PERICLES, POLITICS AND THE PARTHENON
John Thorley, Lancaster University The Parthenon sculptures are a political issue. To some it may seem unfortunate that works of art should be so involved in politics. But for the Parthenon sculptures this is nothing new, because their very creation in the 5th century BC was a matter of political controversy. They were created amidst what we might call a political drama, and what I should like to do in the next few minutes is to analyze this drama, which took place nearly 2500 years ago and which in a sense created these wonderful works of art. In this drama there were, as in most Greek dramas, three main actors, together with several minor parts. Let us identify the three main characters. The first on stage is Kimon, whose role in the drama of the Parthenon sculptures was crucial, though he did not know it. The second (and undoubtedly the 'protagonistes') is Pericles. And the third is Thucydides son of Milesias, and he is the 'antagonistes'. There are also two female roles in this drama, one a rebellious sister and the other a charming mistress. And always there, considering the action in great detail, is the chorus- the men of the Athenian Assembly. Let us go back to the Athens of 449 BC. This was one of those interesting years when a lot seems to have happened. The ten previous years had been a difficult time for Athens, during which tension between Athens and Sparta had steadily worsened. But in 451 both sides had agreed to a peace treaty, negotiated on the Athenian side by Kimon, the son of the great Miltiades, the victor at Marathon in 490. In the spring of 449, however, Kimon was not actually in Athens; he was in Cyprus, in command of a full- scale naval expedition to try to recover the island from Persian control. In the spring of 449 many would have said that Kimon was a main actor in nthe political drama. Now Kimon was a remarkable man. He was from the old nobility of Athens, and in modern term we would say he was definitely right wing. He was, typical of his class, a very capable general and administrator, skills he had inherited from his father. In the years after 478 Kimon had helped Aristides to set up the Delian League, the confederation of Aegean cities which pooled their naval resources to ensure that they would be defended against any possible Persian attack. Aristides is usually given the credit for setting up the Delian League, but it seems it was Kimon who did most of the hard work. In carrying out this task Kimon had made many friends among the numerous members of the League. For the rest of his life Kimon pursued his policy of aggression against Persia, and he saw Athens continuing as the leader in this struggle. He also favored strong links with Sparta, where he had many friends, who of course ran the most right wing city of the Greek world. This friendship with Sparta had in fact got him ostracized in 461 for ten years. But when he returned to Athens in 451 he was, it seems , immensely popular with a large section of the Athenian population. He was the obvious choice to negotiate a peace with his Spartan friends that same year, and the next year (in 450) he persuaded the Assembly to send him off to Cyprus with 200 triremes to pursue the old enemy. So in the spring of 449 Kimon was still in Cyprus. But during Kimon's ten years of exile things had changed in Athens. Pericles had now become a dominant figure in Athenian politics. Though Pericles was himself from the old land-owning aristocracy he had been keen to develop the role of the Assembly, the democratic body of all male citizens who wished to attend its regular meetings up on the Pnyx hill. Pericles may indeed have been a true democrat ( I would not for one moment suggest that he wasn't), though one reason why he so favored the power of the Assembly was undoubtedly his ability to control the Assembly by his superb powers as a public speaker. Pericles had been only a youth of 15 at the time of the battle of Salamis, and he was, to put bluntly, little interested in Persia or in continuing a war that was in his view long over and done with. He was much more concerned with the positioin of Athens as a power within the Greek world. When Kimon returned from exile in 451 and successfully negotiated the peace with Sparta, Pericles may have felt a little uneasy, despite his own great popularity in Athens, One suspects that Pericles was not too unhappy to see Kimon go off to Cyprus, away from the politics of Athens, for a while at least. But Kimon's absence from Athens was not to be just for a while. In the spring of 449 Kimon died in Cyprus. And this was actually Kimon's distinctive contribution to the building of the temples on the Acropolis - he died at a most convenient time. Pericles and his friends in Athens must have breathed a sigh of relief when they heard that Kimon had died. Like many men of 60 Kimon