Common Errors (22): Pericles

28 June 2009
Fragment of the Athenian Tribute List, 425-424 BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Fragment of the Athenian Tribute List, 425-424 BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

In 431 BCE, the Spartans declared war upon Athens, being afraid that this city was becoming too powerful and had too much influence in the Greek sanctuaries. The Archidamian War, as the first part of the Peloponnesian War is called, was to last ten years.

Every year, the Spartans pillaged the Athenian countryside, but they were unable to attack the city itself, which was surrounded by a large wall and was connected to a port by “long walls“. As long as the Athenians were the only ones with a large navy, their town could not be captured, while they were able to use their ships to attack the country of Sparta and its allies anywhere they wanted. In this way, a battle against the dangerous Spartan hoplites could be avoided. Moreover, Athens had a war fund of no less than 6,000 talents, to which every year 1,000 talents were added. Many historians have concluded that the Athenian leader Pericles, the architect of the strategy explained above, had prepared his city very well.

Ten years later, Sparta threw the towel in. Athens had won the Archidamian War. But this was not because of Pericles’ excellent preparations. On the contrary. You do not need to be a bookkeeper to recognize that his strategy to exhaust the enemy with naval operations, was disastrous. There were about two hundred people on a warship, who received one drachm per day. That makes 6,000 drachms per month, or one talent. In the first year of the war, the Athenians used

  • one fleet of hundred ships, for an estimated eight months: 800 talents
  • one fleet of thirty ships, for an estimated eight months: 240 talents
  • one fleet of seventy ships, twelve months: 840 talents
  • an army besieging Potideia: 420 talents
Pericles (British Museum)

Pericles (British Museum)

The grand total is 2,300 talents. Even if we optimistically assume that income remained the same, it is impossible that there were more than 4,700 talents left in the spring of 430. If Athens had continued the war according to Pericles’ strategy, it would have been forced to surrender in the fourth year of the war.

Pericles had prepared his city disastrously. He died in 429 and another leader, Cleon, convinced the Assembly that a different strategy was imperative. He was able to raise the tribute and, collaborating with capable generals like Nicias and Demosthenes, he designed a cheaper strategy. After 425, Sparta was no longer capable of attacking the Athenian countryside, and instead decided to attack the periphery of Athens’ empire: the far north. The Spartan commander Brasidas managed to outwit the Athenian Thucydides and captured Amphipolis, an exceptionally important city, from which Athens imported silver and wood. Now, the Spartans had something to negotiate about, and in 421, they obtained a peace treaty that was less humiliating than they had expected in 425.

Thucydides (Altes Museum, Berlin)

Thucydides (Altes Museum, Berlin)

Cleon was the architect of Athens’ success, not Pericles. Why do historians write that Pericles had prepared the war well? It has a lot to do with the fact that we have only one source for this war: the impressive History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, the man who had been responsible for the loss of Amphipolis. Cleon had sent him into exile, and Thucydides had not many kinds things to say about the man who had saved the city. On the contrary, several chapters of the History of the Peloponnesian War are a careful character assassination. At the same time, Pericles’ virtues are extolled.

If we had had more than one source, we would sooner have recognized Thucydides’ bias. It is for historians better to have contradicting sources than to have one source, even if it looks reliable. Even today, after a generation of research in which modern scholars have tried to look beyond the History of the Peloponnesian War, the description of the Peloponnesian War is in many books on ancient Greece still a summary of Thucydides’ book.

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