Timeline of World History: Year by Year from Prehistory to Present Day


  Illustrated History of the World

The Ancient World - ca. 2500 B.C. - 900 A.D.



The Ancient World

ca. 2500 B.C. - 900 A.D.


Classical Greece from the Culture of the Polis

to the End of Independence



The Persian Wars

The threat of Persian expansion led to the first military alliance among the Greek city-states. This Greek alliance succeeded in preventing the Persians from entering Europe.

The political changes that took place throughout the Middle East after 550 B.C. finally forced the Greeks to abandon their inward-looking policies. After the Persian kings Croesus and Camby-ses II had brought the Middle East—including Egypt and Asia Minor—under their control, Darius I (the Great) sought to extend his realm into Europe. Many of the smaller Greek cities had already sought protection under his rule, and the Greek exiles also counted on him to subjugate the city-states.

The Greeks regarded the Persians with a mixture of admiration and contempt; admiration for their 8 fighting strength and cultural wealth, but contempt for their despotic political system.

In 500 B.C., Greek cities in Anatolia, under the leadership of Histiaeus, ruler of Miletus, attempted to revolt against Persian rule. The rebellion failed in 494, but it provided Darius with a reason to move his armies west. In 491, Persian messengers demanded the submission of all Greek cities. When these demands were rejected, the Persian army and fleet were dispatched across the Aegean Sea in 490 to punish Eretria and Athens. The Persians subjugated the Cy-clades, destroyed Eretria, and then advanced into the Bay of Marathon. In the face of this threat, Athens and Sparta buried their rivalry and fought together.

Under the leadership of the Athenian general Miltiades they defeated the Persians at 7, 9 Marathon.

A messenger is supposed to have run all the way to Athens with news of the victory, collapsing dead after delivering the message; he was the first 10 "Marathon runner."

8 Persian archer

7 Battle of Marathon, October 9, 490 B.C



9 Burial-mound of the Athenians
who died in the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.
Battle of Marathon

10 Messenger brings news of the Greek victory from Marathon to Athens,
by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869

Battle of Marathon, (September 490 bce), in the Greco-Persian Wars, decisive battle fought on the Marathon plain of northeastern Attica in which the Athenians, in a single afternoon, repulsed the first Persian invasion of Greece. Command of the hastily assembled Athenian army was vested in 10 generals, each of whom was to hold operational command for one day. The generals were evenly divided on whether to await the Persians or to attack them, and the tie was broken by a civil official, Callimachus, who decided in favour of an attack. Four of the generals then ceded their commands to the Athenian general Miltiades, thus effectively making him commander in chief.

The Greeks could not hope to face the Persians’ cavalry contingent on the open plain, but before dawn one day the Greeks learned that the cavalry was temporarily absent from the Persian camp, whereupon Miltiades ordered a general attack upon the Persian infantry. In the ensuing battle, Miltiades led his contingent of 10,000 Athenians and 1,000 Plataeans to victory over the Persian force of 15,000 by reinforcing his battle line’s flanks and thus decoying the Persians’ best troops into pushing back his centre, where they were surrounded by the inward-wheeling Greek wings.

On being almost enveloped, the Persian troops broke into flight. By the time the routed Persians reached their ships, they had lost 6,400 men; the Greeks lost 192 men, including Callimachus. The battle proved the superiority of the Greek long spear, sword, and armour over the Persians’ weapons.

According to legend, an Athenian messenger was sent from Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 25 miles (40 km), and there he announced the Persian defeat before dying of exhaustion. This tale became the basis for the modern marathon race. Herodotus, however, relates that a trained runner, Pheidippides (also spelled Phidippides, or Philippides), was sent from Athens to Sparta before the battle in order to request assistance from the Spartans; he is said to have covered about 150 miles (240 km) in about two days.


11 Xerxes I, whom the Greeks particularly despised, continued the work of his father, Darius, and marched his troops across the Hellespont into Greece in 481 B.C.

