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Pericles of Athens$

Vincent Azoulay

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780691154596

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691154596.001.0001

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An Ordinary Young Athenian Aristocrat?

An Ordinary Young Athenian Aristocrat?

(p.15) Chapter 1 An Ordinary Young Athenian Aristocrat?
Pericles of Athens

Vincent Azoulay

, Janet Lloyd
Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the genealogical, economic, and cultural trump cards that were held by the young Pericles at the point when he stealthily embarked upon his political career. At the time of Pericles' birth, there was no “aristocracy” in Athens in the sense of a system in which hereditary power was held by a few great families. The chapter first provides a background on Pericles' ancestry before discussing the rumors surrounding the fortune of his maternal family, the Alcmaeonids. It then considers Pericles' education and his gradual entry into political life. In particular, it examines Pericles' decision to volunteer as a khorēgos, along with his involvement in the lawsuit against the general Cimon. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the political reforms adopted by Athenians at the instigation of Ephialtes.

Keywords:   political life, Pericles, aristocracy, Athens, Alcmaeonids, education, khorēgos, Cimon, political reforms, Ephialtes

In the Politics, Aristotle defines the elite by a collection of characteristics that distinguishes it from the common people: good birth (eugeneia), wealth (ploutos), excellence (aretē), and, finally, education (paideia).1 These were the various aspects, combined in different degrees, that defined social superiority in the Greek world. Pericles was clearly abundantly endowed with all those distinctive attributes. However, in a democratic context, such advantages could sometimes turn out to operate as obstacles or even handicaps. Not all forms of superiority were acceptable in themselves, but needed to adopt a form that was tolerated by the dēmos for fear of arousing its mistrust or even anger: in Athens, the forms taken by distinction constituted an object of implicit negotiation between members of the elite and the people.

Such compromises were evident at every level. Membership of a prestigious lineage was undeniably an advantage, provided that the people did not doubt the family’s attachment to the new regime that Cleisthenes had set in place. Likewise, wealth was a blessing for anyone who wished to launch himself into political life, but only if that fortune was judged to be legitimate by the Athenians and if a considerable proportion of those riches was used to benefit the community as a whole. Finally, the asset of a refined education was of capital importance in a context in which influence was clearly associated with an ability to hold forth in the Assembly; but if that skill was employed in a thoughtless manner it could be taken for a form of cultural arrogance that the average citizen would not tolerate.

Pericles’ entrance upon the Athenian political stage took place in the context of this generalized negotiation. His first dextrous steps into public life enabled him to win over the people by demonstrating that his superiority, at once genealogical, economic, and also cultural, was compatible with the democratic ideology and the practices that were taking shape.

(p.16) The Trump Cards Held by the Young Pericles

Eugeneia: An Equivocal Ancestry

At the time of Pericles’ birth, strictly speaking, there was in Athens no “aristocracy” in the sense of a system in which hereditary power was held by a few great families. Yet for a long time historians believed that in the Archaic period, the city was managed by a handful of lineages that monopolized all powers. In truth, however, that is a mistaken interpretation of the ancient sources, read through the deforming prism of ancient Rome. The city of Athens was, quite simply, not organized into genē. In the Archaic and the Classical periods, genē essentially designated families—or groups of families—from which the priest or priestess of a civic cult was chosen; and no more than a marginal political influence seems to have been exerted by those groups.2

However, this does not mean that descent counted for nothing in early-fifth-century Athens. There were undoubtedly certain powerful families (oikiai) that played a primary role in city life. All Athenians belonged to lineages that it is possible to pick out thanks to the names borne by their members. Pericles was called “the son of Xanthippus,” and his eldest son was called “Xanthippus, son of Pericles.” The rules for passing a name down resulted in the eldest son acquiring the name of his paternal grandfather, thereby creating an interplay of recognizable echoes and conferring a cumulative aura upon patronyms. Pericles, the younger son of Xanthippus and Agariste, in point of fact came from a doubly prestigious line (figure 1), but was not a member of any kind of “nobility,” in the sense that the word still carries today.

His father Xanthippus, son of Ariphron, led the Athenian and other Greek troops to victory in the battle of Cape Mycale, at the end of the Second Persian War. The author of the Constitution of the Athenians even calls him the “people’s champion” (prostatēs tou dēmou),3 and his influence was considered sufficiently alarming for him to be ostracized by the Athenians in 485 B.C. However, contrary to one deeply rooted historiographical myth, he

An Ordinary Young Athenian Aristocrat?

Figure 1. Pericles’ genealogical tree.

