BMCR 1999.01.14

Perikles and His Circle

, Perikles and his circle. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. xv, 248 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780415067942. $65.00.

Anthony J. Podlecki’s Perikles and His Circle grapples with Periclean biography and fifth-century history in a decidedly traditional vein. Its thorough scrutiny of the evidence will deeply engage those interested in the period; its main contribution lies in its lucid explication of complex and conflicting evidence of various genres. Still, the book consistently misses chances to use our sources’ complicated narratives about Pericles to elucidate Athens’ wider political culture and Pericles’ place within it. Pericles was not just Athens’ greatest democratic leader. As a public figure around whom a mass of conflicting stories, representations, and beliefs clustered, Pericles provides a unique opportunity to show how Athens’ vibrant democratic culture was permeated by gossip, ideology, and agonistic public discourse. Attaching importance to various traditions as evidence for culture and mentality, whether or not they preserve factually correct information, would have helped locate Pericles within the central cultural currents of classical Athens.

Apart from this general issue, several more specific problems arise throughout the book. First, Podlecki (hereafter P.) aims both to reconstruct Pericles’ life amidst his “circle” and to narrate Athenian history in general (vii). Although this two-pronged attempt to write biography and history sounds plausible in principle, in practice P. tends to diverge from his central topics in order to deal broadly with Athenian history, even when it has little direct relevance to Pericles (e.g., 48-53, 55-58, 66-71, 128-129, 138-142). This makes the reader lose focus on Pericles and his “circle.” Second, it is worth considering whether the focus on Pericles’ “circle” is simply a convenient organizational principle or a structure that contributes genuine analytic power. Although P. believes there is room for his book because of its focus on Pericles’ “circle,” he seems largely to be collecting all the old interpretations within a different framework that amounts to little more than the standard picture anyway. Was there really a “circle,” a term that connotes longstanding acquaintance and political allegiance over time?1 Finally, P.’s intended audience is unclear. On the one hand, P. explains the meaning of terms like chorêgos (11), dolos (13), dokimasia (48, 49), and euthyna (48, 49), which suggests that he is writing for a non-specialist audience. On the other hand, he includes abstruse, commentary-style remarks in other sections, as, for example, when he says in a detailed discussion of the decree for Kolophon ( IG I 3 37), “In the early, ‘very fragmentary’ section (Hornblower and Greenstock 1984), there is a reference to ‘the five … chosen’ in line 19, where the word oikistai, settlers, is plausibly restored on grounds of its recurrence in line 41, and what appears to be a synonym, [oikêt]ores, occurs in line 22″ (71). These problems will surface throughout the chapter-by-chapter discussion.

Chapter 1, “Family Background,” is a biographical treatment of Pericles’ family history, including detailed discussion of Xanthippus’ political activity and Alcmaeonid political history. P. is thorough, wide-ranging, and judicious in handling the evidence, although his conclusions are not especially novel. P.’s approach is captured in the following methodological statement, made with reference to Herodotus’ story of (the elder) Agariste’s marriage: “Often with Herodotus it is difficult to extract the kernel of historical truth from the anecdotal and sometimes fantastical elements which encapsulate it, so we are not obliged to believe every detail in this engagingly told tale (it is clearly analogous to folk-stories that reflect the ‘testing motif’)” (8). For P., Herodotus’ narrative needs to be refined and purified if it is to yield nuggets of value for the historian. Should we not also attempt to bring Herodotus’ own narrative purposes within the purview of historical research? What is the significance of Herodotus’ shaping of his narrative for mid- to late fifth-century Athens and its aggressive imperialism? At that time, Herodotus gave notice that Alcmaeon, Pericles’ distant ancestor, had once stuffed his mouth and clothes so full of Lydian gold that even Croesus found it funny (6.125.5).2 This story illustrates the unbridled personal acquisitiveness of a sixth-century leader, whose behavior constitutes an obvious precedent for the imperialistic pleonexia of Periclean Athens in the fifth century. True or not, stories about Pericles’ family current during the period of his leadership arguably possess historical importance because they convey something important about the moral and intellectual climate of the time.