11 Xerxes at the Hellespont by Jean Guident

Responding to the renewed threat, the Athenian statesman Themistocles oversaw the construction of a new war fleet, and once again a Greek alliance was formed, this time led by Sparta. The large Persian army advanced along the Greek coast accompanied by a large fleet. After a dramatic land-battle in the narrow pass of Thermopylae, the Greeks were forced to retreat. The Persians then captured and burned Athens in 480 B.C., marking a low point in the fortunes of the Greeks.


12 Ships engage in the Battle of Salamis,
September, 480 B.C.

Later in the year a Greek victory in a pitched sea battle at 12, 13 Salamis changed the course of the war.

The Greeks chased the demoralized Persian army to Plataea, in Boeotia, where they won a crushing victory in 479 B.C. The Persian threat was thus averted and the episode entered Greek folklore as a glorious triumph.


13 Main forces in the Battle of Salamis,
the Greek fleet shown in green,
the Persian fleet shown in red

Battle of Salamis

(480 bc),
battle in the Greco-Persian Wars in which a Greek fleet defeated much larger Persian naval forces in the straits at Salamis, between the island of Salamis and the Athenian port-city of Piraeus. By 480 the Persian king Xerxes and his army had overrun much of Greece, and his navy of about 800 galleys bottled up the smaller Greek fleet of about 370 triremes in the Saronic Gulf. The Greek commander, Themistocles, then lured the Persian fleet into the narrow waters of the strait at Salamis, where the massed Persian ships had difficulty maneuvering. The Greek triremes then attacked furiously, ramming or sinking many Persian vessels and boarding others. The Greeks sank about 300 Persian vessels while losing only about 40 of their own. The rest of the Persian fleet was scattered, and as a result Xerxes had to postpone his planned land offensives for a year, a delay that gave the Greek city-states time to unite against him. The Battle of Salamis was the first great naval battle recorded in history.

Battle of Salamis
by Wilhelm von Kaulbach


From Aeschylus's The Persians

"Advance, ye sons of Greece, from thraldom
Save your country, save your wives, your children,
The temples of your gods, the sacred tomb
Where rest your honour'd ancestors."


The Rise of Athens

From the beginning Athenian political life was shaped by the legal system. The famous lawmaker Solon was the architect of numerous reforms. After a period under the rule of the tyrants, Cleisthenes broadened citizen participation in government to weaken the aristocracy.

Athens, the city under the protection of the goddess 2 Athena, whose symbol was the 3 owl, always held a special position in Greece.

It was considered the "cradle of democracy." The highest organ of Athenian government was the Areopagus (council). Its members were initially confined to the aristocracy, but later archons (rulers)—magistrates who were elected annually for six centuries, came to predominate between 683 and 84 B.C. In 630 B.C. growing social unrest and an attempt to dislodge the council prompted the lawmaker Draco to draw up a harsh code of laws (from which the word "Draconian" derives).

2 The Goddess Athena,
bronze statue, ca. 375-340 B.C.

3 Owl of Athena and olive branch on an Athenian coin


In 594, the Athenians elected 1, 4 Solon as archon.


1 The Athenian lawmaker, Solon


He championed the notion of the "rule of law" on all levels and introduced wide-ranging legal reforms. In the sixth century Athens was suffering from a social crisis brought on by spiralling debt among the poorer classes. Solon sought to remedy this with reforms, establishing legal protection against the arbitrary use of power and abolishing the enslavement of the indebted.

Although Solon worked for the balance of the interests of all groups, Peisistratus seized power in Athens as tyrant in 556 B.C. Peisistratus extended Athene's influence beyond the Aegean, laid the foundation for the city's economic rise, further reformed the legal code, and erected grand public structures such as the Temple of Zeus in Athens. His sons Hip-parchus (assassinated in 514) and Hippias succeeded him, but when he was deposed and driven out in 510 the old system was restored.

