June 11, 2022

1. Pericles

Previous discussions of Pericles:
May 14
May 21
May 28
June 5

Around 440 BC, while Pericles was in the midst of his building projects, he began to face some political opposition. Previously his opponents were conservative aristocrats who didn’t like his extension of democracy. Now his opponents were on the Left — upstarts who had grown rich in business, not aristocrats with landed wealth.

One of these upstarts was Cleon, who was depicted in comedies as “always angry, a lover of war who constantly stirs up hatred.”1 Thucydides called Cleon “‘the most violent of the citizens,’ and portrayed his style of speech as harsh and bullying.” Aristotle said Cleon “corrupted the people... he was the first to shout while speaking in the assembly.”2

The “chief goal” of upstarts like Cleon was “to remove Pericles to make room for themselves.... In foreign affairs, they seem to have favored imperial expansion and harsh treatment of the allies. They were hostile to the Spartans and far more willing than Pericles to risk a fight against them.” They murmured that Pericles had too much power, and they demanded that “he swear an oath not to become a tyrant.”3

Pericles’ opponents used two methods to attack him: they charged his friends with various offences, and they appealed to the piety/superstition of the masses by making vague charges of impiety. Pericles was not a man of the people, and he often consorted with intellectuals who hailed from outside Athens. Kagan describes Pericles as “a cold, remote, and lonely figure.” Pericles rarely attended drinking parties, and if he did attend, he left early. His “favorite diversion” was “philosophical conversation.”

One day, while games were going on, a javelin accidentally killed a spectator. Pericles and Protagoras “spent a whole day discussing the question of responsibility: Was it the javelin, the man who threw it, or the organizer of the games who bore the blame?”4 Protagoras was from Thrace, which was north of Athens.

As a young man, Pericles’ teacher was the philosopher Anaxagoras, who hailed from the coast of Ionia (the coast of Asia Minor). Pericles’ opponents attacked Anaxagoras by introducing a bill “declaring atheism and ‘teaching about the heavens’ public crimes.”5 Anaxagoras was forced into exile.

Another ally of Pericles who was forced into exile was Phidias, the sculptor who managed Pericles’ building projects. Just after Phidias had completed his gigantic gold-and-ivory statue of Athena, he was charged with stealing some of the gold. Fortunately, Pericles had instructed Phidias to affix the gold in such a way that it could be easily removed (Pericles thought that, in wartime, it might need to be removed and melted down).6 So Phidias removed the gold, weighed it, and demonstrated that none had been stolen.

Next Phidias was charged with impiety. It was said that, when he depicted Amazons fighting Athenians, he had depicted both himself and Pericles as figures in the battle. Plutarch, who saw the sculpture about 500 years after it was made, said that Phidias had disguised the depiction of Pericles by putting a hand in front of the face, “but it is perfectly obvious when seen from either side.”7 Kagan calls this “a daring and dangerous joke.” Phidias was charged with joking about a sacred subject. Kagan says, “Religious fears and superstitions always lay close to the surface, and the attack on Phidias brought them into the open. The sculptor was convicted and went off into exile.” It doesn’t speak well for Athenian democracy that it exiled one of history’s great artists (Phidias), and executed one of history’s great philosophers (Socrates).

Next Pericles’ girlfriend, Aspasia, was charged with impiety. Aspasia lived with Pericles, and may have been married to him, but it wasn’t the usual sort of Athenian marriage. The typical Athenian wife was much younger than her husband, and was expected to stay home and stay out of trouble. “Athenian marriage,” Kagan writes,

was typically arranged to advance family standing or acquire property, and the bride’s father provided a dowry to accompany her into her husband’s house. Marriages within a circle of kinsmen were frequent. Men generally waited until they were past thirty before marrying, and their wives were usually about fifteen. It was not, therefore, a union of equals; such a disparity in age meant that the young girl passed from the authority of one fully grown man, her father, to that of another, her husband.... Men were expected to seek the pleasures provided by women outside the household. As Demosthenes candidly put it, “We have courtesans [hetairai] for pleasure, concubines [pornai] to serve the daily needs of our bodies, and wives so that we may breed legitimate children and have a trusted person watching over what we have in the house.”8

Before he met Aspasia, Pericles was married and had two sons. The marriage didn’t work out, and ended in divorce. The two sons “seem not to have turned out well.”9 “Critics took note of Pericles’ failure to make his sons men of outstanding virtue and achievement. Plato has Socrates use this failure as evidence that virtue cannot be taught, to which Protagoras responds that a teacher cannot succeed if his pupil lacks natural capacity.”