Chapter 2, “Entry Into Public Life,” revives the idea that Pericles’ choregia of Aeschylus’ Persians (IG II 2 2318) is evidence for Pericles’ approval of the play’s content (11). P. argues that the play emphasizes Themistocles’ importance in defeating the Persians at Salamis, and that, by sponsoring it, Pericles took a stand in support of Themistocles’ policies for Athens, despite the Alcmaeonids’ apparent hostility to Themistocles. Following Thucydides, P. interprets Pericles as Themistocles’ political descendant in the goal of making Athens a maritime empire, and in his recognition that Sparta, not Persia, was the chief obstacle to Athens’ imperial ambitions. There is truth in this: Themistocles’ vision of Athens, along with his plans and strategies, was an important precedent for that of Pericles. It still remains doubtful, however, that Pericles had any specific connection with the play’s content.3

Chapter 3, “Early Influences,” discusses Pericles’ relationship with Damon and Anaxagoras, as well as their various musical, political, and philosophical theories. P. concludes that Perikles learned from Damon “an appreciation of the importance of music in education and public life,” citing also Pericles’ role in sponsoring changes in musical contests at the Panathenaia (22). Although generally sound, this treatment does not go far beyond Stadter’s article on the subject.4 P.’s discussion of Anaxagoras (23-31) usefully examines later interpretations of the philosopher’s relationship with Pericles, in particular the influence of Plato’s Phaedrus on the subsequent tradition. P. concludes that we can know little about Pericles’ connection with Anaxagoras; perhaps he inherited the “rational” way of thinking from Anaxagoras’ scientific theories (30-31). Apart from such vague speculations, and apart from the rather discursive treatment of Anaxagoras’ theories (23-25), this is the book’s best chapter. P. emphasizes the difficulty, even the impossibility, of apprehending an unembellished truth about the ancient past. He shows, rather, that anecdotes about Pericles should themselves be a subject of historical investigation, because they elucidate the particular interests of those who fabricated, disseminated, and preserved them, as well as the democratic and later cultures in which they had currency. Given the difficulty or even impossibility of determining the truth-value of such anecdotes, the answerable and more interesting question is the value of anecdotes about Pericles for understanding the ideals of the culture or cultures that propagated them.

Chapter 4, “A Personal Rivalry,” discusses Kimon’s career in general, and in particular the alleged rivalry between him and Pericles. There is an uneasy balance between P.’s narrative account of the period and his putative focus on Pericles. P. argues that Kimon’s liberality toward the poor, which, according to Plutarch, allowed the poor to concentrate on their duties to the state, anticipates Pericles’ “‘public works'” program of the 440’s and 430’s (38-39). That may be true, but the main point is surely the contrast between Kimon’s use of his own estates to benefit the demos and Pericles’ use of state funds for that purpose. That difference alone represents a sea change in the relationship between Athenian leaders and the Athenian demos. On the other hand, P. could have pointed out that Pericles is Kimon’s successor in his pursuit of imperial expansion throughout the Aegean, and in his use of public shrines (compare the Theseion and the Parthenon) both to win political advantage and to amplify Athens’ glory throughout the Aegean. In discussing Pericles’ prosecution of Kimon for bribery by Alexander of Macedon, P. says repeatedly that the charge was “improbable” or “implausible” (40-41). This way of framing the issue elides genuinely important questions about Athenian practice: why would Athenians have believed in such a charge, or what role do accusations of bribery play in ancient democratic culture more generally? It would have been useful for P. to discuss what this episode implies about conflicts among members of the Athenian elite, and why the demos would have been suspicious of its leaders’ military and financial improprieties. Elite infighting and demotic distrust were highly significant features of the fifth-century democracy, as Thucydides, among others, makes clear. The chapter ends unsatisfactorily with P.’s assertion that “Perikles discovered from his encounters with Kimon that he could not afford to underestimate the conservative opposition. But he also learnt that there were advantages to be gained from being seen as a benevolent patron” (45). Terms like “the conservative opposition” (45) seem to shift P. back to the old, and thoroughly discredited, “political parties” model of Athenian politics (cf. formulations at 85, 87) but, more importantly, did Pericles have to learn these things from Kimon? It is more likely that Pericles understood the significance of public munificence as an integral part of his culture.

Chapter 5, “A Political Alliance,” discusses Pericles’ relationship with Ephialtes, his role in the reform of 462 BC, and the significance of the reform generally. In this chapter especially, the narrative history tends to overshadow the biographical project, as “a political alliance” comes to focus more on the Ephialtic reform and its institutional consequences than on Pericles himself (48-53). P. is characteristically judicious, but he devotes too much space to reporting others’ conclusions, without synthesizing the material, much less offering independent hypotheses. It is sometimes difficult, in fact, to ascertain exactly where P. himself stands on the individual questions he treats, as for example in his discussion of Rhodes and Hansen on which body handled eisangelia proceedings before 462 (49). At any rate P. seems to believe that Pericles played an important role in what is usually called the “Ephialtic” reform (46-47), but it is more plausible to argue that our sources have merely attached Pericles’ name to the reforms of the older politician Ephialtes.5

