Who was Pericles?

Pericles lifted Athens into a golden age through his support of the arts, architecture, philosophy, and democracy building.

Illustration by H.M. Herget, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Pericles (left) and Pheidias consult about creation of statue of Athena in this painting.
Illustration by H.M. Herget, Nat Geo Image Collection

Who was Pericles?

Pericles lifted Athens into a golden age through his support of the arts, architecture, philosophy, and democracy building.

The ancient Greek statesman Pericles (ca 495–429 B.C.) left his mark on the world in far more ways than the iconic Acropolis that still defines the skyline of Athens. He advanced the foundations of democracy and governed during Athens’s Golden Age, when the arts, architecture, and philosophy—as well as Athens itself—reached new heights.

Pericles first made a name for himself in the city-state during his 20s as a wealthy aristocratic arts patron. At the Dionysia Festival in 472 B.C. he sponsored the play Persians by the great tragic playwright Aeschylus.

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Illustration of bust of Pericles

Politics soon took priority over the arts for Pericles. In 461 B.C., he joined the reformer Ephialtes in organizing a vote in the popular assembly that stripped all remaining powers from the Areopagus, the old noble council. Many historians consider that event to have marked the birth of Athenian democracy. After Ephialtes was assassinated in 461 B.C., Pericles emerged as Athens’s foremost politician, and he would lead the popular assembly and the city until his death three decades later.

Pericles ushered in what is considered “radical democracy.” This meant that ordinary Athenian citizens were paid by the state to participate in public affairs. Previously, only the wealthy could afford the time to participate in politics. Pericles approved payment for jury duty and for soldiers, sailors, and administrators. That development transformed the character of Athenian democracy and society; lower-class Athenians (called thetes) could now participate as fully as citizens with property. A noted orator, Pericles stated in his famous Funeral Oration that Athenian citizens regard “a man who takes no interest in public affairs not as a harmless, but a useless character.”

Athens at war and peace

Pericles also elevated Athens’s role within the Delian League, a naval alliance of Greek city-states unified to fight the Persians. He maneuvered Athens to primacy over other league members, first by transferring the league’s treasury to Athens in 454 B.C. and then by imposing Athenian weights and measures on all league members three years later. The Delian League effectively became an Athenian empire.

Around 449 B.C., the Delian League signed the Peace of Callias, which ended nearly 50 years of fighting with the Persians and ushered in two decades of peace. To honor the gods for the victory and to glorify Athens, Pericles proposed using the Delian League’s treasury to mount an unprecedented building campaign.

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The Acropolis looms over tourists in Athens.

Work began in 447 B.C. to turn the rocky hill known as the Acropolis into a breathtaking temple complex. More than 20,000 tons of marble were used, producing the iconic Parthenon and the imposing colonnade of the Propylaea, the entrance gateway. The arts and philosophy also flourished during Pericles’ reign, when Socrates and the playwrights Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes produced some of their finest works.

But the peace of Athens was not to last. In 431 B.C., Pericles urged the popular assembly to declare war against Sparta. “It is from the greatest dangers that the greatest glories are to be won,” he stated in front of the assembly. Unfortunately, the 27-year-long Peloponnesian War resulted in great losses for Athens. When a plague broke out, an estimated 20,000 people died—including Pericles and his two legitimate sons. Athens lost its “first citizen,” but his legacy endures in the Athens skyline and in democratic institutions around the world.

This text is an excerpt from the National Geographic special issue The Most Influential Figures of Ancient History.