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Biography of Pericles


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PERICLES, the most accomplished statesman of Ancient Greece was born of distinguished parentage in the early part of the 5th century B.C. His father was that Xanthippus who won the victory over the Persians at Mycale, 479 B.C., and his mother Agariste, the niece of the great Athenian reformer, Clisthenes. Pericles received an elaborate education, but of all his teachers, the one he most reverenced, and from whose instructions he derived most benefit, was the philosopher Anaxagoras.

Pericles was conspicuous all through his career for the singular dignity of his manners, the "Olympian" thunder of his eloquence, his sagacity, probity and profound Athenian patriotism. When he entered on public life, Aristides had only recently died, Themistocles was an exile, and Cimon was fighting the battles of his country abroad. Although the family to which he belonged was good, it did not rank among the first in point of either wealth or influence, yet so transcendent were the abilities of Pericles, that he rapidly rose to the highest power in the state, as the leader of the dominant democracy. Pericles seems to have grasped very clearly, and to have held as firmly, the modern radical idea, that as the state is supported by the taxation of the body of citizens, it must govern with a view to general and not to caste interests. In 465 B.C., through the agency of his follower, Ephialtes, he struck a great blow at the oligarchy, by causing a decree to be passed which deprived the Areopagas of its most important political powers. Shortly after the democracy obtained another triumph in the ostracism of Cimon.

In 454 B.C., or shortly after, he magnanimously proposed the the measure, (which was carried,) for the recall of Cimon, and about the same time commenced negotiations with the other Hellenic states with the view of forming a grand Hellenic Confederation, the design of which was to put an end to the mutally destructive wars of kindred people - to make of Greece one mighty nation, fit to front the outlying world. The idea was not less sagacious than noble. Had it been accomplished, the semi-barbarous Macedonians would have menaced the civilized Greeks in vain, and even Rome at a later period might perhaps have found the Adriatic, and not the Euphrates, the limits of her empire.

But the Spartan aristocrats were utterly incapable of morally appreciating such exalted patriotism, or of understanding the political necessity for it, and by their secret intrigues brought the well planned scheme to naught. Athens and Sparta were already, and indeed had for some time, been in that mood toward each other which rendered the future Peloponnesian war inevitable. They are always found on opposite sides. In 445 B.C., an insurrection broke out in the territories tributary to Athens, Megara, Euboea, etc., and the Spartans again appeared as allies of the insurgents. The position of Athens was critical. Pericles wisely declined to fight against all his enemies at once. A bribe of ten talents sent the Spartans home, and the insurgents were then rapidly and thoroughly crushed.

Cimon was now dead, and was succeeded in the leadership of the aristocratic party by Thucydides, son of Milesias, who in 444 B.C. made a strong effort to overthrow the supremacy of Pericles by attacking him in the popular assembly for squandering the public money on buildings, and in festivals and amusements. Thucydides made an effective speech; but Pericles immediately rose and offered to execute the buildings at his own expense, if the citizens would allow him fo put his own name upon them instead of theirs. The sarcasm was successful, and Pericles was empowered to do as he pleased in the matter. But Pericles did not mean to be simply sarcastic; he wished to point out to the Athenians in a delicate way, the spirit and aim of his policy, which was to make Athens, as a city, worthy to be the head and crown of Hellas. His victory in the assembly was followed by the ostracism of Thucydides; and during the rest of his career "there was" says the historian Thucydides, "in name a democracy, but in reality a government in the hands of the first man." The same author however, informs us that he never did anything unworthy of his high position; that he did not flatter the people, or oppress his adversaries, and that with all his unlimited command of the public purse, he was personally incorruptible. It is unnecessary to give a detailed account of all that he did to make his native city the most glorious in the ancient world. Greek architeture and sculpture under his patronage reached perfetion. To Pericles Athens owed the Parthenon, the Propylae, the Odeum and numberless other public and sacred edifices; he also liberally encouraged music and the drama, and, during his rule, industry and commerce were in so flourishing a condition, that prosperity was universal in Attica.

At length in 431 B.C., the long foreseen and inevitable Peloponnesslan war broke out between Athens and Sparta. With the circumstances that led to it we have not here to do, but as it terminated most disastrously for Athens, it is but right to say that Pericles was not to blame for the result. Had the policy that he recommended been pursued, one can scarcely doubt that Athens, with her immense resources, would have been the victor, and not the vanquished, in the struggle. Pericles himself died in the autumn of 429 B.C., after a lingering sickness.