When Pericles’ friend Cleinias died, Pericles adopted his two sons, Alcibiades and Cleinias Jr. Alcibiades had inherited vast wealth from Cleinias Sr., his father. In 416 BC, Alcibiades sponsored seven chariots at the Olympic Games, more than any private citizen had ever sponsored. Alcibiades was also “very handsome, so much so that ‘he was hunted by many women of noble family.’”10 He was highly intelligent, and a trained speaker. “He was willful, spoiled, unpredictable, and outrageous, but his boyish antics won him admiration and public attention.”

Kagan says that Alcibiades “achieved great things [but] badly overreached himself.” Xenophon called Alcibiades, “‘the most licentious, the most arrogant, and the most violent of all those who lived under the democracy.’ Twice he was condemned and driven from Athens by his fellow-citizens, and he ended his days, disgraced, in exile.”11

After Pericles and his wife divorced, Pericles lived as a bachelor for several years.

Then he entered into a liaison [Kagan writes] that was unique in his time, one that brought him great happiness, a barrage of criticism, and considerable trouble. His companion was Aspasia, a young woman who had left her native Miletus [and] come to live in Athens. The ancient writers refer to her as a hetaira, a kind of high-class courtesan who provided men with erotic and other kinds of entertainment. She clearly had a keen and lively intellect.... Socrates himself thought it worth his time to talk with her.

There can be no doubt that [Pericles] loved [Aspasia] dearly and passionately, since he took her into his house and, whether or not they were legally married, treated her as his beloved wife. Each morning when he left home and every evening when he returned he embraced and kissed her tenderly, by no means the usual greeting between an Athenian man and his wife.... Aspasia bore him a son whom they named Pericles.12

Pericles’ relationship with Aspasia was highly irregular, highly un-traditional, and caused a scandal. Playwrights called Aspasia a whore, and called her son a bastard. Aspasia’s foreign origin made matters worse. Since her hometown was Miletus, it was said that Pericles had defended Miletus against Samos to please Aspasia.

After Anaxagoras and Phidias were driven into exile on charges of impiety, Aspasia was also charged with impiety. Plutarch says “[Aspasia] was alleged to have procured free women for Pericles’ enjoyment.”13 There may have been other allegations against Aspasia. At any rate, Pericles “took the threat very seriously, for the proud, reserved ‘Olympian’ came into court and broke down in tears as he successfully begged the jurors to acquit her.”

Kagan says that Pericles was heterosexual, while many Greek men were bi-sexual. Sophocles, for example, was bi-sexual. One day, “Sophocles praised the beauty of a boy who had caught his attention. Pericles rebuked him, suggesting that peculation was not the only form of corruption for a public official: ‘A general must not only have clean hands, Sophocles, but clean eyes as well.’”14

After Pericles’ friends were charged with various offences, Pericles himself was charged with “embezzlement and bribery.”15 One of his allies came to his assistance; Kagan thinks that the case never came to trial. By 437 BC, Pericles had beaten back the attacks of his domestic opponents, and was still the leading figure in Athenian politics.

* * * * *

But Fortune was about to turn her wheel, the great war known as the Peloponnesian War was beginning. It started, fittingly enough, with a snub; the people of Corcyra treated the people of Corinth disrespectfully. How many wars have started with a snub? How many quarrels between individuals have started with a snub, with disrespectful treatment?

Here’s a map of the Greek world:

Here’s the same map with a red circle around Corcyra, a blue circle around Corinth:

Corcyra was on the periphery of Greece, on the sea-route to Italy. Today Corcyra is called Corfu.

Corinth was on the isthmus separating the Greek mainland from the Peloponnesus, so it could profit from north-south trade. It could also profit from east-west trade since its ships could go in both directions; the body of water to the west was called “the gulf of Corinth.” Corinth could even carry ships over the isthmus, and thereby save the long journey around the Peloponnesus; Kagan calls Corinth “the Suez or the Panama of its day.”16 Corinth was an ancient, wealthy city, known for its craftsmen, and for hosting the Isthmian Games. (The games included not just athletic contests, but also music and poetry contests.)

