Aristocratic Athenian Hero Pericles Versus Demagogue Villain Cleon

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Idealized reconstruction of the Areopagus, the Athenian governing council, later restricted to the Athenian judicial council or court (front) and the Acropolis, commissioned by Pericles in the background with Athena, by Leo von Klenze (1846) (Public Domain)

Aristocratic Athenian Hero Pericles Versus Demagogue Villain Cleon

The founding of the Delian League in 478 BC moved the Athenians closer to the idea of democracy. However, although the Athenians believed that all men were created equal in political power and the notion of “the people” should ideally refer to all citizens, some individuals of the ruling elite were still set apart by their privileges.

Pericles’ Democracy

The Athenian general Pericles was acknowledged as Athens' leader for 32 years. He furthered democratic progress by attempting to compensate citizens for their political involvement. However, despite espousing the cause of the people and using his influence as a champion of democracy, ironically Pericles occupied the position of the most powerful man in Athens as the head of state year after year. Pericles enacted laws in 451 BC limiting Athenian citizenship only to legitimate sons of Athenian parents, which restricted citizenship to only a small portion of the population with little potential for growth and, consequently, less people with whom he could share a democracy. Pericles' funeral oration in 430 BC during the annual commemoration and state funeral for fallen warriors of Athens, promoted the notion that the Athenian government constitutes a majority where all people are respected, treated fairly under the law, and rewarded according to their merit. Unfortunately, this speech ignored the fact that although they made up the majority of Athens' adult population, women, slaves, and foreigners were all excluded from political life due to Pericles' legislation. 

Pericles's Funeral Oration, by Philipp Foltz (1852) (Public Domain)

Pericles's Funeral Oration, by Philipp Foltz (1852) (Public Domain)


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