Pericles and the Golden Age of Athens and Greece

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The Golden Age of Athens was during the rule of Pericles over Athens from 457 B.C. to 430 B.C. During this time the Parthenon was built, Aeschylus, Aristophanes and Sophocles were producing plays in the theater beside the Acropolis and democracy flourished. Pericles ruled over what has been described as the world's first democracy and mathematics, the arts, history, astronomy and philosophy flourished under Socrates, the Sophists, Herodotus and Thucydides.

During the Golden Age of Greece Athens was home to about 75,000 people and and between 200,000 and 250,000 lived in the surrounding countryside called "Attica." The city had an area of about 0.7 square miles.

Under Athens and the Delian League the Greeks ruled much of the Mediterranean and trade flourished. Using iron to make tools, superior ships, weapons and machines Athens grew rich by exporting silver and olives. The money earned from this trade was used to construct other great building and support the arts and sciences.

But things were not always as rosy as they seemed on the surface. A lot of the money used to build the Parthenon was looted from the Delian League treasury, less than a quarter of the population had political rights, slaves were often used instead of machines because they were cheaper, and war with Sparta was imminent. The upper classes ruled the government and many of the democratic reforms, such as payment for jury duty, were attempts to placate the lower classes with welfare payments and keep them in place. In the plains of Attica there only about 250,000 people. The population of the city-state of Athens had would later be reduced by the Peloponnesian wars and the plague from around 80,000 to as a low as 21,000."

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Book: Athens, A Portrait of a City in Its Golden Age by Christian Meier (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holy & Company, 1998]

Delian League and the Payment of Tribute Money to Athens

Delian League tributes

Concerned about further attacks by Persia, 200 Greek city-states formed an Athens-led alliance called the Delian League (sometimes also called the Delios League) in 478 B.C. In exchange for money or ships, Athens fleet of ships evicted the Persians, cleared out pirates and secured trade access to the Black Sea. As Athens’ power grew other city states resented their position as "subjects."

Named after the site of it headquarters, the sacred island of Delos, the Delian League was essentially a organization set up for city states to pay tribute money to Athens in exchange for protection. The arrangement wasn't all that different from protection money paid by businesses to organized gangs.

With this money Athens beefed up its navy, making it even stronger, and embarked on expensive building campaigns such as the construction of the Acropolis and the building of the Parthenon. Surviving fragments of financial accounts, which were inscribed on stone for the public to see estimate the construction budget of the Parthenon to be 340 to 800 silver talents — a considerable sum at a time when a single talent could be a month's wage for a 170 oarsmen on a Greek warship.

The Delain League was preceded by the Peloponnesian League, a Sparta-dominated alliance in the Peloponnesus that existed from the 6th to the 4th centuries B.C.. It is known mainly for being one of the two rivals in the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), against the Delian League, which was dominated by Athens. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Peloponnesian League was organized with Sparta as the hegemon, and was controlled by the council of allies which was composed of two bodies: the assembly of Spartans and the Congress of Allies. Each allied state had one vote in the Congress, regardless of that state's size or geopolitical power. No tribute was paid except in times of war, when one third of the military of a state could be requested. Only Sparta could call a Congress of the League. All alliances were made with Sparta only, so if they so wished, member states had to form separate alliances with each other. And although each state had one vote, League resolutions were not binding on Sparta. Thus, the Peloponnesian League was not an "alliance" in the strictest sense of the word (nor was it wholly Peloponnesian for the entirety of its existence). The league provided protection and security to its members. It was a conservative alliance which supported Oligarchies and opposed tyrannies and democracies. +

After the Persian Wars the League was expanded into the Hellenic League and included Athens and other states. The Hellenic League was led by Pausanias and, after he was recalled, by Cimon of Athens. Sparta withdrew from the Hellenic League, reforming the Peloponnesian League with its original allies. The Hellenic League then turned into the Athenian-led Delian League. This might have been caused by Sparta and its allies' unease over Athenian efforts to increase their power. The two Leagues eventually came into conflict with each other in the Peloponnesian War. +

Ancient Greek Democracy

The ancient Greeks are credited with founding democracy (a word derived from Greek words for people, demos , and kratos , rule) and literally means “rule by the people." In the early days most city-states, however, were ruled by local tyrants or oligarchies that formed citizen councils. The philosopher Democritus had nothing really to do with democracy. He is known for his theory on atoms.

