Read this article to learn about the Periclean imperialism of Athens under Pericles.

When Cimon was gaining renown abroad, he had rivals at home who were endeavouring to supplant him in the affection of the people and to initiate a domestic and foreign policy directly counter to his views, and were preparing for a contest for him in which his military genius stood him in no good stead.

While elderly statesman like Themistocles and Aristides were hold­ing the field, an extraordinary genius was ripening in obscurity to issue from shade into the broad day of public life at a favourable juncture.

This was Pericles, the younger of the two sons of Xanthippus, the commander of the Athenian fleet at the battle of Mycale and of Agariste, niece of Cleisthenes the re­former. Pericles, to an observing eye, gave early indi­cations of a mind destined for great things and a will earnestly bent on them. Two teachers who left an abiding influence on him and to whose influence he owed most were the musician Damonides and Philoso­pher Anaxagoras.


Not content with ordinary educa­tion that was generally obtainable in Greece, Pericles applied himself assiduously, despite his public avoca­tions, to intellectual pursuit which was confined to a very narrow circle of inquisitive spirits in Athens then. His wealth and parentage afforded him the means of familiar intercourse with most of the eminent persons in the field of knowledge and art, who were resorting to Athens as a common seat of learning.

Among the persons, besides Damonides and Anaxagoras, he re­ceived lessons from Pythoclides, Zeno and others. But Philosopher Anaxagoras appears to have exercised the most powerful and durable influence on his mind and character, while Damonides developed in him a bias for democracy.

Temperamentally he was an aristo­crat rather than a commoner, he was reserve, shy of society, ostentatiously devoted to public duty and when his authority became unassailable brutally frank and truthful. He was never a demagogue but as a speaker ranked by his contemporaries as unrivalled in persuasive eloquence.

There have never been better judges of oratory than the Athenians of Periclean Age and in their verdict Pericles was a mighty speaker and his eloquence was not one of clear expression alone but the outcome of clear thought as well. His love of art was as unquestioned as his democratic professions.


As a military commander he was nothing extraordinary and could never claim to be ranked with Cimon, Myronides or Alcibiades. “His foreign policy, down to the conclusion of the Thirty Years’ Peace was based on a miscalculation, both of the resources of Athens, and of the attractive power of the democratic ideal; in spite of its initial successes, it brought Athens to the brink of Abyss. It was in his domestic rather than in his foreign policy that his genius stood revealed.” Democracy insofar as it meant government by the people and for the people, the Athenian constitution as created by the intellect of Pericles was certainly the most complete. Yet it was this constitution that proved Athens’ undoing in the long run.

The question naturally arises as to why Pericles should be regarded as great and on what should his claim to greatness rest. As Walker (Camb. V) points out, the greatness of Pericles was inseparable from the greatness of Athens. In an age when the whole energy of the Athenian society, a society perhaps the most gifted known to history, was consciously directed to a given end by a single will, Pericles’ claim rests on having given that singleness of will, unity of purpose and boldness of direction which made Athens what it was in the Periclean Age. Without Pericles, the debt of the posterity to Athens would have been far less.

The Thirty Years’ Peace made Pericles, with whom the conduct of the foreign policy lay, conscious of the fact that it was no longer possible to maintain both the overseas empire of Athens and her acquisition Greece proper. Neither the man power of Athens nor the contingents of the Empire could face the Peloponnesian League. She was, however, invincible on sea but even at that she could not defend Megara or Troezen or Achaea.

Pericles, therefore, decided to hold no more than what could be held with safety. The Thirty Years’ Peace recognised the Athenian Empire and bound the Peloponnesians to abstain from interfering in the affairs of the states listed as the allies of Athens. The latter had to obey the same condition in respect of the conferderates of Sparta. Thus Greece reverted to the old dualism between Athens predo­minant by sea and Sparta predominant by land.


The Thirty Years’ Peace left Athens free to exact the payment of the tributes by her subject allies to the full. The revenue of the empire was enough to main­tain a fleet to police the Aegean and conserve naval skill. Pericles believed that the spiritual greatness of Athens was rooted in her political power and the imperial conscience of Pericles did not hesitate to sacri­fice the virtue of honesty to teach the allies the virtue of gratitude, for it was Athens who had saved them during the Persian War and she could legitimately claim reward. Full tribute that was extorted was spent in part on great buildings which brought splendour to Athens and employment to many.

