Pericles of Athens 
by Vincent Azoulay, translated by Janet Lloyd.
Princeton, 291 pp., £24.95, July 2014, 978 0 691 15459 6
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The fifth volume​ of the Cambridge Ancient History, covering the fifth century bc, was first published in 1927. The League of Nations still mattered, the exploits of T.E. Lawrence were a welcome antidote to memories of the Somme and Passchendaele, and the British Empire still coloured a sizeable proportion of the world’s maps red. In classics, W.W. Tarn (perhaps influenced by both Lawrence and the League of Nations, not to mention missionary fervour) was spreading the message that Alexander the Great had conquered the Persian Empire in order to establish the Brotherhood of Man. CAH V, too, was indelibly marked by the era that produced it. Its subtitle was ‘Athens 478-401 bc’, and its cover bore, embossed in gold, a reproduction of the helmeted bust of Pericles in the British Museum. Though criticism was by no means absent, it was, in essence, a paean to the Periclean Age, in which the illustrious statesman figured as a glorified headmaster co-ordinating a uniquely democratic regime as it threw up, with bewildering richness, such disparate characters as Socrates, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Alcibiades and the sculptor Pheidias. The virtues of creative and morally justified imperialism had a peculiar attraction for a governing class that was increasingly, as the 20th century advanced, facing challenges to its own rule. But by 1992, when the second edition of CAH V was published, the idealisms supporting the old regime had been shattered, and the empire it had led was largely a thing of the past. The League of Nations was gone; and after the Holocaust and Hiroshima the Brotherhood of Man looked decidedly tarnished. Victorian meliorism had been stripped from the axioms of political and military behaviour, so that motives or actions once deemed impossible for advanced societies now seemed all too likely.

All this had an inevitable impact – not always well received by conservatives – on the study of ancient history and the classical world in general, as CAH V2 quietly made clear. ‘Athens’ was removed from the subtitle: ‘The story of the fifth century,’ the editors reminded us, ‘is not just an Athenian story.’ Postcolonialism has left its mark: Pericles’ rival Cleon, they pointed out, ‘may have been right to say that democracy could not rule an empire’. Most strikingly, the gold-embossed representation of Pericles disappeared from the cover, and this is unlikely to have been done solely as an economic measure. The new Cambridge Companion to the Age of Pericles (2007) took the change of attitude somewhat further. L.J. Samons, the editor, made clear that the dominant theme of what survives from Pericles’ spellbinding oratory is not the open society, but Athenian power, and that Pericles primarily used dêmokratia as a useful tool to build that power, offering payment, employment, colonial land and other benefits in exchange for votes and military service.

In addition to criticisms of Athenian imperialism, we find growing attacks on the Periclean attitude to women (they should be seen and not heard), the systematic exploitation of once free allies transformed into tribute-paying subjects, the militaristic propaganda of the Funeral Oration and the self-congratulatory civic grandeur of the Parthenon itself. What’s significant about all this, but seldom emphasised, is that the basic evidence, such as it is, has been in plain view all along: Herodotus, Thucydides, Old Comedy, Protagoras, Xenophon, Plato, Plutarch’s biography and of course the remains (above all on the Acropolis) of the great civic building programme. This suggests that any interpretative changes are due more to the varying assumptions of a succession of observers than to any fundamental factual misrepresentation.

