Explore the life and achievements of the ancient Greek statesman Pericles and test your understanding of ancient Greek culture, artistic development, and the military in the Peloponnesian War.
Who Was Pericles?
How many people throughout history have so much impact on the world that an entire time period has been named after them? The number is pretty low, obviously, but Pericles of Athens was one such man to earn the distinction.Pericles (roughly 495-429 BC) was an extremely influential statesman, orator, and general of ancient Athens. He organized the Athenian Empire and commanded his people in the Peloponnesian War against the rival Greek city of Sparta. He sponsored massive programs of art and education, helping Athens develop a reputation for being the center of intellectual and artistic culture in the ancient world.
The years that Pericles led Athens were so vital in early Athenian culture that this period is called the ‘Age of Pericles.’
Political Career and Achievements
Pericles grew up in an era of Greek democracy and rose to political power as an influential statesman. Pericles sponsored many social programs and laws, including letting the poor attend the theater for free, with the state paying for their admission.
Athens at the time was the leadership of the Delian League, a coalition of Greek city-states that had united in 478 BC to fight the Persian War. A city-state was an independent government based around a major city. There was no ‘Greece’ at this time, just a series of Greek-speaking city-states.Pericles grew in power until his political mentor and leader of the democratic party, Ephialtes, was murdered in 461 BC.
Pericles became the new leader of the now very powerful democratic party and the leader of Athens. The city grew in wealth and power under Pericles.In 454 BC, Pericles moved the headquarters of the Delian League from the neutral island of Delos to Athens, a symbolic gesture of the city’s power in the League. This was essentially the beginning of the Athenian Empire, when the city-states in the Delian League became firmly under the influence of Athens. Pericles also moved the League’s treasury to Athens, although this was partly to protect it since the Persian and Egyptian armies defeated Greek forces in Africa.
Athenian Culture Under Pericles
Pericles sponsored buildings, arts, and education in Athens. It was during this era that the city developed the reputation for being the intellectual center of the ancient world. Under Pericles, Athens developed its Acropolis, the elevated citadel that held the most important buildings, temples, and markets.The additions made to the Athenian Acropolis included some of the most important works of art and architecture in European history. These buildings introduced new artistic and architectural styles, challenged the limits of ancient engineers, and set the standards of artistic perfection that are still admired today. The most notable of these buildings was the Parthenon, a massive temple to Athena, complete with a colossal statue to the goddess. It was ornately decorated with some of the finest marble statues, carved panels, and reliefs in human history.
Military Career and Death
Athen’s quick rise to power resulted in its losing its alliance with the Peloponnesian League, another Greek coalition under the leadership of the powerful city Sparta. Violence between the two Greek powers came in 431 BC, starting the Peloponnesian War. Pericles acted as the General of Athens for the first two years of the war, moving the people inside the walls of Athens and raiding the Peloponnesian coasts.Pericles was a cautious and calculating leader and planned to simply let Sparta exhaust their resources and weaken their state rather than face their superior military. He was remembered for delivering several important orations and speeches so monumental they rallied the spirits of the Athenians in their darkest times. His funeral oration to honor the Athenians who died at war is still cited today as the embodiment of civic pride and democracy.
Pericles died in a plague that hit the fortified city in 429 BC. Athens suffered without him and lost the war in 404 BC. The Second Athenian Empire was founded in 377 BC but never regained the power it held under Pericles.
Pericles (c. 495-429) was a Greek orator, statesman, and general who oversaw the expansion of Athens to its greatest power and cultural affluence. He was the leader of Athens, one of ancient Greece’s city-states. As Athens gained power, Pericles reorganized a coalition of city-states under Athens’ leadership, called the Delian League, into the Athenian Empire.
During this time, Athens became the cultural center of the ancient world. Under Pericles, the Acropolis was expanded and new buildings added, including one of the most impressive temples of the ancient world, called the Parthenon.When the Athenian Empire went to war with another coalition of Greek city-states, the Peloponnesian League, Pericles delivered a series of speeches called orations. They were so powerful that they rallied the people of Athens, and are still cited today for their love of democracy and call to civic pride.
Lesson at a Glance
The ‘Age of Pericles’ was eponymously named for Pericles, an ancient Greek orator, statesman, and general who oversaw the expansion of Athens to its greatest power and cultural affluence. During his time, he sponsored social programs, the arts, and education.
He also led Athens into war with Sparta, rallying the spirits of his people during this time.
Things you might do after you’ve covered the lesson on Pericles include:
- Present background details on Pericles
- Observe his achievements and political participation
- Mention Pericles’ influence on the culture of Athens
- Remember major events of his military career as well as the date of and reason for his death