Pericles (ca. 495-429 BCE) was an Athenian general and statesman born in the wealthy and powerful Alcmaeonid family during Athens‘ so-called Golden Age.
He had an unusually large head and legend has it that before his birth, his mother dreamed she bore a lion. It’s hard to know if this is just an embellishment, the lion being a well known symbol for royalty.¹
Also, Pericles’ large head was the object of much satire in his day, so perhaps the story was a retroactive flourish based on his physicality.
Aside from the jokes and legends, Pericles was a great orator who reached the masses without stooping to their vulgar idioms, as one historian put it.
He was calm, self-controlled and yet charismatic when he wanted to be. Possessing the ruling power of a king (443-429 BCE), he was never crowned as such. His influence to the Greeks at Athens was such that the historian Thucydides (circa 460 BCE – 395 BCE) called him “the first citizen of Athens.”
Pericles advocated legal reforms that culminated in an Athenian democracy (462-461 BCE).² He became the head of the democratic party in 461 BCE, while his wealthy and influential opponent Cimon was exiled.
Educated in music and philosophy by the best teachers of his day,³ he was active in the literary, philosophical and artistic community of Athens, and the driving force behind the erection of the Parthenon (begun 447 BCE) and several other impressive structures.
During the Thirty Years Peace he remained antagonistic to Sparta, this fueling the onset of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE).
While the Peloponnesian War raged, Athens was hit by a plague that claimed his life.
The Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch (c.46-c.120 CE ) wrote a biography of Pericles. He’s also mentioned by Herodotus (484– circa 425 BCE). Shakespeare read Plutarch’s biography and wrote the play Pericles, Prince of Tyre (c.46-c.120 CE ) with his usual wit:
So, this is Tyre, and this the court. Here must I kill King Pericles; and if I do it not, I am sure to be hanged at home: ’tis dangerous. Well, I perceive he was a wise fellow, and had good discretion, that, being bid to ask what he would of the king, desired he might know none of his secrets: now do I see he had some reason for’t; for if a king bid a man be a villain, he’s bound by the indenture of his oath to be one!4
¹ Legend has it that Alexander The Great’s father had a similar dream just before the birth of his illustrious son.
³ Most notably, Anaxagoras.