Pericles wrote: "Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands of the people, not a minority. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everybody is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty...This is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has not business here at all.

jetons used in voting

Plato once wrote democracy is a "delightful form of government, anarchic and motley." Some scholars have argued that democracy took root because citizens were more interested in success than domination. They were interested in impressing an audience or cutting a stylish figure than real power. There were few political institutions and the powers of persuasion held sway. Men had prove themselves in front of other men rather than hiding behind a birthrate or a title.

See Separate Articles on Democracy in Ancient Greece and Government and Politics in Ancient Greece

Democracy in Athens

In Athens the assembly had grown powerful enough by around 500 B.C. that it was making laws and electing magistrates. By the Golden Age period the powers of the ruler were limited and day to day affairs were run by a council made of 10 generals. There were no political parties.

Athens during it Golden Age was the home of the world's first democracy and the only polis with a government resembling a true democracy. Although the Athenian government had courts with juries and a political system where rich and poor free men were allowed to vote; women, foreigners, slaves and ex-slaves were not allowed to vote.

Athenian democracy was wild and chaotic and easily hijacked by demagogues. The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt described it as a “permanent terrorism exercised by the combination of sycophant, the or orators and the constant threat of public prosecution, especially for peculation and incompetence." Some historians say that the role of democracy has been exaggerated, and that Athens’ power resulted more from it military victories and money earned from trade than by a government supported by citizens.


Pericles (490-429 B.C.) ruled over what has been described as the world's first democracy. Although he never claimed the highest title, archon , and described himself simply as one of the ten generals elected each year by the citizenry he was firmly in control during his 27 year rule over Athens and owed his position to his will, charisma and oratory skills. He was the model for the tyrant Creon who condemns Antigone to death and for Oedipus the King.

Pericles instituted for public service, which expanded the realm of democracy, and looked after the welfare of the Athenian poor. But he also made Athens broke by diverted much of the money from the Delian League to finance the construction of Parthenon and other monumental structures.

Pericles in a Marseille statue

Pericles was a nobleman with “the bluest blood” and came from one of the wealthiest Athens families. Despite this he was popular with ordinary Athenians and had the rhetorical skills to talk them in doing almost anything. He reportedly had big ears. Images of him show his big ears under a helmet. Pericles was Athens most brilliant statesmen and orator and he seemed know it. He said, "The admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours."

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: Pericles “was born about 490 B.C., the son of Xanthippus and Agariste. His father took a prominent part in Athenian politics, and in 479 held high command in the Greek squadron which annihilated the remnants of Xerxes' fleet at Mycale; through his mother, the niece of Cleisthenes, he was connected with the former tyrants of Sicyon and the family of the Alcmaeonidae. His early training was committed to the ablest and most advanced teachers of the day: Damon instructed him in music, Zeno the Eleatic revealed to him the powers of dialectic; the philosopher Anaxagoras, who l~ved in close friendship with Pericles, had great influence on his cast of thcught and was corrmonly held responsible for that calm and undaunted attitude of mind which he preserved in the midst of the severest trials. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“Of Pericles' personal characteristics we have a peculiarly full and interesting record. He was commonly compared to Olympian Zeus, partly because of his serene and dignified bearing, partly by reason of the majestic roll of the thundering eloquence, with its bold poetical imagery, with which he held friend and foe spellbound. The same dignity appeared in the grave beauty of his features, though the abnormal height of his cranium afforded an opportunity for ridicule of which the comedians made full use. In spite of an unusually large crop of scandals about him we cannot but believe that he bore an honourable character, and his integrity is vouched for by Thucydides in such strong terms as to exclude all further doubt on the question.”

