He was the most prominent, influential Greek statesman, orator and general of Athens. His name means ‘surrounded by glory’.
Pericles was born around 495BC in a suburb (deme) of Cholargos, north of Athens. His father Xanthippus was a politician and hero of the Persian wars. His mother Agariste was a member of a wealthy, powerful and yet controversial family.
In his early years he was an unassuming, introverted young man who spent his time quietly and avoided public appearances. He dedicated his time to his studies and excelled at them.
The wealth of his family allowed him to obtain an extensive education in ethics, philosophy, rhetoric, mathematics and music.
Pericles was to marry a close relative and have two sons Paralus and Xanthippus. The name of his wife is unknown although he was to divorce her. His true affection was to Aspasia of Miletus and he was to live with her as husband and wife, and they had a son Pericles the Younger.
He is considered to have been the first politician to have attributed an importance to philosophy and he enjoyed the company of philosophers including Anaxagoras who was to become a close friend and later in life would influence him greatly. Indeed it is believed that his association with Anaxagoras led to his calmness and self control in life.
Due to his own wealth, Pericles became a great patron of the arts. He also sponsored the playwright Aeschylus with his play ‘The Persians’. Athens was to become the centre of arts, literature and culture. He also saw to the rebuilding of the Parthenon and Acropolis. He became very popular with the people.
In 463BC Pericles was to lead the prosecution of Cimon (his political rival). He was accused of neglecting Athens interests in Macedon. Cimon was acquitted of the charge, however the prosecution showed his vulnerability to Pericles influence.
Around 461BC the most powerful council in the state (Areopagus) was controlled by the aristocrats. Pericles mentor, and leader of the democratic party Ephialtes was to propose a change in the Areopagus powers. The Athenian Assembly (Ecclesia) agreed and the Areopagus was stripped of their powers.
This moved Pericles to the forefront of Athenian politics, however Cimon tried to increase his popularity by using his own personal fortune to hand out lavish gifts. This was not to improve his standing and Pericles ostracized Cimon for betraying Athens and aiding Sparta.
Pericles led many military missions during the Peloponnesian wars including recapturing Delphi from the Spartans in 448BC.
He was a leading statesman and made many popular laws including, the poor being able to watch theatrical plays without having to pay. He was also to allow the lower classes to enter public office.
Although Pericles was popular with the general classes, many of the aristocratic class were against him, with accusation levied at them. His companion Aspasia was accused of corrupting the women of Athens although she was later acquitted. His friends were also to suffer, Phidius was to die in prison and Anaxagoras was attacked for this religious beliefs.
Pericles was to remain in charge of Athens until his death of the Plague in 429BC. The plague was also to take the lives of his two sons by his wife, and his sister.
Following his death, a change in the law allowed his son by his mistress Aspasia to become his legitimate heir.