Pericles (495 – 429 BC) was Athens’ dominant political figure in the mid 5th century BC. The Athenian golden age, during which the city reached the apogee of its power and its empire reached its greatest extent, is also known as the “Age of Pericles“. He was born to a populist general, Xanthippus, who was ostracized and exiled in 484 BC but was recalled four years later during the crisis of the Persian invasion and led the Athenians at the Battle of Mycale.
He grew up wealthy, and was a patron of culture and the arts since his youth – Aeschylus’ oldest surviving play, The Persians, was paid for by Pericles in 472 BC. Pericles was also a friend and patron of Phidias, Ancient Greece’s greatest sculptor. During the Periclean Age, Athens flowered into a center of culture, art, education, and democracy.
Inheriting his father’s democratic leanings, by the 460s BC Pericles had become the deputy and right-hand man of Ephialtes, Athens’ radical democratic leader. When Ephialtes was assassinated in 461 BC, Pericles stepped into his shoes, completed the reform agenda, and dominated Athens until his death in 429 BC. A hawk, Pericles was a proponent of expanding Athens’ power abroad, and throughout his years in power aggressively advocated the expansion of Athenian dominance in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.
He successfully transformed the Delian League, which had started off as an anti-Persian defensive alliance headquartered in the island of Delos, into a de facto Athenian empire whose members were not permitted to leave, and who were compelled to pay annual taxes and other contributions into a treasury controlled by Athens. By the 440s BC, any remaining pretense was abandoned, and the Delian treasury was transferred from Delos to Athens, where it was used to pay for a magnificent public works program. Athens’ grandest monuments, such as the Acropolis and the Parthenon, were paid for by that act of brazen embezzlement.
In 431 BC, the drawn-out Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BC) between Athens and Sparta began. Pericles ably led his city in the first two years, successfully neutralizing Sparta’s advantages as the Greek world’s most formidable land power, while leveraging Athens’ sea power to take the war to Sparta and her allies. However, a plague struck Athens in 429 BC, and Pericles was one of its victims.
Athens failed to produce another leader of Pericles’ caliber. The city, led by a series of lesser men during the prolonged conflict, lurched from mistake to mistake until the war ended in catastrophic Athenian defeat and collapse in 404 BC.