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Aristocratic Athenian Hero Pericles Versus Demagogue Villain Cleon

Aristocratic Athenian Hero Pericles Versus Demagogue Villain Cleon

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The founding of the Delian League in 478 BC moved the Athenians closer to the idea of democracy. However, although the Athenians believed that all men were created equal in political power and the notion of “the people” should ideally refer to all citizens, some individuals of the ruling elite were still set apart by their privileges.

Pericles’ Democracy

The Athenian general Pericles was acknowledged as Athens' leader for 32 years. He furthered democratic progress by attempting to compensate citizens for their political involvement. However, despite espousing the cause of the people and using his influence as a champion of democracy, ironically Pericles occupied the position of the most powerful man in Athens as the head of state year after year. Pericles enacted laws in 451 BC limiting Athenian citizenship only to legitimate sons of Athenian parents, which restricted citizenship to only a small portion of the population with little potential for growth and, consequently, less people with whom he could share a democracy. Pericles' funeral oration in 430 BC during the annual commemoration and state funeral for fallen warriors of Athens, promoted the notion that the Athenian government constitutes a majority where all people are respected, treated fairly under the law, and rewarded according to their merit. Unfortunately, this speech ignored the fact that although they made up the majority of Athens' adult population, women, slaves, and foreigners were all excluded from political life due to Pericles' legislation. 

Pericles's Funeral Oration, by Philipp Foltz (1852) (Public Domain)

Pericles's Funeral Oration, by Philipp Foltz (1852) (Public Domain)

This did not seem to bother the historian and general Thucydides as, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, he highlighted the superiority of Pericles over his successors. According to Thucydides, Pericles not only possessed exceptional integrity and personal leadership, but he was also able to assess and influence public opinion to a large degree. By contrast, his successors were so weak by comparison that they were forced to pander to the populace to the point where they were handing over public affairs to people who were incapable of managing them.  

Pericles the Hero Falters, Cleon the Villain Rises

With Sparta at the forefront of the Archidamian War in 431 BC, Pericles proposed a defensive plan. Safe behind their extensive walls, the Athenians would utilise their fleet to inflict harm on the shore allies of Sparta. Pericles reasoned the Spartans would soon realize they had to choose whether to defend their comrades and call off the attack on Athens or to press on without reinforcements.


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Martini Fisher is an Ancient Historian and author of many books, including "Time Maps: Mesopotamia” Check out

Top Image: Idealized reconstruction of the Areopagus, the Athenian governing council, later restricted to the Athenian judicial council or court (front) and the Acropolis, commissioned by Pericles in the background with Athena, by Leo von Klenze (1846) (Public Domain)

By: Martini Fisher

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Martini Fisher comes from a family of history and culture buffs. She graduated from Macquarie University, Australia, with a degree in Ancient History. Although her interest in history is diverse, Martini is especially interested in  mythologies, folklores and ancient funerary... Read More

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