It’s in this spirit that Vincent Azoulay approaches the problem in Pericles of Athens, the English translation of a prizewinning French monograph published in 2010. His book consists of two parts. First, we are offered an exhaustive analytical survey of what Azoulay sees as the key elements of Pericles’ life and career, along with the evolution of Athens – a recent naval victor in the Persian Wars – from leader of the defensive Delian League against renewed Persian encroachment to imperial dominatrix over the league’s former members. This section takes into account a significantly wide spectrum of attitudes, from wholehearted support to virulent distaste, observable in the sources, and does its best to identify, and account for, both hostile and favourable propaganda. There follows a fascinating survey of changing attitudes to Pericles himself, mostly on the part of the French, from about 1500 to the present day. Long after the Renaissance, a Latinate and authoritarian age in search of exemplary heroes and conditioned to define democracy as subversiveness gave Pericles a less than enthusiastic reception when it noticed him at all. His idolisation (which current fashion is in the process of rejecting) only began in the mid-19th century, with George Grote’s History of Greece, a prominent and fiercely debated feature of which was Grote’s radical enskyment of ancient democracy. As Azoulay reminds us, attitudes to Pericles and what he stood for have consistently been conditioned by the observers’ own beliefs and sympathies from his day to ours. How far he takes this dictum as applying to himself isn’t always clear.

A brief general sketch of Pericles’ life and times is used to set the scene. He was born about 494-3, when the elimination of the Peisistratid tyranny after more than four decades, followed by the reformer Cleisthenes’ large extension of the citizen body, was still a living memory and invasion by the forces of the great Persian Achaemenid Empire an imminent threat. The newly enfranchised rowers of the Athenian fleet played a dramatic role in standing off that threat. Pericles and his associates, backed by the solid vote of the veterans of the triremes, were able to expand a radical policy based on naval alliances at the expense of the aristocrats led by Cimon. Sparta showed increasing alarm at her rival’s new pretensions, as the Delian League’s treasury was transferred to Athens, revolts by the league’s allies were brutally suppressed, and Athens emerged as an imperial power, wealthy, resplendent, culturally dazzling – and ruthless. Finally in 431, again under Pericles’ firm leadership, there was the fatal lurch into the Peloponnesian War, which, 27 long years later, ended Athens’s high-riding imperial aspirations. How, Azoulay asks, do our sources treat Pericles’ involvement in these crucial episodes?

On Herodotus, Azoulay is well abreast of current trends. Herodotus gives Athens every credit for the part its citizens played in defeating the Persians, but his account of Pericles’ Alcmaeonid ancestry is anything but complimentary – see his sly account of Alcmaeon establishing the family fortunes by stuffing his clothes, hair, top-boots and mouth with gold dust in Croesus’ treasury – and his narrative suggests that by the 440s Athenian imperialism was well on the way to replacing that of the Persians as a serious threat to the rest of Greece. Understandably, he finds it difficult to evaluate the contemporary abuse by the comic playwrights (which was serious enough after the suppression of the Samos rebellion to bring about a brief period of censorship); but he sees it as the main base of a later hostile tradition. Thucydides’ assessment of Pericles’ final years, on the other hand, Azoulay recognises as undeniably idealised. He notes the strong (and anti-democratic) hostility of the philosophers, Plato above all, but doesn’t draw the conclusions from this that he might, such as the very real and entrenched strength of class-based conservative prejudice in Athens. Assessing Plutarch’s biography, he seems (like Plutarch himself) a little uncomfortable. The strong contrast between the views of the comic poets and Thucydides obviously worries him. Plutarch admires the monuments, but ‘as a good disciple of Plato and an admirer of Cimon, he wanted to denigrate Pericles, the democrat.’ He therefore, Azoulay argues, splits his subject’s career in two opposed halves: Pericles began as an out-and-out demagogue, but once his position was secure he became a lofty Olympian, curbing the wild urges of the demos at the risk of provoking its wrath. Also, since Plutarch was a subject of imperial Rome, Azoulay writes, the thought ‘that the people might exercise truly effective sovereignty never even crosses his mind’.