“Pericles also incurred unpopularity because of his rationalism in religious matters; yet Athens in his time was becoming ripe for the new culture, and would have done better to receive it frorn men of his circle-Anaxagoras, Zeno, Protagoras and Meton -than from the more irresponsible sophists. The influence of Aspasia on Athenian thought, though denounced unsparingly by most critics, may indeed have been beneficial, inasmuch as it tended towards the emancipation of the Attic woman from the overstrict tutelage in which she was kept. As a patron of art Pericles was a still greater force. His policy in encouraging the drama has already been mentioned: among his friends he could count three of the greatest Greek writers-the poet Sophocles and the historians Herodotus and Thucydides. Pericles likewise is responsible for the epochmaking splendour of Attic art in his time, for had he not so fully appreciated and given such free scope to the genius of Pheidias, Athens would hardly have witncssed the raising of the Parthenon and other glorious structures, and Attic art could not have boasted a legion of firstrate sculptors of whom Alcamenes, Agoracritus and Paeonius are only the chief names.”

Pericles as Ruler of Athens

According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “Pericles' policy towards the members of the Delian League, we find that he frankly endeavoured to turn the allies into subjects (see DELIAN LEAGUE). A special feature of his rule was the sending out of numerous cleruchies (q.v.), which served the double purpose of securing strategic points to Athens and converting the needy proletariate of the capital into owners of real property. The land was acquired either by confiscation from disaffected states or in exchange for a lowering of tribute.. [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“In his home policy Pericles carried out more fully Ephialtes' project of making the Athenian people truly selfgoverning. His chief innovation was the introduction of payment from the public treasury for state service. Chief of all, he provided a remuneration of 1 tp 2 obols a day for the jurymen, probably in 451. Similarly he created a "theoricon" fund which enabled poor citizens to attend the dramatic representations of the Vionysia. To him we may also attribute the 3 obols pay which the soldiers received during the Peloponnesian War in addition to the old established provision money. The archons and members of the boule, who certainly received remuneration in 411, and also some minor magistrates, were perhaps paid for the first time by Pericles. In connection with this system of salaries should be mentioned a somewhat reactionary law carried by Pericles in 451, by which an Athenian parentage on both sides was made an express condition of retaining the franchise and with it the right of sitting on paid juries. The measure by which the archonship was opened to the third and (practically) to the fourth class of citizens (the Zeugitae and Thetes) may also be due to Periclcs; the date is now known to be 457 B.C..

“The last yeas of his life were troubled by a new period of storm and stress whicn called for his highest powers of calculation and selfcontrol. A conflict between Corcyra and Corinth, the second and third naval powers of Greece, led to the simultaneous appearance in Athens of an embassy from either combatant (433). Pericles had, as it seems, resumed of late a plan of Western expansion by forming alliances with Rhegium and Leontini, and the favourable position of Corcyra on the trade-route to Sicily and Italy, as well as its powerful fleet, no doubt helped to induce him to secure an alliance with that island, and so to commit an unfriendly act towards a leading representative of the Peloponnesian League. Pericles now seemed to have made up his mind that war with Sparta, the head of that League, had become inevitable. After the dead from the first battles of the Peloponnesian War were brought home Pericles' gave his famous “Funeral Oration”. (See Peloponnesian War).

“At the same time, Pericles was being sorely hampered by his adversaries at home. The orthodox Conservatives and some democrats who were jealous of his influence, while afraid to beard the great statesman himself, combined to assail his nearest friends. The sculptor Pheidias (q.v.) was prosecuted on two vexatious charges (probably in 433), and before he could disprove the second he died under arrest. Anaxagoras was threatened with a law against atheists, and felt compelled to leave Athens. A scandalous charge against his mistress Aspasia, which he defeated by his personal intercession before the court, was taken very much to heart by Pericles. His position at home scarcely improved during the war. His policy of abandoning the land defence was unpopular with the landowning section of the people, who from the walls of Athens could see their own property destroyed by the invaders. At the end of the first year of war (early in 430) Pericles made a great appeal to the pride of his countrymen in his wellknown funeral speech. But in the ensuing summer, after a terrible outbreak of plague. had ravaged the crowded city, the people became thoroughly demoralized. Pericles led a large squadron to harry the coasts oI the Peloponnese, but met with little success. On his return the Athenians sued for peace, though without success, and a speech by Pericles had little effect on their spirits. Late in 430 they deposed him from his magistracy. In addition to this they prosecuted him on a charge of embezzlement, and imposed a fine of 50 talents. A revulsion of feeling soon led to his reinstatement, apparently with extraordinay powers. But the plague, which had carried off two of his sons and a sister, had, left its mark also on Pericles himself. In the autumn of 429 he died and was buried near the Academia,”

