In this paper, there will be a discussion on The Policy of Pericles, found in Book II of Thucydides’ “History of the Peloponnesian War.” A general overview will be provided.
Thucydides provided us with a comprehensive record of the Peloponnesian War, documenting its events, and major characters, for the world to know centuries after. In Book II of his history, the general Pericles dies, and in passage 65, Thucydides provides him with a suitable sendoff, one in which his death marked the beginning of Athens’ true decline. Through this record, it becomes clear that Pericles’ vision was one that could have benefited Athens greatly had it been followed. The fact that the opposite policy was enforced, and Athens spiraled as a result, gives credence to the conclusion.
The passage begins with Thucydides relating the general’s efforts at quelling the unrest that had risen in Athens. The plague had truly taken its toll on the citizens and they were hoping to see change – in any way possible. However, Pericles, who understood policy and strategy well, imparted to the Athenians that virtue was found in patience. The reasons for the war were still present, nothing had changed, and thus, it would be wise to stay true to the original plan.
“So far as public policy was concerned, they accepted his arguments, sending no more embassies to Sparta and showing an increased energy in carrying on the war….” To this end, Pericles had been successful, yet he still had to contend with the displeasure of the citizens concerning their private lives. Athens was a state of enormous wealth and freedom, and now, as their situation grew worse, individual liberties were no longer as significant since they had little to live for. Thucydides notes – “The mass of the people had had little enough to start with and had now been deprived of even that….”
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And in order to satisfy them, the general had to pay a fine. But as Thucydides pointed out, crowds are often fickle and though upset with Pericles, it elected him again. But he would die soon afterwards, and the subsequent decline of Athens could be attributed to this turn of events. Though the citizens were cynical of his policy at the time, it would prove to be the best course of action for Athens – although once realized, it was too late.
In Section 65, Thucydides takes the policy of Pericles and expounds upon it. The purpose is to illustrate how Athens declined even though it had the resources to succeed – or at least survive a better fate than it did. He notes – “So overwhelmingly great were the resources which Pericles had in mind at the time when he prophesied an easy victory over the Peloponnesians alone.”
According to Thucydides, Athens experienced her greatest success when Pericles was in power. The general did not give advice that he did not heed himself. He had asked Athens to be patient and to let that virtue guide them. In his policy, he asked for similar direction, and indeed believed that if Athens cared for her navy, and resisted against expansion, she would win in the end.
Once Pericles died, there was a struggle for leadership and as the contenders attempted to find the best way to secure the fickle public’s loyalty, Athens continued to drown in her own neglect. “But his successors did the exact opposite, and in other matters which apparently had no connection with the war private ambition and private profit led to policies which were bad both for the Athenians themselves and for their allies.”
Thucydides juxtaposes the policy of Pericles with that of the new leaders in order to highlight the success of the former and failure of the latter. It is not that he wishes to compound the pain of Athenians, but he does find it necessary to point out the point of their troubles. Had they listened to the general, and followed his sound advice, Athens may have been better off. There is certainly no guarantee, but Thucydides simply wishes to point out the possible, and dare we say probable.
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Also, Thucydides manages to parallel the action of the new leaders with that of the Athenian. Rather than concern themselves with the state, the Athenians were worried about their own decline. Though understandable, Thucydides nevertheless allows them to see what happens when such thinking is applied to those in power. If leaders have the best interest of the people in mind, then they will pursue policy that benefits the state. If they are self-interested, then the entire state will suffer. As Thucydides notes – “Such policies, when successful, only brought credit and advantage to individuals, and when they failed, the whole war potential of the state was impaired.”
From Thucydides’ perspective, Pericles was the finest of leaders because he was not swayed by wrong motive, or afraid to speak when he needed to. The leaders that followed him were concerned with offending the public that would elect them, or remove them from office, and thus, they were never resolute in anything. When policy is shaped according to others, then it falls short of its true intent. The size of Athens made it necessary for these leaders to walk lightly for fear of upsetting any one faction, and as a result, many mistakes were made – mistakes which could not be taken away after the fact.
“It was he who led them, rather than they who led him….” Thucydides cites the Sicilian expedition and its failures, crediting the end result with the leaders quarreling amongst themselves rather than taking decisive action. With nothing definitive, any course of action crumbles in the face of opposition, conflict, the smallest of obstacles. Changes in power and alliance would impact Athens greatly, and Thucydides wished to point out that such leadership was the alternative to Pericles when he was in power. Is this what the citizens would have chosen instead? Thucydides clearly does not think so, or at least he would not hope.
Sparta and Athens Sparta and Athens are like apples and oranges; the same but different. Both are fruit grown on trees in the case of the apples and oranges, and both are city-states in Greece in the case of Athens and Sparta. Apples and oranges have distinctly different tastes, textures and flavors. Athens and Sparta had markedly different types of origins, social class, government and military ...
“And in the end it was only because they had destroyed themselves by their own internal strife that finally they were forced to surrender.” He lets us know the fate of Athens even though there are several books to go in his history. It is fitting that he close Pericles’ policy in this fashion, however, since it elucidates on the extent of Athens’ downfall. Had Pericles been able to implement his policies, or had his vision been followed, who knows what might have happened? A fate better than the one suffered by Athens?
Thucydides. “The Policy of Pericles.” History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Books, 1972.