Athens, Pericles and the Birth of Democracy: Part 1

About the history and biography ancient Greek political leader of Athens Pericles and the government which gave birth to democracy.


WHEN: 457 B.C.--430 B.C.

HOW: Pericles was the political leader of Athens during the great age of Athenian imperialism. Although his name is often associated with the form of government known as democracy, the system he presided over was hardly the "rule of the people," as the name implies. Only Athenian citizens--less than a quarter of the adult population--had political rights. Women, slaves, and foreigners were not citizens; and Pericles himself passed a measure limiting citizenship to those whose parents were both Athenian. Even among the citizens there were severe class divisions based on property and revenues. Only the wealthiest could hold high office. Unpropertied citizens were eligible only to vote and to sit on juries.

Pericles was of noble birth. His mother was a niece of Cleisthenes, a former ruler who had helped formulate the Athenian constitution; his father, Xanthippus, was a successful general. Even as a young man Pericles was known for an aloof, reserved manner and a subtle oratorical style. He made it a rule never to be seen at dinners or informal social situations because, as Plutarch observed, "These friendly meetings are very quick to defeat any assumed superiority, and in intimate familiarity an exterior of gravity is hard to maintain .... Pericles, to avoid any feeling of commonness or satiety on the part of the people, presented himself at intervals only, not speaking to every business, nor at all times coming into the assembly, but reserving himself for great occasions."

Like many a ruling-class politician, Pericles found it expedient to assume the role of a reformer. According to Plutarch, "He took his side not with the rich and few, but with the many and poor, contrary to his natural bent, which was far from democratical; but most likely fearing he might fall under suspicion of aiming at arbitrary power, and seeing Cimon (the leader he sought to replace) on the side of the aristocracy ... he joined the party of the people, with a view at once both to secure himself and procure means against Cimon."

Pericles' political career began shortly after the Persian wars--in which Persia's attempts to conquer Greece were rebuffed under the leadership of Athens (Sparta had declined to help the other city-states). Ultimate power was in the hands of the Council of Areopagus, whose members came only from the wealthiest social strata. The chief of state was Cimon, the general who had led the fight against Persia. His foreign policy was to share control of Greece with Sparta: Athens as mistress of the sea, Sparta as mistress of the mainland. Cimon went so far as to lead an expeditionary force to Messenia to help the Spartans put down a slave revolt. This act enraged the poor of Athens--who had counted on getting some political power after their years of service in the war against Persia. Under the leadership of Ephialtes, an authentic democrat, and Pericles, the opposition party stripped the Council of Areopagus of its key powers and arranged the banishment of Cimon. Shortly thereafter, Ephialtes was mysteriously murdered. One contemporary historian, Idomenus, charged Pericles with doing in his rival. The more widely accepted view was that the Athenian aristocracy, finding Pericles more acceptable, killed his "ally."

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