Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

 Periclean Athens

Steve Muhlberger

Periclean Athens holds  a consecrated position in the western historical and artistic tradition, and any short discussion will be open to criticism.   Yet it is precisely these near-mythological periods of history that demand close analysis.   I will do what I can in a short time.  Be aware that a lot of remarkable things happened in a short time, and it is hard to do justice to them.

Here are the broad outlines of the story: Before the Persian Wars, Sparta had been the undoubted leader of Greece.  It was the greatest single military power, and if common action was called for, it was smart to have Sparta on your side, and defer to its wishes in managing the common business. After 480, and the defeat of Xerxes, Sparta had an equal and a rival in Athens.  Its new fleet had been crucial in stopping the Persian advance.  After Salamis, the allied Greek fleet, which was dependent on Athenian ships and men, had made it possible to free the Ionian Greeks. The Athenian fleet would remain a necessary part of the defense of both Ionia and the rest of the Greeks. So Athens had come up in the world.

Also,  everyone knew that the determination of the Athenians to fight, even at the cost of their homeland, had kept the alliance together and led it to victory. It was the combination of fleet and prestige, and the continuing danger from Persia, that gave Athens a chance at a great prize -- thassalocracy, domination of the seas.

 The Athenians went for the prize, and attained it. For half a century, Athens was the richest city in Greece, perhaps the richest in the whole Mediterranean. It was in this period that Athens produced what she is remembered for today: her art, the art we call classical; her drama, both tragedy and comedy; her demokratia, the political system that has inspired a few and been reviled by most others ever since.

Those are the high points. Now let's look at the events in order.

It is a mistake to say that the Persian war ended in 479, the date of the battles of Plataea and Mycale.There was no peace between Persia and its Greek foes. Persia still could not tolerate revolt, and because of its great power, remained a terrible and constant threat to free Greece. In fact, the Greeks continued to fight Persia.

In 478, the Spartan general Pausanias led the Greek fleet, still formerly under Spartan command, to Cyprus, to free Greek cities there from Persian rule. The same year, he sailed back to the Aegean, and captured Byzantium (Constantinople) on the narrow seas.  But his arrogance turned off the allies, and frightened Sparta itself. Pausaniaswas recalled to Sparta. Instead of accepting a replacement from the Spartans, the other Greeks, particularly the island Greeks and the Ionians, turned to Athens.  It was Athens who was the key to their defense. 

So in 478 (a very eventful year), a large number of Greek states joined with Athens in a permanent, or at least long term, alliance. The members committed themselves to coordinating their fleets, under Athenian leadership. Those who were too poor to keep a fleet would pay cash instead into a common treasury. This treasury was kept at Delos, and thus the alliance was called the Delian League.

The Delian league made Athens Sparta's rival, at least in prestige. No other issue divided them, but prestige and honor were all the breath of life to these people. A further act put Athens and Sparta more out of sympathy. Athens, under the urging of Themistokles, rebuilt its walls, destroyed by the Persians, over the objections of Sparta. Sparta, which was unfortified, said that Greeks need not build walls against each other. Rather than trust to good will, Themistokles built walls around Athens, its port the Piraeus, and "long walls" connecting the two.  Athens the sea power was now safe from Sparta and any other land power.

Note that Themistokles, after twice saving Athens, was ostracized and went to Persia himself -- the natural refuge of  aristocratic Greeks in disgrace.

In the years after 478, rejection of Persia characterized Greek politics. For thirty years, Athens and the Delian league continued to fight Persia -- not so much in desperation and fear, as in search of profit. Athens and its people benefited greatly. The polis as a whole saw its influence growing, and it gained loot and even some territory. Individual citizens, especially the poorer ones, could look forward to paid service as rowers and marines.

Sparta, in contrast,  was afraid to expand. The example of Pausanias run wild had shown that imperialism might destabilize the Spartan constitution and way of life. But Spartan reluctance to lead did not make Athenian prominence easier for Spartans to bear.

There was growing potential for hostility. This was especially true because democratic feeling in Athens was growing all the time.

In 464, the helots in Sparta revolted against their masters and came close to overthrowing them. The Spartans called on their allies to send troops to aid in the mopping up. Athens was still, formally, one of those allies. Some people felt Athens should respond. Foremost among them was the leading citizen of the time, Kimon. Kimon was an aristocrat who had been commanding the fleets against Persia for some years.  Those of more democratic sympathies had cheered for the helots, and were unwilling to help Sparta put them down. Kimon won over the assembly and an Athenian contingent under his command marched to Sparta. When they got there, however, the Spartans scornfully rejected Athenian help.  Athens and Kimon both were disgraced, and the pro-Spartan policy discredited.

The result was a democratic reaction.  The assembly of Athens took the last important judicial powers away from the Aeropagus, the old aristocratic council. From now on all cases that were not considered sacrilege would be judged by juries chosen from the list of citizens -- in other words, courts would now be popular courts -- and they had the power to judge not just ordinary crimes but unsuccessful or unpopular officials, too. Under this new regime, groups of 100, 500 or 1000 ordinary citizens, what we call juries, would have supreme political and legal power -- more power in fact than our Supreme Court, since there was no bill of rights or right of dissent. To make sure that ordinary citizens could participate, jurors were to be paid a daily wage for their service.

