Pericles: The Master Builder.

By David Trumbull COPYRIGHT, 2006

For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. --The Funeral Oration Delivered by Pericles, from Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, II, 34

Pericles (c. 495-429 B.C.) is so credited with the brilliance of Athens in the fifth century that the era is commonly called the "Periclean Age." His vision of Athens as a "Citty upon a Hill. The eies of all people are uppon us" /1/ and his opening of his fellow-citizens' eyes to see that same vision place Pericles as one of the most commanding, respected, and emulated statesmen of any era. But Pericles also comes down to us as a "model of mild and upright temper", with "capacity to bear the cross-grained humors of fellow-citizens and colleagues in office which made him both most useful and serviceable to the interests of his country." (Life of Pericles, 2)

He led the people through the power of his oratory, as taught by the most regarded tutors in Greece. He lead them prudently and toward noble goals because that education was also directed toward development of a worthy character and lofty purpose.

But he that saw most of Pericles, and furnished him most especially with a weight and grandeur of sense, superior to all arts of popularity, and in general gave him his elevation and sublimity of purpose and of character, was Anaxagoras of Clazomenae...For this man, Pericles entertained an extraordinary esteem and admiration, and, filling himself with...elevation of purpose and dignity of language, raised far above the base and dishonest buffooneries of mob-eloquence. --Life of Pericles, 4-5

Pericles, the aristocrat, threw in his lot, politically, with the party of the commons (Life of Pericles, 7) and, thus, bridged the gap between the haves and have-nots which was a perennial source of discord in the Athenian commonwealth. While he rose to power by flattering the mob, once in power he refused the people in their passions and ruled for the good of all Athens, playing to people's hopes and fears.

...he turned those soft and flowery modulations to the austerity of aristocratical and regal rule; and employing this uprightly and undeviatingly for the country's best interests, he was able generally to lead the people along, with their own wills and consents, by persuading and showing them what was to be done...he made them, whether they would or no, yield submission to what was for their advantage...he alone, as a great master, knowing how to handle and deal fitly with each one of them, and, in an especial manner, making that use of hopes and fears, as his two chief rudders, with the one to check the career of their confidence at any time, with the other to raise them up and cheer them when under any discouragement, plainly showed by this, that rhetoric, or the art of speaking, is, in Plato's language, the government of the souls of men, and that her chief business is to address the affections and passions, which are as it were the strings and keys to the soul.

And yet, his urging the people to goodness would have been of little avail had he not such a reputation for goodness himself as to render his conduct the proof of his words.

The source of this predominance was not barely his power of language, but, as Thucydides assures us, the reputation of his life, and the confidence felt in his character; his manifest freedom from every kind of corruption, and superiority to all considerations of money. --Life of Pericles, 15

Pericles also understood that his person and reputation were coin to be spent wisely and that familiarity can breed contempt.

He immediately entered, also, on quite a new course of life and management of his time. For he was never seen to walk in any street but that which led to the marketplace and the council-hall, and he avoided invitations of friends to supper, and all friendly visiting and intercourse whatever...For these friendly meetings are very quick to defeat any assumed superiority, and in intimate familiarity an exterior of gravity is hard to maintain...Pericles, however, to avoid any feeling of commonness, or any satiety on the part of the people, presented himself at intervals only, not speaking to every business, nor at all times coming into the assembly, but, as Critolaus says, reserving himself, like the Salaminian galley, for great occasions, while matters of lesser importance were dispatched by friends or other speakers under his direction. --Life of Pericles, 7

The lasting fame of Pericles rests of two things, what he did and what he tried to leave undone. He used the treasury of the Greeks to rebuild Athens, saying to those who object that they have no cause to complain so long as Athens continued to protect Greece from her external enemies.

That which gave most pleasure and ornament to the city of Athens, and the greatest admiration and even astonishment to all strangers...was his construction of the public and sacred buildings. Yet this was that of all his actions in the government which his enemies most looked askance upon and caviled at in the popular assemblies, crying out how that the commonwealth of Athens had lost its reputation and was ill-spoken of abroad for removing the common treasure of the Greeks from the isle of Delos into their own custody... --Life of Pericles, 12

The massive public works undertaken by Pericles employed many people and included reconstruction of the Acropolis under the supervision of the sculptor Phidias; the building of the Parthenon by Callicrates and Ictinus; and the building of the Propylaea or gateway to the Acropolis. (Life of Pericles, 13) These projects, completed over the period of the 440s and 430s B.C. left some of the greatest architecture ever produced and continue to stand, as Plutarch said, as "Greece's only evidence that the power she boasts of and her ancient wealth are no romance or idle story."