(p.17) did not belong to the postulated genos of the Bouzygae:4 neither Herodotus nor Thucydides nor even Plutarch have anything to say about this. In reality, the belief rests upon a mistaken reading of a fragment from a comic poet, Eupolis, who had one of his characters declare: “Is there any orator that can be cited now? The best is the Bouzyges, the cursed one [alitērios]!”5 But, according to one ancient commentator, the poet, far from alluding to Pericles, was referring to a certain Demostratus, an orator who played a by no means negligible role in Athens at the time of the Peloponnesian War.6

In truth, little is known about Xanthippus’s clan except that its lineage was judged sufficiently prestigious for the Alcmaeonids to consent to give it one of their daughters in marriage (Herodotus, 6.131). So initially, it was actually through his maternal descent that Pericles came to the city’s notice.7 The Alcmaeonids were certainly one of the most illustrious Athenian clans, but they did not constitute a genos since no hereditary priesthood was associated with them. All the same, theirs was a powerful oikos (the term used by Herodotus, 6.125.5), and that was no small matter. Their influence was already evident even before the establishment of Pisistratus’s tyranny in 561 B.C. According to tradition, Alcmaeon, the eponymous ancestor of the lineage, was the first Athenian to win the chariot race at Olympia,8 thereby shedding glory upon his entire lineage. Then, a few years before Pericles’ birth—in 508/7 B.C.—another Alcmaeonid, Cleisthenes, initiated a thorough reform of the civic organization, thereby establishing the bases of the future democratic system. And it was Agariste, the niece of Cleisthenes the lawgiver, who married Xanthippus and gave birth to Pericles.9

Nevertheless, the Alcmaeonids’ reputation was, to say the least, equivocal. Although they enjoyed great fame, it was to some extent of a pernicious nature: they were accused not only of being polluted (enageis) by the impiety of their ancestors but also of maintaining suspicious relations with the tyrants of Athens. The accusation of impiety, first, dated from the earliest days of Archaic Athens. In the 630s B.C., a certain Cylon, a victor in the Olympic Games, intoxicated by his success, attempted to seize power in Athens, aided by the tyrant of Megara. His attempt proved to be a lamentable failure: besieged by the Athenians, the conspirators took refuge on the Acropolis, close to the statue (agalma) of the goddess, assuming the posture of suppliants who, as such, enjoyed the protection of the gods.10 Having agreed to leave this sanctuary, following assurances that they would be spared, they were nevertheless massacred, at the instigation of the Alcmaeonids, who, because of this, contracted a taint that would be passed down from generation to generation.

This episode acquired an ambivalent meaning: a glorious one if the emphasis was laid upon the Alcmaeonids’ opposition to tyranny, but a shaming (p.18) one if it was laid upon the impiety implied by the murder of suppliants. Indeed, the Spartans had no hesitation in invoking this old story as grounds for insisting on two occasions that the Alcmaeonids, whom they judged to be embarrassing, should be exiled: the first time was in 510 B.C., when King Cleomenes demanded, successfully, that Cleisthenes be banished (Herodotus, 5.72); the second time was in 431, just before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, when the Spartans demanded, this time unsuccessfully, that Pericles be exiled (Thucydides, 1.126.2).11

Over and above that original misdeed, the Alcmaeonids were also accused of maintaining equivocal links with tyrants. To be sure, on several occasions they opposed Athenian tyrants, not only at the time of Cylon’s abortive attempt but also when Pisistratus seized power.12 Furthermore, the Alcmaeonid Cleisthenes was one of the main instigators of the fall of Hippias, the city’s last tyrant, in 510 B.C. However, far from simply representing resistance to tyrants, the Alcmaeonids were associated with them through close matrimonial relations. Even after clashing with Pisistratus, the Alcmaeonid Megacles had no qualms at all about proposing his own daughter as a wife for him (Herodotus, 1.60). And it should also be said that Megacles himself had married the daughter of yet another tyrant, Cleisthenes of Sicyon, after a determined struggle to win her hand.13 According to Herodotus, this was the marriage that made the Alcmaeonids famous throughout the whole of Greece.14 Nor is that all, for Cleisthenes had not always been a fierce opponent of tyrants. Before he was exiled, he worked in close collaboration with the Pisistratids, for he had been elected archon during the period when they were in power.15 This smoldering reputation dogged the family right down to the Persian Wars: at the time of the Battle of Marathon, in 490, the Alcmaeonids were accused of attempting to betray their country at the point when Hippias, who had lived in exile since 510, made the most of the Persian invasion in an attempt to return to power in the city.16 And in the course of the years between the Persian Wars, several members of the Alcmaeonid family fell victim to the newly introduced procedure of ostracism, which was designed to remove Athenians who aimed for a return to tyranny.17