Pericles and the Parthenon

The Parthenon was built in the 15 year period between 447-432 B.C. under the stewardship of great Athenian statesman Perciles. According to the Canadian Museum of History: “To build a temple of this size (101 x 228 ft.; 30.9m x 69.5m) in that short a timeframe was considered amazing but what was even more amazing was the quality of construction and finishing, which was superb. The leading politician of the day and the man behind the construction project was Pericles. According to Plutarch, the great Greek biographer writing centuries after the building was completed; one of the main reasons for the construction of the Parthenon and the other temples which surrounded it was the need to deal with growing unemployment. By embarking on a major public works program for the acropolis (the towering hill in Athens where the Parthenon and other temples dedicated to the gods were located) Pericles hoped to provide jobs for ordinary Athenians- carpenters, stonemasons, ivory-workers, painters, enamellers, pattern-makers, blacksmiths, rope-makers, weavers, engravers, merchants, coppersmiths, potters, shoemakers, tanners, laborers, etc. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

“At the same time and more importantly, he envisioned the Parthenon as an architectural masterpiece that would make a statement to the world about the superiority of Athenian values, their system of governance and their way of life. Because of this, only the best building materials were good enough- the finest stone, bronze, gold, ivory, ebony, cypress-wood- and the best artists and craftsmen. It was to be a building for the ages. In a funeral oration delivered in 430 B.C. Pericles expressed his pride in the city of Athens and there seems no doubt he was thinking of the Parthenon when he noted that “Mighty indeed are the marks and monuments we have left. Men of the future will wonder at us, as all men do today.”

The new construction project was not welcomed by everyone. There were some who were outraged that so much money was being spent on the construction “gilding and beautifying our city as if it were some vain woman decking herself out with costly stones and thousand talent temples”. Many were also upset that the monies to build the Parthenon were being supplied, reluctantly, by Athenian allies who had originally handed over this money for use in any future conflict against the Persians. Pericles argued that as long as the Athenians honored their commitment to defend these allies against Persian aggression, then the allies had nothing to complain about. And the majority of people supported Pericles. In fact his most vocal opponent was ostracized (banished for ten years) by a popular vote leaving the way clear to proceed with construction. |

“The Parthenon building program was carried out under the general direction of Pericles himself. He chose three men at the top of their professions to collaborate on the design and execution of the project. Although we don't know everything that each did, it seems that Ictinuswas the chief architect, Callicratus acted as the project contractor and technical coordinator while Phideas was responsible for overseeing and integrating all artistic elements. He also personally created the enormous gold and ivory sculpture of the city goddess and produced some of the various sculptural groupings while supervising the production efforts of a small army of artists and craftsmen. Phideas was recognized at the time as being the greatest sculptor of his era but is acknowledged now as the greatest Greek sculptor of all time. The collaboration of the threesome was an enduring success. |

“The dream of Pericles, that the Parthenon would be an imperishable symbol of the greatness of Athens and of the inevitable triumph of civilization over the forces of barbarism, was short-lived. The last of the sculptural ornaments was completed in 432 B.C. but only three years later Pericles and many of his fellow citizens succumbed to a horrific plague that devastated Athens.” |

Pericles' Raids Athena’s Parthenon’s Treasure

Pericles proposed raiding the Parthenon to help Athens pay off the debts incurred by his foreign adventures and military expansion.James Romm wrote in the Los Angeles Times: The Parthenon has always been a symbol of Athenian pride, but when first built in the mid-5th century B.C. it was also a monument to Athenian wealth. Within it was housed the state treasury and a hoard of gold and silver vessels, the sacred property of Athena. A colossal statue of that goddess, decked with ivory skin and gold-leaf armor, dazzled visitors with a display of Athens' massive fiscal surplus. [Source: James Romm, Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2012. Romm is a professor of classics at Bard College and author of "Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire."]

“To exploit such holy relics was, ordinarily, a heinous crime, and "temple robber" was about the worst thing an ancient Greek could be called. Yet financial crises have a way of redefining what is sacred and what is profane, as modern Europe has learned. So too do long wars, which often lead to financial crises — as did the war Athens and Sparta began in 431 B.C. the heyday of Pericles.

