Feb 19, 2010

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Pericles & the Athenian Ideal, Part 2

Bust of Pericles bearing the inscription “Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian”. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original by Cresilas, ca. 430 BC (Museo Pio-Clementino)

Bust of Pericles bearing the inscription “Pericles, son of Xanthippus, Athenian”. Marble, Roman copy after a Greek original by Cresilas, ca. 430 BC (Museo Pio-Clementino)

Athens was an example to Greece in politics. But what about the economic and cultural realms?

According to Plutarch, Athens became fantastically wealthy after Themistocles (524 – 459 BCE) had directed the revenue of the city’s lucrative silver mines at Laurium towards the construction of a strong navy, including a new fleet of triremes, which made possible the reconquest of Athens after its inhabitants had been forced to flee from the invading Persians.

When Athens became host to the treasury of the Delian League in 454 BCE, Pericles used its funds for the rebuilding of Athenian temples, claiming they had been destroyed by the Persians in the common cause of Greece, thus it was appropriate that they be rebuilt from the common funds.

In 449 BCE, a pan-Hellenic Congress was proposed to raise funds for further projects. This plan met with fierce opposition from Thucydides among others. According to Plutarch, Pericles answered his critics by declaring that “the Athenians were not obliged to give the allies an account of how their money was spent, provided that they carried on the war for them and kept the Persians away.” Pericles had effectively plundered the common treasure of Greece and turned it into the adornment of Athens.

Athenian trade also began to flourish during the rule of Pericles, and Themistocles’ fortification of the Piraeus made Athens one of the greatest ports in Greece. The decline of merchant cities in Ionia also contributed greatly to the Athenian economy.

But the most striking developments in fifth-century Athens took place in the cultural sphere.

Although Greek philosophy began in Ionia, it flourished in Athens. Because of her wealth, political power, and cultural refinement, she attracted the best minds from all over Greece. The Sophists, in particular, contributed much to the development of political theory, rhetoric, and logic and stimulated the thought of Athens’ native geniuses Socrates and Plato.

Athens is also renowned for her great architecture, a matter in which Pericles himself played a prominent role. Pericles enlisted Pheidias (480 – 430 BCE) to be the director of his building program, assisted by such skilled architects as Callicrates, Ictinus, Coroebus, and Metagenes. Among their projects were the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena, the adornment of the Acropolis, the Odeon, the Concert Hall, and the temples of Eleusis and Hephaistos.

When Pericles was attacked for his lavish use of public funds, he offered to pay for the construction work himself, if he could take all the glory. This did the trick. Even Pericles’ most zealous critics wished to share in his renown, so they insisted that he complete the buildings at public expense.

Pericles’ construction projects were remarkable not merely for their expense, but also for their artistry, craftsmanship, and good taste, which no other Greek states were able to match, least of all Sparta. In fact, C. M. Bowra wrote that the “remains of Sparta are so humble that it is hard to believe that this was the power which for many years challenged and finally conquered Athens” (Periclean Athens [Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1971], p. 180). But although Pericles’ construction program clearly was an “education” to the rest of Greece, it was no safeguard against eventual Spartan conquest.

What we call ancient Greek drama is better deemed ancient Athenian drama. The great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes were Athenians, as were the comic playwrights Aristophanes and Menander. Sparta had its share of talented poets — among them Tyrtaeus during the mid-seventh century BCE — but they could not compete with the new trends being set in Athens. As Bury put it, when a stranger visited Sparta he must have experienced “a feeling of being transported into an age long past, when men were braver, better, and simpler, unspoiled by wealth, undeveloped by ideas” (p. 134).

The social status of women in Athens was far lower than it was in Sparta. Athenian women took no part in public life and were instructed solely in domestic arts. In his Funeral Oration, Pericles said that women should merely aim “to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you.” In Sparta, however, women were permitted to engage in gymnastic training and “enjoyed a freedom which was in marked contrast with the seclusion of women in other Greek states” (Bury, p. 133). So as far as respect for women was concerned, Athens could not really claim to have exported an policy worthy of emulation, although Ionia also shared the fundamental Athenian weakness of excluding women from education.

Religious and sporting festivals were much the same throughout Greece and, although it is always the Athenians who are remembered for their gods and sporting heroes, most other Greek states were equally advanced.

Thus when Pericles declared that Athens was “an education to Greece.” he was, on the whole, making an accurate observation. This is not to say that Athens was superior to Sparta in every respect, of course, and her democratic system left much to be desired.

Although other Greek states shared some Athenian political, social and economic principles, it remains the case that Athens gave birth to some of the finest Greek accomplishments. These accomplishments, moreover, provided key elements for the development of European art, architecture, drama, philosophy, rhetoric, and politics for 2500 years. Thus Athens continues to serve not only as an “education” for Greece, but for the world.


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  1. So as far as respect for women was concerned, Athens could not really claim to have exported an policy worthy of emulation, although Ionia also shared the fundamental Athenian weakness of excluding women from education.

    Considering the social achievements of Athens described at length in this article, are we quite certain that this was, in fact, a “weakness” relatively speaking, particularly when one compares, as the author does, the more female education-friendly but culturally poorer Sparta?

  2. I understand what you mean, Observer, but association is not causation. Also, we have to define exactly what was meant by “education” in ancient societies and what you mean by education today. Reading, writing and basic calculating? Or advanced degrees in physics?

    No one, male or female, is going to go for any advanced, or even basic, post- secondary school training just because social engineers are pushing them to do so. People generally, as far as I know, have an inborn tendency toward certain occupations or interest in certain fields and feel the urge to pursue them; no woman is going to waste her time learning to be an astronaut, dentist, architect, carpenter, welder or heavy equipment operator just because the intelligentsia who run things tell her it’s cool to do so.

    It is no accident or the result of someone’s propaganda that homosexual men are overrepresented in hairstyling, clothing design & figure skating; they do these things because of interior urges. When we are talking about one’s life work, it is the same with women and, dare I say, heterosexual men, too.

    So, my point is that there is something deeper going on here, namely, a possibly pathological change in basic biological makeup over the past few generations.

    • Stronza, i must disagree with your second, third and fourth paragraphs. I think it is facetious to claim that women have a biological tendency towards certain occupations due to their biology. Although I agree that people are unlikely to make life decisions based on the advice of social engineers, to suggest that one’s life decisions and defined pre-birth is outside that form of thinking. As i see it, you may be suggesting that a women would not decide to enter for example, the construction industry based on her biology. This is suggesting that perhaps, if you were to isolate a woman – in the case of this blog, an Athenian woman – and give her the chance to learn and gain what you defined as “advanced learning”, she would not take it up based on the fact that she was born without that interest, or perhaps she would not wish to build or construct. I would suggest that the definition of one’s interests are instead constructed most strongly by societies subtle but strong beliefs and suggestions. If Athenian women were not granted the opportunity to education and only a miniscule amount of society, if any, thought otherwise, then it is feasible to say that the female is highly unlikely to be interested in gaining such an education, when the concept is not one which enters the minds of society.

      And the over – representation of gay males in traditionally female dominated workplaces surely accentuates this. Males who have an attraction to other males are more often then not subjected to the concept that they are more feminine and themselves feel more suited in the stereotypes that society gives to women in many cases. Thus it could be seen as a direct impact of society on homosexual males that leads to the over representation of them within the workplaces society has constructed to be female-dominant.

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