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Pericles’ family and political career

Principal focus
Brief overview of Pericles
Pericles’ family background and education
Pericles’ roles as general (strategos) and politician


H 1.1

describe and assess the significance of key people, groups, events, institutions, societies and sites within the historical context

H 4.1

use historical terms and concepts appropriately

H 3.4

explain and evaluate differing perspectives and interpretations of the past

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The Principal Focus of this study is that students gain an understanding of Pericles in the context of his time.

Personalities can influence the course of history. By synthesising information students can construct an evaluation of Pericles’ significance and legacy.

There is quite a lot of evidence from this period, but not so much on Pericles and his life. This evidence deals primarily with Pericles’ role in the Peloponnesian War (431 BC): causes, strategies and leadership.

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Brief overview of Pericles

Pericles is remembered because his name has become synonymous with the Peloponnesian War, fifth century Greece, Classical Athens and Athenian democracy.

One of the main reasons we know about Pericles is because he was held in such great awe by Thucydides, author of the (incomplete) history of the Peloponnesian War from 431 to 404 BC and general in the same war. Thucydides wrote about other great personalities who participated in this war but Pericles stands out as the greatest of all the leading figures. Thucydides presents Pericles as:

“In a word then, I say that our city as a whole is the school of Hellas...”
(Thucydides 2, 37-47)
Had Pericles’ war strategy been followed. Athens would almost certainly have won the Peloponnesian War.

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Pericles’ family background and education

Pericles was born in Athens in the state of Attica in 494 BC into a very distinguished Athenian family. His father, Xanthippus , belonged to an eminent political family and served as strategos during the Persian War in 479 BC attaining hero status as a result. Pericles’ mother, Agariste, was a member of the Alcmaeonid family, famous for its long involvement in Athens’ political history. Cleisthenes, the famous reformer of the Athenian government in 507 BC, was Pericles’ great-uncle.

Pericles had a traditional education for an Athenian boy of the fifth century. This involved training in rhetoric, oratory and philosophy, recital of the epic poems of Homer, appreciation of music and gymnastics.


1. Who wrote about Pericles and why?
2. What did Pericles want for Athens?
3. What family connections may have helped Pericles in his political career?
4. What educational training would have helped Pericles in his political career?

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Pericles’ roles as general (strategos) and politician

The government of Athens in the time of Pericles is usually regarded as the best example of direct demokratia (democracy). The word demokratia comes from a combination of two Greek words; demos (people) and kratein (to rule). Demokratia therefore means government by the people.

Pericles was first and foremost an Athenian citizen. He was a member of the upper classes but had the same rights and privileges as every other Athenian citizen. This meant he could vote and stand for election to any of the magistracies in Athens. (Aristotle, a Greek fourth century philosopher who wrote “The Athenian Constitution”, claims there were 700 magistracies.) He could also participate in the Heliaea (people’s court) or Boule (council) if selected by lot and in the Ecclesia (assembly).

The magistracy that Pericles did stand for was that of strategos. This had become the main political position in Athens at this time. Although the primary function of the strategos was to be a military general, he could also call meetings of the Ecclesia and give political advice.

Like all the magistrates, the strategos had to undergo public scrutiny. This meant he could be brought to trial or fined if the Athenians suspected him of any wrong doing in relation to his work. In 431-30 BC Pericles was fined and removed from office because Athenian citizens were upset about the hardships they had to face during those first two years of the Peloponnesian War.

Another way of removing a magistrate from office was via ostracism (exile from Attica for ten years). Some famous Athenians were ostracised; the historian Thucydides and Pericles’ father, Xanthippus, among them. Pericles was never ostracised.

Even though Pericles was an Athenian citizen who held his position constitutionally, Thucydides still wrote:
“So, in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen.” (Thucydides 2, 65)

Earlier in the same passage Thucydides wrote:

“The reason for this was that Pericles, because of his position, his intelligence, and his known integrity, could respect the liberty of the people and at the same time hold them in check. It was he who led them, rather than they who led him........” (Thucydides 2. 65)

Under Pericles the Athenian government became more democratic than it had been previously.

Pericles’ importance to Athens in summed up by Thucydides:

“ was under him that Athens’ was at her greatest”
(Thucydides 2. 65)

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Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Penguin Classics, 1972, London (translated by Rex Warner).

The Greeks (external website)
These are 11 sites in all, dealing with Pericles’ life and Athens in the fifth century.

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Link to Peloponnesian War Peloponnesian War: This was fought between Athens and Sparta and their various allies from 431 - 404 BC.
Link to Thucydides Thucydides: an historian who wrote about the Peloponnesian War. He was born c.460 BC and died about the year 400 BC. Thucydides probably participated in some of the earlier actions but between 430 and 427 BC he caught the plague. He, unlike many Athenians, recovered. He was appointed general in 424 BC but failed to save the Athenian colony of Amphipolis from the Spartan general, Brasidas. As a result he was ostracised (banished) for twenty years that gave him the opportunity to gather information about the war from a variety of sources.
Link to strategos strategos: general
Link to Homer Homer: a blind poet who is thought to have written the Iliad and the Odyssey. Historians are unsure when he lived but the epics both incorporate earlier legends and descriptions of the earlier Mycenaean period.
Link to Aristotle Aristotle: a Greek scientist and philosopher, born in Thrace in 384 BC who studied under Plato and died in 322 BC. He was tutor to Alexander the Great and his works cover every branch of science and philosophy known in his day.

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