This dubious notoriety is reflected in a condensed form in the story of Agariste’s dream, which Herodotus relates (6.131). According to this historian, just before the birth of the future stratēgos, the mother of Pericles dreamed that she gave birth to a lion. If regarded as a sign sent by the gods, the dream seemed a mark of special favor, prefiguring an exceptional destiny for the child about to be born. However, this was a sign that was, to say the least, ambiguous: in the first place, because that dream evoked legends surrounding the births of certain tyrants, in particular that of Cypselus of (p.19) Corinth;18 and second, because the dream’s content was in itself equivocal. Ever since Homer, the lion had been associated with royal power and, as such, clashed seriously with the imaginary representations of democracy. In Athens, it sometimes happened that politicians were described as “the people’s dogs” because they were the faithful guardians of its interests; however, they could never be compared to lions without running the risk of ostracism!19

On his mother’s side, then, Pericles came from a lineage that was certainly illustrious but whose fame was problematic. To invoke its prestige was to risk being reproached not only for impiety at a religious level but also for tyrannical aspirations at a political level. Within a democratic context, a prestigious birth was certainly a double-edged weapon that had to be handled very carefully indeed, humoring the people’s touchiness as much as possible.

Ploutos: An Illegitimate Fortune?

Wealth too seemed an advantage for a young Athenian seeking to enter political life, but at the same time that fortune had to be regarded as legitimate by the dēmos. This it certainly was in Pericles’ case, even if embarrassing stories continued to circulate about the lust for riches of his maternal family, the Alcmaeonids.

There can be no doubt that Pericles was rich, for he was a beneficiary of the “legitimate inheritance” that he held from his father (ton patrōion kai dikaion plouton).20 What did this consist of? Land, essentially: the young man possessed country property as well as the house in which he lived in Athens itself. That estate was probably situated in the Cholargos deme, a few kilometers to the north of the town, and it was farmed profitably by a well-trusted slave.21 The size of this property must have been considerable, for at the time of the start of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles promised to hand over “his land and his farms” (tēn khōran kai tas epauleis) if the Spartan king Archidamus decided to spare his properties on account of the links of hospitality by which he and Pericles were connected.22 Thucydides, who was a contemporary of these events, even refers to “his fields and his properties [tous de agrous tous heautou kai oikias]”23—the plurals used here are significant. Young Pericles’ fortune was thus shored up by the possession of land—a form of wealth that was judged to be particularly legitimate in the Athens of the early fifth century.

Another factor enables us to calculate the level of wealth that the family fortune comprised. While still a very young man, in 472 B.C., Pericles was rich enough to be expected to provide a liturgy—that is to say, a type of public service for which only the most affluent Athenians and metics were liable.24 (p.20) In the fourth century, out of several tens of thousands of taxpayers, barely one thousand individuals were liable for liturgies; Demosthenes even declared that no more than sixty individuals contributed liturgies each year (Against Leptines [20], 21).25 Even if those figures represent an underestimate, they do convey some idea of the financial affluence of the young Pericles, who must certainly have been one of the pentakosiomedimnoi, the group of the richest men of Athens. Ever since the reforms attributed to Solon, the lawgiver, at the beginning of the sixth century B.C., the citizens had been divided into four census classes. These may well have been based on agricultural incomes, and the pentakosiomedimnoi constituted the very top category. The right to participate in civic institutions depended partly upon this classification, for the Council of the Areopagus was at that time open only to the two top census classes.

Wealthy though he was, Pericles had to face a number of troubling rumors about the manner in which his Alcmaeonid ancestors had acquired their fortune and had used it.26 An early anecdote recounted by Herodotus testifies to this latent hostility. In the mid-sixth century, Alcmaeon, son of Megacles, had assisted King Croesus when the latter went to consult the Delphic oracle. When the Lydian sovereign summoned him to Sardis in order to recompense his services, he offered him as much gold as he could carry away on his person. Thereupon, Alcmaeon had himself fitted out with made-to-measure clothes and boots that would accommodate as much gold as possible. Worse still, he had no compunction about rolling in a heap of gold powder so as to fill his hair with it, and he even stuffed his mouth with the precious metal, “resembling anything on earth rather than a human being, with his mouth crammed full and his entire body bulging.”27 Alcmaeon consequently became a figure of fun to Croesus and thereafter also to Herodotus’s readers. This anecdote portrayed the Alcmaeonids as individuals with an inexhaustible thirst for the riches obtainable from Eastern rulers, even at the cost of their dignity as citizens. Alcmaeon’s attitude rebounded upon his descendants: at the end of his digression on the Alcmaeonids, Herodotus took care to remind his readers that Alcmaeon was an ancestor of Pericles, the son of Xanthippus (6.131.2).

