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  • The First Democracy
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)
Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy by Donald Kagan. The Free Press, 1991. 287 pp.

Donald Kagan's new biography of Pericles, the famed Athenian statesman who led his city during the period of its greatest glory, deserves a far wider audience than just scholars or amateur antiquarians. Professor Kagan, who is dean of Yale College and Colgate Professor of History and Classics at Yale University, has written a lucid, provocative, and accessible analysis not only of Periclean statesmanship, but of Athenian democracy itself. Kagan begins and ends his book by referring to the revolutions of 1989 and the problems facing the newly emerging democracies of our time. His study provides rich material for reflection about the continuities and dissimilarities between ancient and modem democracy, and about the lessons that twentieth-century democrats can learn from the ancient Greeks.

Omitting mention of the early sixth-century lawgiver Solon, Kagan attributes the founding of Athenian democracy to the reforms introduced by Cleisthenes in 508 B.C. These gave all adult male citizens the fight to serve on juries and in the Assembly, as well as to vote for magistrates and members of the Council of 500 (which prepared legislation for consideration by the Assembly). A grand nephew of Cleisthenes and a descendant of one of Athens' most illustrious families, Pericles was born in 494. After entering public life as the choregus (or producer) of a series of plays by Aeschylus that won first prize at the festival of Dionysus in 472, Pericles went on to distinguish himself in several military campaigns. His fellow citizens elected him to the office of general as soon as he became eligible at the age of 30. [End Page 107]

Athenian political life was a contest among factions, and Pericles joined a group led by Ephialtes that opposed the dominant aristocratic and pro-Spartan faction of Cimon. By 461 Ephialtes had succeeded both in reducing the power of the Areopagus (an elite tribunal dating from predemocratic times) and in securing the ostracism of Cimon, but he himself was murdered that same year. This paved the way for Pericles to rise to the position of extraordinary political preeminence that he maintained for the next 30 years. His sway was such, said Thucydides, that Athens was a democracy in name only, as it was ruled in fact by its foremost citizen.

Beginning in the 450s, Pericles took the lead in instituting further democratizing reforms—most notably a law that authorized payments to jurors and other public officials, thus encouraging the poor to become more active in public life. He continued to distinguish himself as a military leader, but also pursued a prudent foreign policy that secured Spartan recognition of Athens' maritime empire in the Thirty Years' Peace treaty of 446-5. A friend of the philosopher Anaxagoras, the tragedian Sophocles, and the sculptor Phidias, he both helped to plan and presided over the building program that produced the Parthenon and other magnificent structures. The period of Athens' greatest cultural flowering is justly called the Periclean Age.

The conclusion of Pericles' career was much less glorious. His pursuit of policies unacceptable to the Spartans (policies that Kagan strongly criticizes) helped to precipitate the Peloponnesian War. He then persuaded the Athenians to follow a cautious and defensive strategy: shutting themselves up within their city's walls and relying upon their command of the seas, they allowed the Spartans to ravage their lands. The crowded conditions in Athens probably contributed to the outbreak of a terrible plague in 430. This ordeal—so powerfully recounted by Thucydides—weakened Athenian morale and led the people to turn against their leader. They deposed Pericles from office, tried him on charges of embezzlement, and punished him with a heavy fine. The Athenians apparently had a change of heart and reelected him general the following year, but he died of the plague a few months later. Thucydides claims that it was the Athenians' subsequent abandonment of Pericles' strategy that led to their ultimate defeat and Sparta's imposition of an oligarchic regime in 404. The following year, however, the democracy was restored and survived for almost another...


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