Pericles & the Athenian Ideal
By Troy Southgate
Bust of Pericles bearing the inscription “Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian”. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original by Cresilas, ca. 430 BC (Museo Pio-Clementino)
There is already much discussion in our circles about the example of Sparta, not least as a result of the recent Hollywood blockbuster 300  which was rather loosely based on the exploits of King Leonidas, but in this article I intend to examine Sparta’s chief rival Athens.
The Athenian statesman, Pericles (495 – 429 BCE) once claimed that his city was an educational role model for the whole of Greece, but how far was this really true?
Pericles’ boast is part of his funeral oration recorded by Thucydides (460 – 395 BCE) in his The Peloponnesian War . The aim of Pericles’ oration is to establish that Athens was a society worth dying for. Thus the speech is designed to exploit in his listeners deep-seated feelings of local pride and identity, inviting them to recall the glory of Athenian growth and prosperity. His verbal tapestry begins by lauding Athenian ancestry, emphasizing the fact that the people’s “courage and virtues have handed on to us, a free country.”
He mentions “the constitution and the way of life that has made us great” and points to certain social improvements such as power being democratically channeled into the hands “of the whole people,” the fairness and “equality before the law” and the fact that, in terms of social classification, status is not determined by “membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.” Pericles was also careful to mention the prevailing moral ethos which underpinned fifth-century Athenian society, that of sovereign, “unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.”
Then Pericles lists what he considered to be the noblest attributes of his native city, with particular reference to the cultural activities that provided “recreation for our spirits.” This tactic was designed to pave the way for a contrasting description of the traditional enemy, Sparta.
Pericles then polemically denounced Spartan militarism and the rigorous training to which it “submitted” its youth, lauding the Athenian educational system by contrast. He also praised Athens for apparently maintaining a confident superiority above and beyond all other Greek states, emphasizing the importance of thought before action.
When Pericles finally describes Athens as “an education to Greece,” he explains precisely why he considers this to be the case. Athens stands for the freedom of the citizen, who is “rightful lord and owner of his own person.” Because of its constitution, Athens has waxed powerful: “Athens, alone of the states we know, comes to her testing time in a greatness that surpasses what was imagined of her . . . future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.” But with greatness comes peril: “it is clear that for us there is more at stake than there is for others who lack our advantages.”
Pericles then offers an inspiring account of the necessity of personal sacrifice. The slain warriors, in whose honor the funeral had been held, were depicted as heroes who had lain down their very lives for the continuation of Athenian culture, heritage and tradition, itself “a risk most glorious.” Pericles then challenges the living to emulate the honored dead, making “up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous . . . for men to end their lives with honor, as these have done, and for you honorably to lament them: their life was set to a measure where death and happiness went hand in hand.”
But can Athens really can be considered to have been a role model for the whole of Greece, or was Pericles merely deluding himself and his contemporaries? Let us examine the historical record.
Pericles is renowned for the prominent role he played in the democratization of the Athenian political system, which itself had “been fixed by Cleisthenes (570 – 507 BCE) and further reformed after the battle of Marathon” (J. B. Bury, A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great  [Macmillan, 1951], 346).
After overthrowing Thucydides and assuming the leadership of the people, Pericles and Ethialtes (d. 461 BCE) set about reducing the power of the judiciary in the Areopagus. At this time, the archons or chief magistrates were appointed by lot, but only from a select number of pre-elected candidates. Pericles abolished this system with the result that the archons themselves became “appointed by lot from all the eligible citizens [who now] had an equal chance of holding political office, and taking part in the conduct of political affairs” (Bury, 349). This system was also extended to the Boule, or Council of the Five Hundred.
In addition, Pericles effectively dismantled the hereditary powers of the traditionally oligarchic Areopagus completely, restricting its activities in order to redefine its role as little more than a “supreme court for charges of murder” (A. R. Burn, Pericles and Athens  [English Universities Press, 1964], 46). In 462 BCE, Pericles also initiated a scheme whereby jurors and those holding offices of state received payment for their services to the city, “a feature which naturally won him popularity with the masses” (Bury, 349).
This very popularity, in fact, had been deliberately engineered by Pericles himself in order to counteract the large support that Cimon (510 – 450 BCE), an accomplished naval hero, was able to command from the Athenian nobility. Although Pericles was himself an aristocrat, he “decided to attach himself to the people’s party and to take up the cause of the poor and the many instead of that of the rich and the few, in spite of the fact that this was quite contrary to his own temperament”(Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives  [Penguin, 1960], 171).
Indeed, Thucydides attacked Periclean reforms and labeled them “democracy in name, but in practice government by the first citizen” (Plutarch, 173). So what began as Greek democracy under Cleisthenes around 500 BCE had become a dictatorship under Pericles by 430 BCE.
Despite all the speculation surrounding Pericles motives for initiating democratic reforms, in terms of her constitution and statecraft Athens undoubtedly stood far ahead of her rivals.
One measure of the seriousness of Athenian democratization was the introduction of new political technologies, such as allotment-machines, water-clocks, juror’s ballots, and juror’s tickets.
Another sign of Athenian political acumen is the transfer of the headquarters and treasure of the Delian league from Delos to Athens in 454 BCE. The Delian League was a crucial alliance of 150 Greek city-states established prior to the Peloponnesian wars to defend Hellas from the Persians. The transfer of its headquarters to Athens gave the Athenians enormous political and economic influence over the member states.
Sparta had an entirely different political structure. In Bury’s words, Sparta was imbued with a “conservative spirit.” The Spartan constitution, unlike its continually revised and reformed counterpart in Athens, had remained virtually the same since its inception.
