BMCR 1991.02.09

Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy

, Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. New York: The Free Press, 1991. xv, 287 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates. ISBN 0684863952.

Donald Kagan’s lucidly written and lively book on Pericles does not pretend to make new contributions to the field (p. xiii), but rather to provide a survey of the “golden age of Athens” for the general reader. Coincidentally, it is also intended to espouse extremely conservative educational principles and to argue, for the benefit of the general reader, that the Athenians, and especially Pericles (the ideal leader for any democratic state) can teach many important lessons today. In his view, “those who wish to help them [emerging democracies in the 1990s] grow and flourish could do worse than to turn for inspiration and instruction to the story of Pericles of Athens and his city, where once, against all odds, democ-racy triumphed” (p. 274).

Books like this have a place in the world, and there can be no doubt about K.’s conviction that his message is important. There can also be no doubt about his ability to write well for his intended audience. There can be a great deal of doubt about many of the points that he makes—but in most cases these fall well within the realm of scholarly debate. There is no need for justification of the stands that he takes on many issues in this sort of book, with the result that there are few allusions to views with which K. disagrees in the notes (sometimes to easy targets, see p. 276 n.2). The effort to fill out a life of Pericles to 274 pages also draws K. away from Pericles himself, and to discursive essays on var-ious topics that are of general importance (e.g. how the Athenian democracy worked, how battles were fought, what Sparta was like). It would be unreasonable to quibble over minor points of disagreement.

The one issue that does call for comment, however, is K.’s evident desire to sanitize the record in such a way as to make it more acceptable to the public he is trying to reach. On a minor level this appears in the description of Pericles’ treatment of Samos after the war of 441/39 (p. 133-4). Since this is one case where we are told that Pericles was actually in charge, it is particularly telling that, while K. stresses the moderation of Pericles’ conduct, he nowhere mentions the story that captured Samian leaders were crucified (Plut. Per. 28.2= FGrH 76 F 67, doubted by Plutarch). In another case, K. argues strongly that Anaxagoras had an important formative influence on the young Pericles, that he was a central figure in the young man’s education (p. 22-5). I do not particularly like the high chronology that K. adopts (and he reverts to the low chronology on p. 186), but it is more disturbing to find no reference to homosexuality in the discursive picture that K. offers of a young Athenian aristocrat’s education: a discussion that omits this facet of a young man’s experience is inadequate. Subsequent references, emphasizing its prevalence at Sparta (p. 67) and relating an anecdote about Sophocles (p. 176) do not make up for this. Later in the book, it is equally disturbing to find another discussion of education that begins “each Athenian baby was taught by his parents…” (p. 168)—a word or two about what baby girls were taught would also be nice (the few sentences on p. 177 to explain the failure of Pericles’ marriage do not do the job). It is also distressing that there is no general discussion of slavery at Athens in a book that otherwise offers generous discourse on features of social history in the fifth century (occasional allusions suggest that it is not an important fact of life, and the index entry under slavery simply reads “Slaves. See Helots”).

At the beginning of his discussion of Pericles’ political career K. very properly stresses the point that Athenian politics must not be analyzed in terms of factions that worked like modern American or British political parties (p. 27). This said, a great deal of what follows is constructed very much along these lines. Pericles is chosen by Ephialtes, “leader of the rival faction,” to attack Cimon in the courts (p. 38) and is later presented as the new leader of Ephialtes’ faction after the latter’s murder (p. 45). In discussing Pericles’ view of empire, K. discusses the alleged dispute with Thucydides son of Melesias, and the criticisms of the building programs described by Plutarch (Per. 12.1-2), as party disputes. This has important consequences for K.’s message in that he portrays Pericles’ victory over Thucydides son of Melesias as a victory over a competing faction with a different view of Athens’ future, suggesting that the rational Athe-nians saw the advantages of Pericles’ concept of empire (p. 107-8). In a characteristically astute observation on Thuc. 2.36.3, Gomme remarked, “note also that `our fathers’ generation’ is Kimon’s; their action and policy were in no way different from that of Perikles’ own day. All alike contributed to build the empire” (HCT 2, p. 105). In a similar vein, in “The Opposition to Perikles,” JHS 98 (1978), pp. 1-5, Anthony Andrewes showed that the passage of Plutarch that K. uses here has no value as evidence on this point. A discussion of Athenian attitudes towards the empire that takes as its starting point the notion that the Athenian demos was inherently aggressive in the mid-fifth century and that Athenian leaders achieved influence by attracting this demos to their own projects, as we can see happening, for instance, in IG i3 49, would yield a very different version of Athenian history on this point from the one that K. offers on a point of significance to his overall picture.

Disagreements aside, K.’s book is immensely readable, and, at times, extremely eloquent (see especially chapter 13). Long engagement with, a passionate interest in, and love for, the subject are evident throughout.