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Examining Criticism of Pericles Policies in Ancient Athens


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When we talk about ancient Athens, one name often dominates the conversation – Criticism of Pericles Policies. Known for his influential role in shaping Athenian democracy, he was a figure both celebrated and critiqued. We’re diving into the hot takes on Pericles and his strategies, unpacking why his moves sparked so much chatter among those who lived during his time and the scholars who’ve studied him since. From expanding democratic institutions to engaging in ambitious building projects, his legacy is a complex tapestry woven with threads of innovation and contention.

Table of Contents:

Pericles’ Controversial Political Views and Policies: Criticism of Pericles Policies

Criticism of Pericles Policies

Pericles was a towering figure in ancient Greek politics, particularly in shaping Athenian democracy. His influence extended to granting lower classes access to the political system and public offices, which they had previously been barred from.

With this strategy, Athens really upped its game by making sure democratic institutions became more robust and steady. However, Pericles’ populist policies also drew criticism from his opponents.

Criticism of Pericles’ populist policies

Critics accused Pericles of making the Athenians “slothful, garrulous and avaricious, by starting the system of public fees”. They argued his public measures led the people into bad habits, making them luxurious and wanton instead of frugal and self-sufficing.

Even with all the backlash, Pericles didn’t let that shake his bond with the people’s assembly. Thucydides’ writings illustrate Pericles’ charisma to lead, convince and sometimes manipulate the Athenian assembly.

Pericles famously stated, “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”

His ability to sway the assembly was a double-edged sword. While it allowed him to push through important reforms, it also opened him up to charges of demagoguery.

The Peloponnesian War and Pericles’ Military Strategy: Criticism of Pericles Policies

Pericles played a crucial role in the events leading up to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. His “expansionary” policies have been seen as a contributing factor to the outbreak of the conflict.

Pericles’ promotion of Athenian imperialism denied true democracy and freedom to Athens’ subject states. This aggressive stance towards the Delian League and the city-states under Athenian control heightened tensions with Sparta and its allies.

Once the war began in 431 BCE, Pericles adopted a defensive strategy. He devised what’s known as the ‘Periclean Strategy,’ which basically meant avoiding head-on land battles against the mightier Spartan army.

Instead, Pericles relied on Athens’ naval strength to harass enemy coasts and secure vital supplies. He also ordered the Athenian population to retreat behind the city’s Long Walls and ride out the Spartan attacks.

Critics of this strategy argued that abandoning the Athenian countryside to Spartan invasion only increased the suffering of the Athenians. The crowding of the population inside the city walls during the war facilitated the plague that struck Athens, killing thousands including Pericles himself.

The impact of the war on Athens: Criticism of Pericles Policies

The Peloponnesian War, which continued after Pericles’ death, ultimately ended in Athens’ defeat by Sparta in 404 BCE. This severely weakened Athens and ended its period of imperial dominance in the Greek world.

Some folks believe that Pericles’ bold moves and strategies might have actually set Athens up for a fall. The cost of the war drained Athens’ coffers and the loss of manpower from the plague and battles was a blow from which the city-state struggled to recover.

Pericles’ Building Program and Its Critics: Criticism of Pericles Policies

Pericles initiated an ambitious building program that produced most of the surviving structures on the Acropolis, including the Parthenon. These masterpieces helped render the name of Greece immortal.

The building program was a key part of Pericles’ vision to strengthen Athens’ stature as a cultural and artistic center. It employed many citizens and beautified the city, contributing to a Golden Age in Athens.

However, the building program was not without its detractors. Pericles’ rivals accused him of wasting public money on the projects instead of using it for the war effort.

They saw the lavish spending as a way for Pericles to boost his own popularity rather than truly benefiting the polis. The funds could have been used to better defend Athens or support its allies in their struggles against Sparta.

The cultural significance of Pericles’ building program

Despite the criticism, the cultural impact of Pericles’ building program cannot be overstated. The Parthenon, along with other stunning landmarks, really showcased the splendor and achievements of Athens for all to see.

The sculptures and architecture expressed the ideals of the Athenian Golden Age – democracy, reason, and artistic achievement. They inspired generations of artists and thinkers, leaving a legacy that far outlasted the political controversies of Pericles’ time.

In many ways, the building program exemplified both the best and worst of Pericles’ leadership. Bold, visionary, but also polarizing and contentious. He’s like a symbol that perfectly captures the essence of his complicated legacy, one that’s permanently etched into the fabric of ancient Greek history.

Key Takeaway: Criticism of Pericles Policies

Pericles was a game-changer in Athens, opening up politics to the masses but catching flak for making folks lazy with public fees. His charm worked wonders and woes, leading reforms but also getting tagged as a demagogue. In war, his avoid-and-attack strategy faced heat for cramping Athenians behind walls, worsening plague impacts. Yet, his building spree turned Athens into an immortal cultural icon despite complaints about cost priorities. Bold yet divisive, Pericles shaped democracy and drama alike.

The Plague of Athens and Its Impact on Pericles’ Legacy: Criticism of Pericles Policies

Criticism of Pericles Policies

The crowded conditions in Athens due to Pericles’ defensive strategy likely contributed to the devastating plague that struck the city in 430 BC during the Peloponnesian War. The plague killed an estimated 1/3 of the Athenian population.

