A Brief History
On an unknown date in 495 BC, one of the greatest Athenian heroes of their “Golden Age” was born, Pericles, the man that came to be known as “The First Citizen of Athens.” So important and influential was Pericles that his time as leader of Athens is called “The Age of Pericles” (461-429 BC).
Like many truly great men, Pericles was multi-dimensional, and served as a military general, statesman, and orator, as well as being a great patron of the arts and education. A strong advocate of democracy, Pericles is responsible for most of the building of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, the symbol of Athens.
Born into an upper class family, as a child Pericles was called “squill-head,” a reference to his large skull! Pericles grew up with a love of education, which included philosophy and music. Pericles entered politics around the age of 23 and quickly grew in importance through his wisdom and charisma to a position of power, first as prosecutor and then as leader. One of his early reforms was to minimize the power of the Aeropagus Council that had wielded undue power in Athens. Democracy replaced arbitrary power of rich people to the point where Pericles is called a “populist” by some historians. By 461 BC he had consolidated power in Athens. On the other hand, Pericles saw fit to limit Athenian citizenship to only those born of both parents being Athenian.
During the First Peloponnesian War (460-445 BC) Pericles was thrust into a military role, and the ongoing battles between those city states allied with Athens versus those city states allied with Sparta. Each side had their victorious moments, and the war ended with the “30 Years Peace” treaty, which lasted until hostilities started back up in 431 BC, this time a victory for Sparta when Athens surrendered in 404 BC.
During the period between the First and Second Peloponnesian Wars Pericles increased the influence of Athens over those city states allied with Athens. When hostilities with Sparta resumed in 431 BC, Pericles decided on a naval attack with 100 Athenian ships, a foray marked by an ominous eclipse as it was to begin. Then the Athenians were wracked by an awful plague, which required Pericles to make a memorable oration to keep Athenian focus on the war at hand and defending his own leadership.
Despite his successful oration, Pericles himself died of the plague in 429 BC, only after watching his own sons die from the disease. The death of Pericles was a disaster for Athens, as subsequent leaders did not have the wisdom, charisma or resolve to successfully lead the people, finally resulting in losing the war.
Pericles’s legacy is best seen in the artworks and construction of those areas of Greece ruled by Athens during his time, truly a major factor in the “Golden Age.” His advocacy of freedom of speech and other democratic principles are espoused in today’s idea of democracy.
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