In 508-507 B.C. the new archon, Cleisthenes, brought about a complete change in the political structure. He divided Attica into ten geographical sections, called "phyles," which elected their own administrators and provided their own hoplite regiments.


4 Solon defends his laws against criticism from Athenian citizens, painting by Noel Coypel, 1699

Each oi these phyles sent 50 representatives to the newly created "Council of the Five Hundred," the highest political assembly, which convened on the Athenian 5 Agora.

In this way Cleisthenes created a system of local administration and severed the ties between the citizens and the aristocracy.

Cleisthenes is also credited with instituting 6 "ostracism," by which supporters of tyranny could be temporarily exiled from the city.


5 Stele, found on the Agora, celebrating
the anti-tyrant law of Eucrates, 337-336 B.C.

6 Shards of pottery inscribed with the name of
Themistocles, an Athenian who was exiled
under the ostracism law in 470 в.с.


From Solon's Fragment

"My heart commands me to instruct the Athenians thus: Where no law is given, much evil will befall the state. Where there is law, the whole is united in beautiful order. Those who do wrong, shackle it by doing so." (3,30)



Athens as a Great Power

Athens came to dominate Greece through the Delian League, originally established to fight the Persians. This hegemony inevitably provoked resistance from other city-states, most notably Sparta. Domestically Athenian democracy reached its high point under Pericles.

Athens emerged from the Persian Wan in a position of considerable strength.

Under archon 9 Themistocles, Athens exercised a growing dominance over the Delian League, which had been founded in 477 against the Persians.

By extorting financial contributions from the league's members, Athens extended its hegemony over most of Greece. Conflict with the stronger members, above all Sparta, became inevitable. Athens used force to crush revolts in league member cities. Meanwhile, the smoldering war with the Persian Empire finally ended with the Peace of Callias in 448, under which Athens abandoned the attempt to drive the Persians out of the Mediterranean and the Persians agreed to respect the independence of all the Greek cities in Anatolia.

While Athens was pursuing aggressive policies against neighboring states, internally it continued to move towards democracy. Under the leadership of Ephialtes, the Athenians stripped the judicial power from the Areopagus in 462-461 B.C. and gave it to the jury courts, thus placing judicial power in the hands of the citizens. Six thousand lay judges were drawn by lots.

This was implemented by Ephialtes' protege, 7 Pericles, who, beginning in 443, was reelected each year as the strategist who guided Athens's destiny.

He established equality before the law and made the city assembly a democratic council before which every citizen had the right to petition. Officials were appointed by drawing lots.

9 Themistocles stands before Artaxerxes I

7 Pericles



An Athenian army commander, statesman, and archon, Themistocles designed the Piraeus naval harbor in 493-492 B.C. He was never popular with his fellow citizens, despite playing a crucial role in Athens's rise to power, most notably as a commander during the the Battle of Salamis.

His enemies and critics managed to have Themistocles ostracized in ca. 470 в.с, and this was followed by the pronouncement of a death sentence. He died or committed suicide abroad sometime after 460 B.C. as a vassal of the Persians.



Themistocles, (born c. 524 bc—died c. 460), Athenian politician and naval strategist who was the creator of Athenian sea power and the chief saviour of Greece from subjection to the Persian Empire at the Battle of Salamis in 480 bc.

Early life.
Themistocles’ father, Neocles, came of the aristocratic Lycomid family and was not poor, but his mother was a concubine, non-Athenian, possibly non-Greek. He thus owed his citizenship to the legislation of Cleisthenes, which, in 508, had made citizens of all free men of Athens. This no doubt contributed to his democratic sympathies. In 493 he was elected archon, the chief judicial and civilian executive officer in Athens; this is the first recorded event of his life. As archon, he sponsored the first public works destined to make the defensible rocky bays of Piraeus, five miles from Athens, into harbours, replacing the nearer but unprotected beaches of Phaleron. He must also have been concerned in the trial of Miltiades, the great colonial Athenian prince, who arrived in flight from the Chersonese (Gallipoli) and was prosecuted by aristocratic rivals for having ruled there as a monarch. Themistocles himself took a cool view of Miltiades’ autocratic character, but his judgment was not at fault if he helped to save the strategist and tactician who, in 490, beat off the first Persian attack on Athens at Marathon.

