Close up of some of the Elgin marbles in the British Museum. Originally obtained from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Section of the west frieze.
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History Bytes: Pericles

In this series, I’ll be sharing some quick facts about some of history’s famous, infamous, and not-so-famous characters and places. Sometimes the chosen historical figures or locales relate to a book I’m reading; sometimes I write about them because they’re quite simply interesting. Either way, I’ve tried to add a bit of humor to the facts, but keep in mind that history always has two sides to every tale, and it’s important to think critically about and question history as a whole. Check out Resources for more information on your favorites!


Painting shows at left the North frieze slab XLVII and the West frieze Slabs I and up visible at right in the Parthenon.

Among the spectators, critics have identified Pericles, the bearded man facing Phidias. Next to him is his mistress, Aspasia. In the foreground stands a youth, Alcibiades, with his lover, Socrates.
Pheidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon, Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, oil on mahogany panel, 1868-69 | ┬ęBirmingham Museums Trust, 1923P118/Licensed under CC0

Summary

The Athenian historian Thucydides, writing in his work The History of the Peloponnesian War, praised the prominent statesman, orator, and general Pericles of Athens as “the first man of his time at Athens, ablest alike in counsel and in action.”1Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War (London, J. M. Dent; New York, E. P. Dutton. 1910), chapter 139, section 4.

The child of an aristocratic family, Pericles was born in Athens in around 495 BCE. His father Xanthippus was a politician, and his mother Agariste descended from the powerful Alcmaeonidae family (known for influencing early Athenian democracy). A quiet, bookish, and introspective youth, Pericles turned to a political career early on in his life.

Pericles presided over an Athenian renaissance, now known as the Age of Pericles. Under his leadership, he commissioned artwork and sculptures (especially under the supervision of the talented Phidias), constructed the Parthenon (447-432 BCE), fraternized with preeminent philosophers, promoted the theatre, implemented populist policies, and much more. Pericles also engaged in war, overseeing Athens’ involvement in the First Peloponnesian War (c. 446-440 BCE).2He died during the Second Peloponnesian War.

He also championed and protected the cause of Athenian democracy across Greece, though in those days, only free-born male citizens voted. Women served in domestic roles and were not afforded the opportunity to voice their opinions. Indeed, no sources written by women exist from this period of time.3For a more scholarly treatment on Athenian women, read William O’Neal’s article “The Status of Women in Ancient Athens” (please note a subscription may be required).

His relationship with the Miletian woman Aspasia both increased his stature but also perhaps caused friction with some Athenian elites with claims she wrote speeches for him and taught him oratory. Aspasia and her accomplishments remain an enigma to historians. However, little doubt exists as to her power and influence.4Joshua J. Mark, “Aspasia of Miletus,” World History Encyclopedia, last modified May 20, 2021, https://www.worldhistory.org/Aspasia_of_Miletus/. She and Pericles had a child together known as Pericles the Younger.

Unfortunately, Pericles succumbed to a plague that raged through Athens in 429 B.C., leaving behind an incredible legacy.5I admittedly did not cover much about Pericles’ military career. In his excellent biography at the World History Encyclopedia, Joshua Marks elaborates on this in more detail.

Basic Biographical Details of Pericles

Full Name: Pericles

Born: c. 495 B.C., Athens, Greece

Died: 429 B.C., Athens, Greece

Spouse(s): a wife, name unknown; also had a relationship with Aspasia of Miletus

Children: Paralus and Xanithippus (with his wife); Pericles the Younger (with Aspasia)

Known For: Presiding over an Athenian renaissance; leading the Athenian military during the First and part of the Second Peloponnesian Wars (c. 460-446 BCE and 431-404 BCE respectively); developing the Athenian acropolis, including the incredible Parthenon; dying of the ancient history version of COVID-19.

Resources

Featured image: Section of the west frieze of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon at the British Museum (Alamy/Marinos Karafyllidis)

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