Make Athens Great Again

Review: Loren J. Samons II, ‘Pericles and the Conquest of History: A Political Biography’

In 472 B.C.—within a decade of the Greek victory over the forces of Xerxes at Salamis, Plataea, and Mycale—Aeschylus staged his play, The Persians, at Athens. Read or watched today with the work of later tragic poets like Sophocles and Euripides in mind, it seems rigid by comparison. In its day, however, the play had a somewhat avant-garde flavor, not least due to the fact that the characters—the Great King himself, his wife "Atossa," and so on—were not borrowed from the heroic age of Greece’s mythical past but were imaginative projections of figures from near-contemporary history: ripped from the headlines, such as it was.

The task of producing the play—an official role assigned by the city—went to a young aristocrat named Pericles. It is among the first well-attested appearances of the future general and first man of the city in the historical record, and much of what came before, during his first 30 years, is a matter of conjecture. For example, it is possible that Pericles (whose precise birth year is unknown) would have seen military service as a young infantryman, sailor, or marine during the climactic phase of the war with Xerxes—but impossible to know for certain.

Certainly his involvement in the production of Aeschylus’ play indicates a willingness to do honor to that generation of warriors—hardly a controversial stance. But as Loren Samons argues in his arresting, intriguing new biography of Pericles, somewhat more controversial were the progressive politics of the play, with its favorable nods in the direction of the Athenian democratic champion Themistocles and its emphasis on the role of the Athenian navy in the victory over Persia—rather than on a victory achieved in concert with the army of the more oligarchic Sparta, which would have been a rather more historically accurate interpretation of events, not to say an interpretation favorable to the more conservative forces in the city’s politics.

Those forces, led by the politician Cimon (whose foreign sympathies were such that he named one of his sons "Lacedaimonios," or "the Spartan") were then dominant in Athens, but the career of Pericles was to track both with the rise of Athens to dominance among the Greeks and also with the multi-decade triumph of radical democratic politics and the rout of conservative opposition in the city. It is not too ridiculous of a stretch to see Pericles’ generation, which fought as young men to defeat an existential threat to self rule and then spent its maturity engaged in the business of dominating other Greeks (and struggling to maintain that dominance), as an analogue to the Greatest Generation. Certainly the spectacular economic growth and cultural flourishing that Athens enjoyed in the fifth century B.C. is comparable to that which America enjoyed in the twentieth, a phenomenon seen nowhere more clearly than in the development of the arts.

As Samons vividly puts it:

We must recall that [Pericles] lived in the days before Aeschylus’s first tragedy had appeared on the stage. Whatever kind of drama was produced in the young Pericles’ day was therefore an archaic form that had yet to see the second actor added to the production. … Lyric verse … elegies that could range from epitaphs to longer narrative verse, and short poems celebrating aristocrats’ victories … formed the "hits" of Pericles’ youth. … One must admit that such victory odes … are relatively somber affairs when compared with the heart-wrenching tragedies and raucous comedies performed on the stage by multiple actors in later fifth-century Athens. Pericles, to put it in modern terms, grew up in a black-and-white world and then lived through the development of color, surround sound, and special effects. Athenian entertainment in his senior years must have seemed fantastic compared with the forms of drama and verse he experienced as a youth.

It is Plutarch’s well-known formulation that Pericles began his career as a demagogue but finished it as a statesman. Samons largely accepts this account. But, though his career is associated with the "progressive" trend in Athenian politics, the fault lines between "left" and "right" naturally form an imperfect analogy with those of contemporary American politics. In domestic policy, the power of the people in the affairs of the city (and, in particular, in the city’s courts) along with disputes over disbursing state funds to members of the public were points of controversy. In foreign policy, one’s attitude toward Sparta was critical: Were the Lacedaimonians a partner in the common Greek defense against Persia, or an enemy to Athenian pre-eminence?

In general, the populist, democratic line in domestic politics tracked with the anti-Spartan position in foreign affairs, and the "left" end of Athenian politics had a distinctly nationalist edge. Pericles thus sponsored successful legislation to pay Athenians for their service on juries and other government functions (a radical reform that, Samons has long argued, altered the character of democratic government forever) and legislation to restrict Athenian citizenship to those born of both an Athenian mother and father.

It appears that Pericles’ role often involved racing to the bottom of a given debate faster than his competitors—for example, the funds used to pay Athenians for their time in public service were taken from the tribute payments the city received from other Greeks in return for protection against Persia. This obvious shakedown was popular with the poor, but offensive to Athenians with a more traditional sense of propriety. As is often the case in democracies, propriety lost.

Why then is Pericles generally remembered as a great man and not as a rabble-rouser, albeit one who achieved such prominence that he could occasionally afford to tell the people they were wrong on matters of strategy? One reason is his association with Athenian cultural flourishing, for which he was limitedly responsible, inasmuch as he played a role in many of the most prominent building programs of that century, famously including the Parthenon—the funds for which also came from tribute money. Another reason is the simple fact that nothing succeeds quite like success—Pericles was elected as one of Athens’ ten generals for an astonishing fifteen years in a row, and secured a reputation for prudence and judgment in military affairs. Following the exile of his principal rival, he achieved such political prominence that Thucydides could claim that Athens was a democracy in name only—in fact, its regime was that of the rule of the first man.

But the most important reason has to do with his role at the outset of the great war with Sparta—the Peloponnesian War—and the policies and rhetoric that Thucydides, the war’s great historian, attributes to him. Even this seems strange, though. Athens, after all, lost this terrible conflict after more than 25 years of fighting. The city’s democratic government was overthrown, and it never returned to the prominence it enjoyed at the peak of Pericles’ career. But all this came long after Pericles’ death, and to the charge that Pericles’ hostility to Sparta was in no small part a cause of the war, Thucydides argues (and Samons largely agrees) that, had Pericles’ naval strategy and prudent advice for operational restraint been adhered to, the war could very well have ended on terms favorable to Athens.

Even conservatives, then, seem to have to grant some credit to a man who appears to represent much that is loathsome to those who prefer propriety in their politics and fear for communities guided by populist impulses—if only because in comparison to the leaders who followed him, including his own relative Alcibiades, Pericles comes off as prudent and certainly loyal to his own city, for better or worse. But the case for his greatness rests on more than simply prudence.

As reported by Thucydides, Pericles’ rhetoric at the start of the war advanced a case that Athens should strive for the kind of glory the poetic record of heroic Greece denied the city. Unlike other major Greek cities, Athens lacked an impressive legacy in that regard, and it had something of an inferiority complex as a result—the fact of which Pericles was very much aware, Samons argues. No matter, he seemed to imply as the war with Sparta looms. Athens’ central role in the defeat of Persia, commemorated by modern tragic poets like Aeschylus and writers like Herodotus, had secured it a heroic legacy in the present age. The Athenian empire which had come about after the war existed not only for the material gain of Athenians, but for their fame—Athens, like a figure from Homer, should embrace the dangerous pursuit of glory even at the risk of its demise. This was, of course, a deeply illiberal case for domination, for raw power, but it was not the case of a mere demagogue. Pericles’ argument was that of a man who had taken his countrymen’s measure, was aware of their faults, and wished them to be more than a function of their bellies.

I’ll conclude with the final sentence of Samons’ book, which cannot be improved upon: "And he all but succeeded."