Make no little plans. They have no magic to strike man's blood and probably will themselves not be realized. /2/ might serve as a political slogan for Pericles. To those who complained of the cost of rebuilding Athens Pericles said, Okay, charge it to me, but I get the recognition instead of the city. They switched and bade him spend more public money. (Life of Pericles, 14)

Some today might say of Pericles' ornamentation of Athens that it was "merely cosmetic," meaning thereby that is was a beautification of the surface that did not change the essential structure or order of the city. The Greeks thought quite differently. The Greek word cosmos, often translated world, carries a root meaning of order and is the source of two English-language words you probably never associated together: cosmology, the science of the study of the order of the universe and cosmetology the art of beautifying the face and body which is an act of putting one's appearance in proper order. The role of the leader is to bring, out of chaos, order. By ordering his own affections (character) one can lead followers in the direction best for them, rather than in a self-server manner or by merely appealing to their prejudices. By learning to order his speech (rhetoric) the leader acquires a tool needed to persuade followers. By balancing the legitimate concerns of all classes of society and by avoiding unnecessary and unjust wars the leader creates ordered society that reflects the order of the cosmos. And by promoting the arts and sciences the leader causes cosmic and civic order to be revealed through art, architecture and music.

Pericles' other achievement, restraining the peoples' passion for invading Sicily and confining Athens' ambitions to Greece, had force of law only for his lifetime, yet stands as a cautionary tale for every leader: a reminder that popularity and leadership are quite different things.

The course of public affairs after his death [of the plague in 429 B.C.] produced a quick and speedy sense of the loss of Pericles. Those who, while he lived, resented his great authority...presently after his quitting the stage, making trial of other orators and demagogues, readily acknowledged that there never had been in nature such a disposition as his was, more moderate and reasonable...or more grave and impressive in the mildness which he used. And that invidious arbitrary power, to which formerly they gave the name of monarchy and tyranny, did then appear to have been the chief bulwark of public safety; so great a corruption and such a flood of mischief and vice followed, which he, by keeping weak and low, had withheld from notice, and had prevented from attaining incurable height through a licentious impunity. --Life of Pericles, 39

Indeed, Pericles' management of the early years of the Peloponnesian War was masterful. In fact, he saw the war coming long before most, but literally bought time to forestall it until Athens would be in a better position to fight.

When Pericles, in giving up his accounts of this expedition, stated a disbursement of ten talents, as "laid out upon fit occasion", the people, without any question, nor troubling themselves to investigate the mystery, freely allowed of it. And some historians have given it as a truth that Pericles every year used to send privately the sum of ten talents to Sparta, with which he complimented those in office, to keep off the war; not to purchase peace neither, but time, that he might prepare at leisure, and be the better able to carry on war hereafter. --Life of Pericles, 23

We know the sad rest of the story. How demagogues, such as the brilliant and charming but utterly rudderless Alcibiades, flattered the people in their wildest fantasies of world domination and drove Athens onward to her downfall.

When the war broke out, here also Pericles seems to have rightly gauged the power of his country. He outlived its commencement two years and six months, and the correctness of his previsions respecting it became better known by his death. He told them to wait quietly, to pay attention to their marine, to attempt no new conquests, and to expose the city to no hazards during the war, and doing this, promised them a favourable result. What they did was the very contrary, allowing private ambitions and private lead them into projects unjust both to themselves and to their allies--projects whose success would only conduce to the honour and advantage of private persons, and whose failure entailed certain disaster on the country in the war. --Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, II, 65

As statesman, Pericles belongs to a small set of the greatest leaders of all time. For his contribution to the great art of the world, he stands alone.

...for the beauty and magnificence of temples and public edifices with which he adorned his country, it must be confessed, that all the ornaments and structures of Rome, to the time of the Caesars, had nothing to compare, either in greatness of design or of expense, with the luster of those which Pericles only erected at Athens. --Comparison of Fabius with Pericles, 3

Here Ends Trumbull's Summary of the Life of Pericles.


/1/ John Winthrop, writing of New England, A.D. 1630.

/2/ Remark usually, but not authoritatively, attributed to American architect Daniel Burnham (1846-1912).