But Pericles policy met with severe opposition. Parthenon, the visible symbol of Athenian greatness, was under construction since 447 B.C. But by 444 B.C. the Athenian treasury could no longer meet the expenditure and it was therefore necessary to divert the accumulated balance of the tributes from the empire. The oligarchical opposition to Pericles led by Thucydides son of Melesias (not historian Thucydides) attacked the proposal on principle of morality.

Athens had no moral rights to deck herself like a courtesan with thousand talent temples. Pericles staked his career against that of his opponent and in 443 B.C. the Athenians voted which of the two leaders Pericles or Thucydides would have their confidence. Thucydides was ostracised and that left Pericles the unquestioned leader of the Athenian democracy.

Earlier in 449 B.C. on the motion of Pericles Athens addressed to the Greek world invitation to a Fan- Hellenic Congress for the purpose of discussing certain matters of common interest but the proposal did not succeed due to Spartan opposition. But Pericles’ policy of retaining her empire resources for the main­tenance of her fleet and of rebuilding of temples from the common funds because these were burnt in the common cause met with fierce opposition which quiet­ened down on the ostracism of Thucydides.

After all Pericles’ claim that Athens had a right to use the money of her allies whom she had afforded protection, and his ambitious building programme which would bring splendour to the city and profitable employment for the workers and wages to many were too popular to be defeated on a vote.

In the empire Pericles’ policy met with no less serious opposition. In 449-48 B.C. no tribute seemed to have been realised. Even in the year following 448-47 B.C.) a considerable number of cities brought no tributes. The list of tributes of this year gave clear indication of widespread discontent. Athenian re­action was vigorous. Collection was tightened up, defaulted amounts were realised with the current tribute.

Further, with greater organisation of democracy in Athens for sharing the spoils of the empire, there was also greater need for organising the empire to produce the spoils. For the purposes of tribute Pericles divided the cities into five groups: Ionia, Hellespont, Thrace- ward regions, Cavia and the Islands. This division facili­tated control of payments of the tributes. This was a domination suggestive of the Persian satrapies imposed upon what had been a voluntary alliance of free Greek cities. But Periclean conscience had no qualms; his policy was “to keep the allies in hand”.

By a decree Pericles made the use of Athenian weights and measures and Athenian coins compulsory in most part of the empire. Athenian coins were to be purchased along with goods in the Athenian market. It goes without saying that this decree furthered the economic dominance of Athens over the empire. These apart, an Athenian garrison was to be stationed in each city under control.

Such was the value set at Athenian citizenship that and old law of 451 B.C. was revived and civic rights were limited to those born of Athenian citizens both on father and mother’s sides. The result was that about 5,000 persons were struck off the list of citizens.

Vigour of Athens roused admiration and jealousy perhaps among her neighbours and her friendship was deemed worth purchasing. Lybian prince Psammetichus made a gift of 45,000 bushels of corn for dis­tribution among Athenian citizens, perhaps out of the political consideration of a possible help in the event of a Persian attack.

The building of the Parthenon in the mean time went on and m nine years time it became ready to receive the statue of the goddess made of gold and ivory, the masterpiece of Pheidias. The sanctuary for the mysteries at Eleusis was rebuilt on a much grander scale by Ictinus who was the architect of Parthenon. The building of Propylae was also commenced. The Odeum, a new building was constructed for the needs of the musical festival. Athens became daily more splendid and also more nearly what Pericles called it, the School of Hellas.

Constructions that added to the military strength of the city were no less remarkable. A third Long Wall was built parallel to the two which already existed. This new wall made the whole system more defensible. The war-harbours at Piraeus were organised and equipped and triremes were housed in fine new sheds.

The popularity of expansion of the navy has been described by Aristophanes by mentioning the huge gatherings at the times of launching every new squad­ron. Mercantile harbours were also provided for coping with the increased volume of trade. Town planning expert Hippodamus’ services were used for giving symmetry to new constructions. These were all completed within ten years of the Peace and Pericles now turned his attention to the building up of a war reserve fund, but for the time being what Athens needed was peace.

In one sphere Athens found an opportunity for adventurism. Athenian colonists went out with Greeks of other cities to Southern Italy to supplement the Greek colonies at Sybaris. The surviving Greeks of the previous colonising attempt at Sybaris claimed special privilege over the new colonists. But they were driven out.

The new settlers were left with more land than they could manage. They appealed to Athens to seize the opportunity of establishing an Athenian imperial outpost in South Italy with a view to expanding Athenian empire there. But Pericles did not feel like venturing on a provocative colonial policy and regarded it a fit case for all Greeks to fit out a second expedition. Only two-fifths of the new colo­nists were from Athens and her empire.