Advocacy of a large navy.
After Marathon, most Athenians thought that the danger was past, but not Themistocles. He also saw that Marathon—a victory for Athens’ spearmen, middle-class men who could afford the costly bronze panoply—could not be repeated if the enemy, strong in archers and cavalry, came again in much greater force. The only hope was to exploit the invader’s supply difficulties, which would be great if Persia’s naval allies, including the formidable Phoenicians, could be beaten at sea. To carry out this strategy, however, Greece needed far more warships—the newly developed, specialized triremes—than it then had. Themistocles urged that the Athenian fleet, then 70 strong, be doubled or trebled, but he was opposed. The opposition was not without political overtones. Building a strong navy would require the wealthy to pay higher taxes to purchase new ships while giving political weight to the men who rowed the galleys, the poorer voters. Maintaining a land-oriented defense, by comparison, would cost less and would increase the status of the infantry, whose ranks were drawn primarily from the middle class.

The 480s were a period of intense political struggle. Miltiades died in disgrace (489), and from 487 to 483 other leaders were successively ostracized. Though never himself defeated, Themistocles must have been attacked repeatedly; he was the man accused by his enemies of being a danger to the established order. Nonetheless, in 483 he won his greatest triumph. The state-owned silver mines near Sunium were the site of a rich strike, and he persuaded the assembly, instead of “declaring a dividend,” to devote the whole surplus to increasing the navy. Thus when Xerxes I, the Persian king, marched in 480, Athens had 200 triremes, though many of the rowers were still untrained.

Themistocles further succeeded in selling his naval strategy to the Peloponnesians, headed by Sparta, who could raise another 150 triremes. The combined fleet was to fight not on their own doorstep, as Greeks preferred to do, but as far forward as possible, exploiting the geographical situation. Serving under a Spartan admiral (since Corinth and Aegina would not serve under an Athenian), Themistocles conducted the main fleet to the straits north of Euboea. Here their presence forced the enemy to approach en masse down a coast with few beaches, and a typical north Aegean storm there inflicted losses that probably, in the end, proved decisive. The Greeks were still outnumbered, however. In the Battle of Artemisium, fighting in a defensive half-moon formation, they suffered as well as inflicted heavy losses, and they knew that they must retire even before they heard that their small holding force on land had been destroyed at Thermopylae.

Battle of Salamis.
One hope remained. Themistocles had persuaded the Athenians to evacuate women and children to the Peloponnese and, in the last resort, to retire to Salamis. If the Persians attacked that island citadel, a battle in the narrow sound might yet give a chance to the Greeks, with their armoured marines and heavier ships, against the better sailing ships commanded by the Persians. Persuading the Peloponnesians to join the Athenian fleet, Themistocles then lured Xerxes by a false message, suggesting that he himself was ready to change sides, into ordering an all-out attack. The Greeks enveloped the head of the Phoenician column as it emerged from the narrowest part of the strait and destroyed it; and though most of the other Asian contingents in the rear escaped, Xerxes had lost for good the command of the sea.