“Pericles proposed, as that war loomed, that if Athens exhausted its funds, it could melt down and coin Athena's treasure or pawn the gold and ivory on the statue of the goddess. In modern terms, this was as extreme as using the Parthenon not just as a film set but as a five-star hotel. The pious must have howled in protest, but Thucydides, the historian who recorded the episode, presents it matter of factly as just another example of Pericles' sound common sense.

“Thucydides even notes that Pericles, while overseeing the Parthenon's construction, had thought to make the statue's gold and ivory plates detachable. If this is so — no trace of the statue or its precious covering survives — then the canny statesman had a sharp eye for what we would call liquidity. Pericles only committed capital to the Acropolis after making sure that the city, in a pinch, could get it back again.

“Pericles softened his proposals by vowing that whatever Athens took from the Parthenon it would replace, presumably when the war was won. But as that war became a desperate slugfest, long after Pericles' death, the "loan" turned into a gift. Faced with ruin and imminent defeat, Athens helped itself to the temple hoard and never restored it — though it did pay a small rate of interest.

“Surprising though Pericles' statue-stripping scheme might be, it is surpassed in audacity by another plan, also recorded by Thucydides. Advisors from Corinth allegedly told the Spartans to fund their war effort with Greece's most sacred gold, the treasures of Olympia and Delphi. Corinth was famous in antiquity for sharp business practice, but the reverent Spartans raised no objection to the plan. The two holiest shrines in Hellas were, under this proposal, to be used in effect as ATMs (though the cash withdrawn was, in theory at least, to be paid back).

Pericles' Funeral Oration

Pericles' famous “Funeral Oration” was given after the first battles of the Peloponnesian war. Funerals after such battles were public rituals and Pericles used the occasion to make a classic statement of the value of democracy. The funeral was a public event that followed a prescribed set of rituals. “Thucydides wrote: “Three days before the ceremony, the bones of the dead are laid out in a tent. which has been erected; and their friends bring to their relatives such offerings as they please. In the funeral procession cypress coffins are borne in cars, one for each tribe; the bones of the deceased being placed in the coffin of their tribe. Among these is carried one empty bier decked for the missing, that is, for those whose bodies could not be recovered. Any citizen or stranger who pleases, joins in the procession: and the female relatives are there to wail at the burial. The dead are laid in the public sepulchre in the Beautiful suburb of the city, in which those who fall in war are always buried; with the exception of those slain at Marathon, who for their singular and extraordinary valour were interred on the spot where they fell. After the bodies have been laid in the earth, a man chosen by the state, of approved wisdom and eminent reputation, pronounces over them an appropriate panegyric; after which all retire. Such is the manner of the burying; and throughout the whole of the war, whenever the occasion arose, the established custom was observed. Meanwhile these were the first that had fallen, and Pericles, son of Xanthippus, was chosen to pronounce their eulogium. [Source: Thucydides (c.460/455-c.399 B.C.): Pericles' Funeral Oration from the “Peloponnesian War” (Book 2.34-46)

When the proper time arrived, he advanced from the sepulchre to an elevated platform in order to be heard by as many of the crowd as possible, and spoke as follows: "Most of my predecessors in this place have commended him who made this speech part of the law, telling us that it is well that it should be delivered at the burial of those who fall in battle. For myself, I should have thought that the worth which had displayed itself in deeds would be sufficiently rewarded by honours also shown by deeds; such as you now see in this funeral prepared at the people's cost. And I could have wished that the reputations of many brave men were not to be imperilled in the mouth of a single individual, to stand or fall according as he spoke well or ill. For it is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth. On the one hand, the friend who is familiar with every fact of the story may think that some point has not been set forth with that fullness which he wishes and knows it to deserve; on the other, he who is a stranger to the matter may be led by envy to suspect exaggeration if he hears anything above his own nature. For men can endure to hear others praised only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted: when this point is passed, envy comes in and with it incredulity. However, since our ancestors have stamped this custom with their approval, it becomes my duty to obey the law and to try to satisfy your several wishes and opinions as best I may.

