Age of Pericles

Course No. 3317
Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
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Course No. 3317
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Course Overview

We call it the "Golden Age"—the period during the 5th century B.C. when the Greek city-state of Athens experienced a cultural flowering of extraordinary power and importance for Western culture. It is a period that still calls to us, still echoes, as we read the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides; gaze at architectural wonders like the Parthenon; consider the wisdom passed down from Socrates and Plato; or, perhaps most of all, consider the origins of our own democracy.

The Age of Pericles uses the career of the leading Athenian politician and general from c. 450–429 B.C. as a prism through which to view this brief but remarkable era, and to ask why that echo has persisted for so long.

In the generation that followed Pericles's appearance on the public stage shortly after the Persian wars, Athens rapidly transformed the alliance of Greek states—an alliance first created as a defense against the Persians—into a true Aegean empire, dominated by the Athenians and their mighty navy.

But this dramatic increase in military power, cultural influence, and prestige was also accompanied by something unique: the growth of full participatory democracy.

This course examines the daily workings of that democracy and the whole of Athenian culture, including:

  • how Athenians were trained for citizenship
  • what Athenian democracy actually meant in practice
  • the profound role of religion in Athenian life.

Were there Stains on the "Golden Age"?

But in examining the lives of Athenian men and women, this course also confronts aspects of the "Golden Age" whose echoes are far less glorious. It asks, fo example, what freedom and autonomy really meant to a society that relied on slaves and was ruthless in its treatment of its subjects.

To answer this and other questions, the course constantly juxtaposes the striking accomplishments of Athenian culture in such fields as philosophy, tragedy, comedy, sculpture, and architecture with its equally striking flaws, including:

  • the exclusion of women from public life
  • Athenian reliance on slavery, including the abuse of those slaves
  • the cruel treatment of other Greek populations.

In following Athens from the height of its power to its defeat at the hands of the far different Greek city-state of Sparta, these lectures produce a portrait of a complex people and a complicated culture whose ties to our own civilization are not casual, but deeply meaningful.

The Living Dialogue that is History

Gandhi was once asked what he thought of Western civilization, notes Professor Jeremy McInerney. He replied that he thought it would be a ‘good idea.'

"In the world after September 11, we have come to realize that there are those who loathe and despise everything Western," says Professor McInerney. "If that is so, then it is worth asking, ‘What is valuable in Western culture?'

"The Greeks demand that we learn about our own history, the roots that connect us to the past, the avenues by which the past has become the present. If our culture has real meaning, and if notions of justice, freedom, and equality are to be a reality, then we cannot live in a vacuum in which history is forgotten. We have to be aware of the past and engage with the living dialogue that is history."

The "Right" of Freedom?

As he leads you through daily life in Athens, Professor McInerney not only weaves in the underlying beliefs that drove those daily events, but also draws analogies with contemporary ideas and events to reveal how we are both like and unlike those ancient Athenians.

He reveals, for example, the origins of British common law in the archives of Athens as he explores some of the legal testimony left behind by the Athenians.

He also compares our conception of the term freedom with what the Greeks understood it to be, including the role of their stunning victory over the Persians in helping to amplify that understanding.

And if you are surprised to learn that the ancient Athenians—whom so many of us idealize as the spotless source of our ideas about democracy—considered freedom to be simply a status, and not a right at all, you'll likely be even more surprised to learn what comes next, for one of the Athenians' most important philosophical justifications for slavery was penned by, of all people, Aristotle.

Equally troubling to our contemporary ears, though hardly unexpected in the ancient world, was the position occupied by women, no matter how high on the social ladder.

Much of that becomes clear in Professor McInerney's argument that Aspasia, the long-term mistress of Pericles—what we would consider his common-law wife—and mother of his son, was never a prostitute, as her origins are commonly portrayed.

Dr. McInerney uses the famous case of a woman named Neaera to show how many different forces (particularly the concerns of property and citizenship, including Pericles's own role in redefining the latter) combined to sharply limit the role of women in ancient Athens. One of the most striking examples of that came in the famous funeral oration given by Pericles to honor the fallen of the first year of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta.

