected. In some cases, Athens may have been supported economically by democracies abroad. However, alliances and relationships changed drastically. Therefore political heroes could quickly become enemies within months. This was also why some established people who were sometimes ostracized, could return once powers and alliances shifted. Whether the reasons were purely political, or out of obligation, Pericles in later years would persecute Cimon and attempt to reform Athens back to the power of the popular assembly.
Conspiracy of the Exile of Cimon and the Murder of Ephialtes
It is said that Cimon was very rich and very crude. He was foul-mouthed and hearty and therefore, no doubt favored by the Spartans, since he often acted like one. He was an Athenian stateman who was credited in aiding in the creation of the Athenian Navy. Like the narrative of Themistocles, Cimon based most of his political popularity on his victories during the Battle of Salamis. Cimon also wished for continued support with Sparta as well as peace with the Persians. However, where he was different was in his stance regarding democracy, and with the fact that Pericles was not on his side.
Depiction of the Battle of Salamis between the Greeks and Persians where Cimon became a military hero. (Wilhelm von Kaulbach / Public domain)
In 463 BC Cimon was prosecuted by Pericles for allegedly accepting bribes from Alexander I of Macedon to which Cimon was acquitted, and Pericles was found to be too harsh. However, this would not be the one, and only time Pericles would challenge him in the years to come.
Being that he acted as a Proxenos on behalf of the Spartans, Cimon wished for continued support for both city-states. This was why when Sparta endured a Helot revolt in 462 BC, Cimon invoked Athens to come to Sparta’s aid with 4,000 soldiers to quell the Helot rebels. Alas, Cimon was unsuccessful, and relations between both Athens and Sparta fell into further disrepair. This failure also led to Cimon falling out of favor with Athens and allowed Pericles to rid him of power.
In 461 BC, shortly after Cimon’s failure with the Helots, heavy scrutiny fell not only about Athens’ involvement but also in the elite-controlled council, known as the Areopagus, for the reduction of their power. This aided in the formation of the Athenian Democratic party to which Pericles thrived. Once again, Pericles accused him of favoring Sparta’s interests over Athens and called for Cimon’s Ostracization. Pericles was successful, resulting in Cimon’s ostracization for over a decade.
With this ridding of Pericles’ political foe, Pericles and the Democratic party would have no obstacle in taking full power. However, other tragedies occurred when Epilates, a political ally and great friend of Pericles, was mysteriously murdered in 461 BC. Though it had remained a mystery for decades, Aristotle had rumored that it was Aristodikos of Tanagra who killed him as part of an oligarchic plot.
In Plutarch’s account, he stated that Idomeneus, a member of Pericles's faction, had accused him of murdering Ephialtes out of jealousy and envy. However, nothing more is said to this, and even Plutarch dismisses his claim. Regardless of the truth, what presented itself as a tragedy led to a political vacuum opening a path to the succession for Pericles and the Democratic party to take hold and reform Athens.
Bust of Cimon in Larnaca, Cyprus. (Markus Leupold-Löwenthal / CC BY-SA)
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The Conspiracy Behind Cimon's Return
In later years, Pericles and Cimon would once again meet in 451 BC, when he granted Cimon could return from exile. Tensions with the Spartans regarding Attica became worse, potentially leading to a large-scale war with Sparta. Given Cimon’s prior relations with the Spartans, this might have been a political move in two aspects to why Cimon was able to return.
The first may have been due to Cimon’s positive relationship with the Spartans, whom Cimon could negotiate on behalf of Athens for a potential resolution regarding Attica. The second may have been to waver support and unity between the Athenian Democratic party and the Athenian Conservative party. Regardless of the reasons, once Cimon returned, he was put to task as a mediator between Sparta and Athens, to which he negotiated a five-year truce between the two city-states.
Whether it was a reward for his actions or an act of better judgment, Pericles then gave Cimon control of the Athenian army abroad. It was assumed that Cimon might have been tempted to retake his power in Athens, but Cimon remained loyal and appeared to have accepted Pericles’ position as ruler of Athens. But could there have been more at play than most would consider?
According to Plutarch, Pericles may have been coerced by Cimon’s sister Elpinice by using Cimon as a bargaining chip to gain a truce with Sparta. The price may have been 200 ships and some command of the Athenian army overseas to create his own kingdom to govern. Given the growing tensions with Sparta, this may have been the only option left for Pericles to consider.
Pericles continued in history to bring the ‘Periclean Age’ of Athens to which brought balance and unity between the elite conservatives and the lower democratic classes, and the beginning of the Delian League. However, he is also credited with the shift from democracy to empire due to significant revolts from their allies and failures in Egypt against the Persians.
But still, there is very little evidence of Pericles’ personal writing that exists, and the mysteries to his actions will remain constantly debated by contemporary and future historians. Just by the exploration of his rise to power between 460 and 450 BC leads one to postulate his true nature and intentions, that were like many others. Although, he appeared as a strong and calm individual, he may not have been a man who was above murder, extortion, or compromise.
Top image: Statue of ancient Athens statesman Pericles. (Fernando Cortés / Adobe stock)
By B. B. Wagner
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