This assertion regarding the demos is central to the chapter in which Azoulay sets out his own conclusions regarding Pericles’ actual position in Athens. (It is the epilogue in the French edition, but has been silently moved to the middle of the book, along with some further textual rearrangement, in Janet Lloyd’s translation.) Above all, he challenges the view, widely held in antiquity, and substantiated by Thucydides, that because of his policy of pay (misthos) for citizens in the law courts and elsewhere, combined with his major and long-lasting public works schemes, through which (as Plutarch spells out) he provided employment for a wide range of artisans and labourers, Pericles had in effect bought the votes of a ‘passive or even apathetic’ populace. Not so, Azoulay says, with an impressive display of detail. The checks and balances of Cleisthenic democracy were very real. Pericles needed, first of all, to negotiate with his nine fellow generals, elected annually. His accounts were subject to audit. He could be ostracised. Any citizen could prosecute him for crimes up to and including high treason. Though his influence was undeniable, he was obliged to ‘adopt an attitude in conformity with the democratic ethos … in a context in which the power of the demos was relentlessly increasing’.

Much of Pericles’ quasi-monarchical image, Azoulay insists, was due to hostile propaganda. Sly comparisons to the tyrant Peisistratus (including an alleged physical resemblance) were encouraged by the fact that both of them went in for cultural civic aggrandisement – but Pericles’ projects were limited by public scrutiny of his accounts, approval by the Council and, in the last resort, an Assembly vote. Similarly, the misthos payment was not a form of patronage, but wages for work done, ‘and so in no sense had an infantilising effect’, but on the contrary provided evidence for ‘the growing sovereignty of the demos’. Pericles ‘never held military power on his own’, and diplomatically stayed in the background, especially in relations with Sparta. Azoulay also stresses the social power of public opinion and rumour, not only as channelled through the comic stage. He admits, but passes quickly over, the fact that in the fourth century democracy was regarded by Plato as a ‘levelling downward’. ‘Even if Pericles still stood out from the majority of the Athenians by virtue of both his wealth and his charisma as an orator, his behaviour also reflected a desire to conform with the aspirations of the people,’ Azoulay concludes.

However much he may have taken the gloss off Pericles himself, Azoulay’s picture of the Athenian demos in action retains more than a tinge of romantic idealism. Athens’s hardscrabble politics had always been class-based. After failing to garner effective support any other way, Cleisthenes in desperation did the unthinkable, and got the franchise extended to men without property. By so doing, he created a sizeable new voting bloc, and was branded by conservatives as a traitor to his own aristocratic class. The accident of the Persian Wars gave the new voters – most of whom had rowed in the triremes – a radical naval base. By the 440s, thanks to Pericles’ careful cultivation of this group (and not only through the misthos and extensive work programmes), it had become all but impossible for the conservative aristocratic class to rely on winning any Assembly vote: hence its members’ increasing resort to private clubs (hetaireiai), where oligarchic plots soon became all the rage. At the same time, rising members of the mercantile community, including businessmen like Cleon, who were unhampered by gentlemanly scruples, increasingly saw no reason why their successful naval radical party should be in the hands of an old-fashioned aristocrat like Pericles. The moment he was dead, they moved into positions of authority.

The effect​ of all this on modern classical historians, who tend to conservatism, has been interesting. They’re committed to democracy, so they have to support Pericles; but they’re also suspicious of populism, so they follow the comic poets in turning people like Cleon into vulgar rabble-rousers. Pericles, on the other hand, is saved precisely by his gentlemanly principles: Azoulay relishes the case of the epigraphist who down-dated a clutch of fairly tough imperial decrees, with the result (post hoc propter hoc was widely assumed) that Pericles was relieved of responsibility for them. And there’s also the matter of his head, which Plutarch describes as ‘disproportionately long’, i.e. dolichocephalic, and uses as the reason for his statues being helmeted. Reasonably enough, one might have thought, since Plutarch goes on to quote the comic poets, led by Cratinus, who compared Pericles’ head to a squill (a kind of large onion), or even to an outsize dining room. But a fashionable theory (which Azoulay buys into) has it that Plutarch got it wrong: there was indeed such a type of helmeted statue, but it had nothing to do with hiding a cranial deformity, and what the comic poets were mocking – that round, shiny squill! – was just Pericles’ baldness. In which case, one wonders why they didn’t say so: Aristophanes’ baldness was a standing joke, and no one hid that behind a squill.