In an address otherwise remembered as an expression of the ideal of moderation—and perhaps the closest thing we have to a statement of the ideology of classical Athens—Pericles also reveals that for Athenian men, a public image was a source of pride, while for women such an image was cause for shame, as it went against the idea that women should be only in the background.

A Window on Ancient Athens

This well-rounded portrait of almost every aspect of Athenian life during the Golden Age includes:

  • The different ways Athens and Sparta raised their children. Including the Spartan practice of giving girls only the lightest of garments, the idea being to inure them to the cold to make them healthy and vigorous enough to raise the next generation of Spartans.
  • The fate of Athenian girls as mothers and managers of the household. Their figures on pottery have lighter skin—evidence of a life properly spent indoors—while Athenian boys received an intensely rich education.
  • Young Pericles's role in bringing Aeschylus's masterpiece, The Persians,to the stage, what it meant to his own career, and what it said about the obligations of the very rich in Athens
  • Why did Spartans reject the aid of Athens in putting down a slave revolt? The public humiliation over the rejection later led to the 10-year banishment of Cimon, the leading politician in Athens.
  • Solon, the Athenian lawgiver, introduced reforms including an important shift to wealth—which could be acquired—rather than birth as the determining factor of one's place in Athenian society.
  • Examining Thucydides's terrifying description of the Plague's physical and social impact on Athens—including the death of Pericles—and its possible role in the ultimate defeat of Athens by Sparta.
  • Athenians organized their busy lives around two distinct calendars, secular and religious; discover the Panathenaea, an extraordinary festival and procession that honored Athena. As one scholar has described that special day, "The city would have been resounding to the bellowing of cattle being dragged off to their slaughter. The acropolis, by the end of the day, would have been drenched in blood, flowing all over the rock, from the animals that had had their throats cut."

An Obsession with Property

The Athenians were obsessed with protecting the value of a family's property, and laws about marriage and inheritance created constant legal maneuvering.

Professor McInerney outlines the detailed record of a legal case that gives us a glimpse of the actual property and real goods of a well-to-do Athenian family, and the role of slavery in sustaining those families in their wealth.

He also describes Greek ideas about death and the way to honor both ordinary citizens and fallen heroes, including mourning processions that became so overwhelming that laws had to be passed to limit their size and cost; terracotta tubes leading into a burial mound to permit blood libations to be offered to the spirits; and the possibility that the bones brought back to Athens by Cimon—which he claimed to be those of Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur—might have been those of a dinosaur.

Art in the Age of Pericles

You examine the details of how some of the greatest plays of the Athenian stage were brought to life, such as:

  • Prometheus hurling defiance at the gods after giving fire to mankind in Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound
  • the surprising interpretation Professor McInerney gives to Euripides's Medea, revealing deeper meanings than those of the traditional reading of "Hell hath no fury"
  • the vigor and openness of Athenian comedy, in which no subject and no person, no matter how powerful, was above criticism and the most pointed satire imaginable.

A "Complex, Complicated Civilization"

The Age of Pericles tells the story of a time and people to whom we are inextricably bound. As Professor McInerney notes, "the Greeks established democracy, valued the rule of law, and articulated definitions of freedom and virtue. At the same time they owned slaves, denied women a public voice, and asserted their racial superiority.

"They were a complex, complicated civilization, and we are their descendants. These lectures examine that relationship, exploring much that was good and bad in the Golden Age of Pericles. By engaging with the Greeks, we may come to understand our own world more fully."

