Boris Johnson has often spoken of his love of Greek history and of Pericles in particular.
When asked who his historical pin-up was and why, he replied: “Pericles. Look at his Funeral Speech: democracy; freedom — champion stuff.” See here for the full interview.
A few years ago he went to the British Museum and bought a bust of Pericles and here is his story.
The Age of Pericles
The words `fifth-century Athens' conjure up many things : fine art ; the birth of the western world's theatre ; war (rarely was there not conflict in the ancient world, particularly in Greece) ; literature. In the field of politics, however, Pericles is the name that comes to mind : he dominated political life for three decades and his influence continued to be felt for a quarter-century after his death ; his legacy to politics survives to this day. He is the third of our contenders for the title `Father of Democracy'.
Pericles — whose name may be loosely translated as 'all glorious' — was born around 495 in the Attic deme of Cholargos (about 4 miles NW of the Athenian acropolis), the son of gentle folk : Xanthippus (who had distinguished himself at Mycale, one of the battles that in 479 brought Persian domination of the eastern Mediterranean to and end) and Agariste of the ever controversial Alcmaeonid line.
* * *
Sparta and the helot uprising
Even a brief description of the life of Pericles cannot begin without reference to his political rival Cimon — aristocratic son of the victor at Marathon, Miltiades — whose successful military ventures in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and across the northern Aegean between 478 and 463 B.C. laid the foundations of the Athenian naval empire that would later help to fund the democratic reforms introduced by Ephialtes and Pericles, not to mention the latter’s building programme.
The great rival of Athens was the polis (city-state) of Sparta, which led the Peloponnese League ; Sparta — whose political system, in contrast to the new democracy in Athens, was an oligarchy — had a particular problem with the major part of her population, the helots. (Helots were akin mediaeval serfs.)Unlike the slaves of Athens (and later of Rome), who had been brought from all parts of the world and had no common language, Sparta’s helots were largely from the conquered neighbouring land of Messenia : they were Greeks, with much — including language — in common ; there was ever present the threat of rebellion.
Sparta’s peculiar form of government — which puzzled many even in ancient times — set her apart from most of Greece, including many of the poleis within the League : the adoption by many cities, including Athens, of forms of democracy and even tyranny left conflict simmering just below the surface.In around 464, Sparta’s helots, encouraged by the chaos resulting from a severe earthquake, rebelled and within months she called upon her allies for assistance. Cimon, prominent in Athenian politics but sympathetic to the Spartan cause, led an Athenian hoplite force to her aid. The Athenian soldiers, however, cannot have failed to remark that the rebel helots were fellow Greeks under oppression : the Spartans, realizing that here was a potential ally of their own rebels, sent Cimon back to Athens.The Athenians responded to this Spartan insult by forming alliances with Sparta’s enemies and allies alike. Athens and Corinth had hitherto had in common animosity toward Megara, which lay between them ; Athens’ forming an alliance with Megara now propelled Corinth in to the Spartan camp. By 460 the situation had turned to war.
Click on map to enlarge
The progress of democracy
Democracy is sometimes said to have started with the Athens of Pericles ; he might better be seen as a runner in a relay race, taking the baton and, as it were, making a good fist of his leg.
Pericles’s workplace—the agora at Athens—as it is today
Around the turn of the sixth century Draco and Solon had created the system of government that would become the Athenian democracy. At the end of the century Cleisthenes had introduced far-reaching reforms. (More.)
The democracy of to-day is often called a ‘representative’ democracy, i.e. the people elects representatives, who go on to create legislation and to run the country.
In the Athenian model, on the other hand, every legislative decision was, in effect, arrived at by plebiscite : any adult male citizen could, assuming he had the time, attend and vote in the Assembly. (To-day , as we know, even when the British people is promised one, a plebiscite is — how might we put it ? — unlikely.) The closest thing in the modern World was the system that, until a few years ago, existed in the more rural parts of Switzerland : the Gemeinderat, which used to be held in the square of a canton’s principal town.
We first encounter Pericles as a politician in the early 460s.
Although of noble birth, he was at heart a democrat, politically opposed to the aristocratic Cimon ; he led an unsuccessful prosecution alleging that Cimon had accepted favours from rulers in the northern Aegean.
A few years later, in 462, he led another prosecution of Cimon, now on the ground of his having favoured the Spartan cause ; the disdain of Athenians for Cimon's expedition to the Peloponnese led to Cimon's ostracism. Before his banishment had expired, Cimon came to fight alongside the Athenian force against Sparta at the battle of Tanagra ; Pericles, sensing the people's distaste at his treatment of Cimon, recalled him from exile before the ten years were up.
Leading the democratic faction in Athenian politics at the time was Ephialtes (not the one said to have disclosed to the Persians a means of circumventing the narrow pass at Thermopylae), who had, inter alia, brought about the transfer of judicial power (except for the most serious crimes) away from the Areopagus, the last bastion of aristocratic influence ; by virtue of his murder in 461 the democratic baton passed to Pericles.