Pericles was one of the greatest statesmen the world has seen. He was born in Athens, of noble parentage, more than four hundred years before the Christian era and more than twenty-four hundred years ago. We have learned most about him from the writings of Plutarch, a famous Greek historian who lived five hundred years after Pericles. Pericles was First Citizen of Athens for thirty-one years. The age in which he lived is known in history as the Age of Pericles.
Pericles’ first teacher was a man named Anaxagoras, a noble philosopher, gentle and dignified, who gave up all his own property to the state, that he might devote himself to thought. From him Pericles learned a quietness and calmness in all his movements which nothing could disturb, and an even tone of voice which produced the greatest effect on his hearers.
Once, in the market place where he was engaged in important business, he was abused and ill spoken of all day long by a good-for-nothing fellow. Pericles attended to his own business in perfect silence and in the evening went home quietly, the man still dogging him at his heels and pelting him all the way with abusive talk. It was dark by this time, and stepping into the house, Pericles ordered one of his servants to take a torch and go along with the man and see him safe home.
He appeared in public only on great occasions. His speeches were carefully prepared, and before he spoke, he prayed to the gods that not a single unworthy word might escape his lips.
For thirty years he kept peace at home in Athens and persuaded the people to take the money that was left over after they had provided everything necessary for war, and to spend it in making the city beautiful. So it was owing to Pericles that Athens became the most beautiful city in the world the wonder of the world, Plutarch says.
He himself lived in a modest, simple house. Not a cent of the public money did he ever spend on himself. He had no title but First Citizen, which the Athenians gave him of their own accord.
Perhaps, after all, the most remarkable thing that he did was to make a people who were naturally idle and lazy want to work. They thought it a disgrace for a free man to work ; work was for slaves. But Pericles persuaded a whole city not only to work but to love to work. Temples and theaters and public buildings rose on every hand.
The materials used in this construction were stone, brass, ivory, gold, ebony, and cypress wood. There was need of smiths and carpenters, stone-cutters, dyers, workers in brass and bronze and ivory and gold, painters and embroiderers. Merchants and shipmasters carried the goods to Athens, and wagoners, ropemakers, flax workers, shoemakers, road makers, and miners all took hold and helped. For several years everybody worked, carrying stone, tugging and lifting and carving.
Thus the beautiful buildings rose, stately in size and exquisite in form. The workmen strove to outdo one another in beauty of design and workmanship. The wonderful thing was that the work was done so rapidly and so well.
Plutarch tells us that five hundred years after they were finished, these buildings in Athens were not only beautiful and elegant, but in their vigor and freshness looked as if just erected. ” There is,” Plutarch says, ” a sort of bloom of newness upon these works of Pericles, preserving them from the touch of time, as if they had a perennial spirit of life mingled in their composition.”
Adapted from Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives”
Pericles (per’i klez). – Anaxagoras (an ak sago ras).