Pericles - Early Years

Early Years

Pericles was born c. 495 BC, in the deme of Cholargos just north of Athens.α He was the son of the politician Xanthippus, who, although ostracized in 485–484 BC, returned to Athens to command the Athenian contingent in the Greek victory at Mycale just five years later. Pericles' mother, Agariste, a scion of the powerful and controversial noble family of the Alcmaeonidae, and her familial connections played a crucial role in starting Xanthippus' political career. Agariste was the great-granddaughter of the tyrant of Sicyon, Cleisthenes, and the niece of the supreme Athenian reformer Cleisthenes, another Alcmaeonid.β According to Herodotus and Plutarch, Agariste dreamed, a few nights before Pericles' birth, that she had borne a lion. One interpretation of the anecdote treats the lion as a traditional symbol of greatness, but the story may also allude to the unusual size of Pericles' skull, which became a popular target of contemporary comedians (who called him "Squill-head", after the Squill or Sea-Onion). (Although Plutarch claims that this deformity was the reason that Pericles was always depicted wearing a helmet, this is not the case; the helmet was actually the symbol of his official rank as strategos (general).

"Our polity does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. It is called a democracy, because not the few but the many govern. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition."
Pericles' Funeral Oration as recorded by Thucydides, 2.37γ; Thucydides disclaims verbal accuracy.

Pericles belonged to the local tribe of Acamantis (Ἀκαμαντὶς φυλή). His early years were quiet; the introverted young Pericles took to avoiding public appearances, instead preferring to devote his time to his studies.

His family's nobility and wealth allowed him to fully pursue his inclination toward education. He learned music from the masters of the time (Damon or Pythocleides could have been his teacher) and he is considered to have been the first politician to attribute great importance to philosophy. He enjoyed the company of the philosophers Protagoras, Zeno of Elea and Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras in particular became a close friend and influenced him greatly. Pericles' manner of thought and rhetorical charisma may have been in part products of Anaxagoras' emphasis on emotional calm in the face of trouble and skepticism about divine phenomena. His proverbial calmness and self-control are also regarded as products of Anaxagoras' influence.

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