“"I shall begin with our ancestors: it is both just and proper that they should have the honour of the first mention on an occasion like the present. They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valour. And if our more remote ancestors deserve praise, much more do our own fathers, who added to their inheritance the empire which we now possess, and spared no pains to be able to leave their acquisitions to us of the present generation. Lastly, there are few parts of our dominions that have not been augmented by those of us here, who are still more or less in the vigour of life; while the mother country has been furnished by us with everything that can enable her to depend on her own resources whether for war or for peace....

Pericles' Funeral Oration

Pericles Makes His Case for Democracy in His Funeral Oration

Pericles said, according to Thucydides:"Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace. [Source: Thucydides (c.460/455-c.399 B.C.): Pericles' Funeral Oration from the “Peloponnesian War”, Book 2.34-46]

“"Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.

“"If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. In proof of this it may be noticed that the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates; while we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbour, and fighting upon a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes. Our united force was never yet encountered by any enemy, because we have at once to attend to our marine and to dispatch our citizens by land upon a hundred different services; so that, wherever they engage with some such fraction of our strength, a success against a detachment is magnified into a victory over the nation, and a defeat into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people. And yet if with habits not of labour but of ease, and courage not of art but of nature, we are still willing to encounter danger, we have the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardships in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them....”

As for the men who died on the battlefield: “Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonour, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, escaped, not from their fear, but from their glory. So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier issue. And not contented with ideas derived only from words of the advantages which are bound up with the defence of your country, though these would furnish a valuable text to a speaker even before an audience so alive to them as the present, you must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honour in action that men were enabled to win all this, and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make them consent to deprive their country of their valour, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution that they could offer. For this offering of their lives made in common by them all they each of them individually received that renown which never grows old, and for a sepulchre, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be eternally remembered upon every occasion on which deed or story shall call for its commemoration. For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. These take as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valour, never decline the dangers of war. For it is not the miserable that would most justly be unsparing of their lives; these have nothing to hope for: it is rather they to whom continued life may bring reverses as yet unknown, and to whom a fall, if it came, would be most tremendous in its consequences. And surely, to a man of spirit, the degradation of cowardice must be immeasurably more grievous than the unfelt death which strikes him in the midst of his strength and patriotism!

Anaxagoras and Pericles

Pericles' Last Speech

Thucydides wrote: “After the second invasion of the Peloponnesians there had been a change in the spirit of the Athenians. Their land had been twice devastated, and they had to contend with the war and the plague at the same time. Now they began to blame Pericles for having persuaded them to go to war and to hold him responsible for all the misfortunes which had overtaken them. They became eager to make peace with Sparta, and actually sent ambassadors there, though they failed to achieve anything. They were then in a state of utter hopelessness, and all their angry feelings turned against Pericles. [Source: Thucydides “Pericles: Last Speech” from the “Peloponnesian War”, Book II, 59-64, CSUN]

“Pericles himself saw well enough how bitterly they felt at the situation in which they found themselves. He saw, in fact, that they were behaving exactly as he had expected that they would. He therefore, since he was still strategos, summoned an assembly, with the aim of putting fresh courage into them and of guiding their embittered spirits so as to leave them in a calmer and more confident frame of mind.

“Coming before them, he made the following speech: " I expected this outbreak of anger on your part against me, since I understand the reasons for it; and I have called an assembly with this object in view: to remind you of your previous resolutions and to put forward my own case against you, if we find that there is anything unreasonable in your anger against me and in your giving way to your misfortunes. My own opinion is that when the whole State is on the right course it is a better thing for each separate individual than when private interests are satisfied but the State as a whole is going down hill. However well off a man may be in his private life, he will still be involved in the general ruin if his country is destroyed. On the other hand, so long as the state itself is secure, individuals have a much greater chance of recovering from their personal misfortunes. Therefore, since a State can support individuals in their suffering, but no one person by himself can bear the load that rests upon the State, is it not right for us all to rally to her defense? Is it not wrong to act as you are doing now? For you have been so dismayed by disaster in your homes that you are losing your grip on the common safety; you are attacking me for having spoken in favor of war and yourselves for having voted for it.

