Texts in Context:
The World of Pericles

By Gabriel Blanchard

Athens was about to turn a corner.

It wasn't a good corner, but it was a corner.

To see last week’s post, about the unlikely Greek victory in the Græco-Persian War, go here.

The Arguably-Good Old Days

Having driven the Persians off after the Battle of Platæa in 479 BC,* Athens entered upon its classical era par excellence. Around the same time, a young man came of age; he was the great-nephew of Cleisthenes through his mother, and thus of the celebrated and yet ill-omened house of the Alcmæonids. His name was Pericles, and he would preside over Athens at the height of its glory, even while proving to be one of the chief architects of its fall.

Up until 478, Sparta, being the strongest land power in Greece, had been the de facto leader of the war effort. However, at this point they considered the aim of the war accomplished and ceased hostilities; they even proposed that the Ionian Greeks (who were principally Athenian colonists in origin) withdraw to the European side of the Ægean, in order to guarantee their future liberty from Persian control. Athens, which was rapidly becoming the greatest Hellene naval power, angrily rejected this idea, and joined with most of the city-states of Ionia, Thrace, and nearly all the Ægean islands in forming the Delian League, an alliance against Persia (named for its meeting-place on the isle of Delos, which lay almost in the center of the Ægean and was sacred to Apollo).

In these early post-war days, Athens was led principally by three statesmen. There was the populist Themistocles,** who had been a general in the war and and was the principal advocate of the city’s turn to naval power. Second, Cimon,** an aristocratic conservative and admirer of Sparta who favored Athenian cooperation with that city. And finally, there was Aristides** the Just, a conservative like Cimon but more willing to ally with Themistocles—despite the fact Themistocles had gotten him ostracized. Aristides got his nickname “the Just” by his extreme honesty and good character, and this ostracism exhibited the point: according to a story related by Plutarch, an illiterate citizen came up to him during the vote and asked him to write Aristides on his voting potsherd. The statesman asked whether Aristides had wronged him in some way; the other answered, “I’ve never even met him—I’m just sick of hearing everybody call him ‘the Just’ all the time.” Aristides, whether out of extreme reverence for the law or the best sense of humor in recorded history, duly wrote his own name on the potsherd, and was in fact selected for ostracism (though he was allowed to return to the city early due to an amnesty). All three were involved in shaping the Delian League. However, by the middle of the fifth century BC, all three had died, and on top of that, Cimon and the pro-Spartan party had suffered a diplomatic humiliation in 462.† The very next year, Pericles, who had aligned himself with the populists (something of a tradition for the Alcmæonids), was elected archon for the first time.

The Age of Pericles

This was the first of thirty consecutive one-year terms held by Pericles. His popularity is understandable. He was at one and the same time a nationalistic populist who gave legal preference to native-born Athenians, and also a favorer of metics, welcoming foreign scholars like Herodotus and the philosopher Anaxagoras (whose works were studied by a certain Socrates); he even entered a common-law marriage with a woman who was (or was reputed to be) a hetæra, Aspasia of Miletus. Pericles’ legal reforms included opening many more state offices to the lower classes, and ensuring that those who took office were paid, so that those who were poor could actually afford to hold office if selected. More than that, he lavished money on the reconstruction of the Athenian acropolis, which had been devastated by the Persians a generation before and still lay in ruins. Greece’s most iconic building, the Parthenon, was constructed under his leadership, and is a masterpiece of engineering. To take just one example, the columns that form the outer perimeter of the Parthenon: the curvature of the earth would make perfectly upright columns appear to be leaning slightly outward. The columns of the Parthenon are therefore inclined inward—the lean is so minuscule that, if one took the two sides‡ of the building and extended them up into the sky, they would finally meet to form the vertex of a triangle … a mile and a half above the surface of the earth.

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.