That was not the only shady story that circulated about the Alcmaeonids’ wealth. The Alcmaeonid Cleisthenes, who was rich enough to finance the reconstruction of the temple of Apollo in Delphi after this had been burned down in 548 B.C., was accused by hostile gossip (Herodotus, 5.66) of having corrupted the Delphic Pythia, bribing her with the family fortune to ensure that his lineage always received favorable oracles.

Pericles’ ancestors thus formed an object of suspicion on the score not only of the origin of their fortune, but also the way that they handled it. (p.21) Wealth, like birth, was an advantage that, to be effective, had to appear legitimate in the eyes of the Athenian people.

Paideia: A Rhetorical Athlete

One last element lay at the root of the superiority to which members of the Athenian elite laid claim: education (paideia). This was a capital asset that was not inherited, but acquired. Far from being innate, eloquence resulted from a lengthy apprenticeship. As one comic fragment put it, “Speaking is a gift of nature, speaking well a product of art [tekhnē].”28 It was therefore essential to benefit from a careful—and often costly—education in order to acquire such competence as was indispensable in a democracy in which speech was playing an increasingly important role.

Pericles received a thorough education in rhetoric and clearly preferred oratorical exertion to physical exertions. That, at least, is what is suggested by a spicy dialogue reported by Stesimbrotus of Thasos and recorded by Plutarch,29 in which Archidamus, the king of Sparta, questions Pericles’ main opponent, Thucydides, the son of Melesias, wanting to know which of the two men is the better at wrestling. Somewhat embarrassed, Thucydides apparently replied: “Whenever I throw him in wrestling, he disputes the fall, and carries his point, and persuades the very men who saw him fall.” To discredit his adversary, Thucydides here resorts to two arguments that were often employed to denigrate the sophists, the masters of eloquence who offered their lessons to the highest bidders: on the one hand, their excessive evaluation of speech over action and, on the other, their obvious disdain for physical prowess.30 Pericles thus found himself dismissed as a mere manipulative sophist. Quite apart from its polemical aspect, this anecdote drew attention to the exceptional quality of the education received by Pericles, to whom two famous teachers were attributed, one a foreigner, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, the other an Athenian, Damon of Oa.31

The former, Anaxagoras, developed a rationalist or even secular line of thought that valued experimentation. It was he, according to Plato’s Phaedrus, who taught Pericles rhetoric.32 However, the links between the two men are so tenuous that some historians doubt whether they even existed.33 In the case of the latter, Damon, we are on firmer ground. This Athenian initiated Pericles into mousikē, a combination of arts linked with music, singing, and dancing.34 The comic poets even represent him as the principal teacher of Xanthippus’s son. In a fragment preserved by Plutarch, Damon is addressed as follows: “First, then, reply to me, please, for it is said that you are the Chiron who raised Pericles.”35 His influence over the young man was (p.22) thus compared to that of the fabled centaur, Chiron, who educated so many Greek heroes, including Achilles and Jason!

How can we explain how it was that a musician was so important in Pericles’ education? Here, we must be careful to avoid any anachronism. Among the Greeks, mousikē had absolutely nothing to do with “art for art’s sake.” Mousikē was linked to mathematics and poetry and it exerted considerable power over its listeners, thereby influencing city life in the same way as public speaking did.36 So mousikē and politics were more closely linked than one might imagine, and the Athenians seem to have been perfectly well aware of the fact. Indeed, they may have condemned Damon to exile on that very account: several ostraka found by archaeologists lend a measure of credibility to the episode that Plutarch relates, without, however, producing any formal proof.37

The fate of Damon certainly reflects how tricky it was to cope with culture in a democratic context. While a solid grasp of rhetoric and music was indispensable in order to shine in the Assembly, if there was the slightest hint of it being used for anti-democratic ends, it was liable to arouse mistrust among the people. Herein, perhaps, lies the explanation for the diametrically opposed choice that some members of the elite made where paideia was concerned. According to Stesimbrotus of Thasos, Cimon “acquired no literary education, nor any other liberal and distinctively Hellenic accomplishment; he lacked entirely the Attic cleverness and fluency of speech; in his outward bearing there was much nobility and truthfulness; the fashion of the man’s spirit was, rather, Peloponnesian.”38

For Cimon, this was a way not only of getting closer to the Spartans but also of reducing the cultural distance that separated him from the Athenian people. And this strategy of inverted distinction did, in effect, clearly contribute to the great popularity that this stratēgos enjoyed among his fellow citizens.

