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Bust of Pericles

Bust of Pericles - British Museum - Joy of Museums

Bust of Pericles

This marble portrait bust is of Pericles wearing a military helmet pushed back on his head. Pericles (495 – 429 BC) was a prominent and influential Greek statesman, a famous orator and the general of Athens during their Golden Age. Pericles has been called “the first citizen of Athens” as he turned the Delian League into an Athenian empire, and then led the Athenians during the first two years of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles fostered Athenian democracy to such an extent that critics call him a populist.

Pericles time as the leader has been called the “Age of Pericles”, as he substantially promoted the arts and literature. Through his efforts, Athens achieved its reputation as the educational and cultural centre of the ancient Greek world. He started the ambitious projects that generated most of the surviving structures on the Acropolis including the Parthenon. These projects beautified the city and exhibited its glory.

Pericles’ most visible legacy can be found in the literary and artistic works of the Athenian Golden Age, most of which survive to this day. The freedom of expression that he fostered is regarded as the lasting legacy of this period. Pericles was lauded as the ideal statesman, and his Funeral Oration is synonymous with the struggle for participatory democracy and civic pride. In Pericles’ Funeral Oration, Pericles mourned the deaths of soldiers in the beginning battles of the Peloponnesian War, and it has been the standard to which other famous speeches including Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” are measured.

Our polity does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. It is called a democracy because not the few but the many govern. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. ”
— Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration

This bust is a Roman, 2nd century AD copy of a lost Greek original of around 440-430BC, and Pericles name is inscribed in Greek on the front of the bust as ПΕΡΙΚΛΕΣ. The discovery of this statue was made during an excavation project sponsored by Pope Pius VI at Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli in the 1770s. This idealised image of Pericles presents him as the Athenian model of a citizen soldier.

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“Therefore, having judged that to be happy means to be free, and to be free means to be brave, do not shy away from the risks of war.”
– Pericles

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Photo Credit: 1) JOM