Pericles, strategist and father of Athenian democracy

Pericles, strategist and father of Athenian democracy

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Pericles (c. 495-429 BC) is an Athenian politician and strategist of ancient Greece, whose importance in the history of Athens was considered so paramount that the century is often referred to as where he lived " century of pericles ". Coming from a large aristocratic family, Pericles participated very young in the political life of the Athenian Republic. It supports the democratic regime and promotes through various measures the participation of all citizens in the affairs of the city. Under his leadership, Athens became a great artistic, cultural and literary center, but its supremacy and imperialism aroused the jealousy of other Greek city-states, especially of Sparta, its long-standing rival.

Origin of Pericles and first steps in politics

Pericles, of aristocratic origin, was born around 492 in Athens. His father, Xanthippe, was one of the successful strategists of the Persians at Cape Mycale (479); he belonged to an old family of the Attic nobility but had been a leader of the democratic party. Through his mother, Pericles descends from the noble family of the Alcméonides, and his great-uncle was the legislator Cleisthenes, who had overthrown the Pisistratides. In his youth, his main thinkers were Zeno of Elea and Anaxagoras, who made him a rationalist but inclined towards action and the great affairs of the city. He seems to have been anxious early on to play a public role, and, despite his "extreme loathing for the people" (Plutarch), he chooses to serve the Democratic Party, perhaps out of loyalty to the example of his relative Cleisthenes. , perhaps because he himself had felt the lightness of the small aristocratic clans he had frequented since his childhood.

As early as 463, he was seen attacking the leader of the Conservative Party, Cimon, who was ostracized two years later. By 461, at the age of thirty, Pericles had already secured a leading position both in the democratic party and in the city, which he dominated by his eloquence.

Pericles, champion of democracy

Apart from a brief eclipse of a few months (430/29), he remained until his death the main leader - one could say the "tyrant" - of Athenian democracy. For more than thirty years he saw his functions of strategist renewed annually, thus becoming a sort of commander-in-chief and permanent prime minister, with a continuity unique in Athenian history. Invested in popular confidence, Pericles gave full development to the democracy of Athens, by involving all citizens more effectively in the exercise of sovereignty. As early as 462, when he was still only the deputy of Ephialte, who was soon to perish assassinated, he had been the instigator of the reforms limiting the powers of the Areopagus. Pericles opened the arenontat to third-class citizens (Zeugites), and, in fact, even the proletarians, the Thetes, could become archons. He generalized the drawing of lots, which became the essential part of democracy.

So that the participation of the poorest in the magistracies did not remain theoretical, he made vote from 451 of the allowances for the members of the Council of Five Hundred, for the archons, the judges in the tribunal of the heliasts, for the strategists, for the participation of citizens in various civic festivals: this is called mistophoria. However, this progress in democracy remained narrowly limited to citizens alone, that is to say to a very small minority of the population of Athens (approximately 30,000 citizens out of 400,000 inhabitants by the middle of the 5th century). In 451, Pericles even passed a law recognizing Athenian citizenship only to those born to two citizen parents, which marked a serious step back from Solon's legislation, which granted citizenship to sons born of 'a marriage of a citizen with a foreigner.

A great strategist

An unequal society, the Athens of Pericles was also an imperialist society. The allies of the League of Delos were reduced to subjection, the common treasury was transferred to Athens (454), the Athenian ecclesia replaced the league council as the governing body, the rebellions of the allies - in particular that of the Euboea (446) and that of Samos (440) - were mercilessly punished. Pericles personally led the effort for hegemony in mainland Greece, the Aegean Sea, and the Black Sea. He unsuccessfully led an expedition to the Gulf of Corinth and northwestern Greece (454), then commanded the fleet that went to Crimea and secured Sinope on the coast of Asia Minor (437).

During its government, Athens found itself engaged in a series of wars: against Sparta and Corinth (first war of the Peloponnese, 459-446); against the Persians (disastrous expedition to Egypt, 454); against the rebellious allies. The peace "of Callias" (449) put an end to the Persian wars and eliminated Persia from the Aegean. With Sparta was concluded the Truce of Thirty Years (446) but the pursuit of Athenian expansion made the resumption of hostilities inevitable: in 431 began the second Peloponnesian War, which was to end in 404 with the defeat of Athens. Pericles died at the start of the conflict, not without seeing the confidence that the citizens had placed in him weaken until then.

Fall and death of Pericles

The first setbacks of the conflict and the plague epidemic that broke out in Athens in 430 dealt a serious blow to the prestige of Pericles, and he was even fined 50 talents; he was, however, re-elected strategist in the spring of 429, but he himself was to be swept away by the epidemic the following autumn. There remained to him the glory of having brought Athens to the height of its power and of having presided over the flourishing of the best that Greek civilization produced.

The "century of Pericles" (460-430) saw the last works of Aeschylus, the beginnings of Sophocles and Euripides, the stay of Herodotus in Athens, the influence of sophistry, but it is in the field of art that he left his main testimony. Thanks to the tribute of the allies, the reconstruction of the shrines of the Acropolis destroyed by the Persians began around 450, under the direct control of Pericles who was able to unite and inspire artists such as Phidias, Callicrates, Ictinos, Mnesicles. The splendor of the Parthenon, the Propylaea, the Erechtheion, gave Athens the dignity of "the school of Greece".


- The True Story of Pericles, biography of Jean Malye. Les Belles Lettres, 2008.

- Pericles: Athenian democracy put to the test of the great man, by Vincent Azoulay. Armand Colin, 2016.

- The Century of Pericles, by Jean-Jacques Maffre. PUF, 1994.

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