Although birth, wealth, and education constituted undeniable trump cards, they were certainly no guarantee of political success to those who held them. Those who enjoyed such genealogical, economic, and cultural assets needed to make use of them without upsetting the dēmos. As he gradually made his way into political life, Pericles was acutely aware of this need.

A Gradual Entry into Political Life

The Khorēgia of Aeschylus’s Persians: Victory through Singing

Pericles tested out those various assets for the first time in 472 B.C., when he was just twenty-one or twenty-two years old. Thanks to an inscription engraved in the fourth century (IG II2 2318), which lists the victors in the (p.23) Great Dionysia, we know that in that year he was designated a khorēgos and that he, in association with Aeschylus, was declared the victor. We thus know that Pericles was responsible for financing the tetralogy composed by the poet (three tragedies and one satyr play), which included The Persians, the most ancient tragedy to be preserved in toto and which set on stage Themistocles’ victory at Salamis.

What was the exact nature of this civic gesture? A khorēgos’s task was to recruit the best candidates for a chorus, which comprised between twelve and fifteen people; he also had to employ a professional to train the chorus-members, and provide a venue (a khorēgeion) sufficiently spacious for the chorus to rehearse its complex moves in comfort. Finally, his mission included providing material support for the entire cast and meeting the costs of the actual performance, in particular those of the masks and costumes. These were by no means negligible expenses: as far as we know, they ran to between 3,000 and 5,000 drachmas in the case of a tragic khorēgia.39 The fact that Pericles served as a khorēgos certainly indicates that he had already inherited the family fortune; by this date, Xanthippus must already have been dead.

We still need to understand exactly why Pericles felt obliged to take on this heavy responsibility when he had barely come of age. Of course, he may not have had any choice in the matter, for any wealthy Athenian could expect to have a khorēgia imposed upon him. All the same, it sometimes happened that citizens forestalled this so as not to appear to be forced into the task and also because they hoped that political advantages would accrue to them. The ambiguity of the system that obtained in Athens lay in the fact that liturgies—which included the khorēgia—were at once obligations imposed by the city and, at the same time, a means of winning popularity for the individuals who carried out those obligations with munificence.

If this duty, despite its costliness, carried a political advantage, it was because in consequence the khorēgos won esteem among his fellow-citizens. In the first place, before the dramatic representations took place, the khorēgos would occupy a prestigious position in the religious procession (pompē) that opened the Dionysia festival. He had the right to wear special clothing that made him stand out in the crowd; both Alcibiades and Demosthenes took care to make the most of this privilege. Furthermore, during the performance, the khorēgos did not necessarily remain silent. In the early fifth century, he himself might even act as the chorus leader and perform in the orchēstra;40 according to this hypothesis, Pericles himself may have led the chorus in The Persians and delivered the speech praising Athens that Aeschylus assigned to the chorus-leader! In that case, the young man would have been speaking in the name of the collectivity for the very first time, thereby anticipating his (p.24) future role as orator. This may also help us to understand the importance that mousikē held in the education of this young man.

Finally, when the performance was over, the khorēgos would increase his prestige still further if he was victorious in the dramatic competition that brought the Dionysia to a close. The names of the victors, who were selected by a panel of ten judges, were announced before the whole community assembled in the theater. The laureates, crowned with ivy, were presented with a prestigious prize: a bronze tripod for the tragic choruses and possibly a ram for the winning poets. Sometimes the khorēgoi would present offerings to the gods in order to keep the memory of their success alive: Themistocles was said to have had a pinax (a wooden tablet) painted, to celebrate his victory in the tragedy competition, as khorēgos for the poet Phrynichus, in 477 B.C.

One further factor may have decided Pericles to volunteer as a khorēgos in 472. By preempting any summons addressed to him, the young man made a sensational entrance on to the public stage, even before reaching the age when he could hope for a magistracy. The fact was that Athenian citizens had to wait until they were thirty years old before they could assume even a minor city post. Making sure of a khorēgia was a way of getting around that age-limit and seizing an early start in the race to make a name for himself among the Athenians.41

Basking in the prestige of this triumph in the Dionysia, young Pericles made his mark in the post-Salamis Athens. All the same, though, his khorēgia should not be interpreted as a deliberately political gesture or a way of advertising his support for Themistocles, who was then facing growing opposition that, one year later, would lead to his ostracism. Although The Persians does praise the victor at Salamis indirectly, there is nothing to prove that Pericles had any say in the content of the play, which was the concern solely of the poet. Besides, it was the eponymous Archon that drew lots in order to assign a khorēgos to a dramatist.42 It was thus purely by chance that the young man found himself collaborating with a well-established author—namely, Aeschylus, who, since 485/4 B.C.,43 had already won several victor’s crowns. That first action needs to be evaluated correctly for, far from being a prefiguration of his political future, the 472 khorēgia was an opportunity for Pericles to highlight his wealth and his culture and, at the same time, show that he was using them for the greatest benefit of the community.