Sparta honoured Themistocles with a great ovation; but Athens, led during the crisis by the Areopagus, or council of nobles, gave the chief commands in 479 to the recalled exiles, Aristides and Xanthippus, and Themistocles’ postwar history was a sad one. He outwitted the Spartans when they attempted to prevent Athens from rebuilding its defensive walls, but he failed to induce the people either to transfer their capital to Piraeus or, at that time, to reduce the powers of the Areopagus. The people, after their tremendous war effort, were in a mood of reaction. Though praised (not by name) in Aeschylus’ Persians (472), Themistocles was at last ostracized. He lived at Argos for some years, during which democracy made headway in some parts of the Peloponnese. Sparta then accused him of complicity in alleged intrigues with Persia. He escaped, and, until his death in about 460, served as governor of some Asian Greek cities still subject to the son of Xerxes.

Themistocles is often unfavourably viewed by early writers. Admittedly a master strategist, he is often depicted as a slick politician, bent on enriching himself even in the crisis of the great war. The reason for this bias is perhaps that he was a strong democrat, hated by the Athenian upper classes, and their views, passed on to their friend the historian Herodotus and to Plato, himself an aristocrat, colour the whole tradition. Herodotus introduces him only at the onset of the crisis as “newly come to the front” (which is wrong) and drops him from his story at the end of 480. Only the historian Thucydides does him justice and calls the darkest charges against him “alleged.”

Andrew Robert Burn

Encyclopædia Britannica


The impressive 11, 12 public buildings and 8, 10 theater plays ensured that Pericles' period in office would be considered Athens's golden age.



11, 12 The Parthenon or Temple of Athena the Virgin, on the Acropolis, Athens


8, 10 The Dionysios Theater in Athens



Pericles, (born c. 495 bc, Athens—died 429, Athens), Athenian statesman largely responsible for the full development, in the later 5th century bc, of both the Athenian democracy and the Athenian empire, making Athens the political and cultural focus of Greece. His achievements included the construction of the Acropolis, begun in 447.

Background and education.
Knowledge of the life of Pericles derives largely from two sources. The historian Thucydides admired him profoundly and refused to criticize him. His account suffers from the fact that, 40 years younger, he had no firsthand knowledge of Pericles’ early career; it suffers also from his approach, which concentrates exclusively on Pericles’ intellectual capacity and his war leadership, omitting biographical details, which Thucydides thought irrelevant to his theme. The gaps are partly filled by the Greek writer Plutarch, who, 500 years later, began writing the life of Pericles to illustrate a man of unchallengeable virtue and greatness at grips with the fickleness of the mob and finished rather puzzled by the picture he found in his sources of Pericles’ responsibility for a needless war. These sources are not all ascertainable, but they certainly preserve an invaluable amount of fact and contemporary gossip, which is sometimes nearly as useful.

Pericles was born into the first generation able to use the new weapon of the popular vote against the old power of family politics. His father, Xanthippus, a typical member of this generation, almost certainly of an old family, began his political career by a dynastic marriage into the controversial family of the Alcmaeonids. He soon left their political camp, probably on the question of relations with Persia, and took the then new path of legal prosecution as a political weapon.

Perhaps outbid in his search for popular support, Xanthippus was ostracized in 484 bc, though he returned in 480 to command the Athenian force at Mycale in 479, probably dying soon after. From him Pericles may have inherited a leaning toward the people, along with landed property at Cholargus, just north of Athens, which put him high, though not quite at the highest level, on the Athenian pyramid of wealth.

His Alcmaeonid mother, Agariste, provided him with relationships of sharply diminishing political value and her family curse, a religious defilement that was occasionally used against him by his enemies. A few days before Pericles’ birth, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, Agariste dreamed she bore a lion. The symbolism, although ambiguous, is most likely to be unfavourable. That Pericles’ skull was of unusual shape seems well attested, but one can hardly speculate about the possible psychological consequences.

The only name associated with his early education is that of the musical theorist Damon, whose influence, it is said, was not just confined to music. The arrival of the Sophist philosophers in Athens occurred during his middle life, and he seems to have taken full advantage of the society of Zeno and particularly Anaxagoras, from whom he is said to have learned impassivity in the face of trouble and insult and skepticism about alleged divine phenomena.