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Agora—An Ancient Marketplace
    This lecture introduces Athens's ancient marketplace, and focuses on its role as the center of Athenian commercial, religious, and political life. x
  • 2
    Athens and the Persian Wars
    We examine the two invasions by the Persians—the beginning of a split between east and west that still overshadows the modern world—that stimulated the fabulous growth of Athens in the 5th century B.C. x
  • 3
    The Athenian Empire
    Guided by both the writings of Thucydides and key Greek inscriptions, we tackle the difficult questions of how and when Athens was transformed from the victor of the Persian Wars into the imperial power of the Aegean. x
  • 4
    The Career of Pericles
    This lecture emphasizes the contradictions of a well-born man who flourished in a democratic system; achieved long-term power in a system designed to prevent it; and constantly advised caution even as he prepared Athens for war with Sparta. x
  • 5
    In examining the life of the woman who was Pericles's mistress and the mother of his son, this lecture separates myth from fact and reveals the peculiar intersections of gender, marriage and citizenship in Athenian society. x
  • 6
    Parthenon and Acropolis
    This lecture concentrates on the glorious building program associated with Pericles, who transformed what had been a motley assortment of shrines, temples, treasure houses, statues, and altars into an artistically integrated sanctuary. x
  • 7
    Panathenaea—The Festivals of Athena
    This examination of the great religious procession that dominated Athenian religious life every four years looks at the question of Athena's position as guardian of the city and the importance Athenians placed on celebrating that role. x
  • 8
    Paideia—Education in Ancient Athens
    How did a childhood in antiquity differ from one lived today? How were young Athenians educated in the age of Pericles? This lecture recreates the experience of childhood among the Greeks, and how children were prepared for their lives as citizens. x
  • 9
    Marriage in Pericles’s Athens
    One of the most dramatic legal cases to survive from the classical age comes down to us in the speech, Against Nearia, which illuminates both the position of women in Pericles's day and the extraordinary anxiety surrounding marriage. x
  • 10
    Family and Property
    This lecture draws on the large number of surviving legal speeches to investigate the complex web of family ties and property ownership—and resulting legal disputes—that dominated Athenian courts. x
  • 11
    Coins, Trade, and Business
    Coinage enters the Greek world in the 6th century B.C., making possible rapid development in trade and commerce that ultimately both reflects and reinforces Athens's supremacy under Pericles. x
  • 12
    Death and Burial
    This lecture examines not only Athenian attitudes towards death but also the practices associated with commemorating the dead—practices that periodically became so elaborate that laws had to be passed regulating them. x
  • 13
    Aeschylus and Early Tragedy
    We remember the Greeks for the searing dramas first written and performed in the age of Pericles by its three geniuses of tragedy: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. This lecture begins an examination of their most famous works with a look at Aeschylus's great masterpiece, Prometheus Bound. x
  • 14
    Sophoclean Tragedy
    This lecture turns the spotlight on Sophocles's Antigone, and the agony of a young woman who must choose between obedience to the state or the dictates of family honor. x
  • 15
    Euripides's Medea explores the questions of blood, community membership, and the desire for revenge in a play that is powerful precisely because it is not only universal, but very much the product of Athenian power in the 5th century B.C. x
  • 16
    Comedy in the Age of Aristophanes
    Athenian drama was far from just tragedy. The Athenians of Pericles's time were remarkable for the pleasures they took in comedies that, by our standards, might seem crude, vulgar, and sexually explicit—yet testified to the vigor and openness of their society. x
  • 17
    Athenian Courts and Justice
    The Athenians were justifiably proud of their legal system and saw it as the basis of their democracy. This lecture examines the history of their law and how it differed from modern codes and practices. x
  • 18
    Democracy and Government
    Because the Athenians of Pericles's day lived in a democracy, it is easy to assume that their political life was like our own. It was, in fact, very different. x
  • 19
    The Age of Moderation
    What did the Athenians mean by "moderation," and why was this virtue so highly regarded? We examine a concept whose origins extend back to a Delphic maxim, but which had a broad application to the political life and culture of Pericles's Athens. x
  • 20
    Freedom, Equality, and the Rights of Man
    Though we associate the Greeks with concepts like freedom and equality, and often assume that our understanding of these ideas derives from them, Athenian understanding of these terms was far different from ours. x
  • 21
    Athens after Pericles
    As Athens's inevitable war with Sparta erupts, Athens is rocked by both the arrival of plague and the death of Pericles. This lecture examines whether victory would have been possible anyway, and whether Pericles, for all his brilliance, may have doomed Athens to an unwinnable war. x
  • 22
    Socrates and the Sophists
    The defeat of Athens had enormous repercussions beyond the political life of Athens. We observe those repercussions as events at the end of the 5th century B.C. transform Socrates from a harmless professor to a political scapegoat. x
  • 23
    The same events that brought about the death of Socrates also molded the career of his star student, Plato. Together, the two provided Western thought with a moral compass and metaphysical outlook that still sustain and define us. x
  • 24
    An Elegy to Athens
    At a time when cultures appear to be moving towards more open conflict, this lecture examines our connections with the Athenians, and asks whether or not there is a balance sheet that can help us evaluate the Athenians and calculate our debt to them. x