Chapter 6, “The Other Generals,” is an exposition of the events and historical problems associated with the so-called “First Peloponnesian War.” P. emphasizes the role of Pericles’ glory in obscuring the memory of other generals such as Myronides (58), but he himself falls into the trap of assuming that all Athenian activity in the period had to be at least rubber-stamped, if not originally conceived and proposed, by Pericles: a proposition for which we simply have no evidence, and which, precisely because of the ancient sources’ lionizing of Pericles, we might well be inclined to doubt (e.g. 64-65, 72). P. takes useful stands on issues such as the “Congress Decree” (70) and the Peace of Kallias (66-69), but it is usually unclear what motivates his discussion of such topics, other than the belief that reconstructing fifth-century history is simply taking a stand on traditional problems and questions, rather than coming up with new questions altogether or showing how the traditional questions add to or subtract from our picture of Pericles and his “circle.” P. has an outstanding control of the details, but one wishes he had integrated his knowledge into a wider explanatory vision of the period.

Chapter 7, “After the Peace,” is an omnibus collection that deals separately with the Panathenaia and Odeion, Thucydides son of Melesias, Thurii, Lampon, Hippodamus, Protagoras, and fortifications. P. tends (e.g. 78-79) to reflect our sources’ practice of crediting Pericles with a variety of innovations and initiatives that occurred during the leader’s lifetime, even when there is no positive evidence that Pericles himself was involved. In discussing Thurii, for example, P. says, “Athens’ (i.e. Perikles’) intentions and the Panhellenic nature of the colony are both much-debated topics” (83, cf. repeated formulation at 121). What should be contested here is the nature of Pericles’ involvement in the foundation of Thurii in the first place. In discussing Hippodamus and Protagoras, P. often loses focus on their connection with Pericles (e.g. 94-99) in an effort to explain their political and ethical theories. This might be acceptable in an introductory volume, but P.’s treatment goes into the kind of scholarly detail that only specialists could find interesting. In addition, we are often left highly uncertain about key issues such as the sort of relationship P. believes Pericles and Protagoras actually had, or whether Pericles and Hippodamus had any relationship at all. Despite P.’s later claim that Pericles was leader of an intellectual circle (155), it is wise to exercise caution here: contemporary fifth-century sources are generally flimsy on this score, and the later tradition is full of questionable extrapolations about Pericles’ intimate associates.

Chapter 8, “Pheidias and Aspasia,” proposes that Pheidias, who is alleged to be Pericles’ personal friend, had a general supervisory role in the Acropolis building program. P. seems to base most of his reconstruction on an uncritical reading of Plutarch’s undoubted expansion of earlier sources. At another level, the chapter misses good opportunities to discuss the context of gossip and comic abuse in which Pericles had to maneuver politically. Plutarch, citing “comic poets,” mentions allegations that Pheidias used his artwork to procure women for Pericles. To P., such allegations should be dismissed as fiction, just like the “welter of silly stories” (103) about Pheidias’ trouble with the Parthenos statue and its connection with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (cf. Aristophanes, Peace 605-611). According to P., these anecdotes should simply be dismissed because they do not preserve nuggets of historical fact. Perhaps we should ask, however, what such anecdotes say about Athens’ political culture. Asking why these stories had currency, whether or not they are factually correct, would enrich our understanding of Pericles’ political milieu (not to mention the later tradition) by illustrating the anxieties that animated relations between the demos and its leadership, as well as the ethical norms that governed Athenian politics. Why would these representations and no others have been an effective means of political communication or slander? Much the same analysis holds true for P.’s thorough review of the evidence in the Aspasia section.

Chapter 9, “War with Samos,” begins with a bald summary of events in 440, relying primarily on Thucydides and Plutarch, and without adding much to current reconstructions. The primary interest of the chapter is P.’s willingness to widen his lens to deal with (apparently) tangential matters, in particular Pericles’ relationship with Sophocles (121-124). P. colorfully recreates the intellectual milieu by speculating on the relationship between Sophoclean tragedy and Pericles’ attitudes as presented in Thucydides and Plutarch (122-23). P. is appropriately cautious in finding direct “allusions” to contemporary events in Sophocles, but at times he interprets the tragedies more mechanically than necessary: citing Plutarch’s Pericles as saying that “the allies are getting what they paid for,” P. writes, “Perhaps Sophocles was warning his friend [Pericles] of the dangers of … god-less arrogance” (123). The support for this is the chorus’ statement in OT that “Hybris gives birth to the tyrant” (872). This idea is too vague and conventional to provide evidence for a pointed warning; we need a finer-grained conception of intellectual exchange within a cultural setting that simultaneously values self-control and ambition, freedom and imperialism, justice and acquisition. Later in the chapter (128-131), P. wraps up the period by considering Hagnon, the Athenian colony at Amphipolis, and Athens’ interests in the Black Sea region; this tends to be a frustrating read, since it does not contribute directly to the book’s central theme.

