For the Shakespeare play, see Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
Pericles (c. 495 BC - 429 BC) was an influential and important leader of Athens during the Athenian Golden Age (specifically, between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars), from the Alcmaeonidae family. The period from 461 BC to 379 BC is sometimes known as "The Age of Pericles". He was responsible for a great many building projects which include most of the surviving structures on the Acropolis (including the Parthenon). He also persuaded the city to build the Long Walls that protected the four-mile route to Peiraeus, the port for Athens. Of particular importance to us, is the fact that he fostered the power of democracy which was at that time considered to be a very radical idea.
Life of Pericles
Pericles started his political career at an early age. At first, however, he restrained his ambitions because he was fearful that due to his high social standing, he would be considered to be a tyrant or even dangerous. To get around this problem, he promoted the interests of the demos -- the most numerous class of middle and low income citizens -- so as to avoid their suspicion.
Pericles was educated by the sophist Daman (who taught him politics), by Zeno the Eleatic (who taught him argumentation), and by Anaxagoras (who taught him nobility of purpose and character). Largely due to the teachings of Anaxagoras, Pericles was very careful of the way in which he spoke, and what he chose to say.
Cimon was a political rival of Pericles for many years. Cimon was a wealthy man who gained favor with the people by spending his own money on feeding, clothing and caring for those Athenians who needed assistance. To counter Cimon, Pericles spent public money in building projects. Pericles even was eventually able to have Cimon ostracized and banished from the city for a period of time. However, before his period of exile was up, Cimon returned to lead Athenians in a battle against Sparta. Unfortunately, some friends of Pericles had Cimon sent away and the battle went badly for the Athenians. At that point Pericles was able to look past his own ambitions, and recalled Cimon so that Athens might be victorious.
Pericles then set about strengthening Athens and improving the infrastructure. However, during his forty year predominance, he was cautious and did not take on opponents without first weighing his options and measuring his potential losses. Unfortunately, his infatuation with a woman named Aspasia would slightly change the way in which he initiated conflicts. According to Plutarch, Pericles was persuaded by her to mount an expedition against one of her enemies.
Pericles is often referred to as the founder of democracy in Athens. However, recent critical studies have cast doubt on this and describe the formation of democracy as a slow process. The credit for creating the first democracy on earth goes to social, political and economical cicumstances which one man alone could not possibly influence.
Pericles began to fall out of favor in Athens while still being able to maintain power. The Spartans attacked and he ordered that Athens should prepare for a siege. Unfortunately, during the siege, a plague spread through Athens and its allies, but not to its enemies, killing many, including Pericles himself and most of his family. However, after Pericles lost his last Athenian son, the Athenians allowed a change in the law that made Pericles' non-Athenian son a citizen and legitimate heir.
Unfortunately the information we have about Pericles is highly distorted by centuries of legends and myth. The biography most people rely on is written by Plutarch, who lived about 500 years after Pericles. Plutarch was more interested in studying the character of men than in writing history. Pericles is also featured in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, which includes accounts of several of Pericles' speeches.