THERE is already much discussion in our circles about the example of Sparta, not least as a result of the Hollywood blockbuster which was rather loosely based on the exploits of King Leonidas, but in this article I intend to examine Sparta’s Athenian counterparts. The famous Hellenic statesman, Pericles (495-429 BCE), once claimed that the city of Athens was an educational role model for the whole of Greece, but how far was this really true? In order to give this question the attention it deserves, it is necessary to define what Pericles actually meant by the term ‘education’. I shall then examine the various political, social and economic aspects of life in Athens and, by comparing these characteristic features with those existing within the other city-states of the same period, seek to corroborate whether Pericles’ statement was really accurate.

The comment itself implies that Athens was an example to whom its neighbours – both friend and foe alike – may have looked for inspiration and, during his famous funeral oration, so beautifully recounted by Thucydides (460-395 BCE) in his History of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles did indeed consider Athens to be ‘an education to Greece'[1]. In fact his speech tells us a great deal about what he considered to be most notable in terms of Athenian achievement. His verbal tapestry begins with an appreciation of Athenian ancestry, emphasising the fact that the people’s ‘courage and virtues have handed on to us, a free country.'[2] The speech is designed to exploit in his listeners deep-seated feelings of local pride and identity, inviting them to recall the glory of Athenian growth and prosperity. He mentions ‘the constitution and the way of life that has made us great'[3] and points to certain social improvements such as power being democratically channelled into the hands ‘of the whole people'[4], the fairness and ‘equality before the law'[5] and the fact that, in terms of social classification, status is not determined by ‘membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.'[6] Pericles was also careful to mention the prevailing ethos of morality which underpinned fifth-century Athenian society, that of sovereign, ‘unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.'[7]

Soon afterwards, Pericles used his speech to list what he considered to be the noblest attributes of his native city, with particular reference to the cultural activities that provided ‘recreation for our spirits'[8]. This tactic was designed to pave the way for a contrasting description of the traditional enemy, Sparta. Pericles thus provided a polemical denunciation of Spartan militarism and used the antithetical values of an oligarchic regime which ‘submitted'[9] its youth to rigorous training to publicly laud the Athenian educational system. He also praised Athens for apparently maintaining a confident superiority above and beyond all other Greek states, emphasising the importance of thought before action[10]. When Pericles finally describes Athens as ‘an education to Greece'[11], he follows this proclamation by explaining precisely why he considers this to be the case. At this stage of his speech, Pericles is hinting at the vast importance of freedom, citizenship and the capability of all people to assert themselves as ‘rightful lord and owner of his own person'[12]. Her continues by further elucidating upon their alleged superiority over all others, stating that one only has ‘to consider the power which our city possesses and which has been won by those very qualities which I have mentioned. Athens, alone of the states we know, comes to her testing time in a greatness that surpasses what was imagined of her (…) future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now.'[13] This is confirmed by Pericles’ persuasive determination to convince the members of his audience that they have so very much to lose, a sentiment which is succinctly incorporated within the phrase ‘it is clear that for us there is more at stake than there is for others who lack our advantages'[14].

Other Periclean statements which came to the fore during his ostentatious outpouring of Athenian pride included an inspiring account of the necessity of personal sacrifice. The slain warriors, in whose honour the funeral had been held, were depicted as heroes who had lain down their very lives for the continuation of Athenian culture, heritage and tradition, itself ‘a risk most glorious'[15]. The resultant patriotism and sense of duty which stems from an understanding and appreciation of such selfless martyrdom, was used by Pericles to suggest that his listeners respect and emulate their example, making ‘up your minds that happiness depends on being free, and freedom depends on being courageous (…) for men to end their lives with honour, as these have done, and for you honourably to lament them: their life was set to a measure where death and happiness went hand in hand.'[16]

But whether or not Athens really can be considered to have been a role model for the whole of Greece is a contentious subject and it may be that as far as creating an ideal city-state was concerned, Pericles was merely deluding not only himself but also his contemporaries. Primarily, of course, in order to see whether the Athenians did realistically serve as an ‘education’ to their compatriots outside Attica, the city must be examined in the context of its political infrastructure and the relationship it had with other fifth-century power structures throughout the rest of Greece.

