Department of History
University of California, Irvine
Instructor: Dr. Barbara J. Becker
The Death of Pericles (c.495 - 429 BCE)
adapted from The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
by Plutarch (c.46 - c.120 CE)
|...Although the Peloponnesians did the Athenians much mischief by land,
they suffered nearly as much trouble themselves at the hands of the Athenians
by sea. And it is clear they would not have protracted the war to
such a length, but would quickly have surrendered, as Pericles at first
foretold they would, had not some divine power crossed human purposes.
In the first place, the pestilential disease, or plague, seized upon the city of Athens, and ate up all the flower and prime of their youth and strength. When this happened, the people, distempered and afflicted in their souls, as well as in their bodies, were utterly enraged like madmen against Pericles, and, like patients grown delirious, sought to lay violent hands on their physician, or, as it were, their father.
To remedy these evils, and do the enemy some inconvenience, Pericles got a hundred and fifty galleys ready, and having embarked many veteran soldiers -- both foot and horse -- was about to sail out, giving great hope to his citizens, and no less alarm to his enemies, upon the sight of so great a force....
However, after putting out to sea, Pericles' exploits seem not to have been equal to his preparations. He laid siege to the holy city Epidaurus, which gave him some hope of surrender, but his plans miscarried by reason of the sickness. For it not only seized upon the Athenians, but upon all others, too, that had any sort of contact with the army.
After this, the Athenians were highly displeased with him, and Pericles tried to appease them. But he could not pacify them or allay their anger, nor persuade or prevail with them any way. In the end, they freely passed their votes upon him, resumed their power, took away his command from him, and fined him a large sum of money....
Even though his public troubles subsided, his personal life was in an unhappy state. Many of his friends and acquaintances had died in the plague, and his family relationships had long since been in disorder and in a kind of mutiny against him.
For the eldest of his lawfully begotten sons, Xanthippus by name, being recklessly wasteful by nature ... openly reviled his father. This difference of the young man's with his father, and the breach between them, continued never to be healed or made up till his death. For Xanthippus died in the plague time of the sickness. At which time Pericles also lost his sister, and the greatest part of his relations and friends, and those who had been most useful and serviceable to him in managing the affairs of state.
However, he did not shrink or give in upon these occasions, nor betray or lower his high spirit and the greatness of his mind under all his misfortunes; he was not even seen to weep or to mourn, or even attend the burial of any of his friends or relations, till at last he lost his only remaining legitimate son. Subdued by this blow, he strove, as far as he could, to maintain his demeanor, and to preserve and keep up the greatness of his soul. However, when he came to perform the ceremony of putting a garland of flowers upon the head of his son's corpse, he was overcome by his passion at the sight, so that he burst into exclamations, and shed copious tears, having never done any such thing in his life before.
The city needed new generals for the conduct of war, and orators for business of state, but they found there was no one who was of weight enough for such a charge, or of authority sufficient to be trusted with so great a command. Then they regretted the loss of [Pericles], and invited him again to address and advise them, and to reassume the office of general.
He ... lay at home in dejection and mourning; but was persuaded by Alcibiades and others of his friends to come out and show himself to the people; who having, upon his appearance, made their acknowledgments, and apologized for their untowardly treatment of him he undertook the public affairs once more....
[Then] the plague seized Pericles, not with sharp and violent fits, as it did others that had it, but with a dull and lingering distemper, attended with various changes and alterations, leisurely, by little and little, wasting the strength of his body, and undermining the noble faculties of his soul. So that Theophrastus, in his Morals, when discussing whether men's characters change with their circumstances, and their moral habits, disturbed by the ailings of their bodies, start aside from the rules of virtue, has left it upon record, that Pericles, when he was sick, showed one of his friends that came to visit him an amulet or charm that the women had hung about his neck; as much as to say, that he was very sick indeed when he would admit of such a foolery as that was.
When he was now near his end, the best of the citizens and those of his friends who were left alive, sitting about him, were speaking of the greatness of his merit, and his power, and reckoning up his famous actions and the number of his victories; for there were no less than nine trophies, which, as their chief commander and conqueror of their enemies, he had set up for the honor of the city....
He was indeed a character deserving our high admiration not only for his equitable and mild temper, which all along in the many affairs of his life, and the great animosities which he incurred, he constantly maintained; but also for the high spirit and feeling which made him regard it, the noblest of all his honors that, in the exercise of such immense power, he never had gratified his envy or his passion, nor ever had treated any enemy as irreconcilably opposed to him. And to me it appears that this one thing gives that otherwise childish and arrogant title a fitting and becoming significance; so dispassionate a temper, a life so pure and unblemished, in the height of power and place, might well be called Olympian....