The Athenian Golden Age: Pericles, Aspasia, and All That

Ah! The Golden Age of Athens!

“Golden age” arguably sounds classier than “the good old days.” But either way, it’s a bygone era that nostalgia says was so very much better than today.

Folks living in a golden age may or may not know what they’ve got. Or they do, and don’t like it. Take the Athenian Golden Age, for example.

The Golden Age of Athens

William R. Shepherd's 1926 'Historical Atlas,' the Achaemenid/Persian Empire, ca. 500 B.C..
(From William R. Shepherd’s 1926 ‘Historical Atlas;’ via the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection; U. of Texas, Austin; used w/o permission.)
(The Achaemenid/Persian Empire, around 500 B.C. — before the Delian league liberated the Aegean.)

The Golden Age of Athens began between 508 and 460 B.C. or thereabouts.

It started when Cleisthenes launched Athenian democracy. According to some historians.

Other scholars say it began when the Delian League evicted the Achaemenid Empire from the Aegean.

Or the Athenian Golden Age dawned when Pericles started running the place. Those were good times. He renovated the Acropolis and had the Parthenon built.

Or some maybe it started at other time. It depends on preferred temporal landmarks.

Folks who say the Athenian Golden Age is the Age of Pericles narrow it down a bit. Their option starts in 495 or 461 B.C. — when Pericles was born. Or, more practically, when he exiled Cimon.

Cimon was an Athenian noble who opposed democracy. As such, he could have made trouble for Pericles.

The ‘Athenian Golden Age as the Age of Pericles’ version’s end is less iffy: 429 B.C. — when Pericles died.

Uncoupling the Golden Age of Athens from Pericles opens the field considerably. I could argue that it kept going until Aristotle died. That was in 330 B.C. or thereabouts.1

But wait! I’ve got more!

Solon, Sappho, Peisistratos and the Panathenaic Stadium

Singinglemon's map of ancient Athens, ca. 430 B.C..
(From Singinglemon, via Wikimedia Commons, Austin used w/o permission.)

I haven’t exhausted definitions of the Athenian Golden Age. Not even close.

Peisistratos arriving in Athens with an Athena stand-in.It arguably started in 580 B.C. — give or take a decade or so. That’s when Solon laid the foundations for Athenian democracy.

Or the Athenian Golden age began around the middle of the sixth century. If that’s my choice, then I’d say never mind Solon.

Peisistratos organized the Hyperakrioi as a political party then.

That was a smart move. His Hyperakrioi outnumbered the other two parties combined.

They were also near the bottom of the economic ladder, so I figure they’d be enthusiastically pro-Peisistratos.

I could say the Hyperakrioi should be called Diakrioi; since they lived in the Diacria hills. “Hyperakrioi” means beyond-the-hill people, roughly. Diakrioi means hill people, so I could also call them hillbillies, and that’s another topic.

These versions assume that Cleisthenes merely picked up where Solon or Peisistratos left off.2

A Sports Venue, Sappho and Uncertainty

M(e)ister Eiskalt's photo of the Panathenaic stadium. (March 2, 2014)
(From M(e)ister Eiskalt, Wikimedia Commons, Austin used w/o permission.)
(The (almost) all-marble Panathenaic Stadium, early 21st century A.D.)

I don’t know why Peisistratos is almost off the radar these days. He’s currently mostly famous for starting the Panathenaic Games.

The Panathenaic Games may or may not be connected with the first official version of the Homeric epics.

Athenian politico Lykourgos built or renovated the Panathenaic Stadium in 330 B.C., give or take a few years.

Herodes Atticus, Athenian statesman or Roman collaborator, depending on viewpoint, refurbished the stadium somewhere around the year 140: in Pentelic marble, the the sort used for parts of the Parthenon.

I gather that the Panathenaic venue is still the only (almost) all-marble stadium in the world.

At any rate, I could pick Peisistratos and the Panathenaic Games premier as launching the Athenian ascendancy.