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Your professor

Jeremy McInerney

About Your Professor

Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Jeremy McInerney is Davidson Kennedy Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. McInerney earned his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He was the Wheeler Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and has excavated in Israel, at Corinth, and on Crete. He serves on the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece....
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Age of Pericles is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 49.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Equality of the Privileged, Freedom for the Free In this excellent course, Professor McInerney demonstrates that Athenian democracy was not ours. Sovereignty and civic identity were confined to the city itself and the surrounding region of Attica rather than larger territories like Denmark or France, let alone the United States, so patriotism was local. Rather than elect representatives to a legislature, the entire citizen body turned out to pass laws itself. Some executive officials were chosen by lot, a great way today—if we did the same—to do away with campaigns and campaign spending. These features of the constitution blurred the line between ordinary citizens and the political class that is so prominent today. Unfortunately, Athens did anticipate modern democracy in the sense of ethno-nationalists like Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Donald Trump. Freedom and equality were the birthright of citizen males, denied to free women, slaves and resident aliens (metics). Only citizen males could vote or hold office. Resident aliens were welcome to stay, but only so long as they ran businesses. Under Pericles Athens made citizenship impossible to get without being born to two Athenian parents, unless one could get special legislation—exactly what Pericles did for his son by the metic Aspasia. The Athenians purported to champion “eleutheria”—the freedom of Greek states from foreign rule—but they ruthlessly subjugated their allies during and after the common war against Persia, squeezing tribute from them. As McInerney points out in the final lecture, the city’s cultural achievements rested on the labor and money of these disenfranchised and downtrodden populations. On the other hand, those achievements were considerable. We have Athens to thank for the birth of drama. It was Athens that produced the philosophies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Athenians funneled much of the tribute they received into some of the world’s most beautiful temples on the Acropolis. The city was great and remained great until it lost the Peloponnesian War to Sparta and its allies, largely because of strategic mistakes born of arrogance and poor leadership. The course is well-rounded and excellent. It covers Athenian politics, legal practice, economics, the household, family life, the problems of inheritance, education, and funerals. The first lecture, in which McInerney gives us a tour of the agora, is great. He shares with us personal details about famous Athenians like Pericles, but also about obscure people now remembered only in trial speeches, like Neaera and her husband Stephanus, both accused of falsely passing off their children as citizens. He gives very good summaries of the tragedies Prometheus Bound (Aeschylus), Antigone (Sophocles), and Medea (Euripides) and of the comedies Lysistrata and The Clouds (Aristophanes). It’s too bad the course is now available only as an audio download, so you can’t see any photos of art and architecture. There are only two maps in the guidebook, a very helpful one of the Agora, and a bland one of the Greek Peninsula. The only jarring note is irrelevant to the subject matter; for some reason Professor McInerney mentions the recent “bombings” of September 11, 2001 even though no bombs were involved except the airplanes flown by the suicide hijackers. The Athenians knew all about assassination, and they celebrated Harmodius and Aristogeiton, the murderers of the tyrant Hipparchus, but at least they were innocent of terrorism.
Date published: 2019-09-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent content and superb lecturer I found the course fascinating and enlightening. It clarified a number of facts about Athens at its zenith -- both good and bad by our standards -- and gave a sense of the era a feeling of currency and relevance. There were times that I felt I was listening to a lecture on current events. There were some amusing moments (such as when the Professor McInerney, in his Aussie accent used the phrase "get out of Dodge", which seemed a bit incongruous, but in a delightful way...).
Date published: 2018-09-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An engaging, terrific course on Classical Athens For anyone with an interest in Classical Greece, or the cultural legacy it has bequeathed the modern West, this course is simply amazing. The lectures include everything from vivid descriptions of the art and architecture, to the structure and function of the important Athenian institutions (the Assembly, the courts), to the contemporary and modern-day relevance of the great Athenian dramatists and philosophers. It's a comprehensive "snapshot" of private and public life at the height of Classical Athens, and the perfect companion to Prof. Harl's equally superb course on the Peloponnesian War. I used this series extensively while writing a historical novel set in Classical Athens. Prof. McInerney is a terrific lecturer with an easy manner that's a pleasure to listen to. Many of the lectures I listened to repeatedly, not only for research, but simply for enjoyment. Can't say enough good things about the series!