The first known date in his life is 472 bc, when he paid for the production of the playwright Aeschylus’ Persian trilogy. Nothing further is known until 463, when he unsuccessfully prosecuted Cimon, the leading general and statesman of the day, on a charge of having neglected a chance to conquer Macedonia; this implies that Pericles advocated an aggressive policy of expansion for Athens. Only rumour associates him directly with the political convulsion of the next two years, which drove Cimon into exile, swung Athens away from its alignment with Sparta, and decisively strengthened the democratic elements in the Athenian constitution; but he probably did support the democratic leader Ephialtes in this period, and his introduction of pay for juries, unfortunately undatable, is a logical consequence of Ephialtes’ reforms.

Rise to democratic leadership.
That Pericles immediately succeeded the assassinated Ephialtes as head of the democratic party in 461 is an ancient oversimplification; there were other men of considerable weight in Athens in the next 15 years. The outbreak of war among the Greek states in 459 put a premium on military talent, and Pericles’ only recorded campaign in the next few years was a naval expedition in the Corinthian Gulf in 454, in which Athens defeated Achaea but failed to win more important objectives. Politically he is credited with some kind of rapprochement with Cimon, who is said to have been recalled and allowed to resume the war with Persia, much preferred to fighting other Greeks, but the date of Cimon’s recall is uncertain, and the rumours are hard to disentangle.

In 451 or 450 Pericles carried a law confining Athenian citizenship to those of Athenian parentage on both sides. No source provides any background to this proposal; it is not even clear whether it was retrospective. A correct assessment is vital for understanding Pericles, but explanations vary considerably; some argue that Pericles was merely forging a low-level political weapon for use against Cimon, who had a foreign mother. The upper classes certainly had no prejudice against foreign marriages; the lower classes may well have had more, and, on the whole, it is possible to view Pericles here as championing exclusivist tendencies against immigrants who might break down the fabric of Athenian society.

One hundred years later, an orator argued for firm distinctions of status on the ground that the law provided even the poorest Athenian girl with a dowry in the form of her citizenship. The law also may have passed because of a general wish to restrict access to the benefits of office and public distributions, but there was never any disposition on the part of Athenians to restrict economic opportunities for foreigners—who served in the fleet, worked on public buildings, and had freedom of trade and investment, with the crucial, but normal, exception of land and houses. To speak of this legislation as a move toward creating a “master race” is thus partly misleading, but the demagogic nature of the law seems clear.

Cimon died after 451, during his last campaign against Persia. The policy of war with Persia was abandoned and a formal peace probably made. The Persian War, begun as an ill-considered gesture in 499, could be considered ultimately successful. The city of Athens, however, was physically still much as it had been left by the Persian sack of 480, and its gods were inadequately housed.

Restoring Athens’ preeminence.
Hostilities among the Greek states had also come to an end in the Five Years’ Truce of 451. Pericles now embarked on a policy designed to secure Athens’ cultural and political leadership in Greece. It had already dominated the alliance that had continued the Persian War after Sparta’s withdrawal in 478, a leadership strengthened by the transfer of the alliance’s considerable treasury from Delos to Athens in 454. If peace with Persia did not end the alliance, it may have ended the annual tribute paid to that treasury.

Whether to regain this tribute, or simply to assert Athenian leadership, Pericles summoned a conference of all Greek states to consider the questions of rebuilding the Greek temples destroyed by the Persians, the payment of sacrifices due to the gods for salvation, and the freedom of the seas. Sparta would not cooperate, but Pericles continued on the narrower basis of the Athenian alliance. Tribute was to continue, and Athens would draw heavily on the reserves of the alliance for a magnificent building program centred on the Acropolis. In 447 work started on the temple later known as the Parthenon and on the gold and ivory statue of Athena (by Phidias), which it was to house; the Acropolis project was to include, among other things, a temple to Victory and the Propylaea (started 437), the entrance gateway, far grander and more expensive than any previous Greek secular building.