The Lawsuit against Cimon: Presenting Himself as an Opponent

After that first burst of glory, Pericles remained in the shadows for several years. Was it for fear of being ostracized as his father, Xanthippus, had been? That is Plutarch’s version of the matter (Pericles, 7.1), but it is not possible to (p.25) corroborate what he says. However, the young man did not remain inactive, for he proved his attachment to the city on the battlefield: again according to Plutarch, “he was courageous in warfare and willingly risked his life.”44 His real entry into political life was deferred for a while, but eventually it came about following an extremely spectacular lawsuit. As the Pseudo-Aristotle notes in his Constitution of the Athenians (27.1): “Having first distinguished himself when still a young man he challenged the audits of Cimon, who was a general.”45

This came about in 463 B.C., when Pericles had just turned thirty. At this time, Cimon held great influence in the city, particularly since Themistocles had been ostracized in 471. Cimon, who was elected repeatedly as stratēgos, was at this time playing a prominent part in every military campaign. He led the expedition that came to the aid of Sparta after the Helots, dependents of the Spartans, taking advantage of the great earthquake that occurred in 464, had revolted against their masters. By 465, he was already to be found heading the siege of Thasos, an island in the northern Aegean that was trying to free itself from the Delian League.

In 463, while the campaign against Thasos dragged on, Cimon had to face a lawsuit centering on his rendering of accounts, an obligation that affected all magistrates.46 The stratēgos was accused of accepting bribes from the king of Macedon, who was anxious to protect his kingdom from Athenian attacks. The prosecution, which was led by Pericles, came to nothing, for an obvious enough reason: up until the reforms of Ephialtes, passed by vote in the following year, renderings of accounts were all judged by the Areopagus, which was the principal supporter of Cimon’s policies!

Over and above the issue of this trial, which proved favorable to Cimon, this anecdote testifies to the general role played by prosecutions in the construction of political reputations: prosecutions were above all the business of young ambitious men. While assuming the position of a prosecutor was a way to make one’s name swiftly, in the long run it was a difficult position to maintain. To remain a prosecutor for too long was to risk being regarded as a sycophant, a professional prosecutor.47 While such “sycophants” were necessary to the functioning of democracy, given the absence of any public prosecution service in Athens, they were at the same time detested because they acted for their own personal profit, in that they could receive a percentage of the fines imposed if the verdict was guilty.48

The reasons why Pericles involved himself personally in this process remain to be determined. Was he motivated by purely political aspirations, as an honest defender of the interests of the people? That is by no means certain. Between Cimon’s lineage and that of Pericles, there was a long tradition of rivalry or even animosity that dated from the mid-sixth century, when their (p.26) respective ancestors had battled to win the hand in marriage of Agariste, the daughter of the tyrant of Sicyon, a struggle in which the Alcmaeonid Megacles had emerged as victor. Furthermore, in 493, the Alcmaeonids had accused Miltiades, Cimon’s father, of exercising tyranny in the Chersonese.49 Finally, in 489, Xanthippus brought a second lawsuit against Miltiades, following the disastrous expedition to Paros: Pericles’ father had identified himself with the antipathies of his in-laws, to the point of himself being tarred by the Alcmaeonids’ sinister reputation.50 In the lawsuit brought against Cimon, it is therefore hard to determine the respective parts played by private quarrels and political motivations.

However, the fact is that, after this unsuccessful political debut, Pericles seems rapidly to have acquired influence by helping to establish “the reforms of Ephialtes” in the very next year, which marked a decisive step forward in the process of the city’s democratization. Nevertheless, despite the declarations to be found in the fourth-century sources, the young man’s collaboration in this important institutional change is far from certain.

The Reforms of Ephialtes: Overshadowed by Pericles

In 462, Cimon set off, with a large force of hoplites, to help the Spartans, who were engaged in a struggle against the revolt of their Helots. Making the most of his absence, the Athenians adopted sweeping political reforms at the instigation of the democratic leader, Ephialtes. Most of the powers of the Areopagus, the old aristocratic council of Athens, were redistributed among popular institutions—the Assembly, the Council, and the law courts—thereby sparking off the effective democratization of the city. On his return, Cimon was unable to reverse the situation and eventually was even ostracized.