Pericles is renowned for the prominent role he played in the democratisation of the Athenian political system, which itself had ‘been fixed by Cleisthenes (570-507 BCE) and further reformed after the battle of Marathon'[17]. After overthrowing Thucydides and assuming ‘the leadership of the people'[18], Pericles and Ethialtes (d. 461 BCE) set about reducing the power of the judiciary in the Areopagus. At this time, the archons or chief magistrates were appointed by lot, but only from a select number of pre-elected candidates. Pericles abolished this system with the result that the archons themselves became ‘appointed by lot from all the eligible citizens [who now] had an equal chance of holding political office, and taking part in the conduct of political affairs.'[19] This system was also extended to the Boule, or Council of the Five Hundred. In addition, Pericles effectively dismantled the hereditary powers of the traditionally oligarchic Areopagus completely, restricting its activities in order to redefine its role as little more than a ‘supreme court for charges of murder.'[20] In 462 BCE, Pericles also initiated a scheme whereby jurors and those holding offices of state received payment for their services to the city, ‘a feature which naturally won him popularity with the masses'[21].

This very popularity, in fact, had been deliberately engineered by Pericles himself in order to counteract the large support that Cimon (510-450 BCE), an accomplished naval hero, was able to command from the Athenian nobility. Although Pericles was himself an aristocrat, he ‘decided to attach himself to the people’s party and to take up the cause of the poor and the many instead of that of the rich and the few, in spite of the fact that this was quite contrary to his own temperament'[22]. Indeed, Thucydides attacked Periclean reforms and labelled them ‘democracy in name, but in practice government by the first citizen.'[23] So what began as Greek democracy under Cleisthenes around 500 BCE, had become an aristocracy under Pericles by 430 BCE. However, despite all the speculation surrounding what may really have motivated Pericles towards an initiation of such democratic reforms in the first place, in terms of her political and organisational standing Athens undoubtedly stood way ahead of her rivals.

Among the most notable achievements within the sphere of Athenian governmental activity, were the complex decision-making devices of the period. For the Athenians, politics was a remarkably serious affair and the importance they attributed to the rule of law was encapsulated by the immense effort that was channelled towards basic administrative procedure. Apart from the brilliant structural design of the city’s political power base, the array of executive aids such as the textual kyrbeis, the allotment-machines, the water-clocks, the juror’s ballots and juror’s tickets were each regarded as fairly reliable methods of calculation in the attempts to gauge pubic opinion.

Further evidence pertaining to the manner in which Athens was renowned for her competence in political affairs can be gleaned from the fact that both the treasury and patron deity of the Delian League – a crucial alliance of 150 Greek city-states that had been established prior to the Peloponnesian wars to defend Hellas from the Persians – was transferred to the city from Delos in 454 BCE, thus enabling the Athenians to exert political and economic control over the allied states. Regardless whether this was the result of a conspiracy of some kind, a theory to which some historians lend their support, it remains an incontrovertible fact that Athens managed to persuade her allies of the innumerable benefits of such a strategy and therefore illustrates how the city was considered to be extremely capable in a political and administrative perspective. Even Thucydides tells us that Athens was ‘perfectly capable of exercising the command'[24] of inter-state affairs.

By total contrast, however, Athens’ main enemy, Sparta, had an entirely different political structure. Sparta was imbued with a ‘conservative spirit'[25] and was ruled nominally by kings; an early Greek tradition which marked the perpetuation of ‘an old order of things which existed in the days of Homeric poetry'[26]. In fact, the Spartan constitution, unlike its continually revised and reformed counterpart in Athens, had remained virtually the same since its inception. Sparta had its own Council of Elders, or Gerusia, which consisted of thirty men who were elected for life and ‘chosen by acclamation in the general assembly of citizens'[27].

Membership of the Council was based on a form of meritocracy and was described as a prize for virtue'[28]. However, the Spartan Assembly of the People, or Apella, only contained males over thirty years of age who decided matters of state purely on the basis of a particular speaker receiving the loudest cheers from those in attendance. Theoretically, the Spartan constitution was democratic, but if the elders and magistrates did not approve of the decision of the majority, ‘they could annul the proceedings by refusing to proclaim'[29] the true outcome. J.B. Bury believes it would be wrong to classify the nature of the Spartan constitution or attempt to give the city’s political structure a specific term for, in his view, it can be considered to have been indicative of a ‘kingdom, oligarchy, or democracy'[30], although the Spartan Council, ‘taken from a privileged class, exercising an important influence on public affairs, and deferring to an Assembly which could not debate'[31] was clearly oligarchic in overall terms and even the Assembly members themselves were very much an elite.

