Pericles Part XXIV: The Strategia XIII: The Commander-in-Chief–Summoning (or not) the Ekklesia
There is one passage in particular in Thucydides which has suggested to people that Pericles exercised extraordinary powers as general in 431, when the war with Sparta was just starting. When the Peloponnesians invaded Attica for the first time during the war Pericles adopted a passive strategy. He didn’t lead the Athenians out to fight. Instead, they all watched from Athens’ walls while the Spartans burnt their crops. Not surprisingly, some of the Athenians weren’t happy about this. They wanted to go out and fight against Sparta’s stronger army. Their complaints, however, were not voiced in a formal setting. Thucydides tells us that men were getting together in groups and complaining about it, but they evidently didn’t raise the matter at an assembly meeting. And Pericles didn’t want them to, because that might have lead to a change in policy. So, Thucydides tells us, Pericles didn’t summon an assembly meeting (2.22.1).
Two things. First of all, the information that Pericles, as general, could summon an assembly meeting is not alarming. It seems that in the fifth century generals had something to do at least sometimes with the summoning of special meetings of the assembly. So this passage doesn’t imply anything extraordinary about the authority Pericles was exercising at the time. What is potentially alarming about the passage is its implication: not only didn’t Pericles summon an assembly meeting, but nobody did. Not the other generals. Not the prytaneis of the boule. The usual assumption is that Pericles was somehow behind this avoidance of an ekklesia, that somehow or other he had the power to stifle debate in Athens. And if he did, that suggests that Pericles was exercising an awful lot of authority in Athens.
What, then, to make of the passage? At least one modern historian (E. Bloedow) suggests that Pericles was able to quash assembly debate because of his status in the strategia. Others suggest that Pericles was able to do it not because he exercised any formal authority, but because of his auctoritas, which is to say, because of the strength of the authority he enjoyed in Athens informally.
I would go for a variation of the second explanation. Thucydides tells us that the opposition to Pericles’ strategy was being voiced informally in Athens. In other words, the people who weren’t happy with the strategy weren’t taking formal steps to change the policy, as far as we know. They weren’t marching on the bouleuterion and demanding that the prytaneis call an assembly. So we needn’t assume that Pericles took any active steps to prevent an assembly from being summoned. He just didn’t initiate the process, and neither did any of the others who could have, the other strategoi, or the prytaneis. They may have been persuaded by Pericles privately not to initate an assembly, and so it’s possible that Pericles was behind the moratorium on ekklesiai in that informal sense. But we needn’t assume from what Thucydides tells us that Pericles prevented an assembly from being held by virtue of some extraordinary position in the strategia.
Pericles Part XXV: The Strategia XIV: The Commander-in-Chief–Summary
Other evidence has been adduced as well in support of the theory that there was a commander-in-chief in the strategia, but I’m not going to get into it here. In each case, as I suggested already, the evidence can be interpreted so that it supports that theory and so that it doesn’t. In my view it’s wrong to assume that any of Athens’ generals, Pericles included, ever exercised greater authority formally over the other generals on the board. It remains possible that Pericles or other generals sometimes enjoyed greater de facto authority: if three generals were sent out on an expedition, for example, and only one of them was highly experienced, it’s certainly possible that the other generals would grant him a kind of informal superiority over them. But any distinction that the generals recognized among themselves was informal rather than formal.
Pericles Part XXVI: The Strategia XV: Conclusion
So what can be said about the authority of Athens’ generals, and about the degree to which Pericles exericsed authority in Athens in his capacity as general? If nothing else you should leave with the understanding that Athens’ generals did not constitute a ruling class. They exercised a certain amount of authority when in the field over that subset of the Athenian demos that was serving on the campaign. But generals were subordinate at all times to the authority of the Athenian demos, which maintained its control in part by its exercise of disciplinary authority. In Athens, generals had certain functions related to the call-up of troops, for example, and they seem to have had a hand in the summoning of ekklesiai, as we’ve already seen. They may have had more direct access to the bouleutai than average citizens had so could more effectively influence Athens’ decision-making process by that means. Most importantly, perhaps, our evidence suggests that during their time in office generals participated more frequently in ekklesiastic debate than did other politically active citizens. And if generals were addressing the assembly very often they were probably enjoying a correspondingly large influence over state decision-making. Men like Pericles who held the strategia frequently presumably acquired a reputation for expertise in military affairs, and that in turn might make the Athenians more likely to listen to them when they got up in the assembly to talk. We may imagine, too, that generals who were successful field commanders won the respect of the men who served under them. Back in Athens that respect might translate into an increased willingness to consider their former general’s proposals in the ekklesia.