Or I could ignore Athens and say that the Aegean Golden Age began and ended with Sappho, poet extraordinaire.

She killed herself. Or maybe an angry mob killed her. The suicide version popped up a few centuries after Sappho’s time. The death-by-mob story was current in my youth, but sank without a trace somewhere in the late 20th century.

Getting back to an Athenian focus, there might be a case for saying that the Athenian Golden Age endured until Alexander III of Macedon’s day. Then again, maybe not.3

Pericles in Retrospect

'Perikles hält die Leichenrede,' Pilipp Foltz (1852)
(From Philipp Foltz, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Philipp Foltz’s “Pericles’ Funeral Oration” (1852))

I’m sure that many folks living in what’s now called the Age of Pericles didn’t feel like they were living in a golden age.

Athenian equivalents of Boston Brahmans might, as individuals, have approve of Periclean reforms. But as a group they were getting disenfranchised. Or as disenfranchised as folks sitting on the socioeconomic ladder’s top rung can be rendered powerless.

Periclean prestige may have depended on an individual’s perception of his domestic status.

We’re pretty sure that Aspasia was the Athenian statesman’s significant other. Whether or not they were married may have depended on who was telling the story. I gather that Aspasia was a top-flight rhetorician and philosopher, brothel keeper and/or hetaera.

“Hetaera” — or “hetaira” — is a job title overlapping artist, dancer, showgirl and hostess.

Assorted academics have said that since descriptions of Aspasia don’t line up, she doesn’t exist. Historically speaking.

I see their point. But I’ve also been paying attention to American politics. If I assumed that descriptions of a public figure must be consistent, then I could argue that America’s last few presidents didn’t exist. Historically speaking.

As I see it, Aspasia and Pericles knew each other well enough to produce Pericles the Younger.

Lucien and Plutarch said Aspasia was smart and attractive. Let’s say that she was smart, articulate and politically influential. And good looking to boot. Small wonder that Athenian traditionalists were upset. And that’s yet another topic.

Pericles’ wife, or courtesan, or girlfriend, wasn’t his only controversial issue.

There’s the way Pericles got control, too.

Ephialtes had been a successful leader of the Athenian democratic movement.

Then someone killed him. With Ephialtes out of the way, Pericles started his three decades of well-documented achievement.4

The Ephialtes Hit: An Unsolved Mystery

Copy of a now-lost Imperial era (1st or 2nd century bust of Aristotle by Lysippos.We still don’t know who killed Ephialtes.

Four decades after the crime, Antiphon (probably Antiphon the orator) wrote that the killer hadn’t been identified

Nine decades after that, about 130 years after the murder, someone wrote a document we call the “Athenian Constitution.” Many scholars figure Aristotle wrote the document. Or maybe one of Aristotle’s students.

Whoever it was, the author fingered Aristodikos of Tanagra. The Aristodikos scenario sometimes assumes that anti-Ephialtes oligarchs planned the murder.

And sometimes Pericles is the chief suspect.

Someone named Idomeneus said Pericles killed Ephialtes, motivated by envy. We know about him mainly because Plutarch brushed off the claim.

Plutarch said that Ephialtes and Pericles were friends and allies, and everyone knows what a great guy Pericles was. According to Plutarch.

Robert W. Wallace says the Ephialtes hit looks like an inside job.

“…Assassination was simple. An attempt to ostracize a political associate and popular figure might have brought discredit or backfired. There is also no other satisfactory explanation for the silence surrounding the incident. Had the radicals not been involved, they could reasonably be expected to have raised a witch-hunt. Ephialtes would have become a martyr for the democratic cause. But there is no trace of this….”
(“Ephialtes and the Areopagos;” Robert w. Wallace; Wadham College, Oxford (February, 1974) via Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies; Duke University)

I’ll grant that the cui bono, who benefits, principle points to Pericles. But as I see it, a high-profile case that remained unsolved after four decades may remain unsolved after more than two dozen centuries.5

Making Sense of the Past

Sanford Robinson Gifford's 'The Parthenon.' (1869)
(From Middlebury College Museum of Art, used w/o permission.)
(The Parthenon, about two and a half millennia after Pericles. (1869))

If this was an ideal world, at least from an historian’s viewpoint, we’d know more about Aspasia, Idomeneus, Sappho and Themistocles.