The Athenians were always very keen to stress the political differences between themselves and their Peloponnesian rivals. Many island states – themselves often artificially created by colonial means – more often than not followed the example of Athens, rather than Sparta. The intention behind the establishment of other direct democracies in Greece seemed genuine, and those states which adopted the Athenian system did so after being inspired by her example. Rather different, perhaps, to the way modern ‘democracy’ is more forcibly disseminated throughout the world today. On the other hand, however, the establishment of various oligarchical systems appeared to have more to do with internal corruption than with any attempt to imitate Sparta. So as far as Athenian politics serving as an ‘education’ to the rest of Greece is concerned, Pericles was right to make such an affirmation. As ‘a strong imperialist [the] aim of his statesmanship was to increase the Athenian empire and to spread the political influence of Athens within the borders of Greece.'[32] But it still remains necessary to establish whether Athens led by example in social and economic terms.

Economically, Athens had greatly benefited from the fantastic wealth which had been generated after Themistocles (524-459 BCE) had extracted the vast revenue drawn from the city’s lucrative silver mines at Laurium[33] and redirected it towards the construction of a new fleet of triremes and the development of a strong naval foundation. This tactic resulted in the re-conquest of Athens after its inhabitant had been forced to flee from the invading Persian forces[34]. When the city became host to the financial and spiritual resources of the Delian League in 454 BCE, Pericles seized the initiative and sought to direct the funds of its treasury towards the rebuilding of those Athenian temples which, in his view, ‘had been burnt in the common cause [and] would be rebuilt from the common funds, the accumulated reserve of the League treasury.'[35]

In 449 BCE, this move was followed by the proposal of a pan-Hellenic Congress to deal with the financing of such an ambitious reconstruction project[36]. Pericles was bitterly opposed in this regard and Thucydides rallied his supporters towards a fierce denunciation of the controversial policy, with the Assembly declaring that ‘we are gilding and beautifying our city, as if it were some vain woman decking herself out with costly stones and statues and temples worth millions of money.'[37] Pericles answered the charge of his critics by declaring that ‘the Athenians were not obliged to give the allies an account of how their money was spent, provided that they carried on the war for them and kept the Persians away.'[38] Evelyn Abbott has described Pericles’ provocative measures ‘as the arts of a demagogue who seeks by spending the public money to secure the public favour.'[39] Pericles had literally stolen the financial resources of the League from its allied contributors, leaving the Athenians considerably well off in economic terms.

In the final quarter of the fifth century, Athens finally began to feel the pinch and soon found herself severely restricted by the incumbent expenses of her war against Sparta. However, the economic situation in Sparta was far worse. Athens still had her large and well-trained naval resources and, in addition to the ships of Lesbos and Chios ‘she had 300 triremes of her own.'[40] Despite Peloponnesian superiority in terms of cavalry and hoplite forces, Sparta was comparatively far weaker in terms of finance and had no common war chest or other resources on which to fall back in times of difficulty[41]. Athens, whilst experiencing severe financial depletion in relation to the 1200 talents that had been spent on crushing the revolt of Samos and the high wages that were a prerequisite to enticing neutral Greeks into its navy, could at least rely on ‘loans from the goddess'[42] and ‘an annual income from home sources and the empire of some 1000 talents.'[43]

Athenian trade also began to flourish during the rule of Pericles, and Themistocles’ fortification of the Piraeus made Athens one of the greatest ports in Greece. The decline of merchant cities like Ionia also contributed greatly to the Athenian economy[44], despite the rise in prices and interest rates[45]. There is no doubt that Athens was economically superior to all other Greek states, a factor which, in accordance with Pericles’ claim, served as an ‘education’ to Greece itself. Indeed, Pericles’ shrewd manipulation of the League had provided a firm bedrock upon which Athens could wage her war against the Peloponnese.