had not changed his ideas much in the past 40 years. His life was dedicated to fighting the Persians, and that was what he was still doing in 449 when he died on Cyprus. His modern statue now looks aggressively out to sea on the promenade at Larnaka; Kimon would have approved. From our perspective so long after the event it does seem approptiate that Kimon is celebrated in the place of his last victory and not in Athens, because in the drama that was now unfolding in Athens there is no doubt that Pericles was holding the centre of the stage, and Kimon was in serious danger of losing the plot. The plot in Athens had indeed been changing direction, despite Kimon's attempts to keep it concerned with war against Persia. In 454, while Kimon was in exile, the treasury of the Delian League had been transferred from Delos to Athens , ostensibly because Delos was vulnerable to the increasing naval power of Persia. The move was almost certainly initiated by Pericles who may have already have been considering a quite radical solution to the threat from Persian power. When Kimon died in 449 Pericles decided the time had come to put his radical plans into action. Soon after Kimon's death the Athenian fleet had actually defeated the Persians off the coast of N.Cyprus. Kimom, if he had still been alive, would now have wished to crush the Persian fleet out of existence, but Pericles and his colleagues regarded this victory in a very different light. This was the ideal moment to negotiate a peace with Persia. Why waste money and good generals in keeping a fleet of warships cruising the Aegean in case the Persians should attack again? Make peace and the threat is gone. So an embassy was sent, probably in the summer or autumn of 449, to the Persian capital of Susa to negotiate a peace. The man who led the embassy( and here real life really does imitate theater) was Kallias, who had been married to Kimon's feisty sister Elpinike, though he had divorced her by this time. The gossip was that Elpinike had had an affair with the artist Polygnotos, and some even said that she had had an affair with nher brother Kimon; so perhaps Kallias had grounds for divorce. But for Kimon's own brother-in law to be the one who negotiated peace with Persia gives the whole episode a dramatic twist. If Sophocles had turned this whole story into a drama he would surely have had the ghost of Kimon appear shouting ' Aiai aiai, jeu jeu, dustanov egw'. Kimon must indeed have turned in his grave at the very thought of peace being made with Persia, and even worse being negotiated by his former brother-in law. But it was, of course, his death that had made it possible. What exactly the peace treaty contained we do not know. Thucydides does not even mention it in his summary of the 'pentekontaetia', and the later historians and orators who do mention it give us a muddled and implausible account. But peace there was, and though Pericles may have wished to keep the whole thing secret, at least for a while, in the democracy of Athens that was hardly possible. Nevertheless, the negotiations may well have been conducted in as much secrecy as the democratic structures at Athens would allow, and that may account for the later confusion about the details. Peace is usually is usually regarded as a good thing, and doubtless the cities and islands of the Aegean that were in the Delian League thought it was a good thing. In fact they though it was such a good thing that they immediately stopped paying their tribute to Athens, because now that there was no threat of a Persian attack it seemed logical that the the Delian League should be disbanded. But Pericles did not agree at all. It is Pericles who is now definitely at the center of the stage, and his view was that for 30 years Athens had organized a fleet to protect the members of the Delian League, and that is what Athens should continue to do, so the members would have to continue to pay. The members of the Delian League, however, took more than a little persuading. The tribute kists from the Acropolis show one blank year (presumably 449/48), followed by a year in which some members paid , some paid in part, and others still did not pay (448/47). We then have the decree of Kleinias, apparently from 447, which tightens up the procedures for the collection of the tribute, and in 447/46 the tribute appears to be back to its normal level. In fact the League members had little option but to pay. They may have had logic on their side, in that there was now no threat from Persia, but they did not have the fleet of warships on their side, because it was Athens that controlled the warships. However, it was now clear to everybody that Athens no longer needed to spend as much as previously on the navy, since there was there was now no threat from Persia. So what was to be done with the surplus money from the tribute? It seems Already a