Themistocles? He was a war hero and populist whose political career crashed and burned in 472 B.C. — or maybe 471 — either way, he’d been called a traitor and booted out of Athens. He died in 459 B.C. of probably-natural causes.

Pericles rehabilitated the Themistocles narrative a few years later and Thucydides said that —

“…Themistocles was a man who exhibited the most indubitable signs of genius; indeed, in this particular he has a claim on our admiration quite extraordinary and unparalleled….”
(“History of the Peloponnesian War,” Thucydides (ca. 410 B.C.) trans by J. M. Dent (1910) via Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University)

— and I’m drifting off-topic. Or maybe not so much.


Thomas Cole's 'Aqueduct Near Rome.' (1832)
(From Middlebury College Museum of Art, used w/o permission.)

Depending on context, history is a:

  • Tale or story
  • “Chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes”
  • Branch of knowledge that records and explains past events
    (source: Merriam-Webster)

Like pretty much anything else, it’s more complicated than that, but those definitions will do for now.

Back when I might have become a professional historian, someone said that history should be about documents. Written records. Only written records.

The idea was that proper historians should ignore anything found by archaeologists, geologists, or anyone else who wasn’t a proper historian.

I thought it was a daft idea, and still do, since I see “history” as all three of those Merriam-Webster definitions. Pretending that knowledge from other disciplines doesn’t exist would turn history’s search for knowledge of past events into an academic parlor game.

Besides, piecing together the story of Periclean Athens or any other era is hard enough without ignoring physical evidence.6

That’s because humanity’s paper trail is spotty at best. What we call the “Constitution of the Athenians” or “Athenian Constitution,” is a pretty good example


The Aristotelian Constitution of Athens, only extant copy of the nearly complete text. Currently at the British Library
(From The British Library, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(The British Library’s Copy of “Constitution of the Athenians.”)

To begin with, “Constitution of the Athenians” isn’t the Athenian constitution. It’s a book written by Aristotle. Or someone associated with Aristotle.

“Constitution of the Athenians” describes what we call the Areopagite constitution.

The Areopagite constitution wasn’t a document like the Constitution of the United States. It’s our name for part of Athenian history. It ran from the time Themistocles was exiled, to Ephialtes’s reforms.

Aristotle described the Areopagite constitution in “Constitution of the Athenians.” Or, if not Aristotle, then someone else.

Confused? There’s more.

“Constitution of the Athenians” wasn’t the title of that work. That’s mainly because books didn’t have titles until fairly recently. Moreover, making books in today’s codex format didn’t start catching on until around the second century A.D., and I’m drifting off-topic again.7

Epimachus son of Polydeuces and the “Constitution of the Athenians” — We Recycle!

A page of Saint Isidore of Seville's 'Etymologiae,' an 8th century copy. From the Royal Library of Belgium, Brussels.“Constitution of the Athenians” isn’t in the “Corpus Aristotelicum.”

That’s the collected works of Aristotle, as recovered in Medieval Europe. We have folks like St. Isidore of Seville to thank for backing up the ancient world’s data. I talked about that a couple weeks back.

Anyway, part of the “Athenian Constitution” turned up in the late 19th century.

In a garbage dump. Archaeologists had been rummaging through an ancient scrapyard near where Oxyrhynchus is now. They found bits and pieces of documents from between the third century B.C. to seventh century A.D. — Including part of Aristotle’s “Athenian Constitution.”

Sir Ernest Budge bought another copy of the “Athenian Constitution” during his 1889-90 visit(s) to Egypt.

Budge’s copy is now in the British Museum. It’s nearly complete. Partly, I’m guessing, because someone used the codex it was in for business records.