Azoulay’s fundamental conclusion, that with Pericles’ death, and pace Thucydides, ‘Athens certainly was now, in fact as well as in name, a democracy,’ is essentially true, and its new leaders did indeed infuriate their elite opponents with what Azoulay euphemistically describes as ‘their close social and cultural ties with the people’. He doesn’t pursue this, but a nice example is Cleon’s vow in 425, four years after Pericles’ death, that he’d parade Spartan prisoners in Athens within the month: a good contrast to Pericles’ preference for naval expeditions and his belief that Athenian troops couldn’t face Spartan hoplites in the field, on the gentlemanly assumption that this meant a formal engagement. A suspiciously opportune conflagration forced the Spartan troops on the island of Sphacteria to surrender, and Cleon kept his promise. The American back-country guerrillas who proved such a headache for General Cornwallis’s Redcoats had a very similar attitude to by-the-book combat.

However hard he works on Pericles’ career, Azoulay can’t entirely conceal the practical realities involved: that what we have here is a political trade-off between an intellectual theoretician and demotic workers in pursuit of assured incomes, a deal supported by fine silver currency from the slave-worked Laurium mines, which in turn not only paid for cheap imports from the subject allies, but came rolling back to Athens in the form of what was in essence tribute. The resultant democratic regime was strictly internal (hence Pericles’ restrictive laws on citizenship), and its considerable expenses were (as so often) met in part by outsiders. Azoulay is well aware of this. He concedes that Pericles delighted in ‘passing on to the demos the profits that resulted from the exploitation of the empire’; he agrees that the so-called ‘cleruchies’ were land expropriated from subject allies by Athenian quasi-colonial settlers who also acted as garrisons, ‘soldier-landlords of the occupied territory’. But he still wants to emphasise that ‘the city possessed an economic dynamism of its own, quite independent of its exploitation of the allies.’ How far this was true is highly debatable.

What personal profile of Pericles, then, finally emerges? Rather to my surprise, a very clear one: that of the sort of intellectual whose logic proceeds by deduction rather than inductively, imposing the requirements of his general thesis on any situation rather than forming a conclusion through an accumulation of observed facts. Pericles set out to achieve his vision of greatness for Athens – which had a lot to do with public contributions, through service, creativity and sacrifice, but used democracy per se chiefly as a means to this higher end – and unlike many such visionaries, actually succeeded: he was extraordinarily lucky in the natural resources available to him (including what seems to have been a quite exceptional gene pool), and in the progressive convertibility of the Delian League into a manageable empire. Here his characteristic imperviousness to emotional fallout is striking. He saw nothing inappropriate in saying of those who died putting down the Samos revolt that it was as though the spring had gone out of the year; when Cimon’s sister Elpinice said to him, at the funeral, with bitter irony, how splendid it was of him to have lost so many citizens, not against Medes or Phoenicians, but in subduing an allied Greek city, he merely told her (via a literary quote) that she was too old to wear scent.

His policy during the first few years of the Peloponnesian War (an episode Azoulay largely sidesteps) was theoretically impeccable but emotionally and practically catastrophic. The psychological damage caused when the Attic countryside was left to Spartans to ravage was by no means restricted to the upper-class landowners whose property suffered most, and Pericles’ scientific friends could have told him, and probably did, that crowding Attica’s country folk inside the Long Walls built from the city to the sea was a sure recipe for disease. That the plague made nonsense of Pericles’ carefully worked out theories about the length of the conflict and the inevitability that Sparta would end hostilities is significant: the realisation of this coincided precisely with the one time when the voters of Athens unceremoniously threw their iconic leader out. Long accustomed as they were to believe that he alone could save the state, they very soon recalled him; but by then it was far too late. Azoulay has given us much to think about, but he is (something he would probably be the first to admit) as much influenced by his own background as any of the post-Renaissance pundits he so elegantly dissects. So, I have no doubt, am I. That may well be the most valuable lesson of Azoulay’s conscientious investigation.

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