Who Was Pericles?

Pericles (495-429 BCE) was born five years before the battle of Marathon, in an ongoing era of conflict between changing alliances of Grecian states and Persia. Under the tutelage of a pedagogue, he received the typical education of a young aristocrat - reading, writing, music, arts, rhetoric, and oratory. His character and learning were enriched by associations with Zeno (a logician), Anaxagoras (a scientist), and Phidias (an artist). He married at the age of 20, had two sons, and divorced, never to remarry. He did, however, have a close relationship with Aspasia, a courtesan with extraordinary intellectual and social attributes. History suggests that she inspired much of Pericles' social and political accomplishments.

Pericles entered political life as an adjutant to a radical reformer with a popular constituency. With his dignity and patience, a reputation for integrity, his artistic ambitions for Athens, demonstrated abilities as a peacemaker, plus the convincing force of his oratory, he won the support of the people. In 460 BCE, he was elected to the political leadership of Athens. Except for one brief interval, he was reelected every year thereafter until he died of the plague in 429 BCE.

Democracy in the Greek city-state reached its zenith in Athens under Pericles, providing the building blocks of modern democratic society. Supported by the citizens of Athens, reforms inaugurated by Pericles passed the governance of Athens from a tight aristocracy to its citizens. Under Pericles, official offices were rotated. Citizens provided essential services to the state. Officials and jurors were for the first time paid by the state, thus opening up public service to the poor and minimizing improper control of the law, justice, and civic resources. All citizens were encouraged to attend the Assembly of Athens and participate directly in acting on legislation - public safety, religion, security, food supply, and public expenditures. Much of the magnificence of Athens today reflects the vision of Pericles, and his ability to gain the popular support and provide for funding the vast construction projects of the Acropolis, Parthenon, and other works that today represent the glory of Greece.