Corinth had colonized Corcyra 300 years earlier (about 740 BC). Corinth expected to be treated deferentially by Corcyra (as it was treated by its other colonies). But Corcyra snubbed Corinth: “In the common festivals,” Thucydides writes, “they did not give [the Corinthians] the customary privileges nor did they begin by having a Corinthian commence the initial sacrifices, as the other colonies did, but treated them contemptuously.”17

Corcyra was no ordinary colony; it had a large territory, fertile soil, a strategic location, a large navy, and many inhabitants who didn’t come from Corinth. As Kagan says, “Influenced perhaps by the presence of non-Corinthian settlers, [Corcyra’s] people, quite contrary to the usual practice of Corinthian colonies, maintained an independent and even hostile attitude towards the mother city.” Corcyra and Corinth often quarreled; indeed, they fought the first naval battle in the Greek world in 665 BC.

Around 435 BC, Corcyra and Corinth quarreled over a small city called Epidamnus. Epidamnus was a colony of Corcyra, but when Epidamnus was torn by internal strife, Corcyra refused to get involved. So Corinth stepped in, though “nothing compelled the Corinthians to intervene in Epidamnus.”18 The Corinthians were “spoiling for a fight” (a fight with Corcyra).

Corcyra, annoyed by Corinth’s intervention in Epidamnus, decided to use their powerful fleet to take control of Epidamnus. Kagan thinks that Corinth made a mistake by stirring up Corcyra, and Corcyra made a mistake by answering Corinth, instead of swallowing their pride and keeping the peace. But this is human nature; individuals are prone to quarrel, nations are prone to fight wars.

Corcyra placed faith in its powerful fleet, Corinth in its numerous allies. Both Corcyra and Corinth now felt that their pride, their honor, was on the line; neither was prepared to swallow their pride, or accept a snub, to keep the peace. When Corcyra sent warships to Epidamnus, Corinth doubled down instead of backing off. Corinth “announced the foundation of a new colony at Epidamnus and invited settlers from all over Greece to join it. The response was impressive. A large number of settlers sailed for Epidamnus accompanied by thirty Corinthian ships and three thousand soldiers.”

This was more than Corcyra had bargained for, so Corcyra sent an embassy to Corinth, and offered to submit the dispute to arbitration — arbitration by “any mutually acceptable Peloponnesian state or by the Delphic oracle.” Kagan thinks it’s noteworthy that Corcyra mentioned a Peloponnesian arbitrator, since Corinth abutted the Peloponnese, and had allies on the Peloponnese. Clearly Corcyra was willing “to accept a compromise solution or even a diplomatic defeat.”19

The map below shows the Peloponnesian League in red, the Delian League (i.e., the Athenian Empire) in yellow.

Map from Wikipedia, which cites E. Lévy, La Grèce au Ve siècle, Paris, 1995

So Corcyra was backing down, but it was seeking “peace with honor,” it wasn’t offering outright surrender. If necessary, Corcyra would fight, and if it fought, it would seek allies elsewhere. “Elsewhere” meant Athens; since Corinth was part of the Peloponnesian League, the natural place for Corcyra to seek allies was in the other bloc, the Athenian bloc. But would Athens fight for Corcyra, and risk a wider war, risk a war with the whole Spartan bloc? Surely this was one of the most momentous questions in Pericles’ career.

Pericles wanted peace; he knew the cost of war, and he wanted to focus on his building projects. But Corcyra had a large navy, and if Corcyra were defeated by Corinth and its allies, Corcyra’s navy could fall into the hands of Athens’ foes, tipping the balance of power toward Sparta, and endangering Athenian naval supremacy. Kagan writes,

The Athenian situation closely resembles that of Great Britain in the early years of the twentieth century. When Germany began to build a navy of a size and quality to challenge British supremacy, the British, who preferred to live in “splendid isolation” from the continent, reversed a century-old policy and aligned themselves with their traditional enemies France and Russia. They were ready to fight a great war to defend their naval supremacy.20

Meanwhile, Sparta was trying hard to avoid being dragged into a general war. When Corcyra made its case to the Corinthians, Sparta sent its representatives with Corcyra’s representatives, to argue for a diplomatic solution. But it was no use: Corinth was confident that Corcyra couldn’t find allies anywhere, that Athens wouldn’t help, so Corinth declared war on Corcyra.

Corinth sent 75 ships toward Epidamnus, which was north of Corcyra, on the Adriatic coast. The Corinthian ships were intercepted and defeated by 80 Corcyrean ships. On the same day, Corcyra gained control of Epidamnus (Corcyra had been besieging Epidamnus). So the Corinthians had suffered a serious setback. To add insult to injury, Corcyra ravaged Corinthian colonies in the western Greek world.

