Pericles and the Conquest of History

Pericles and the Conquest of History: A Political Biography
by Loren J. Samons II
Cambridge University Press 
342pp £19.99

Professor Samons is no stranger to what he (but not all of us) call the ‘age of Pericles’, having edited a Cambridge Companion to that supposed entity and devoted a careful monograph to the finances of ‘imperial’ Athens, through much of which Pericles (c. 495-429 BC) lived and which he did much to further. But in 2004 Samons wrote What’s Wrong With Democracy? From Athenian Practice to American Worship. It is quite hard to reconcile that attempted demolition of democracy with the much more measured presentation here of the Athenian democracy under Pericles.

Yet not entirely impossible. What the Athenians called misthos (political pay) was introduced on the proposal of Pericles to enable even the poorest Athenian citizens to take time off to serve on the juries that were an essential organ of political self-governance within the framework of what the Athenians understood by demokratia. Yet, for Samons, Pericles’ measure was but ‘a policy that had a debilitating effect on Athenian (and later) democratic practice and ideology’. A standard ancient – and modern – accusation against the Athenians’ version of direct democracy was that it encouraged ‘demagogues’ and self-interested rabble rousers. Some ancient writers, notably Thucydides, sought to drive a wedge between Pericles and ‘the demagogues’; others, including the later biographer, Plutarch, drew no such distinction. Samons goes with Thucydides; for him, Pericles ‘was no mere demagogue, manipulating the populace and playing on the electorate’s hopes and fears in order to empower himself’. But, alas, Samons for some reason fails to acknowledge a fundamental 1962 article by Moses Finley, ‘Athenian demagogues’, reprinted in his no-less fundamental and no-less uncited Democracy Ancient and Modern (1985). Demagogues were, as Finley demonstrated, a structural feature of the Athenians’ style of democracy. Pericles was a demagogue, inevitably.

It is against that ideological backdrop that the present book must be judged. The reading is well worth the effort. Biography as a genre and the prehistory of Pericles’s illustrious career (his family had produced the earliest version of Athens’ democracy) are usefully canvassed before Samons embarks on his subject’s opposition to Kimon, his collaboration with Ephialtes and his domination of Athenian politics from c.450 to his death. Two themes rightly colour the landscape more than others: Athenian imperialism and Athens-nurtured high culture and Pericles’ respective personal contributions to each. The secret of his success is ascribed finally to his empathetic understanding of the collective Athenian psyche. Yet, for all its merits, this study suffers by comparison with that of V. (not ‘A.’) Azoulay’s Pericles of Athens (2010). Samons’ strictures notwithstanding, this is a study that properly questions and historicises both the ‘age of Pericles’ label and the validity of any claim to write a ‘political biography’ of Pericles. 

Paul Cartledge is A.G. Leventis Profesor of Greek Culture emeritus at the University of Cambridge and author of Democracy: A Life (Oxford University Press, 2016).

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