Sparta had a mixed constitution with monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements. Sparta was ruled nominally by kings, an order going back to the times of Homer. The aristocratic element was the Council of Elders, or Gerusia, which consisted of thirty men who were elected for life and chosen by acclamation in the general assembly of citizens. Membership was described as a prize for virtue. However, the Spartan Assembly of the People, or Apella, contained only males over thirty years of age who decided matters of state purely on the basis of a particular speaker receiving the loudest cheers from those in attendance. Theoretically, the Spartan constitution was democratic, but if the elders and magistrates did not approve of the decision of the majority, they could annul the proceedings by refusing to proclaim the decision.
The Athenians were always very keen to stress the political differences between themselves and their Peloponnesian rivals. Many island states — often artificially created by colonial means — usually followed the example of Athens rather than Sparta. Athenian democracy, unlike the American variety, was not spread around the world at gunpoint. Instead, the states that adopted the Athenian system seemed genuinely inspired by her example.
Sparta, on the other hand, had few imitators, and the states that did resemble Sparta did not appear to imitate her. So as far as Athenian politics was concerned, at least, Pericles was right to claim that Athens was the educator of Greece.
Athens was an example to Greece in politics. But what about the economic and cultural realms?
According to Plutarch, Athens became fantastically wealthy after Themistocles (524 – 459 BCE) had directed the revenue of the city’s lucrative silver mines at Laurium towards the construction of a strong navy, including a new fleet of triremes, which made possible the reconquest of Athens after its inhabitants had been forced to flee from the invading Persians.
When Athens became host to the treasury of the Delian League in 454 BCE, Pericles used its funds for the rebuilding of Athenian temples, claiming they had been destroyed by the Persians in the common cause of Greece, thus it was appropriate that they be rebuilt from the common funds.
In 449 BCE, a pan-Hellenic Congress was proposed to raise funds for further projects. This plan met with fierce opposition from Thucydides among others. According to Plutarch, Pericles answered his critics by declaring that “the Athenians were not obliged to give the allies an account of how their money was spent, provided that they carried on the war for them and kept the Persians away.” Pericles had effectively plundered the common treasure of Greece and turned it into the adornment of Athens.
Athenian trade also began to flourish during the rule of Pericles, and Themistocles’ fortification of the Piraeus made Athens one of the greatest ports in Greece. The decline of merchant cities in Ionia also contributed greatly to the Athenian economy.
But the most striking developments in fifth-century Athens took place in the cultural sphere.
Although Greek philosophy began in Ionia, it flourished in Athens. Because of her wealth, political power, and cultural refinement, she attracted the best minds from all over Greece. The Sophists, in particular, contributed much to the development of political theory, rhetoric, and logic and stimulated the thought of Athens’ native geniuses Socrates and Plato.
Athens is also renowned for her great architecture, a matter in which Pericles himself played a prominent role. Pericles enlisted Pheidias (480 – 430 BCE) to be the director of his building program, assisted by such skilled architects as Callicrates, Ictinus, Coroebus, and Metagenes. Among their projects were the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena, the adornment of the Acropolis, the Odeon, the Concert Hall, and the temples of Eleusis and Hephaistos.
When Pericles was attacked for his lavish use of public funds, he offered to pay for the construction work himself, if he could take all the glory. This did the trick. Even Pericles’ most zealous critics wished to share in his renown, so they insisted that he complete the buildings at public expense.
Pericles’ construction projects were remarkable not merely for their expense, but also for their artistry, craftsmanship, and good taste, which no other Greek states were able to match, least of all Sparta. In fact, C. M. Bowra wrote that the “remains of Sparta are so humble that it is hard to believe that this was the power which for many years challenged and finally conquered Athens” (Periclean Athens [Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1971], p. 180). But although Pericles’ construction program clearly was an “education” to the rest of Greece, it was no safeguard against eventual Spartan conquest.
What we call ancient Greek drama is better deemed ancient Athenian drama. The great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes were Athenians, as were the comic playwrights Aristophanes and Menander. Sparta had its share of talented poets — among them Tyrtaeus during the mid-seventh century BCE — but they could not compete with the new trends being set in Athens. As Bury put it, when a stranger visited Sparta he must have experienced “a feeling of being transported into an age long past, when men were braver, better, and simpler, unspoiled by wealth, undeveloped by ideas” (p. 134).
The social status of women in Athens was far lower than it was in Sparta. Athenian women took no part in public life and were instructed solely in domestic arts. In his Funeral Oration, Pericles said that women should merely aim “to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you.” In Sparta, however, women were permitted to engage in gymnastic training and “enjoyed a freedom which was in marked contrast with the seclusion of women in other Greek states” (Bury, p. 133). So as far as respect for women was concerned, Athens could not really claim to have exported an policy worthy of emulation, although Ionia also shared the fundamental Athenian weakness of excluding women from education.
Religious and sporting festivals were much the same throughout Greece and, although it is always the Athenians who are remembered for their gods and sporting heroes, most other Greek states were equally advanced.
Thus when Pericles declared that Athens was “an education to Greece.” he was, on the whole, making an accurate observation. This is not to say that Athens was superior to Sparta in every respect, of course, and her democratic system left much to be desired.
Although other Greek states shared some Athenian political, social and economic principles, it remains the case that Athens gave birth to some of the finest Greek accomplishments. These accomplishments, moreover, provided key elements for the development of European art, architecture, drama, philosophy, rhetoric, and politics for 2500 years. Thus Athens continues to serve not only as an “education” for Greece, but for the world.
Troy Southgate is from Crystal Palace in South London and has been a Revolutionary Nationalist activist and writer for almost 25 years. He has also been involved with more than twenty music projects. He is a founder of National Anarchism and author of Tradition and Revolution (Aarhus, Denmark: Integral Tradition).