Still Corinth wouldn’t quit, again Corinth “doubled down.” “The Corinthians may have been defeated,” Kagan writes, “but they were not deterred, and during the next two years they prepared for revenge. They built warships at an unprecedented pace and hired experienced crews from all over the Greek world.”

Alarmed by these preparations, Corcyra sent ambassadors to Athens, to ask for Athenian support. When the Corinthians heard that a Corcyrean embassy was en route to Athens, they sent an embassy of their own to Athens, to counter the Corcyrean arguments.

Both Corcyra and Corinth made their case to the Athenian assembly, which met outside, “on the hillside of the Pnyx,” within sight of the newly-built Parthenon. Corcyra spoke first.

The Corcyreans argued that Athens would benefit greatly by having the Corcyrean navy added to theirs. And the Corcyreans said that a general war between the Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian League was coming; “the Spartans are eager for war out of fear of you.”21 Sparta and Corinth want to crush Corcyra first, then Athens; they don’t want Corcyra and Athens to stand together. Don’t let them separate us.

Such were the arguments of the Corcyreans. They offered Athens a full alliance, an offensive and defensive alliance; “We will have the same friends and enemies.”

Now the Corinthians mounted the speaker’s platform. The Corinthians knew that the Athenians wanted peace. The Thirty Years’ Peace was now about ten years old, and the Athenians didn’t want it to dissolve into general war. No one could predict how a general war would turn out. As I said in an earlier issue, the Thirty Years’ Peace stipulated that a member of one bloc was forbidden to switch to the other bloc, but a neutral city was allowed to join either bloc (the Athenian bloc or the Spartan bloc). Since Corcyra was neutral, it could be argued that they were free to join the Athenian bloc.

But the treaty said nothing about a neutral city that was already at war with a member of one bloc. This shows how hard it is for a treaty to resolve disputes in advance. Since every dispute has unique features, a treaty can’t anticipate future disputes and resolve them. According to the Corinthians, allowing a neutral to join either side “was never intended to permit one side to make a treaty with a neutral that was already at war with the other side.” If Athens joined with Corcyra, “Common sense argued that doing so would amount to an act of war against Corinth, and by extension, a breach of the Thirty Years’ Peace.”22

In any dispute, both sides hope to over-awe their opponent with threats, both sides hope that the other side will back down before combat commences. This is true of disputes between individuals and of disputes between nations (in the case of individuals, replace “combat” with “litigation”). So the Corinthians made it clear that an alliance between Athens and Corcyra wouldn’t prompt them to back down, they would still fight, and this could start a general war.

After listening to Corcyra and Corinth, the Athenians began debating the question among themselves. Opinion favored the Corinthian position, but it was decided to debate the issue again on the next day.

On the next day, Pericles proposed a sort of compromise: join Corcyra, but don’t make a full offensive-and-defensive alliance, make a purely defensive alliance, “the first we know of in Greek history.” Send ships to help Corcyra, but only about 2% of the Athenian navy, only 10 ships (the Athenians had about 400 ships).23 We’ve seen before how Pericles came up with original solutions to problems (such as submitting disputes to arbitration). Kagan thinks that Pericles was unwilling to go along with the Corinthians because, if they defeated Corcyra, Corcyra’s large navy could be added to the existing Peloponnesian navy, threatening Athenian naval supremacy. So Pericles hedged his bets, Pericles tried to sail between two dangers — the danger of an enlarged Peloponnesian navy, and the danger of a general war with the Spartan bloc.

According to Thucydides, the Athenian assembly supported Pericles “because they believed that war with the Peloponnesians was inevitable,” and they wanted to be ready for it. Thucydides himself believed, in hindsight, that war was inevitable. But Kagan says, “it is by no means clear that [Thucydides] was right.”24 It’s always difficult to say whether an event was inevitable. Did the Athenians make war inevitable by their belief that it was inevitable? Could they have chosen peace?

Kagan says that Pericles was taking a rational approach, and trying to persuade other cities to act rationally. But once war starts, however limited it may be, will passions rise, and limits melt away? Can you come close to war without being drawn in deeper? Can reason govern war-time passions? Pericles was trying to defend Corcyra without defeating Corinth, as Biden is now trying to defend Ukraine without defeating Russia.