Among the most striking developments in fifth-century Athens took place in the social sphere. In philosophy, for example, despite many of the leading Eleatics and post-Parmenidean cosmologists originating from Ionia, it was in Athens that the real intellectual revolution took place. The Sophists, in particular, ‘contributed to the ferment and did much for such new branches of knowledge as political theory, rhetoric and logic'[46], and the fact that Athens is given credit for the growth of these new schools of philosophical thought is due to the way its exponents emigrated to Athens in the fill knowledge that it was a bustling centre of Greek culture and scholarship. In other words, Athens’ reputation invited contributions from outside Attica and the exportation of human intelligence possibly deprived Ionia of what could have been a tremendous place in European history. No other states were ever able to rival the Athenian intelligentsia and the unique legacy it left behind. Gorgias (485-380 BCE), in particular, was said to have ‘taught Greece how to write a new prose – not the cold style which appeals only to the understanding, but a brilliant style, rhythmic, flowery in diction, full of figures, speaking to the sense and the imagination.'[47]

Athens is also renowned for her great architecture, a matter in which Pericles himself played a highly prominent role. The disagreements about financial expenditure which preceded his plan of reconstruction soon pale into insignificance when compared to the glorious artistry that followed. Pericles enlisted the help of Pheidias (480-430 BCE), who was the ‘director and supervisor of the whole project.'[48] He was assisted by other skilled architects like Callicrates, Ictinus, Coroebus and Metagenes. But the accompanying formation of an Athenian workforce was not as difficult as it sounds, because those without military experience – the ‘unskilled masses'[49] – were ideally suited to the task at hand and it is true to say that Pericles’ essentially anticipated the twentieth-century economist, John Maynard Keynes, in managing to assemble a team of builders and labourers dedicated to a grand public works project of this nature. Among the greatest architectural achievements carried out in Athens were the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena, the adornment of the Acropolis, the Odeon, the Concert Hall and the temples of Eleusis and Hephaistos. When Pericles was attacked for his lavish overspending of public funds, he offered to pay for the construction work himself and ‘dedicate all the public buildings in my name'[50]; a remark which threatened to exclude the Assembly completely and which subsequently forced his more jealous critics to urge him ‘to draw freely on the public funds and spare no expense'[51].

The structural developments that took place in Athens ‘indicate not only the possession of money to build them but an incomparable skill in artists and craftsmen.'[52] No other Greek states were able to match the architectural achievements of the Athenians, a fact adequately conveyed by C.M. Bowra, who wrote that the ‘remains of Sparta are so humble that it is hard to believe that this was the power which for many years challenged and finally conquered Athens.'[53] But whilst the construction programme was clearly an ‘education’ to the rest of Greece, it would not serve as a safeguard against the eventual Spartan conquest.

Other prominent features within Athenian society were poetry and the theatre. Such methods of artistic expression went hand in hand with one another, and great masters of Greek vocabulary – like Euripides (480-406 BCE) – ‘used the tragic stage to disseminate rationalism.'[54] Other leading poets were Sophocles (496-406 BCE) and Aeschylus (525-456 BCE), men who ‘reverently modified religious legend, adapting it to their own ideals, interpreting it as to satisfy their own moral standard.'[55] Whilst orators such as Pericles were able to inspire the Athenians with their voices, the likes of Aeschylus were able to use colourful and descriptive language as a form of early propaganda. The role of the poet in fifth-century Athens was of great importance and many sought ‘immortality from the poet’s craft [who, in turn] could hardly dare to command a higher purpose.'[56] Indeed, the authors of the Athenian comedies were renowned for their cutting sarcasm and even Pericles himself – who had a deformed head and regularly wore a helmet to conceal it – was ridiculed as the man who went around ‘with the Odeum on his head'[57]. Eventually, however, Pericles felt concerned that the comedians were becoming far too critical of his policies and decided to curb their activities[58].

Sparta also had its fair share of poets and songsters, but they tended to concentrate far more on the early legends and traditions of Greece, rather than seek to initiate an artistic movement in the manner of their comparatively modernist and progressive Athenian counterparts. Lyric poetry had been imported from Lesbos[59] and, whilst it appears that the Spartan poets were very talented – among them Tyrtaeus during the mid-seventh century BCE – they could not compete with the new trends being set in Athens. Quite simply, when a stranger decided to visit Sparta he must have experienced ‘a feeling of being transported into an age long past, when men were braver, better, and simpler, unspoiled by wealth, undeveloped by ideas.'[60] Once again, although the Spartans remained aloof from the intellectual revolution which had taken their neighbours by storm, the poetry and theatre that began to blossom in Athens soon inspired the whole of Greece.

