A Dream of Pericles in Thucydides' History
“This history may not be the most delightful to hear, since there is no mythology in it. But those who want to look into the truth of what was done in the past -- which, given the human condition, will recur in the future, either in the same fashion or nearly so -- those readers will find this History valuable enough, as this was composed to be a lasting possession and not to be heard for a prize at the moment of a contest“ Thucydides 1.22 (Woodruff translation)
Few ancient leaders have received as much attention in ancient and modern writing as Pericles of Athens, the city’s foremost political and military leader during its so-called Golden Age. During his tenure, the city underwent a radical transformation. As the hegemonic power of the Delian League, a defensive alliance of city-states that aimed to protect the Aegean from any future Persian threat, the city gradually grew into a formidable imperial power that exacted tributes from its allies. This influx of wealth enabled Pericles to fund a massive building program in the city, which included the construction of the famous Parthenon on the Acropolis (click here to explore the Parthenon, pictured above, and its famous frieze. Note: you may need to click on “english” in the lower righthand corner of the page). In addition, Pericles helped institute major political reforms, which included payment for citizen jurors and a law restricting citizenship to individuals who were born to two Athenian parents.
“It has been said that one should be interested in the past only as a guide to the future. I do not fully concur with this. One usually emerges from an intimate understanding of the past with its lessons and its wisdom, with convictions which put fire in the soul. I doubt seriously whether a man can think with full wisdom and with deep convictions regarding certain of the basic international issues today who has not at least reviewed in his mind the period of the Peloponnesian War and the Fall of Athens.” -Gen. George C. Marshall, Secretary of State, 1947
In this module, we will focus on the last stage of Pericles’ tenure in power, at the outset of the Peloponnesian War that pitted Athens and the Delian League against Sparta and its Peloponnesian allies, who had grown increasingly wary of the Athenian empire. This period is recorded in remarkable detail by the Athenian historian Thucydides, whose depiction of Pericles is one of the most substantial and detailed to survive from antiquity.
Arguably the most famous aspect of Thucydides work is his inclusion of speeches that were purportedly delivered by central “characters” in his narrative. They frequently offer a window into what Thucydides saw as the driving motives and impulses for major figures in the war. It should come as no surprise, then, that Pericles delivers three speeches in the History, each of which comes at a crucial turning point in the first two years of the war. It is important to note that these speeches should not be taken as verbatim quotations, as Thucydides himself tells us:
Taking this statement as our departure point, we will take a close look at Pericles’ three speeches in Thucydides with the following overarching questions in mind:
“What particular people said in their speeches, either just before or during the war, was hard to recall exactly, whether they were speeches I heard myself or those that were reported to me at second hand. I have made each speaker say what I thought the situation demanded, keeping as near as possible to the general sense of what was actually said.” (Thuc. 1.22, Woodruff translation)
- What, according to Thucydides, does each situation demand of Pericles as an orator and as a leader?
- What, if anything, can we learn about Pericles as a leader through these speeches?
- What kind of leader is Thucydides depicting for his readers in the figure of Pericles?
- What parallels might we draw between the oratory of Thucydides’ Pericles and that of modern political leaders? Are there qualities of oratory that are common to the ancient and modern world?
At the very end of the module, we will turn to a fictional speech of Pericles’ consort, Aspasia of Miletos, in Plato’s dialogue Menexenos. Through a comparison between ‘her’ speech and the speeches of Pericles, we will consider whether, and to what end, Plato’s construction of Aspasia and her rhetoric is gendered.