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Pericles (c.495-429): Athenian politician, leader of the radical democrats.


After the Persian Wars, the Athenian naval victory at Salamis, and the creation of Delian League, the Athenians were sole masters of the Greek world, but they had not decided what kind of foreign policy they were to conduct. Miltiades' son Cimon wanted to cooperate with Sparta, but he was unpopular with the masses.

In 462, the radical democrat Pericles, who was a member of the noble family of the Alcmeonids, accused Cimon and he had to leave Athens. After 451, Pericles was the leading politician in Athens. Almost every year, he was reelected as general, and controlled the people's assembly. He is usually portrayed as a general, with a helmet.

The democracy was developed, the war against Persia continued, and when it was finally over, Pericles started a full-scale building program. The anti-Persian Delian League increasingly became an Athenian empire. Towns that wanted to leave the alliance were forced to remain (e.g., Samos).

In the late 430s, several friends of Pericles were accused of impiety, probably to create problems for the powerful politician himself. His friend Anaxagoras, a philosopher, had to flee from the city; there were whispers about Pericles' wife Aspasia; and the sculptor Phidias had to explain how he had spent money that was meant for the statue of Athena in the Parthenon. It was rumored that, when Pericles could not steer clear of the accusations, he made the Assembly accept the Megarian Decree, which he knew would result in war with Sparta's Peloponnesian League. This is probably untrue, but it is also clear that the accusations were a serious problem for Pericles.

In 431, the Peloponnesian War broke out. Pericles' strategy to wear out Sparta by evacuating the countryside, retreat behind the unassailable Long walls, and attack Sparta's allies by sea, turned out to be a financial disaster (although the historian Thucydides believed otherwise).

Ostracon mentioning Pericles, son of Xanthippus
Ostracon mentioning Pericles, son of Xanthippus

Pericles was deposed in the autumn of 430 but almost immediately rehabilitated. However, his death in 429 saved Athens, because it prepared the way for a better strategist, Cleon. He was able to improve Athens' finances, which were running dangerously low.

Pericles' wife was Aspasia of Miletus. Their son was also called Pericles. The elder Pericles was a personal friend of the sculptor Phidias and the playwright Sophocles. Alcibiades was a nephew of Pericles.


This page was created in 2005; last modified on 4 April 2018.