Pericles himself succumbed to and died from the plague in 429 BC. The devastating impact of the plague, which occurred under his leadership and defensive strategy, likely tarnished Pericles’ legacy in the short term in the eyes of the Athenian people.

The outbreak and impact of the plague: Criticism of Pericles Policies

In the second year of the Peloponnesian War, a plague struck Athens, which was crowded with evacuees from the countryside. It killed perhaps a quarter of the city’s inhabitants.

Scientists and historians have tried to identify the disease responsible based on the descriptions of Thucydides, but no consensus exists. Considering its symptoms, most researchers now believe that it was typhus or typhoid fever and not cholera, plague or measles.

The crowding caused by Pericles’ war strategy of abandoning the countryside and sheltering behind Athens’ walls likely facilitated the plague’s spread and impact. This would have been a major blow to Pericles’ leadership and reputation.

Thucydides’ account of the plague

The historian Thucydides, who survived the plague himself, provided a detailed account of its horrific symptoms and societal impact in his History of the Peloponnesian War. He described how the plague demoralized the population and led to a breakdown in traditional values.

Thucydides’ vivid description has allowed modern researchers to attempt a diagnosis of the disease. However, the lack of consensus shows the limitations of reconstructing ancient illnesses from historical accounts, even one as detailed as Thucydides provides.

His account also gives insight into the political and social ramifications of the plague on Athens and its leadership. The suffering it inflicted would have tested the Athenians’ resolve and confidence in Pericles.

The effect of the plague on Pericles’ reputation and legacy

Pericles himself fell victim to and died from the plague in 429 BC, just two years into the war. The loss of his leadership in the midst of the epidemic and war was a major blow to Athens.

In the short term, the devastation of the plague likely diminished Pericles’ stature in the eyes of the Athenian people. It occurred under his leadership and defensive strategy of concentrating the population within the city walls.

However, Thucydides, despite his generally favorable view of Pericles, does not shy away from this in his account. He acknowledges the plague’s role in the decline of Athenian society and fortunes, even if his assessment of Pericles himself does not change.

Thucydides’ Perspective on Pericles and His Policies: Criticism of Pericles Policies

The historian Thucydides was an admirer of Pericles, calling him “the first citizen of Athens”. He provides one of the main surviving accounts of Pericles’ leadership and oratory.

Thucydides’ favorable portrayal of Pericles has helped shape his legacy as a great Athenian statesman. However, some critics argue Thucydides is biased in Pericles’ favor and overlooks valid criticisms of his policies.

Thucydides expressed great admiration for Pericles, both explicitly and implicitly in his writing. He calls Pericles “the first citizen of Athens”, a designation of status and influence.

According to Vlachos, Thucydides must have been about 30 years old when Pericles delivered his famous Funeral Oration and he was probably among the audience. This experience likely contributed to Thucydides’ high opinion of Pericles’ leadership and oratorical skills.

Thucydides’ regard for Pericles is evident in the amount of text he devotes to Pericles’ speeches compared to others. The Funeral Oration and final speech are given in full, allowing Pericles to explain his policies in his own words.

Thucydides’ analysis of Pericles’ policies: Criticism of Pericles Policies

Thucydides provides a detailed account of Pericles’ defensive strategy against Sparta, the Funeral Oration, and the final speech rallying the Athenians under the affliction of the plague. He focuses on Pericles’ integrity and strategic vision.

However, some critics like Vlachos argue that Thucydides’ admiration for Pericles made him overlook well-grounded accusations and even “mere gossip” against the leader. Vlachos believes Thucydides ignores the charge that Pericles corrupted the people to strengthen his own position.

Thucydides does seem to go out of his way to justify some of Pericles’ more controversial actions, such as his refusal to engage the Spartans in open battle. However, he also reports on the frustration and anger this caused among the Athenians.

The influence of Thucydides’ work on perceptions of Pericles

Thucydides’ writing is one of the most important ancient sources on Pericles’ life and career. His largely admiring portrait has been influential in shaping Pericles’ reputation and legacy through the centuries.

However, Thucydides’ account is not above scrutiny. Some modern scholars point out that his close focus on Pericles’ strategic vision and oratory minimizes other aspects of his leadership, such as his domestic political maneuvering.

There are also questions of how much Thucydides’ reconstruction of Pericles’ speeches reflects what he actually said as opposed to Thucydides’ own analysis. While the speeches are usually seen as faithful to Pericles’ policies, they are not verbatim accounts.

Despite these issues, Thucydides’ work is still considered the essential primary source on Pericles. His mostly positive assessment played a key role in establishing Pericles as one of the greatest statesmen of ancient Greece.

Key Takeaway: Criticism of Pericles Policies

Pericles’ strategy to protect Athens led to a plague that devastated the city and tarnished his legacy, showing even great leaders face unforeseen consequences.

Conclusion: Criticism of Pericles Policies

In our journey through history’s corridors, examining criticism of Pericles policies uncovers more than just political debates; it reveals human nature’s complexity within governance structures. While he chalked up some pretty impressive wins during his time, people didn’t just let it slide without questioning what all of this might mean for Athens and the wider world down the line. Thinking about these criticisms today makes us take a hard look, not just at what past leaders decided but also at the choices shaping our lives right now.

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Jon Giunta Editor in Chief

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