Commentary Magazine

Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy, by Donald Kagan

First Citizen

Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy.
by Donald Kagan.
The Free Press. 287 pp. $22.50.

In part a biography of the famous Athenian statesman and general, Donald Kagan’s masterly Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy is also a concise introduction to the political life of Athens in the 5th century B.C.E.—its moment of greatest glory and greatest peril—as well as a sober meditation on the meaning of the Athenian experiment in democracy for us at the end of the 20th century.

As the author of a magisterial four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War,1 Kagan, a professor of classics at Yale and also dean of Yale College, is well prepared for the task of explicating the career of Pericles. It should be said at the outset, however, that while Pericles of Athens could only have been written by someone deeply immersed in the historical intricacies of his subject, the book is not a scholarly tome but a lively historical narrative, popular in the best sense of the word. Kagan wears his learning lightly, and has produced an engaging and informative book which brings to life both Pericles and classical Athens itself.

Yet Kagan in no way sentimentalizes his subject by recasting the Greek polis in the image of 20th-century representative democracy. On the contrary, he often reminds the reader that, at a distance of more than two millennia, there is much about Periclean Athens that cannot but seem forbiddingly strange and even, at times, scarcely comprehensible. But as an important source of our political institutions, our models of aesthetic excellence, and, indeed, our conceptions of human nobility and the rational pursuit of the good life, the experience of classical Athens and its leading citizen provide a lesson in democracy that cannot be ignored.



When Pericles was born, circa 494, democracy in Athens was scarcely a decade old, having been established in the decade before 500 by his mother’s uncle, the great statesman Cleisthenes. This unprecedented venture in political self-determination was carried forward by a handful of distinguished military and political leaders, notably The-mistocles and Pericles’ first important political rival, Cimon. But it was Pericles himself who, in the 450’s, brought Athenian democracy to its apogee, placing the political control of the city-state directly in the hands of its citizens and instructing them in the rigors of autonomy.

Today we are often reminded by critics of classical Greece and of the West generally that democracy in Athens was flawed because citizenship, and consequently political power, was not extended to every native who had attained majority. The Greeks (like virtually all ancient civilizations) held slaves, and (again, like virtually all ancient and most modern civilizations until very recently) they excluded women from public life and political power. Of the approximately 250,000 people living in greater Athens in the 5th century, only some 40,000 were citizens: about a sixth of the population exercised political power.

Nevertheless, in political as in other matters, what makes Periclean Athens of imperishable interest are not the things it had in common with other civilizations—a list that includes slavery and misogyny—but the things that set it apart. Although political power was not extended to women or slaves, the Athenian assembly established a constitution and government that in many ways was as radically democratic as any in history. (When democracy was rediscovered some two thousand years later, it was, as Kagan notes, “broader but shallower.”)

In Athens, most public officials were selected by lot; a special handful were elected for short terms by direct vote of the citizens, who held their leaders strictly accountable for public expenditures and the conduct of government. The citizens themselves, not officials elected to represent them, gathered on a hill in Athens called the Pnyx to debate the issues of the day. They allocated public funds, voted on domestic policies, decided whether to wage war or sue for peace. Under Pericles’ influence, public offices became paid positions for the first time, a development that “gave the average man a degree of leisure unknown in other states” and that effectively opened up the government to even the poorest of Athenian citizens.

In this context, it is worth noting that the commitment to political democracy in Periclean Athens did not conflict with the zealous commitment to excellence in every sphere of human endeavor. This, too, was part of Pericles’ genius. If the Athenians were political egalitarians, under Pericles’ tutelage they became human elitists. In matters of virtue and accomplishment—on the playing field or battleground, in the theater or the artist’s studio—they believed in hierarchy, not sameness. For them, democracy was worthy because it recognized and fostered talent, not because it assured homogeneity.

Putting it in contemporary terms, we might say that the Athenians inspired by Pericles advocated equality of opportunity, not equality of result. Accordingly, their idea of democracy did not imply an effort to erase differences among citizens. Neither social engineering nor the redistribution of wealth was part of the Athenian vision of democracy. As Kagan notes, “although political equality was a fundamental principle of democracy, economic equality had no place in the Athens of Pericles.”



Given the length, influence, and brilliance of Pericles’ political career—he entered politics in 463 and by 440 or so was without effective rival—we sometimes forget that he was not a king or even anything like what we would call a president or prime minister. He was merely one of ten strategoi, or generals, who were elected for one-year terms and were subject to constant review and rebuke by the people they served. This was the only formal office he ever held, and, as Kagan emphasizes, his tenure “depended entirely on the continued and freely expressed support of the Athenian people.” In times of national emergency—a contingency, alas, that Athens had to face many times—Pericles persuaded his fellow citizens to suspend or abridge democratic debate in order to deal more effectively with the immediate threat. But full democratic participation was promptly restored as soon as the threat receded.