Although the ancient authors do all mention the role played in this episode by Ephialtes, they tend to treat him as a mere puppet who implemented the intentions of others. According to the Constitution of the Athenians, Ephialtes was secretly manipulated by Themistocles; but that is chronologically impossible, for Themistocles had been ostracized almost ten years previously! And when Plutarch mentions the reform (Pericles, 9.4), he portrays Ephialtes as a handy screen for the illustrious Pericles, who could already be glimpsed in Xanthippus’s young son. Relegated to the shadows cast by two great men—Themistocles upstream and Pericles downstream—Ephialtes was soon eclipsed in the political memory of Athens.51

That effacement can certainly be explained by the reformer’s premature disappearance. Soon after carrying off this great political victory, Ephialtes was killed “by night, in circumstances that remain obscure.”52 According to a (p.27) tradition that goes back to Idomeneus of Lampsacus, a close disciple of Epicurus, Pericles was not uninvolved in this sordid affair. It is suggested that he “cunningly assassinated [or arranged for the assassination of] Ephialtes, the demagogue, who had been his friend and companion in political action, simply because he was jealous and envied Ephialtes’ popularity [doxa].”53 But, as Plutarch suggests, in all probability, those were mere baseless rantings. This serious allegation, reported one hundred and fifty years after the event, is certainly intended to blacken the reputation of Pericles, the “demagogue.” But, quite apart from its doubtful veracity, Idomeneus’s accusation reflects a more general tendency of the ancient sources: they are prone to credit famous men with all important actions, whether positive or negative, that occurred in their own lifetimes.

In effect, the Epicurean polemicist simply adopts the line of thinking used by the ancient authors in their analyses of Ephialtes’ reforms themselves: given that some of them ascribe to Pericles a secret influence in this episode, why not postulate his complicity in Ephialtes’ assassination?

From this point of view, Idomeneus’s line of argument is no more well-founded—or ill-founded—than the suggestions of the Pseudo-Aristotle or those of Plutarch. All these theories about plots are, by their very nature, impossible to prove. In truth, this entire historiographical construction centered on Pericles should be considered as doubtful: not only is the implication that Pericles had a hand in murdering Ephialtes highly improbable, but his supposed role in the reforms introduced in 462 B.C. is equally hypothetical.54

When they deny Ephialtes the status of a protagonist, it is in truth the Athenian people that the ancient authors are leaving in the shadows so as to focus exclusively on the dazzling aura surrounding the great man. It was not until the 450s—or even the early 440s—that Pericles truly set his mark on Athenian political life. It was only after this gradual entry into political life that he began to be elected stratēgos on a regular basis.


(1.) Aristotle, Politics, 4.4.1291b14–30.

(2.) Callias I, who was a priest of Eleusis, is the only notable exception, for he also promoted several decrees in the mid-fifth century and negotiated the peace (p.229) that bears his name, in 449. It was not until the defeat at Chaeronea in 338 B.C. and the rise of the orator Lycurgus, a member of the Eteoboutadae (who held the priesthood of Poseidon Erechtheus) that a member of a genos played an important political role. There is also another historiographical myth that needs to be refuted: there is no attested link between the Philaid genos—which may or may not have existed—and the Cimonid family, the origin of which is said to go back to Philaius (Herodotus, 6.35.1). On this subject, see Parker 1996, 316–317.

(3.) Ps.-Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, 28.2.

(4.) Historians of Greek religion do not agree about the roles of the Bouzygae: were they a true priestly family (genos) or did they just exercise a religious function in the city? See Parker 1996, 287–288. Whatever the case may be, their function concerned the earth’s fertility and the ritual purity of the soil.

(5.) Eupolis, fr. 103 K.-A., probably from his play, The Demes. On this subject, see Storey 2003, 135.

(7.) In Athens, the kinship system was bilateral, with a patrilinear bias. The importance of the maternal branch was strengthened by the law that Pericles himself promoted in 451. See later, chapter 5.

(8.) Isocrates, Concerning the Team of Horses (16), 25.

(9.) Plutarch is mistaken when he claims that Agariste was the legislator’s granddaughter (Pericles, 3.1). It is a mistake that is sometimes repeated in certain modern works, such as that of Kagan 1991, 68.

(10.) According to Thucydides (1.126.10–11), Cylon himself escaped and only his followers took up the position of suppliants at the altar on the Acropolis.

