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Pericles of Athens.

Pericles of Athens. By Vincent Azoulay. Translated by Janet Lloyd. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014. Pp. xiv, 291. $35.00.)

A historian might examine this new book and wonder how anyone could write a biography of Pericles. Is there really enough evidence? The short answer is no. Vincent Azoulay characterizes the source material as abundant but heterogeneous; however, all the ancient evidence could be appended to this volume if today's publishing trade allowed. The sources comprise the three great speeches and some comments in Thucydides's writings, miscellaneous gossip and invective, and a complete life by Plutarch, who lived centuries after his subject. Many ancient historians assume that Plutarch used valuable sources we can hardly imagine, and Azoulay relies heavily on his information. Yet the author warns us to beware "of drawing overhasty conclusions that are based solely on a reading of Plutarch" (35). Does this mean that an anecdote in Plutarch, when supported by Aelius Aristeides and a fragment of Stesimbrotos of Thasos, really yields something useful?

Azoulay is aware of these limitations. He still hangs his own portrait of Pericles on this meager hook but notes how scholars have offered radically different estimates based on the same material. His book exposes many unfounded assumptions. Two valuable chapters at the end discuss how in later times Pericles went through centuries of disgrace (fifteenth to eighteenth) and of rediscovery (eighteenth to twenty-first)--often for ideological reasons but also because of the evidence--the nastier attacks on Pericles, his family, and his associates were given greater or lesser weight.

Like any good biographer, Azoulay begins with his subject's early life (494/ 493 BC to the midcentury). Events in this period to which Pericles's name is attached reveal little--even his famous involvement with Ephialtes in the "reform" of the Areopagus Council. But the author uses these to portray the young man as a crafty politician in the making. When Pericles finally emerges from the shadows in the 440s, he begins his remarkable fifteen-year career as one of the ten generals (strategoi) who were elected by the demos and not chosen by lot. Azoulay explains why it is absurd to say that Pericles "ruled" Athens in any real sense. However, here again absence of evidence becomes the basis of an argument. Pericles's name does not appear on a single ancient decree, and yet this fact and various anecdotes supposedly suggest a clever strategy to influence events from behind the scenes.

Unfortunately, without reliable evidence it remains a stretch to say we know much at all about his influence on Athenian imperial ambitions. A weird chapter on the erotic messaging of Periclean democracy does not seem so strange when one recalls that in his funeral oration of 431 BC Pericles urged the Athenians to become lovers (erastai) of Athens. Pederastic associations are implied but not elaborated: Pericles was urging citizens to love the young democracy.

This is a thought-provoking book. For nonspecialists, much background material is provided to review the history necessary to understand Pericles. The problem is that the effects of time and perhaps a conscious strategy keep the man just out of view.

John M. Lawless

Providence College

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Author:Lawless, John M.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2016
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