But Athens’ generals did not, I suggest, exercise a lot of authority in Athens by virtue of their office. The fact of their generalship may have resulted in generals having an increased chance of being listened to in the ekklesia. But as was true of any rhetor addressing the assembly, a general who got up to talk had to prove himself. If his ideas were bad, if he failed to persuade the Athenians, his position in the strategia wouldn’t mean anything at all.
Pericles Part XXVII: Conclusion
Pericles, Thucydides tells us, was a very powerful man, the first of the Athenians at the time. We have to believe our author in this. But it would be wrong to assume that Pericles held a secure position in Athens, that he ruled Athens, for example, by virtue of his position in the strategia. And you should be careful as you’re reading modern historians or translations of classical authors, because you’ll run across texts that suggest that that was precisely what was going on, that Pericles was in charge in Athens in some formal sense.
Now that you’ve been warned you can assess for yourself the remarks that modern authors sometimes make. In a sourcebook on Greek warfare that was published in 1996, for example, the author writes:
“In fifth-century Athens, the generalship became the most important political office. Typically it combined the most important civil powers with the chief responsibility in military matters. The equation of civil and military leadership was, in part, the result of the fact that military leadership was simply a facet of overall command…” (Sage p. 60, cf. p. 63).
What’s wrong with that statement? I have no idea what “civil powers” the author thinks generals had. And I don’t know what evidence he thinks suggests that generals enjoyed “overall command” in Athens. The author doesn’t provide any evidence for his view of the Athenian generalship. Anyone reading this book who didn’t know any better would naturally assume that what the author says was true, that Athens’ generals were very much in command in Athens. So be wary of statements like this. Be careful also when you’re reading Plutarch. He tends to write as if Pericles were ruling Athens. He has a tendency in his Lives to exaggerate the role that his subject played in events. But remember that Plutarch was writing some 500 years later, when the Roman Empire was pre-eminent. It’s natural enough that he would view history through a kind of “great man” prism. Autocracy was his reality, not radical democracy.
Another caveat is that it would be incorrect to assume that Pericles was either responsible for or even in agreement with every policy that the Athenians adopted during the period when he was ascendant in Athens. Remember that Pericles’ authority amounted to his ability to persuade the Athenian demos to adopt his proposals. He didn’t necessarily win the argument every time. And he didn’t necessarily voice an opinion about every issue that came up for debate.
Near the start of this talk I mentioned Bill Clinton. There’s one interesting distinction to be made between his authority and the authority that Pericles exercised. The moment that Bill Clinton leaves office in 2001 he will cease to be the most powerful man in the world. Clinton is powerful because he is the President of the United States. The authority he exercises resides in the office and not in the man. Pericles held elective office too, repeatedly, but it would not be correct to say that he exercised authority in Athens by virtue of the office to which he was elected. He enjoyed authority over the Athenians because he was persuasive. Because they allowed him to enjoy authority. They never for a moment surrendered to him their sovereignty.
For nearly two hundred years, with only brief interruptions, the Athenians governed themselves directly, for the most part successfully. Suggesting that Pericles was something like a tyrant in Athens is, I think, an insult to the Athenians’ achievement. It also misrepresents, and perhaps denigrates, what Pericles managed to accomplish: a kind of monarchic leadership in a state that didn’t admit of monarchs.
BY DEBRA HAMEL PhD in ancient history