(11.) See later, chapter 8.

(14.) Herodotus, 5.131. The historian furthermore suggests that Cleisthenes the Athenian introduced his reforms modeling himself on his grandfather, Cleisthenes of Sicyon, as if his action resembled that of a tyrant (5.65).

(15.) IG I3 1031 = ML 6C = Fornara 23C. See Pébarthe 2005. Was it in order to wipe out the memory of his ancestor’s collaboration that Pericles stressed the action of the tyrannicides in 514, rather than the reforms introduced by Cleisthenes? He certainly seems to be the one who proposed that the descendants of Harmodius and Aristogeiton should thenceforth live at the expense of the city in the Prytaneum, to commemorate the liberating act of their ancestors. Cf. IG I3 131 (between 440 and 432 B.C.), where the proposal is made by a certain “ … ikles” (unfortunately, the inscription is mutilated), which many historians believe to be part of the stratēgos’s name, on the strength of Wade-Gery 1932–1933, 123–125.

(17.) On this matter, see Williams 1980.

(19.) The fact that Pericles physically resembled Pisistratus, the founder of tyranny in Athens, cannot have favored the young man’s reputation (Plutarch, Pericles, 7.1). On this matter, see later, chapter 10.

(23.) Thucydides, 2.13.1.

(24.) See, for example, Kagan 1991, 39.

(25.) On the number of liturgists in Athens, see Gabrielsen 1994. The group of men liable for liturgies numbered around 1,000 to 1,200 individuals. Demosthenes’ law of 340 was not designed to reduce their number to 300, but simply to make sure that most of the burden fell upon the 300 Athenians who were the most wealthy.

(28.) Author unknown [adespota], fr. 403 Edmonds.

(31.) Isocrates, Antidosis (15), 235: in defense of the role of the sophists, the orator pointed out that “Pericles was the pupil of two sophists, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae and Damon, who was considered the wisest of the citizens in his day.”

(32.) Phaedrus, 269e–270a. See later, chapter 6.

(33.) The same goes for the relations between Pericles and Zeno of Elea, who is mentioned only by Plutarch, Pericles, 4.3. See later, chapter 6.

(34.) According to Plato (Republic, 400c), he also had Socrates as a pupil.

(35.) Plato the comic poet, fr. 207 K.-A.

(37.) Pericles, 4.2. See the doubts expressed by Raaflaub 2003, 317–331, and later, chapter 6.

(39.) See Lysias, The Defence of an Anonymous Man Accused of Corruption (21), 1 (3,000 drachmas for a tragic khorēgia in 410), and Lysias, On the Goods of Aristophanes (19), 29 and 42 (5,000 drachmas for a tragic khorēgia in 392).

(41.) Other spectacular liturgies were undertaken by very young citizens: see Demosthenes, On the Crown (18), 256–267; Lysias, The Defence of an Anonymous Man Accused of Corruption (21), 1 (a tragic khorēgia at the age of 18).

(42.) Constitution of the Athenians, 56.2. On the matching of poets to khorēgoi, see Antiphon, On the Choreutes (6), 11, for the Thargelia (but the procedure was probably similar for the Dionysia).

(43.) After that first success, Aeschylus won five victories in as many competitions. See Podlecki 1966, 1–7, on Aeschylus’s career.

(45.) See the doubts expressed by Fornara and Samons II 1991, 158–159.

(46.) Plutarch, Cimon, 14.3–4, recording the testimony of Stesimbrotus of Thasos.

(47.) This means not that more experienced politicians never attacked their enemies, but rather that they divided their energies between attack and defense. Lycurgus of Athens, who remained an accuser throughout his career, was in this respect a notable exception. On this subject, see Azoulay 2011, 192–204.

(p.231) (49.) Herodotus, 6.104.

(50.) Herodotus, 6.136. One ostrakon describes Xanthippus as alitērios, “accursed,” a term that probably alludes to the curse laid upon his family-in-law: see Duplouy 2006, 93. However, for a different view, see Valdes Guia 2009, 313–314 (who regards Xanthippus as a member of the Bouzygae genos).

(51.) See Loraux 2001, 71–75.

(52.) Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 11.77.6. See also Antiphon, On the Murder of Herodes, 68; Ps.-Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians, 25.4; Plutarch, Pericles, 10.8. On the murder of Ephialtes as an aborted “great cause,” see the remarks of Payen 2007a, 30–31.

(53.) Idomeneus of Lampsacus, On the Demagogues, FGrHist 338 F 8 (= Plutarch, Pericles, 10.6).