There was domestic criticism, however. Thucydides, son of Melesias (not the historian) and a relative of Cimon, who had inherited some of his political support, denounced both the extravagance of the project and the immorality of using allied funds to finance it. Pericles argued that the allies were paying for their defense, and, if that was assured, Athens did not have to account for how the money was actually spent. The argument ended in ostracism in 443; Thucydides went into exile for 10 years, leaving Pericles unchallenged. It cannot be determined whether the glamour of the project had completely caught Athenian imagination or whether Pericles was now simply thought to be indispensable. Plutarch attributed to Pericles a desire to stimulate economic activity and employment in Athens, but these motives may be anachronistic and in actuality may not have influenced the voters very much.

Revolts within the empire.
There was also some initial allied resentment at the continuation of tribute, and some scattered revolts. Pericles met the situation in part by extending a network of Athenian settlements throughout what may now be called the empire, thus strengthening Athenian control and providing new land for the growing Athenian population. In establishing one of these, Pericles engaged in his most admired campaign, the expulsion of barbarians from the Thracian Chersonese (Gallipoli). A more serious crisis came in 447 or 446, however, when the cities of Boeotia, under Athenian control since 458, beat a small Athenian army and successfully revolted. Euboea, crucial to Athenian control of the sea and food supplies, and Megara soon followed suit. The strategic importance of Megara was immediately demonstrated by the appearance, for the first time in 12 years, of a Spartan army north of the Isthmus in Attica. Pericles thought and acted swiftly. The details were never fully known, but, possibly by bribery and certainly by negotiation, it was arranged that Athens would give up its mainland possessions and confine itself to a largely maritime empire. The Spartan army retired, Euboea was quickly reduced, and the arrangement was ratified by the Thirty Years’ Peace (winter 446–445). For Athens, the essential loss was that of Megara, which meant that a Spartan army could appear in Attica at any time. That Pericles doubted the stability of the settlement and saw the need to develop an alternative basic strategy for Athens is shown by his immediate construction of a third Long Wall to improve the defenses of Athens and the port of Piraeus. Henceforth, in effect, Athens could be turned into an island at will.

Political and military achievements.
There was a break in tensions for the moment. After Thucydides’ ostracism, Pericles had little domestic opposition. His position rested on his continual reelection to the generalship and on his prestige, based, according to the historian Thucydides, on his manifest intelligence and incorruptibility. From his youthful demagogy, he had moved to a more middle ground in politics, and there are traces in his later life of his being outflanked by more radical spokesmen. Athens was, Thucydides says, in name a democracy but, in fact, governed by its first man. Though Athenian democracy never gave more than severely limited powers to the executive, the assembly gave Pericles what he wanted. Thucydides, obsessed with the power of intellect, takes little note of the need of a statesman to work hard, and it is Plutarch who provided the glimpses of a man who took no interest in his own estates, who was never seen on any road but that to the public offices, and who was only recalled to have gone to one social occasion, which he left early.

This picture is softened somewhat by what is known of his personal life. The identity of his wife, however, though certainly of wealth and high birth, is unknown. He married her in his late 20s but, as they were incompatible, divorced her some 10 years later. Close to 50, he took Aspasia of Miletus into his house. By his own law, marriage was impossible, and, after the death of his two legitimate sons, their son Pericles had to be legitimated. Although Aspasia is clouded by scandal and legend, it is easy to believe she possessed great charm and intelligence. There is no reason to doubt that she was free and of good birth in her own city with its great intellectual traditions. It is clear that her own behaviour and Pericles’ attitude toward her were surprising phenomena in Athens, where upper class women were kept secluded. That Pericles was known to kiss her on leaving for and returning from work gave rise to speculation about her influence on him and, thus, on Athenian politics.