Notwithstanding Pericles’ allegiance to the principle of political equality, there can be no doubt that he emerged as primus inter pares, first among equals. In this sense, there is more than a little truth in Thucydides’ observation that while Athens was a democracy in name, it was really government by the first citizen. Or perhaps we should say that the direct democracy of Periclean Athens required charismatic leaders in order to ensure the conditions that made liberty and democracy possible. “The paradox inherent in democracy,” Kagan writes in his introduction, “is that it must create and depend on citizens who are free, autonomous, and self-reliant. Yet its success—its survival even—requires extraordinary leadership.”

Pericles’ bold policies surely contributed to his success. But so did his persistence, force of character, and prodigious rhetorical skill. As in any real democracy, where persuasion is a more important tool of political power than brute force, rhetoric counted for a great deal in classical Athens. And by all accounts, Pericles was a dazzlingly effective orator. One of his political opponents, a wrestler, complained that “Whenever I throw him, he argues that he was not thrown and convinces the very people who saw the fall.”

Pericles’ role in consolidating and extending democracy would have been enough to assure him an honored place in the history books. But it was his role as promoter of Athenian glory that made his name virtually a household word and rendered the phrase “Periclean Athens” a synonym for the harmonious union of political freedom and cultural excellence. This, after all, is the city that, over the course of several decades, was home to Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Euripides, to Phidias and Praxiteles, to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, to Herodotus and Thucydides, and many others. More than any other individual, it was Pericles who was responsible for encouraging the explosion of activity in architecture, literature, philosophy, and the visual arts, as well as in science, mathematics, and rhetoric, that made 5th-century Athens a permanent touchstone of public creative achievement.



“Hero” is the title of Kagan’s penultimate chapter, and there can be no doubt that the portrait of Pericles drawn in his book is the portrait of a hero. But there can be no doubt, either, that Pericles emerges in the end not as a triumphant but as a tragic hero—a figure, as Kagan concludes, “who brought his people low by his own heroic intransigence.” The great shadow that clouded his last years (he died in 429) was the Peloponnesian War, which broke out in 431 and dragged on, through intermittent truces, until a succession of disasters led to the destruction of the Athenian empire and Athens’ surrender to Sparta in 404.

Things could hardly have gone worse for the proud city-state or its leader. When the war began, Pericles had, with much difficulty, persuaded the Athenians to abandon their farms to the rampaging Spartans and take refuge inside the city walls. This meant that when a plague swept the city the following year, its effects were all the more devastating: within a year, a third of the population was dead. One of its victims was Pericles himself. Before his death, Pericles suffered an incredible string of misfortunes. He was removed from office, fined, and disgraced; one of his sons publicly denounced him; two of his sons, his sister, and several relatives died in the plague. Although he was eventually voted back into office, he was by then too weak to stem the tide of chaos engulfing his beloved Athens.

It may be that Pericles could have avoided war with Sparta; it may also be that, had Athens had the benefit of his military acumen a few years longer, the war would have been over much sooner, with Athens victorious. In any event, it seems clear that what Kagan calls Pericles’ “superhuman confidence,” the hubris of his inordinate trust in reason, played an important part in his downfall—as well as in the downfall of Athens itself.



It is wrong, though, to conclude on this melancholy note. If “Pericles, no less than his city, was like a tragic hero,” the heroic aspects of his achievement outshine the tragic consequences of his intransigence. Two passages from Pericles of Athens may be said to sum up the two complementary lessons of this thoughtful book. The first is an encomium; the second is an admonition.

Near the end of his book, Kagan reflects on the nobility of Pericles’ ambition. “The Periclean vision,” he writes,

valued intelligence and talent and was not embarrassed to reward both with public honor. It cherished the arts as a powerful force for public education and as a delight in themselves. It reconciled the tension between liberty and equality by rejecting the imposition of equality by state control (as in Sparta), and insisting on freedom of opportunity as the road to both equality and honor. It was a vision of a democracy that sought not to reduce all aspects of life to the lowest common level but aimed at excellence for the individual as well as for the state. It demanded participation and sacrifice from its citizens while retaining a wide space for private activities where the state had no claim. It recognized the right of each citizen to pursue his own road to happiness at the same time that it required him to respect the needs of his fellow-citizens and of the community as a whole. This is a vision of timeless value.

The second passage, the admonition, has an even more pointed contemporary application:

The recent rejections of despotic Communist regimes all over Eastern Europe and the widespread demand for their replacement by some form of democracy have led many observers to think that the victory liberal democracy has won is permanent. Most of the nations seeking democratic governments, however, have little or no experience with such a polity, and few people understand how difficult a system it is to create and maintain. Meanwhile, the modern champions of democracy seem unable to provide the intellectual and spiritual support it needs because they have lost sight of its first principles.

Although in our time democracy is taken for granted, it is in fact one of the rarest, most delicate, and fragile flowers in the jungle of human experience.

It is part of Donald Kagan’s accomplishment in Pericles of Athens to have communicated both the glory and the arduousness of democracy. As Pericles put it in his famous funeral oration, “happiness requires freedom and freedom requires courage.”


1 Reviewed by Edward N. Luttwak in COMMENTARY, March 1989—Ed

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