Pericles was a remarkable Athenian statesman and military leader who lived during the Golden Age of Athens in the 5th century BC.
Known for his contributions to democracy, arts, and cultural achievements, Pericles played a pivotal role in shaping the city-state’s history and its position as a cultural and political powerhouse in ancient Greece.
His leadership during the Persian Wars, his patronage of arts and literature, and his ambitious building projects, including the iconic Acropolis with the Parthenon, are among his most significant accomplishments.
Pericles’ vision of an inclusive democracy and his dedication to the welfare of the people left an indelible mark on Athenian society and continue to inspire political thought and historical study to this day.
Accomplishments of Pericles
1. Strengthened Athenian democracy
Pericles played a crucial role in consolidating and enhancing the democratic system in Athens. He believed in the principle of “rule by the people” (demokratia) and sought to empower the ordinary citizens.
During his time in power, he increased the authority of the Assembly, which was the primary legislative body where all male citizens could participate.
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Pericles encouraged more citizens to become actively involved in the democratic process, thereby expanding political participation beyond the traditional aristocratic elite. His leadership and reforms contributed to the Athenian democracy’s stability and longevity.
2. Led Athens during the Persian Wars
The Persian Wars were a series of conflicts between the Greek city-states and the Persian Empire in the early 5th century BC. Pericles emerged as a prominent military and political leader during this period.
He demonstrated exceptional leadership and strategic acumen, particularly in the Battle of Salamis (480 BC), where the Athenians, under his guidance, achieved a decisive naval victory against the Persians.
Pericles’ leadership during the wars helped safeguard Athens and its democratic system from external threats, earning him the respect and admiration of his fellow citizens.
3. Built the Acropolis, including the Parthenon
One of Pericles’ most enduring accomplishments was his involvement in the construction of the Athenian Acropolis. This ambitious building project aimed to showcase the city’s wealth, power, and cultural achievements.
Pericles initiated the reconstruction and enhancement of several key structures on the Acropolis, including the iconic Parthenon, which was dedicated to the city’s patron goddess, Athena.
The Parthenon remains a symbol of classical architecture and the pinnacle of Athenian artistic and cultural achievements. Under Pericles’ guidance, the Acropolis became a testament to Athens’ cultural and political supremacy in the ancient world.
4. Promoted arts and literature as a patron
Pericles was a fervent supporter of arts and literature, and he actively promoted cultural development in Athens. As a patron, he sponsored numerous artists, writers, and thinkers, fostering an environment that encouraged creativity and intellectual exploration.
Playwrights like Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides flourished under his patronage, producing some of the most iconic works of Greek tragedy. Pericles also supported philosophers like Anaxagoras and Protagoras, contributing to the advancement of philosophical thought.
His patronage not only enriched Athenian cultural life but also left a lasting impact on Western civilization, as many of these artistic and philosophical works continue to be studied and appreciated to this day.
5. Expanded Athenian influence through imperialism
During Pericles’ leadership, Athens experienced a period of significant imperial expansion known as the Athenian Empire. Through a combination of military strength and diplomacy, Athens established alliances with other city-states and used its naval power to extend its influence across the Aegean Sea and beyond.
Pericles’ policies allowed Athens to extract tribute from its subject allies, which provided the city with substantial financial resources. These funds were reinvested into public projects, including the construction of grand buildings like the Parthenon and other infrastructure.
While this imperialism contributed to Athens’ prosperity and cultural flourishing, it also engendered resentment from other city-states, leading to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War.
6. Introduced ostracism to prevent tyranny
Recognizing the danger of potential tyrants rising to power and undermining Athenian democracy, Pericles introduced the practice of ostracism.
Ostracism was a system whereby citizens could vote, once a year, to exile a prominent figure from the city for a period of ten years. This measure allowed the Athenian citizens to protect their democracy by removing individuals who might pose a threat to the democratic principles and the balance of power.
While ostracism was intended as a safeguard, it was not immune to manipulation or abuse, and some historians argue that Pericles’ political opponents might have used it against him in the later years of his career.
Nonetheless, the concept of ostracism exemplified Pericles’ commitment to preserving Athenian democracy and preventing any individual from becoming too powerful.
7. Implemented fiscal reforms
Pericles introduced several fiscal reforms that had a significant impact on Athens’ financial stability and the functioning of its democracy. One of his key reforms was the equitable distribution of public funds to allow even the poorest citizens to participate in the government.
He increased payments to citizens for participating in the Assembly and other public duties, which encouraged more people to engage actively in civic affairs.
Additionally, Pericles reformed the system of juror pay, ensuring that even the poorest citizens could serve as jurors, further reinforcing the democratic ideals of inclusivity and equality before the law.
8. Organized cultural festivals like the Panathenaic Games
Pericles was a strong advocate for celebrating Athenian cultural identity and promoting a sense of unity among the citizens. He played a significant role in organizing and enhancing various cultural festivals, with the most notable being the Panathenaic Games.
These games were held every four years in honor of the city’s patron goddess, Athena. They included athletic competitions, musical contests, and other cultural events, attracting participants and spectators from all over Greece.
Pericles’ support for these festivals highlighted the cultural and artistic achievements of Athens, reinforcing its reputation as a center of excellence in the ancient world.
9. Delivered the famous Funeral Oration
Pericles delivered one of his most memorable speeches during the first year of the Peloponnesian War, at the public funeral held to honor the fallen soldiers. Thucydides, a historian and contemporary of Pericles, recorded this speech, which is known as the Funeral Oration.
In this powerful oration, Pericles praised the bravery of the Athenian soldiers and highlighted the virtues of Athenian democracy, extolling its principles of freedom and equality.
The Funeral Oration has become an enduring symbol of Athenian democratic values and serves as a timeless tribute to those who sacrificed their lives in defense of their city and its way of life.
10. Advocated for the “Rule of the People”
Throughout his political career, Pericles championed the concept of “demos,” or the people, and sought to ensure that the government served the interests of all Athenian citizens. He believed that political power should be vested in the hands of the many rather than the few.
Pericles’ vision of democracy extended beyond mere representation and included active participation from the citizenry in decision-making processes. By empowering the Assembly and encouraging civic engagement, Pericles helped establish a more inclusive and participatory form of government in Athens.
His advocacy for the “Rule of the People” left a lasting legacy on the development of democratic principles and governance, influencing political thought for generations to come.