Chris's Reviews > Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy

Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy by Donald Kagan
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May 12, 12

bookshelves: nonfiction-biography
Read in May, 2012

It is little wonder that Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was inspired by Pericles' "Funeral Oration." (Incidentally, The argument for this is brilliantly laid forth by Garry Wills in LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG, which I can't recommend enough.) Both Lincoln and Pericles, separated by 2,300 years, faced seemingly insurmountable odds during massive conflicts that threatened to rip their nations apart. Both men were tasked with persuading a fickle democratic people to sustain this war effort in the face of mounting setbacks, costs, and casualties. Both succeeded, at least in some measure. It is no small historical irony that both of these men would die, directly in consequence of the wars that occasioned their great speeches, before their plans came to fruition.

This is not to suggest the the bulk of this biography on Pericles--the greatest democratic leader produced by ancient Athens--focuses solely on Pericles' speeches or even on the Peloponnesian War (a 30-year conflict that in any case began only two years prior to Pericles' death). Instead, Donald Kagan (whose masterful THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR is a must-read) uses the limited historical sources available to construct a meaningful and insightful portrait into the man and the society in which he lived.

In fact, this is a biography in name only; it is just as much a superb history of the classical, Golden age of Athens, right up until the plague that beset the city two years into the Peloponnesian War. The problems facing democracies--everything from the tyranny of the majority to the danger of demagoguery--is examined closely. Worth reading (although it would have more meaning and impact if you've read some other, more general ancient Greek history first).
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