Pericles, (490?–429 B.C.), an Athenian statesman. Pericles ruled Athens from 461 until his death in 429. This period was the city's golden age, during which it reached new heights of political power, commercial prosperity, and cultural achievement. It is often called the Age of Pericles in tribute to his statesmanship.
Athenians called Pericles “the Olympian”(referring to the mountain where the gods supposedly lived) because of his serene, aloof behavior. A man of learning, he befriended writers, artists, and philosophers. He sought to make Athens the school of Greece, and its citizens lovers of beauty and wisdom. Pericles offended conservative Athenians by favoring the lower classes in politics, and by divorcing his wife to live with Aspasia, a beautiful and intelligent foreign woman whom law forbade him to marry.
Pericles was the son of Xanthippus, a statesman and military commander. Although an aristocrat, he was descended from the Alcmaeonid family, which traditionally led the city's democratic faction. Pericles was educated by two outstanding philosophers, Anaxagoras and Zeno of Elea. In 462 B.C. he aided Ephialtes in restricting the powers of the aristocratic Aeropagus (council of elders). When Ephialtes was assassinated in 461, Pericles became leader of the democrats and was elected strategos (general), an office that included civic duties. He was reelected annually (except in 444) until his death, and during most of the period was strategos autocrator (president of the board of generals).
Pericles' first act was to secure the ostracism (exile) of Cimon, leader of the aristocrats. During 461–456 B.C. he completed construction of the Long Walls, connecting Athens with its port of Piraeus, in order to protect Athens from a land attack. From the mines of Thrace, from tribute paid by allied cities, and from customs duties, Pericles raised enormous revenue each year. Part of the money was used for maintaining the large Athenian navy. Much of it went into public works projects to beautify the city. The Parthenon and Propylaea were built on the Acropolis. Phidias, a friend of Pericles, carved magnificent statues of Athene and adorned the Parthenon with friezes.
Pericles increased the power of the people by establishing a salary for jury duty, so that persons of modest means could serve in the courts. He lowered property requirementfor serving as a public magistrate. Besides decreasing the power of the aristocrats, Pericles wanted to educate the whole community in political wisdom by giving all men a part in government. He encouraged citizens to attend the theatrical performances of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Pericles also established a fund for the poor. The popular assembly almost always supported him.
At first Pericles hoped to establish Athenian political dominance in Greece by creating puppet governments in Boeotia (central Greece), but control of the area was lost by 445 B.C. Thereafter he concentrated on building the Delian League into a powerful sea empire for Athens. Pericles established and maintained friendly rulers in the Aegean city-states and established Athenian colonies there, as well as in Italy. The funds of the league were used by Athens alone. During 440–439 a revolt on Samos was put down.
The Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies. Pericles seems to have regarded the war as inevitable. He planned to defeat Sparta by sea power and did not defend Attica from invasion; instead he settled the refugee population inside the city walls. Soon after the war had begun, Pericles made a funeral oration in honor of the Athenian dead. As set down by Thucydides (who tried to give the content of speeches accurately, but used his own words), it is an eloquent tribute to Athens and its ideals.
In 430 B.C. Athens was struck by a devastating plague, which cost the city a fourth of its population. The demoralized citizenry temporarily lost their faith in Pericles, blamed him for Athens' plight, and removed him from office. He was recalled to power within a year but soon died of the plague.