As the building program continued, Pericles demonstrated Athenian superiority in other ways. In 443 a Panhellenic colony was founded under Athenian auspices at Thurii, in southern Italy, but did not form a continuing centre of Athenian influence in the west, as may have been hoped. At an unknown date, Pericles took a fleet into the Black Sea to demonstrate Athenian power and secure the grain route from the Tauric Chersonese (the Crimean Peninsula in modern Ukraine). As the buildings on the Acropolis rose, celebrations of the festival of the Panathenaea grew more and more elaborate, and much was done to enhance the splendour of the Mysteries of Eleusis, symbolic, among other things, of the Athenian claim to have brought corn and civilization to mankind.

Pericles’ last major campaign was the one interruption in these years. In 440, Samos, one of Athens’ principal allies with a substantial fleet of its own, revolted, and, despite a victory by Pericles against superior numbers, the revolt nearly succeeded. The campaign to recover Samos, although long and costly, was ultimately successful, and it became a model against which later Athenian generals measured their achievements.

The drift toward war.
There had been a serious possibility that Sparta and its allies might intervene on this occasion, but they did not, and the Thirty Years’ Peace was upheld until the end of the 430s. Tension grew as the decade progressed, particularly with regard to Corinth, Sparta’s ally, whose interests conflicted more obviously with those of Athens. By 433 the situation was serious enough for Athens’ finances to be put on a war basis, and, thereafter, the drift to war continued.

Pericles’ policy was one of firmness, coupled with careful manipulation of the diplomatic position to keep Athens technically in the right. The firmness was a puzzle to contemporaries, particularly his determination to enforce decrees excluding Megarian trade from the Athenian Empire. Was he, it was asked, influenced by some private grievance of Aspasia? Was he trying to divert attention from personal attacks on himself and friends by making war? Thucydides tells just enough to make his own interpretation plausible, that Megara was a small matter in itself but crucial as a symbol of Athenian determination to maintain its position. Consideration of Megara’s strategic importance, which Thucydides consistently undervalues, may suggest further the possibility that the Megarian decrees were not the immediate cause of the war but the first blow in a war Pericles thought inevitable and that began in spring 431.

Pericles’ main strategic ideas are clear. He was an admiral rather than a general, and Athens’ naval resources were immeasurably superior to its land power. He would evacuate the Athenian countryside, bring the population into the Long Walls, decline battle with the Spartan army, and rely on the fleet to assure Athenian food supplies and secure the empire on whose resources the expensive naval policy depended. Expenditure on building had been counterbalanced by annual savings from the tribute, and enough capital had been reserved, he thought, for a long war, though expenditure turned out heavier than he could have calculated. This is essentially Thucydides’ analysis, though he failed to explain what end to the war, other than a stalemate, Pericles wanted or expected. There are some indications that Periclean strategy included more aggressive elements, such as the recovery of Megara, which would have considerably improved Athens’ position.

Weakness of Pericles’ strategy.
This strategy, however, had marked political weaknesses. The Athenian population had deep roots in the countryside, and great firmness was required to bring them to abandon their land to Spartan ravages without a fight. The middle-class army suffered in morale, and the living conditions of the lower classes, though they were allowed activity in the fleet, deteriorated in the overcrowded city. The overcrowding had an unforeseeable consequence in a plague, which in the second summer of the war took a quarter of the population. No obvious success counterbalanced the discomforts of war, and Pericles was deposed from office and fined. He was soon reelected, but he took no new initiatives before his death in autumn 429.

After the first campaigning season of the war, he had delivered the funeral speech over the fallen, which Thucydides reports at length. They had fallen, he said, in preserving a way of life that he described in detail. Athenian life often fell short of this Periclean ideal, but he conceived it with clarity and made it generally recognized. He conceived his Athens as “an education to Greece.” If the last speech attributed to him by Thucydides is any guide, he cannot be accused of ignoring that the realities of power that made the Periclean age possible might also bring it down.

David Malcolm Lewis

Encyclopædia Britannica