Date published: 2018-03-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The golden Age Made Personal This course almost seems a throwaway. After all, who does not know of the Golden Age of Athens? Of the playwrights: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Eurpides and Aristophanes? Or the Parthenon and the Acropolis? So while I expected to refresh my knowledge and learn a few things, I pretty much thought I knew most of the material that would be covered (even though most of it many years ago). I must admit that Professor McInerney pleasantly surprise me, beginning with lecture one. His description of the Agora was detailed and took me right there. While I had known the term I had not realized how much a part of daily life it was, certainly not in the detail presented. I also was pleased with the detail on the festivals (lecture seven) and on the general descriptions of life as it was lived by the Athenians during this time: everything from marriage, family life, through death and burial. There was not much new (to me) presented on Pericles himself or his career, or his family (although there was a lot of good detail on his mistress, Aspasia). The same with the bios of Socrates and Plato. What I found most interesting were the lectures on Athenian courts and justice system. Here Dr. McInerney gives the most detailed description on the jury selection process that I have encountered. As expected from the title, the scope to this course is quite limited, not a negative thing, as it allows for more detail on the topics chosen than one might otherwise get. For example, four full lectures on the plays, play-going and writers was satisfying, allowing as it did for a lot of detail. If there is a downside, Professor McInerney is not the most dynamic speaker in TTG series. Perhaps a part of this is his speaking style. I know his undergraduate degree was from an Australian university, but his accent sounds like he is from South Africa to me. In any case he speaks in a very precise, clipped fashion that comes across as a bit pedantic (perhaps no bad thing from a professor). Even so a well done course and recommended to those who want to know more about Athens at its peak and who don’t expect a history.
Date published: 2018-03-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The glory that was Ancient Athens The Athens under the rule of Pericles is one of the most remarkable time periods in human history. This courses made me really wish that I was living in Classical Athens and experience all the cultures that were taking place at that time. But what Professor McInerney made me the question was whether or not Athens was a real democracy despite the naval empire that it held. And it made me think further about our republic as well. Can we call ourselves a democracy if we hold an empire? That is what great history professors do. They make you think about how the ancient apply to yourself. This course is a good companion course to the one Professor McInerney had also done on Ancient Greek Civilization. This course allows him to zero in on some of the triumphs and tragedies of Athenian greatness I already know a lot of Ancient Greece it is always good to know more.
Date published: 2018-03-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Super way to increase knowledge of era I enjoyed immensely listening to Professor McInerney's lectures on the Age of Pericles. Before listening, I had some knowledge of the age of Pericles (I read the History of the Peloponnesian War long ago), but I had gaps in my knowledge. The professor has a vast knowledge of ancient Greece and its society, the geography of the Greek world and the language. Best of all, he communicates his knowledge in a entertaining way. As in all history, there are lessons to be learned for modern people. For example, the professor speculates whether a nation can be a democracy at home and an imperial power abroad. Good lessons for 19th Century Britain and 21st Century America.
Date published: 2017-02-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Not As Specific As I Thought, But... I had anticipated a course more specifically on Pericles, his life and times. Instead the course was much more broad, listing the life & times of Athens during Pericles reign. Quite frankly, any disappointment I had in the content was my issue; it seems the course description does indicate it would be more broad than just Pericles, I guess I read the description through my own lens. That being said, if you have an interest in better understanding ancient Greece, this is an excellent course. The material is presented quite comfortably by the professor and, despite me wanting more narrow subject matter, I enjoyed the overall material....Even found myself having a paradigm shift or two, which is what an education is all about!
Date published: 2016-10-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from It would of been nice to see some photos of the Agora. In addition when he talks about the columns of the Partheon he leaves an important point how they were shaped so that they looked straight when viewed from a distance. He also does not mention the Carytids at all when talking about the Erechtheion.
Date published: 2016-09-29
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