surplus of 5,000 talents in the treasury from the 30 years during which the Delian League had been operating, and that represents nearly a half of the total tribute so far collected. Clearly the members of the League had been contributing a lot more than the League actually cost to operate. It would have seemed reasonable now to reduce the amount paid by the members, but that was not an option that Pericles even seems to have considered. Pericles had other plans. In the very same year that the tribute was returned to its former level (447/46) Pericles put before the Assembly his great project to restore the temples on the Acropolis. These temples had renained in a ruined state for over 30 years, since their destruction by the Persians when they occupied Athens in 480 and again in 479. The outline of some of the old temples can still be seen , and sculptures from them are the main feature of the Acropolis Museum today. The biographer Plutarch (Pericles 12) gives an outline of Pericles' arguments for using the the surplus from the tribute to construct the buildings on the Acropolis. Essentially what Pericles said was that the Athenians , having defended the Aegean against Persia as they had promised , were entitled to do what they wanted with the tribute, and the building projects would provide employment for men no longer needed for defense. Presumably Pericles also made the point that it was the Persians who destroyed the old temples and it was reasonable that the tribute collected to defend the allies should now be used to repair the temples. Great orator as he was, he can ha rdly have refrained from getting every member of the Assembly to turn their eyes from the Pnyx to the Acropolis of Athens into one of the artistic wonders of the world. Pericles' friend Pheidias was appointed as the artistic director of the whole Acropolis project. It was incidentally at around this time that Pericles divorced his wife and soon after Set up house with Aspasia, who was apparently a courtesan from Miletos (Pericles was a very busy man).Aspasia was quite a remarkable woman, a friend of Socrates And of other philosophers and artists, and she must have known Pheidias.Her influence over Pericles was much talked about. We do not know what part she really played in this particular drama of the Parthenon project, but one might suspect she did have opinions. But there was opposition to Pericles' grand proposals, led it seems by Thucydides, son of Milesias (this is not the historian, bur probably his grandmother's sister's husband). He was a very wealthy man, in effect the leader of the old aristocracy, the successor to Kimon and now the 'antagonistes' to Pericles. He was married to another of Kimon's sisters (who was, it seems, not at all like Elpinike!) and he had many friends among the members of the Delian League, so Plato tells us (Meno 94), an interest he had shared with his brother-in law Kimon. Thucydides now argued that that to use the tribute to beautify Athens was a misuse of the money, and doubtless most of the members of the League agreed with him. One can see their point. If we had lived in Halicarnassos or Rhodes in 447 we would probably have agreed with them. But the Athenian Assembly did not, and we have to remember that the members of the Delian League had no representation in the Athenian Assembly other than friends such as Thucydides, and such friends had only one vote each. For the majority of the "thetes" in the Assembly (and there were thousands of them) the prospect of years of employment for the sculptors, stonemasons and laborers of Athens must have been a huge incentive to vote for Pericles' proposals and that was what they did. And so the Acropolis project went ahead, and Pheidias designed the Propylaia and the temples and the beautiful sculptures. One might say that the whole Acropolis Project was financed from a protection racket, which is what the Delian League had now become. Or one might argue, with Pericles, that the Athenians, having opposed Persia so successfully for so many years and finally having made a lasting peace, were entitled to use some of the income from the allies to repair the temples on the Acropolis and to create what has become a symbol of artistic achievement for all world to admire. Great art and politics go often hand in hand. What I have said offers no solution to the present political problems of the Parthenon sculptures. Like good democrats we must debate the issues. The curtain has not yet closed on this drama. Lecture Presented at the International Conference on " The Restitution of the Parthenon Marbles (A Historical- Cultural-Legal Approach)", Organized by the Center of European Studies with Contributions of the University of Athens School of Philosophy, Athens May 23-24, 2000.
Additional Lectures given at the same international conference will appear at this site in the near future.