Pericles was the most important statesman and politician of classical Athens. He was a son of Xanthippus, a Persian War–era general and politician, and Agariste of the prominent but allegedly cursed Alcmaeonids.
The rationalist philosopher, Anaxagoras, intellectually influenced him. He was a friend of the sculptor, Phidias, to whom he entrusted supervision of the construction of the Parthenon.
The two most important ancient sources for Pericles’ life are the historian Thucydides, who admired him and focused his account in the History of the Peloponnesian War on Pericles’ intellectual prowess and wartime record, and the moralizing and gossipy Plutarch, who wrote his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans about 500 years later.
After fathering two sons, Pericles divorced his wife to live with his brilliant and beautiful mistress, Aspasia, who, along with his friends and political allies, became the butt of often-bawdy jokes of popular comics and dramatists.
Pericles’ early public career is sketchy. Plutarch says that Pericles at first feared ostracism because he supposedly resembled the tyrant Peisistratus and was a rich nobleman with a dicey ancestral history.
As Victor Ehrenberg (Sophocles and Pericles) writes of classical Athens, "the theater was the polis", and it is likely that Pericles understood his native city’s profoundly cultural politics. Much later Pericles supported rebuilding Athenian temples destroyed by the Persians and supported constructing the Parthenon.
Though strenuously opposed by the crafty oligarchic politician Thucydides of Alopece, an ally of Cimon, Pericles’ patriotic urban renewal program continued unobstructed after 443 b.c.e., when Thucydides was ostracized.
From then on, according to Plutarch, Pericles "got all Athens and all affairs pertaining to the Athenians into his own hands", more or less unopposed. It is true that Athens’s material prosperity reached its peak between 454 and 431 b.c.e., when Pericles was elected to the board of 10 generals. However, Pericles’ building program likely had strategic and political causes as well.
Whether Pericles played a personal role in the anti-oligarchic movement led by the elusive Ephialtes is unclear, but Pericles prosecuted Cimon for bribery in 463–462 b.c.e., supported legislation to pay citizens for holding public office, and backed a law to limit citizenship to children of native-born Athenians.
He may also have been inspired to support a general public works policy by observing the economic consequences of construction of the Long Walls fortification around Athens after 461 b.c.e.
Pericles stood adamantly for making Athens the predominant power in the Hellenic world. Though tactically cautious at first, he was not averse to expanding Athens’s formidable naval and commercial power, as he demonstrated in punitive and trading expeditions and in his defeat of maritime rival, Samos.
Pericles’ tough-minded diplomacy grew from his conviction of the superiority of Athenian cultural and civic values and institutions. Periclean strategy in the Peloponnesian War that began in 431 b.c.e. arose directly from previous Athenian policies toward rebellious cities of Athens’s empire and from the geopolitical consequences of the Thirty Years’ Peace between Athens and Sparta in 446–445 b.c.e.
At that time the Athenians agreed to abjure mainland protectorates in the interest of the longterm safety and congruity of their maritime empire. As a result, Athenian security thereafter necessitated extending the Long Walls all around the city and its port at Piraeus and maintaining free navigation into the Black Sea.
As Thucydides described the working of Pericles’ policy, "The Athenians listened to his advice, and began to carry in their wives and children from the country, and all their household furniture, even to the woodwork of their houses which they took down".
When war finally came after impassable deadlocks over Megara’s commercial status and Athenian intervention in Corcyra’s civil strife, Pericles probably thought he had done as much as he could to prepare for it. He could not foresee the onset of a terrible plague that soon severely afflicted the city’s crowded living space and claimed Pericles’ own life in 429 b.c.e.