Athens built the city of Thurii but would not precipitate any con­flict with other Greek states nor did she possess the surplus population willing to emigrate. In Sicily, Syracuse an ally of Corinth and a potential enemy of Athens, started building a great navy. Even this did not provoke Pericles to give up his policy of defensive and watchful quietism. He was content with a pro­mise of support to Rhegium and Leontini in the event of a Syracusan attack.

But in 441 B.C. Samos which like Lesbos and Chios, although within the Athenian empire possessed both independence and a fleet attempted open secession and sought Persian help. Pericles personally set out with a fleet and established in Samos a pro-Athenian demo­cracy in place of oligarchy. But with his withdrawal situation was reversed and Athenian garrison was compelled to surrender.

Pericles again set out with a fleet of sixty triremes but failing to win a decisive vic­tory requisitioned reinforcement from Athens, Chios and Lesbos. The only hope of the Samians lay in the Persian assistance which did not arrive. Persia simply dared not to strike at Athens. Samian appeal to Sparta and the Peloponnesians was discussed but certainly not with seriousness, and Corinth, on her own admission a few years later, had advised peace. No­thing came out of the appeal.

The cities of the Athe­nian empire remained quiet except Byzantium and some disorders in Thracian chersonese. On the surrender of Samos, Byzantium quietened down. Athens weathered a severe crisis and stood unshaken, her finances bore the strain. Athens now ranged her policy further afield. She now planted more cleruchies, i.e. settlements of Athenian citizens at important strategic and commercial points of her empire.

Athens now at peace, sought to revive and increase her commercial interests in the cities on the coasts of the Black Sea where lay inexhaustible supplies of staple food of the Greeks, bread and fish. The Athe­nian cleruchies besides having been so many strategic garrisons, also did much to relieve the pressure of population in the mother city by feeding its population.

The Athenian settlers in the chersonese and in Lemnos, Imbros and Euboea deserve mention in this respect. Export of Attic pottery to Cimmerian Bosphorus— modern Crimea brought food from the corn-barons of that country. Food also arrived from the corn-lands of South Russia.

Such were the attempts of Pericles to strengthen and consolidate Athenian power within the empire and secure the food and promote the trade of Athens. The days when Athens faced Persia and half Greece in arms, had passed, now was the high summer of Athenian greatness and as Pericles remarked (Thucydides puts it into Pericles’ mouth) all mortal power is doomed to decline, but the memory of greatness stands for ever.

In matters of state Pericles stood supreme. He had outlasted all possible rivals—Cimon, Tolmides and Thucydides, son of Melesias. He had been voted General-in-chief for fifteen times in succession. His policy was steady and far-sighted. The age of adven­tures were over, now came a quiet, determined increase of influence, prestige and financial strength against an evil day. The Athenian fleet was kept efficient by constant practice and every summer a squadron took the sea and displayed the invincible power of Athens.

Naturally, Pericles’ policy lured the Athenian citizens, for ‘so long as the profits of empire were many and its burdens light, the Athenian democracy would feel few searching’s of heart in adopting the imperialism of Pericles’.

Pericles’ policy did not simply aim at political dominion of the Hellas, he would like the union of all Greeks, a union held together by the power of Athens having a natural support in community of religion, language, customs and traditions. Athens of his dream was to be the intellectual nerve centre of the whole of Hellas, mistress of the Hellas wherefrom would percolate refining influences of art, literature and culture.

The deftly adorned city of Athens with noble specimens of art and architecture was to be the Queen of Hellas and the instructress of Hellas as well. Prof. Bury’s remark that ‘imperialism of Prericles was indeed of a lofty kind’ stands justified. But the political supremacy of all Hellas, Pericles failed to achieve for Athens although he ensured the intellectual ascendancy of Athens.

His imperial policy looked at from its results had begotten hatred and enmity. The cities within the Athenian empire, reduced from the status of equal partners to the servile position of tributaries were naturally reconciled to Athenian domination. Not welded by any spirit of genuine loyalty they were see­thing in discontent.

Further, to powers not within the Athenian empire, Athen’s growing empire, power and prestige roused a natural feeling of jealousy in powers like Sparta. Her commercial greatness threatened the prosperity of countries like Corinth. The eventual and cumulative effect of Pericles’ imperial policy gave the back push in the shape of a great war with Peloponnesian Confederacy.