In addition to sending only ten ships, Pericles limited Athenian involvement in another way: the ships were instructed “not to engage the Corinthians unless they attacked Corcyra itself.” In other words, the Athenian ships were for defensive purposes only. But Kagan points out that, in the heat of battle, such distinctions are impossible to draw. How do you know if an enemy ship is planning to land or is just maneuvering near the shore?

Greek ships at this time were long and narrow (120 feet by 16 feet). They were called “triremes” because they had three banks of oars, like a hamburger with three patties. The upper bank projected out from the main body of the ship. The trireme was preceded by the bireme (two banks of oars), and succeeded by the quadrireme (four banks) and the quinquereme (five banks). Below is a cross-section of a trireme, showing the three banks of oars.

Archaeological Museum, Hania, Crete

If the wind were favorable, a trireme could hoist sails. Triremes “could start fast, maintain high speeds for short bursts, and make very sharp turns. This agility allowed them to use their hard-wood, metal-sheathed prows to ram the enemy ships from the side or rear.” To keep the rowers in sync, a piper (auletes) played a flute. Since the Athenians had more naval experience, their crews were more skillful; one Athenian ship was worth 1.5 or 2 ships from another city. Athenian naval superiority was comparable to Spartan infantry superiority.

Pericles persuaded the assembly to make a limited commitment to Corcyra, but there were critics of this policy on both sides. Conservatives thought it was a mistake to risk war with Sparta, radicals thought ten ships weren’t enough. Even after the assembly voted in favor of Pericles’ policy, many Athenians continued asking, Was this the wisest policy?

When the two fleets clashed, the Corcyreans had 120 ships (including the 10 Athenian ships), and the Corinthians had 150 ships (60 of these were contributed by allies). At first, the Athenians tried to remain onlookers, but when the Corinthians began to rout the Corcyreans, the Athenians joined the fray. Still the Corinthians came on, and pushed their foes back to their city, back to Corcyra.

But “suddenly the Corinthians... began to back water.... Twenty Athenian warships appeared on the horizon. They had been sent twenty-three days after the first ten, when the Athenians decided that a larger force would be needed. Pericles had evidently been compelled to yield to the more hawkish element.” War-time passion was getting the better of reason and moderation.

So Corinth bowed to Athenian power, and left the scene. Corcyra was saved. But was the war over, or just beginning? Would Corinth build more ships, gather more allies, and keep fighting? Or “throw in the towel”? Would Sparta continue to urge restraint, or declare war on Athens?

Next Pericles

© L. James Hammond 2022
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1. The leading comedian, Aristophanes, would “mock Cleon as a tanner and a leather-merchant... [and] call him a thief and brawler.” back
2. Donald Kagan, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, Ch. 9, p. 188 back
3. Kagan p. 172, quoting Plutarch. Kagan quotes a French historian, Edouard Will; Will says that Pericles was the intellectual sovereign, while the people were the legal sovereign. The “Greek miracle,” according to Will, was that these two types of sovereignty were able to form a durable agreement.(p. 189) back
4. p. 176 back
5. p. 184 back
6. What a commentary on the ambivalent tendencies in human nature! The chief statue in the most famous edifice is ready, at a moment’s notice, to be melted down for armaments. back
7. p. 185 back
8. p. 177 back
9. p. 178 back
10. Kagan, p. 179, quoting Xenophon back
11. p. 180 back
12. p. 182 back
13. p. 186 back
14. Kagan, p. 176, quoting Plutarch. Sophocles is known for his tragedies, but he also served as a general. An Athenian general was rather like an American cabinet member; he was a government official, but not necessarily a battlefield general. In a recent issue, I mentioned that Pericles employed Sophocles as a diplomat.

In an earlier issue, I discussed bi-sexuality among Elizabethan aristocrats. back

15. p. 184 back
16. p. 70 back
17. Quoted in Kagan, p. 193 back
18. p. 193 back
19. p. 194 back
20. pp. 198, 199 back
21. Kagan p. 196, quoting Thucydides. This is the so-called Thucydides Trap that the Chinese talk about. back
22. p. 197 back
23. Today we’re seeing a similar situation: the U.S. is allying with Ukraine, but in a limited way, and only for defensive purposes; like Athens, the U.S. is trying to avoid a wider war. The U.S. is drawing “red lines” for itself.

The 400 Athenian ships were manned by 80,000 rowers and marines (about 200 men per ship). back

24. p. 200 back