One night, around 500 BC, a Greek woman in Athens, named Agariste, jolted out of sleep, shocked by what she had just seen in a dream. The historians Herodotus and Plutarch tell us that this dream portended great things to come. In the dream, Agariste screamed in pain as she labored in childbirth. But after the agony of childbirth subsided, she looked up to the midwife’s arms. In them, she did not see a human baby, but a lion.
The story of Pericles, the son of Agariste, is the story of one of the greatest leaders in the golden age of Athens. His story illustrates a cherished virtue: the virtue of benevolence. Pericles’ story comes from our classical studies course, Famous Men of Greece, a collection of stories gathered from the annals of history and myth; it’s perfect for any student or teacher of classical history from 5th -7th grade.
Pericles was born into the Athenian nobility. His mother was scion of one of the great noble families of Athens, the Alcmaeonidae. His father was a military hero and politician. By this alone, Pericles appeared to be destined for greatness. But, more importantly, he also carried the seeds of greatness in his person. From the astonishing omen that accompanied his birth to the nobility of his lineage and the prodigious qualities of his person, the recipe for greatness was thoroughly written. What’s unique about Pericles’ story is how he used it.
Then as now, it would not be unusual for such a boy to grow up with a strong sense of superiority and entitlement. We can easily imagine that he would follow the typical path: pursuit of power, wealth, and personal aggrandizement. He did indeed become the lion his mother had dreamed, but he managed to possess the grandeur without the savagery.
We can perhaps best understand Pericles’ unique personality in contrast to his rival, Cimon. Many thought that Pericles’ rival as a young Athenian would be a strong leader. Cimon was made the admiral of the Athenian navy after distinguishing himself by fighting with bravery at the battle of Salamis. He then roamed the seas clearing the Mediterranean of pirates who marauded wary Athenian merchants. When he finally returned to Athens, he had tamed the seas and collected massive amounts of wealth from pirates.
Though Cimon was undoubtedly a strong leader, the historian Thucydides speculated that Cimon won the Athenian people’s favor through impressing the aristocratic class with his might and lavishing them with gifts from his bounty. Pericles, however, won the affection of the Athenians in another, more noble way.
Due to his family’s connections and their position in Athenian society, Pericles held a great deal of social sway in Athens. Surrounded by fellow leaders who were fixated on securing personal gain and status, Pericles’ leadership was marked by benevolence and wisdom. For instance, before Pericles gained authority, it was common for anyone accused of a crime in Athens to be convicted by a single judge—something that often led to unfair trials. Though it was no immediate advantage to his own position, Pericles took pity on the common man who could be unjustly accused and utilized his new position to require that all criminals be convicted by a jury of his peers.
Also, at that time, the Athenians expected their young men to go to war without being paid. They relied on pleas for patriotism or the magnetism of leaders like Cimon to rally their soldiers. Though it cost the wealthy and powerful in Athens, Pericles lobbied for and secured legislation requiring that the city-state pay their soldiers and compensate them for their work on behalf of Athens.
Finally, it is said that Pericles highly valued the arts and their benefit for everyone. He did not want the theater to be a private joy of the wealthy and powerful, so he made a law requiring the city to provide opportunities for the poor to go to the Theatre of Dionysus. In doing so, he opened the door of arts education to Athenians who had never before experienced the enduring literary and theatrical works traditionally reserved for the aristocratic class. His kindness toward the people and his efforts to benefit the entire Athenian society won him trust and enduring authority among his people, even more than the war hero, Cimon.
To this day, this golden age of Athenian society—when the Parthenon was built and the people experienced unprecedented prosperity—is known as “the golden age of Pericles.” But it was as this unprecedented prosperity met its bitter end, that Pericles’s benevolent character shone the brightest.
At the end of Pericles’ reign, the Athenians’ Peloponnesian rival began to grow jealous of her wealth and might. This jealousy became a conflict when the Athenians joined a war between two neighboring city-states, and Sparta joined the opposing side. This conflict grew into a fight that raged for twenty-seven years called the Peloponnesian War.
When Sparta came to attack Athens with sixty-thousand men, Pericles encouraged his people to retreat behind their city walls. There the Athenians could depend on the “Long Walls” that ran from Athens all the way to the port of Piraeus, to preserve their supply chain indefinitely. Pericles was right; the Spartans were totally halted by the Athenian defenses, and the “Long Walls” enabled a continuous flow of food and water. So, the Spartans resolved to dig-in for their extended siege.
Before long, an even greater calamity struck the Athenians. A terrible plague descended on the crowded city filled with makeshift huts and hovels that housed all of the retreated Athenians. The unsanitary and tragic conditions that the plague brought to the overcrowded streets of Athens only bred more death and sorrow. The plague was so devastating that even the Spartan army scurried back across the Isthmus of Corinth to the Peloponnesus for fear that they would be destroyed by the plague.
Pericles, however, would not be deterred. Though he could have easily retreated to his home, he bravely, and kindly, went about his regular duties. He led his people despite the threat to his life openly walking among the sick and weak to encourage them to persevere. Pericles continued on this course cheerfully though many people who were close to him succumbed to the dreaded disease. Legend has it that he never showed any sorrow until his favorite son had also fallen and he laid the funeral wreath on his lifeless corpse.
Soon enough, Pericles contracted the plague himself. As he lay on his deathbed, his followers sat around him praising him for the prosperity they had enjoyed during his time in office. He answered them reflecting on what he cared about most in his life: the kindness he had shown his citizens. He said, “What you praise in my life has been due to fortune. I deserve no credit for it. That of which I am proudest is that no Athenian ever wore mourning because of anything done by me.”
Pericles’ story illustrates one of the greatest virtues that could mark a leader: the virtue of benevolence. The great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas once said of benevolence that it is a virtue that “puts to good use, the things that might be used, for evil purposes.” In the course of history, power and wealth have often been the weapons of evil men. But, during the Periclean Age, the people of Greece had a lion for a leader, who used them for good purposes.
A famous Quaker proverb says: “I expect to pass through the world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness I can show to any creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer it, for I shall not pass this way again.” Perhaps none of us will ever be lionlike leaders whose actions bring about unprecedented prosperity and gladness for our countrymen. But we all have something to give, and we all have only one chance. Whether our words or our belongings, our talents or our time, we have been entrusted with things that might be used for evil purposes, and we have the responsibility to put them to good use. In fact, all of the knowledge and thinking skills that we work hard to obtain in school are just such resources. We should endeavor to know as much as we can and think as well as we can, for minds stored with truth and right reason are among the principal sources of doing good to our fellow man that there are.
Pericles’ life illustrates the virtue of benevolence in a remarkable way. He rose above his rival Cimon and became the greatest Athenian politician who ever lived by earnestly pursuing the good of his people.