Here’s how that happened.

Didymus son of Aspasius had recycled an old book, repurposing its papyrus to keep farm accounts on an estate near Hermopolis. Or maybe some other place.

Didymus worked for Epimachus son of Polydeuces. I’m pretty sure neither of them realized how valuable the backside of their records would be, two millennia later.8

Athens, America, Collars and Class

Napoleon Vier's map of Ancient Athens.
(From Napoleon Vier, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Athens, Piraeus, Phalerum and defensive walls. (fifth and fourth centuries B.C.))

Detail of John Mahowald's photo, Sibley State Park, Minnesota. (2007)Picturing Pericles as championing the cause of Athenian blue-collar workers isn’t entirely wrong.

But it’s not entirely accurate, either.

Backing up a bit: American blue-collar workers use their hands on the job. They’re unskilled or skilled labor and, on average, have less income and status than the average white-collar worker.

But an American with a blue-collar job could make more money than a white-collar worker.

And figurative collar colors or might not affect their comparative social status.

Our white-collar workers use their hands, too. But they usually have higher status and often work at a desk. Come to think of it, a high-level white-collar worker could tell someone else to write memos, use the telephone and perform other manual tasks.

I’m not sure what color the memo-writer’s collar would be. Figuratively speaking.

Sometimes we subdivide ourselves into lower, middle or upper class.

I haven’t seen bloated plutocrat, bourgeoisie, and oppressed proletariat used as identifiers for decades.9 Can’t say that I miss those labels.

My household is middle or lower class, depending on which definition I use. Living in one of a largely-urban country’s rural areas complicates things.

Athenian society in the Periclean Age wasn’t like 21st century America.

But it wasn’t simpler.

Maybe a third of Athenians were in citizen families. The rest were resident foreigners or slaves. Women, children and adult men who hadn’t completed military training couldn’t vote, no matter what family they were in.10

Good Times and Rose-Colored Recollections

Cornè's 'Landing of the Pilgrims.' (ca. 1803-1807)
(From Michele Felice Cornè, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

So, just how golden was the Age of Pericles?

I figure it was good times for Aspasia and Pericles. When they weren’t dodging oratorical fewmets, at any rate. For Cimon and his cronies, arguably not so much.

Periclean reforms improved conditions for at least some Athenian non-aristocrats.

But slaves were still slaves. And that’s not good. Ever. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2414)

I also figure Athenians felt better about the Pericles administration after it was over. Particularly while, say, the pro-Spartan Thirty Tyrants were running the the place.11

We Can Do Better

Boston's public notice, banning Christmas. (1659)I strongly suspect that many eras look better in 20-20 hindsight.

Like America’s Pilgrim Fathers, “whose stern impassioned stress” brought faith and freedom to this fair land. And who later criminalized Christmas.12

I’m also pretty sure that no era is as good as rose-colored recollections suggest.

But I think there’s some wisdom in remembering good times. And recognizing that we both could have done better, and can do better.

Finally, the Age of Pericles wasn’t our last ‘Golden Age.’ And that’s yet again another topic, for another day.

More (or less) of the same thing:

1 Athens, the Acropolis, Aristotle and the Achaemenid Empire — a nowhere-near-comprehensive look:

2 A couple guys and ancient populism:

3 Games, politics, a poet and a stadium:

4 High society:

5 The Ephilates Hit, still unsolved:

6 Documenting humanity’s story:

7 Documents, procedures and names:

8 Documents found in a trashheap:

  • Wikipedia
  • British Library
    • Papyrus 131 (1): Scholia on Callimachus’ Aetia (P. Lond. Lit. 181, TM 59363, LDAB 462, MP3 197). Three columns at the beginning of the roll, the first and the third with only a few lines
    • Papyrus 131

9 Economics, social status and the usual politics:

10 One slice through life in ancient Athens:

11 Not-so-good times after Pericles:

12 One slice of America’s history:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
This entry was posted in Golden Ages, Series and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Thanks for taking time to comment!