This was also an age of immense scholarly and artistic productivity. We have touched already on Æschylus and Herodotus. Two other great tragedians, Sophocles (who was a few years younger than Æschylus) and Euripides (a little younger again), also throve in this era. Of Sophocles’ works, we again have seven left. Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone are known as the “Theban plays” after their setting in Thebes. The other four are Ajax, Philoctetes, Electra, and The Trachinian Women; the first three are loosely connected to the Trojan War, while the fourth is about the apotheosis of Heracles. Sophocles is grittier and less august than Æschylus, and shows more willingness to tamper with the traditional “plot” of some myths to accord with his sense of justice, but he displays a similar mystical reverence, and a clear admiration for steadfast refusal to bow before mere power (Antigone and Philoctetes both exemplify this).

From Euripides, a total of nineteen plays survive. He shows a skeptical and often bitter outlook on the old heroes and the gods, lambasting their selfishness and hypocrisy. A few of his more important works include: Medea, a revenge tragedy about the witch of that name—the niece of Circe herself—who fell in love with the hero Jason and helped him win the Golden Fleece, but whom he then disdains to marry in favor of a Greek princess (strangely, snubbing a powerful witch turns out to be a bad move); The Trojan Women, a drama exhibiting the ghastly fates of the widowed women of that city, and which portrays Helen, atypically, as heartless and conniving; Hippolytus and The Bacchæ, two plays in which a central character scorns one of the gods and the deity in question takes horrifically disproportionate revenge; and Electra, the only play for whose subject matter we have surviving plays from all three of the great ancient tragedians. (Sophocles’ play bears the same name, while Æschylus’s is The Libation Bearers, the middle play of the Oresteia.) Euripides’ iconoclastic tendencies are at their apex here, and he parodies his two predecessors savagely.

This was also when Aristophanes composed his plays, of which eleven survive. Known as “the father of comedy,” he satirized a wide range of topics and people quite directly. One of his later plays, The Frogs,§ has Dionysus (the god of the theater) going to Hades to resurrect a playwright, because none of Athens’ living ones are any good; the god proceeds to stage a competition between Æschylus and Euripides, who tear each other’s work nearly to pieces. Aristophanes also authored The Clouds, which includes what is probably the very first depiction of Socrates—decades earlier than Plato’s earliest dialogues. It portrays him as one of the Sophists, maybe thanks to his familiarity with Anaxagoras or his habit of cross-examining people; some sources report that Socrates himself was so amused by “himself” in the play that he stood up and took bows while it was being performed. This play was, a few years later, recalled in a very different light.

The Fatal Flaw

Aristotle, in analyzing the dramas of Sophocles as the archetype for tragedy generally, argued that the key to good tragedy was that the evils which fell upon the hero should be in a certain sense of his own making—not consciously or deliberately (watching someone do something obviously and avoidably stupid does not produce pitiable irony, but mere angry frustration), but through a character flaw that they could hardly be expected to see or correct in time for it to matter.

Maybe it is too generous to call Athens, or Pericles, tragically flawed; maybe not. In any event, tensions had continued building between Athens and Sparta, while Athens’ ascendancy over the rest of the Delian League had turned it into an empire in all but name. In 431, Pericles convinced the Athenians to declare war on their old ally.

It may have been the worst choice he ever made.

*Exactly when the legal end of the war took place is debated, but it was a surprisingly long time after any real war effort on Persia’s part had ceased. It is conventionally dated to the Peace of Callias; this, if it existed (and many scholars think it did), is mostly pegged to 449—a full thirty years after Platæa.
**Pronounced thĕ-mĭs-tø-klēz, -møn, and ê-rĭs--dēz.
†Specifically, the helots (who were more or less serfs) on whose agricultural work Sparta depended had broken out in revolt; Cimon persuaded the Athenians to send an army to help put the revolt down, but when they arrived, the Spartans declined the aid and told them to go home.
‡I.e., the long sides of the rectangle, as distinct from the short “sides” that are really its front and back.
§Βρεκεκεκὲξ κοὰξ κοάξ (let the reader understand).

Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out the official CLT podcast, Anchored. Thank you for reading the Journal.

Published on 1st July, 2024. Page image of The Epiphany of Dionysus, a second-century AD mosaic from the village of Dion in northern Greece.

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