“"So far as I am concerned, if you are angry with me, you are angry with one who has, I think, at least as much ability as anyone to see what ought to be done, and to explain what he sees, one who loves his city and one who is above being influenced by money. A man who has the knowledge but lacks the power to express it clearly is no better off than if he never had any ideas at all. A man who has both these qualities, but lacks patriotism, could scarcely speak for his own people as he should. And even if he is patriotic as well, but not able to resist a bribe, then this one fault will expose everything to the risk of being bought and sold. So, if at the time when you took my advice and went to war you considered that my record with regard to these qualities was even slightly better than that of others, then now surely, it is quite unreasonable for me to be accused of having done wrong...."

death of Pericles

Decline of Democracy in Athens

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote in for BBC: “Not all anti-democrats, however, saw only democracy's weaknesses and were entirely blind to democracy's strengths. One unusual critic is an Athenian writer whom we know familiarly as the 'Old Oligarch'. Certainly, he was an oligarch, but whether he was old or not we can't say. His short and vehement pamphlet was produced probably in the 420s, during the first decade of the Peloponnesian War, and makes the following case: democracy is appalling, since it represents the rule of the poor, ignorant, fickle and stupid majority over the socially and intellectually superior minority, the world turned upside down. [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“By 413, however, the argument from success in favour of radical democracy was beginning to collapse, as Athens' fortunes in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta began seriously to decline. In 411 and again in 404 Athens experienced two, equally radical counter-coups and the establishment of narrow oligarchic regimes, first of the 400 led by the formidable intellectual Antiphon, and then of the 30, led by Plato's relative Critias. Antiphon's regime lasted only a few months, and after a brief experiment with a more moderate form of oligarchy the Athenians restored the old democratic institutions pretty much as they had been. |::|

“It was this revived democracy that in 406 committed what its critics both ancient and modern consider to have been the biggest single practical blunder in the democracy's history: the trial and condemnation to death of all eight generals involved in the pyrrhic naval victory at Arginusae. |::|

“The generals' collective crime, so it was alleged by Theramenes (formerly one of the 400) and others with suspiciously un- or anti-democratic credentials, was to have failed to rescue several thousands of Athenian citizen survivors. Passions ran high and at one point during a crucial Assembly meeting, over which Socrates may have presided, the cry went up that it would be monstrous if the people were prevented from doing its will, even at the expense of strict legality. The resulting decision to try and condemn to death the eight generals collectively was in fact the height, or depth, of illegality. It only hastened Athens' eventual defeat in the war, which was followed by the installation at Sparta's behest of an even narrower oligarchy than that of the 400 - that of the 30.” |::|

20120217-Ballots and tokens Pinakia.jpg
Ballots and tokens

Restoration of Democracy and the Condemnation of Socrates

Paul Cartledge of the University of Cambridge wrote in for BBC: “This, fortunately, did not last long; even Sparta felt unable to prop up such a hugely unpopular regime, nicknamed the '30 Tyrants', and the restoration of democracy was surprisingly speedy and smooth - on the whole. Inevitably, there was some fallout, and one of the victims of the simmering personal and ideological tensions was Socrates. In 399 he was charged with impiety (through not duly recognising the gods the city recognised, and introducing new, unrecognised divinities) and, a separate alleged offence, corrupting the young. | [Source: Professor Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

“To some extent Socrates was being used as a scapegoat, an expiatory sacrifice to appease the gods who must have been implacably angry with the Athenians to inflict on them such horrors as plague and famine as well as military defeat and civil war. Yet the religious views of Socrates were deeply unorthodox, his political sympathies were far from radically democratic, and he had been the teacher of at least two notorious traitors, Alcibiades and Critias. Nor did he do anything to help defend his own cause, so that more of the 501 jurors voted for the death penalty than had voted him guilty as charged in the first place. By Athenian democratic standards of justice, which are not ours, the guilt of Socrates was sufficiently proven. |::|

“Nevertheless, in one sense the condemnation of Socrates was disastrous for the reputation of the Athenian democracy, because it helped decisively to form one of democracy's - all democracy's, not just the Athenian democracy's - most formidable critics: Plato. His influence and that of his best pupil Aristotle were such that it was not until the 18th century that democracy's fortunes began seriously to revive, and the form of democracy that was then implemented tentatively in the United States and, briefly, France was far from its original Athenian model. If we are all democrats today, we are not - and it is importantly because we are not - Athenian-style democrats. Yet, with the advent of new technology, it would actually be possible to reinvent today a form of indirect but participatory tele-democracy. The real question now is not can we, but should we... go back to the Greeks?

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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