These reforms, which took place in 462, are generally considered to mark the beginning of the "radical democracy" of Athens. I don't know if that is a good term.  But it is certainly true that the new constitution was unusual.The constitution not only allowed citizens in all property classes to participate in policy iscussions and decisions, it actively encouraged them to do so! By Greek standards, by ancient standards, by any standards actually implemented before the American civil war, this was wide-open government.

Under demokratia, Athens continued to rise in power, prestige, and ambition. Athens's thassalocracy, rule of the sea, made it the dominant trading center of the known world. Athens's fleet made it militarily formidable. In fact, during the 450s, Athens did not hesitate to make war on Persia and Sparta simultaneously over a ten year period.  In neither case did Athens win. But neither did it really lose. Athens was left in control of its mighty empire.

Did I say mighty empire? Yes. In the generation since Xerxes, Athens had gone from being a leader of a Greek alliance, the Delian League, to being the master of much of Greece. In 454, Athens had transferred the headquarters and the common funds of the league from Delos to Athens. Athens slowly came to interfere in the internal autonomy of the allies.  Athens even planted colonies of Athenian citizens at strategic places to make sure of its control over both sea and allies. This was imperialism, no doubt about it. It was, by our standards, a flagrant abuse of power.

For the Athenians, though, abuse did not enter into it.  If Athens was strong, of course Athens would lead, and act to its own advantage. And after all, it was not like Athens did nothing for its allies. It gave them the protection that was the purpose of the league. Athens did most of the work. Furthermore, it was the richest people in every city who ponied up the league contribution. They felt these contributions were tribute. Many of the poorer citizens did not care, or were openly sympathetic to democratic Athens. Athens, in its own interest, kept the local bigwigs in line.

Yet by any sensible standard, the contributions to the league were tribute, at least after 454, and the league was now an Athenian empire. When the cash came to Athens, Athens began devoting 1/6 of it to their goddess, Athena (or alternatively Athens itself). Much of the tribute went to the fleet; but much of it went to fuel the incredible outburst of culture that characterizes classical Athens.

This cultural creativity is associated with Pericles. It only makes sense to say a few words about him now. Pericles was a man of aristocratic background but popular sympathies.  Pericles gets the credit for proposing pay for juries in the 450s. In the  440s, Pericles proposed the use of the league treasury to build the Parthenon, a temple to Athena that was meant to be, and was, of unexampled excellence. It was Pericles who put forward the argument that as long as Athens defended the allies, it did not matter what happened to the money. This was generally accepted by the citizens. Pericles was what we call a populist politician, and regularly appealed to chauvinistic sentiments.

After 443, Pericles was the unopposed leader of Athens. Till his death, Pericles regularly held the one office in the state for which people were elected by name -- the office of strategos, which could mean general or admiral. This does not mean he was a military dictator. There were ten strategoi, not one. Pericles' power depended more on the popularity of his policies, and on his ability to sell the assembly on his ideas, than on his military competence, which was not extraordinary.

Pericles'  cultural ideas are more interesting.  He believed that Athens was something very special. By pursuing demokratia (not a word he used), through citizen equality, and through a conscious cosmopolitan and open stance to the wider world, Athens had achieved the Greek ideal of the well-rounded, complete man in a way that no other polis ever had. This is an easy claim to make, a harder one to justify, but Pericles' Athens came close to it. Some of the credit goes to Pericles own efforts to promote the arts: the building of temples, sculpture, the dramatic arts and the festivals that were the site of the performances.

Under Pericles, Athens became the foremost artistic center of Greece.

Athens had not always been culturally distinguished.  But in the time of Pericles, Athens pulled in all the best talent from all over the Greek world. It played the same role that Paris and New York have in the past two centuries as a center of the arts and intellectual discussion.

It was not just the money that brought them. It was the heady atmosphere of the place. And Athens itself was hardly barren.

The art form that was most typically Athenian was drama. Drama, both tragedy and comedy, had religious roots and had been developing for a long time.  Whether tragedy, which treated questions of fate and morality and the meaning of life in a serious matter; or comedy, which poked fun at the people of Athens for their human failings; either way, drama was a public art form. The plays were produced by rich citizens as a public duty; they were performed by phratries, who considered it an honor; they were put on at the chief religious festivals of the city, in the context of a competition (typically Greek); and they were written by Athenians, men who were not professional writers, but all-round citizens. It is as if North Bay had a public-owned TV station run by non-professionals in their off time, that was the best in the world.  Athens was closer to the size of North Bay and the Nipissing District than it was to Toronto or any other big city of our day.

It was an exciting place to be alive. Indeed, people are still excited about it, just as they are excited about the Paris of the Impressionists, or the London of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, or Florence between Dante and Machiavelli. Much of the creativity of the world has come from such urban centers, usually in a short burst of frenetic activity. Athens was maybe not the first such place. I often wonder if early Sumer had such a golden age, before the kings took over. It seems likely to me that Catal Huyuk was the wonder of the contemporary world. But for Athens we have their art and literature; later peoples have preserved and revived it. There is no doubting the excellence of the product, or its continued appeal.

But there is likewise no doubt about Athenian arrogance. Its rivals, being Greeks, could not tolerate it, any more than the Athenians could help being arrogant. After all, they would have said -- did say! -- that they had a lot to be arrogant about. Trouble was inevitable.  A Thirty Years' Truce with Sparta had hardly lasted for fifteen years when the two little giants of the Greek world came into conflict. This was the Second Peloponnesian War, the Peloponnesian War. It will be our subject next time.

There are so many good books about the Golden Age of Athens, even in our small library, that you just have to go to the DF section and stick out your hand.
This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.