Chapter 10, “Thoukydides; War with Sparta; Final Years,” deals first with the questions of Thucydides’ “objectivity” and his presentation of Pericles. It is unclear what P. means by his key terms “bias” and “objectivity”; is it not true that all historians, however fair to the evidence, inevitably take a perspective on the questions they treat? At any rate serious methodological questions are glossed over in the chapter’s introduction. Even considering Thucydides’ “objectivity” on P.’s own terms, it is hard to detect how P. positions himself against the scholarly opinions he discusses in such detail. Ultimately, he seems merely to agree with Badian that “Thoukydides has re-cast some of his material ad maiorem Periclis gloriam” (135). P. tends to describe the different views taken on specific questions without offering his own opinions (again, for example, with regard to Aegina and the Megarian decree, 140, 142-43). Still, P. offers attractive interpretations of the complexity of Pericles’ defensive and offensive strategy for the war (144) and Pericles’ grasp of Athenian finances. He argues persuasively that Pericles would have adopted a more aggressive strategy, had he remained alive, once the war had dragged on for more than about five years. At the same time, the structure of the chapter makes the argument hard to follow: P. starts with the causes of the war, then moves to a detailed description of two campaigning seasons, then to Pericles’ relationship with his son Xanthippus and their respective sex lives, and then writes, “To return to the events of the war” (148). There is quite a bit of what might be called “plot summary”: “The events until Pericles’ death are briefly told” (153). Although P. has collected an impressive array of evidence, readers will not come away with a unified picture of Pericles in his political setting. P. concludes rather drably by reformulating Thucydides’ well-known belief in the sharp contrast between Pericles and his successors (e.g. 2.65). Here, P. might have questioned the ancient source rather than being mesmerized by Thucydides’ own interpretations.

Five appendices consider Pericles’ citizenship law, his colleagues in the generalship, Athens’ finances, Pericles and the comic poets, and portraits of Pericles. There is a wealth of material in these sections, along with thorough examination of the secondary literature, without, however, a great deal of originality in interpretation. Beyond the isolated apercu (e.g. 177, that Pericles’ famous “schinocephaly” refers to his having a round and smooth, bald head) the appendices are tantamount to a catalogue of evidence and a careful description of up-to-date scholarship.

With what vision of Pericles does the book leave us? For P., “Above all, the portrait of Perikles that leaps out at us not only from Thoukydides’ pages but from other sources not tinged by prejudice is of a politician with principles” (155), principles such as prudence and moral integrity. This sentence tells much about P.’s interest in reaching an unvarnished, objective truth about Pericles and fifth-century Athens. P. is obviously positive in his verdict on Pericles. The final product would have been richer if P. had been more critical both of our sources, especially Thucydides, and of Pericles himself. One thinks of crucifying the Samians and imperialistic chauvinism in general. Did Pericles, as Athens’ most effective democratic leader, energize the aggressive, acquisitive tendencies of the demos, and thereby help to bring about a variety of moral abominations during his period of prominence? On the other hand, the book misses opportunities to situate Pericles in his fifth-century context. For example, P. might have discussed further the democratic culture in which Pericles had to manipulate rhetorical conventions and create certain self-presentations in accordance with the wishes of the demos, as in his symbolic display of public-spiritedness in offering to make his property public if Archidamus left it unscathed (Thuc. 2.13). Locating Pericles in his democratic context necessitates asking why our sources portray Pericles as they do, even if they are filled with gossip and rumor. Such an interrogation of our sources might have led to an enlarged and finer textured vision of Pericles in his fifth-century Athenian context.


1. For persuasive arguments against the view that Pericles collected a group of intellectuals around himself, see Philip A. Stadter, “Pericles Among the Intellectuals,” ICS 16.1 (1991) 111-124.

2. P. mentions this story once without interpretation on p.156.

3. See, for example, Philip A. Stadter, A Commentary on Plutarch’s Pericles (Chapel Hill, 1989), comm. ad loc.

4. Stadter (above, n.1).

5. Cf. Charles W. Fornara and Loren J. Samons, Athens from Cleisthenes to Pericles (Berkeley, 1991), 25-26.