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Pericles, the Ancient Greek Father of Democracy

Painting of the Ancient Greek “father” of democracy, Pericles, delivering his famous funeral oration in front of the Assembly. Credit: Philipp Foltz, Public domain

Since Athens is considered the birthplace of democracy, the ancient Greek politician Pericles must be considered its father.

By any measure, he was without a doubt the first great statesman in the entire world, making Athens a model city-state worthy of emulation by all the others.

Pericles led Athens from 461 to 429 BC in a period historians term “The Golden Age of Pericles,” firmly establishing the rule of democracy in the city.

However, he was not only concerned with the difficult task of governing his city-state as best as he could, though that would have been an enormous task for any man.

He was responsible for building the structures on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon, which have survived through the ages to remind us of his greatness and visionary thinking.

He also promoted the arts, literature, and philosophy and gave free rein to some of the most inspired writers, artists, and thinkers of his time, giving Athens the reputation of being the educational and cultural center of the ancient world.

A great statesman, as well as a successful general, he increased the power of Athens through his use of the Delian League to form the Athenian empire.

The great statesman led his city through the First Peloponnesian War (460-446 BC) and the first two years of the Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC).

Pericles was still actively engaged in political life when he died of the plague in 429 BC at the age of 66.

Early life, education, and politics of the ancient Greek statesman Pericles

Pericles was born into an aristocratic family in Athens in 495 BC. His father Xanthippus (c. 525 – 475 BC) was a respected politician and war hero, and his mother Agariste was a member of the powerful and influential Alcmaeonidae family, who encouraged the early development of Athenian democracy.

As a child of a noble and wealthy family, Pericles was allowed to pursue his inclination toward any educational subject he desired. He read a great deal, and showed a particular interest in philosophy.

He is recognized as the first Athenian politician to attribute importance to philosophy as a practical discipline which could help guide and direct one’s thought and actions, rather than a mere speculative pastime or a basis for the interminable arguments of the Sophists.

As a young man, Pericles was quiet and introverted, avoiding public appearances and speeches, and instead preferring to devote most of his time to his studies.

Later in life, this initial shyness would encourage the claims of his political opponents that his consort, Aspasia of Miletus (c. 470 – 410 BC) taught him how to speak and actually wrote his speeches for him because, they said, there was no evidence of him learning oratory in his youth.

This would be a grave insult to any man of Athens but particularly to a statesman.

Pericles began his involvement in politics in the early 460’s BC. His longtime political rival was Cimon  (c. 510 – 450 BC), a leader of the conservative party and an able military commander who had fought at Salamis in 480 BC, when the Greeks defeated the Persians.

The Delian League, a confederation of city-states, was formed in 478 BC to provide defense against further Persian aggression, and Cimon was instrumental in persuading various city-states to join in the alliance.

However, in 463 BC, Pericles charged him with corruption in his dealings with Macedon.
Cimon, who was also the son of Miltiades, the hero of the seminal battle of Marathon, was acquitted, but this may have been due more to his political connections and influence than any failing on Pericles’ part to prosecute the case.

However, in 461 BC, Pericles achieved the political elimination of his opponent by using ostracism to sideline him. The accusation that time was that Cimon had betrayed his city by aiding Sparta.

As a political leader, Pericles himself was untainted by corruption although he was not indifferent to making money.

The historian Thucydides wrote extensively about the charisma and leadership abilities of the great statesman, saying “Athens was in name a democracy but, in fact, was governed by its first citizen.”

However, some historians argue that Pericles’ style of governance was in reality more akin to populism than any other type of rule. 

The Great Funeral Oration of Pericles

Pericles’ oration, given at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War as a part of the annual public memorial rites for those who had perished in its battles, is one of the greatest speeches in the history of mankind.

In it, Pericles praises the value of democracy, stating that every man should feel a sense of duty towards the state and should have the power to exercise his rights and choose a government.

The oration has served forever after as an ode to participatory democracy.

Pericles maintained that citizens are so much more aware of the value of democracy—and are willing to strive to preserve their freedom and democracy—if they involve themselves in matters of the state administration and legal system.

The statesman also said that by making all Athenians fully aware of their liberties and the benefits of democracy, Athens would always continue to produce men who have a sense of duty to themselves and their fellow citizens in the upholding of democratic values.

He also stressed the concept of “equal justice under the law,” which meant that he and all Athenians were all equal under the law, and no individual was more superior or inferior in regard to the law of the land.

This, in itself, was nothing less than a completely revolutionary concept in the entire world at that time.

Some historians have placed Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on a par with Pericles’ famed Funeral Oration, claiming that the embattled U.S. President based his oratory on that immortal speech delivered in Athens over 2,000 years earlier.

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