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.” Read the full interview.
A few years ago he went to the British Museum and bought a bust of Pericles.
The First Peloponnesian War : political developments
In 461 B.C., as Pericles became the most prominent Athenian politician, the diplomatic situation in Greece was deteriorating rapidly, owing in no small part to the ever expanding imperial ambition of Athens overseas ; within a year the occasional skirmish had become a war with Sparta.
It should not be imagined that Pericles ran a government and could issue decrees, as does a British prime minister. One of ten elected generals, he influenced political life in Athens with persuasive oratory ; in theory the Assembly held the power (‘would like to be sovereign’ — Aristotle), so, where this article says that Pericles did something, it should be taken that he persuaded the Assembly to order him to do it.
Despite the war, political development continued a-pace. Many democratic reforms were instituted : Ephialtes had started the system of payment for members of the boule (Council), responsible for preparing the business on which the ecclesia (Assembly) would vote ; Pericles introduced pay for jurymen, which meant that eligible citizens could sit in judgment in the dicasteria (court) without loss of income.
He also extended the classes of citizen eligible to archonship, reducing and then abolishing the property qualification.
In 454 Pericles moved the treasury of tribute of the Athenian alliance (the Delian League), which, since the formation of the league at the end of the Persian wars in 478, had been held at the temple of Apollo on Delos, to Athens.In 451 he promoted a law that restricted Athenian citizenship to those both of whose parents themselves were citizens, a law much more restrictive than a similar one introduced by Solon a century-and-a-half earlier. (To-day we hear much of ‘unintended consequences’ of legislation ; this was a law whose unintended consequences would eventually prove fatal to Athens. Whereas, many years later, Rome would confer citizenship on all that completed service in her legions, securing the loyalty of volunteers from amongst the conquered, Athens, with her restrictive law of citizenship, would not be able to rely on this automatic growth of internal military support.)
The citizenship law did, however, help to ensure that, as the most eligible young men of Athens colonized the far reaches of empire, Athenian girls would not be left behind unwed : something that itself became more important just by virtue of this law !
In 449 the settlement of the perpetual conflict with Persia, under which the Ionian Greek settlements in Asia Minor were freed from Persian suzerainty and known as the Peace of Callias (although his involvement is disputed), motivated the Athenians — at the behest of Pericles — to rebuild the temples on their acropolis, left in ruins since 479.
In 446 Sparta and Athens hopefully concluded a Thirty-Year Peace Treaty ; the peace would last just half that time.
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The Building Programme of Pericles
As visible inheritance of Pericles we have the relics of his building programme.Following the destruction by the Persians of the temples atop the acropolis the Athenians had resolved to leave the ruins as a memorial ; the conclusion of the peace of Callias (secured largely by Cimon, incidentally) was Pericles’s cue to propose the rebuilding of the temples, the centrepiece of which would be a magnificent temple to the virgin (parthenos) Athena, the Parthenon.
Athens received tribute from around her empire (the Delian League), funds supposedly for the defence of the realm ; however she appropriated a goodly portion of them (the cost of the Parthenon alone would be expressed in to-day’s money in billions) to the new building programme. The sheer extravagance of the project impelled Athens to expand her empire and to demand ever more in tribute, a fact that cannot be overlooked in assessing the causes of the Great Peloponnesian War (below).
Most of the Parthenon’s construction involved Pentelic marble, the work starting in 447 and taking fifteen years ; the famous frieze — the greater part of which constitutes the Elgin marbles on display now in the British Museum — took another four years. That and the chryselephantine statue of Athena were the work of the sculptor Pheidias, a friend of Pericles.
(Without entering in to the long running debate of where the marbles ought to be, we ought to mention that Lord Elgin himself bought them from the Ottoman governor of Athens — at such a cost that he fell in to penury — and, whether it were part of his intention or not, his doing so ensured their preservation to the present day.)
During the seventeenth-century conflict with Venice, the occupying Ottoman forces in Athens took refuge on the acropolis, using the Parthenon to house both their ammunition and their women and children. A mortar bomb launched by the besieging Venetians ignited the ammunition ; most of the temple itself and of the northern periptery (the colonnade) — which had withstood two millennia of intermittent earthquakes — was destroyed. (In the photograph above the northern periptery has been largely restored.)
The building programme extended to much else within metropolitan Attica, including completion of the Long Walls and fortification of the Piraeus and Phalerum ; even the temple of Poseidon at Sounium.
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Read the continuing story of Pericles in Part III.
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