The social status of women in Athens was far from ideal and they were unable to participate in the democratic process. At this time, Greece was a very male-dominated society and in order to secure a better standard of living some women were forced to become hetaerae, or ‘companions’. This meant attaching themselves ‘to any man willing to spend money on them'[61], in order to escape from the misery of social exclusion. Such women were ‘uninstructed in anything beyond the duties of the house.'[62] This fact is reflected by Pericles in his Funeral Oration, when he fundamentally undermined the social potential of women by announcing that the female sex should merely aim ‘to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticising you.'[63] In Sparta, however, women were permitted to engage in gymnastic training and ‘enjoyed a freedom which was in marked contrast with the seclusion of women in other Greek states.'[64] Spartan woman also had no cause to ingratiate themselves with their menfolk for personal gain. Whilst the Spartan government expected them to bear children for the state, they believed it was vital to ‘the welfare of their country.'[65] So as far as respect for women was concerned, Athens could not really claim to have exported an exemplary policy worthy of emulation, although Ionia also shared the fundamental Athenian weakness of excluding women from education[66].

Religious and sporting festivals were much the same throughout Greece and, although it is always the Athenians who are remembered for their gods and sporting heroes, most other Greek states were also thoroughly advanced as far as the development of pagan ritual and human competition is concerned.

Finally, when Pericles declared that Athens was ‘an education to Greece'[67] he was, on the whole, making an accurate observation. This is not to say that Athens was superior to Sparta in every respect, of course, and her democratic system left much to be desired. But whilst some Greek states outside Athens shared some of her political, social and economic principles, it remains a fact that the city functioned as the cultural mother which had given birth to some of the finest Greek accomplishments. Without the instrumental and momentous developments that sprang from the rich civilisation which characterised fifth-century Athenian society, Europe would not have been able to use and develop some of those achievements over the next two and a half thousand years. Pericles declared ‘that of all the Hellenic powers we held the widest sway over the Hellenes'[68], but the non-Attican Greek states, which fed eagerly upon the glorious banquet of Athenian society, are not alone in their appreciation. We are still learning from the legacy of Athens today and it continues to serve not only as an ‘education’ for Greece, but for the world.


1. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (Penguin, 1972), p.147.

2. Ibid., p.144.

3. Ibid., p.145.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., p146.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid., p.147.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p.148.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., p.149.

16. Ibid., pp.149-50.

17. J.B. Bury, A History of Greece (Macmillan, 1951), p.346.

18. Aristotle, The Athenian Constitution (Penguin, 1984), p.70.

19. J.B. Bury, op.cit., p.349.

20. A.R. Burn, Pericles and Athens (English Universities Press, 1964), p.46.

21. J.B. Bury, op.cit., p.349.

22. Plutarch, The Rise and Fall of Athens: Nine Greek Lives (Penguin, 1960), p.171.

23. Ibid., p.173.

24. Thucydides, op.cit., p.92.

25. J.B. Bury, op.cit., p.120.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., p.123.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid., p.124.

30. Ibid., p.125.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid., p.360.

33. Plutarch, op.cit., p.80.

34. Iibid., p.81.

35. J.B. Bury, op.cit., p.364.

36. Ibid.

37. Plutarch, op.cit., pp.177-8.

38. Ibid., p.178.

39. Evelyn Abbott, Pericles and the Golden Age of Athens (The

Knickerbocker Press, 1897), p.136.

40. J.B. Bury, op.cit., p.396.

41. Ibid., p.396A.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid., p.378.

45. Ibid., p.378.

46. C.M. Bowra, Periclean Athens (Wiedenfeld and Nicolson, 1971), p.233.

47. J.B. Bury, op.cit., p.388.

48. Plutarch, op.cit., p.179.

49. Ibid., p.178.

50. Ibid., p.181.

51. Ibid., p.182.

52. C.M. Bowra, op.cit., p.180.

53. Ibid.

54. J.B. Bury, op.cit., p.389.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid., p.308.

57. Evelyn Abbott, op.cit., p.328.

58. J.B. Bury, op.cit., p.384.

59. Ibid., p.130.

60. Ibid., p.134.

61. Evelyn Abbott, op.cit. p.194.

62. Ibid., p.195.

63. Thucydides, op.cit., p.151.

64. J.B. Bury, op.cit., p.133.

65. Ibid.

66. A.R. Burn, op.cit., p.223.

67. Thucydides, op.cit., p.147.

68. Ibid., p.62.

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