Pericles’ Statesmanship: Democratic Imperialism and Transformational Statecraft

29 Pages Posted: 10 Sep 2009

See all articles by Mark Menaldo

Mark Menaldo

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: September 10, 2009


[enter Abstract Body]In this paper, I argue that Pericles’ statesmanship offers an example of a rarer kind of ambition and the practice of statecraft that is not reducible to the extant theories of leadership in international relations. The realist perspective subjects leaders to the same functional necessity, state survival in the international system. Domestic theories attribute leaders' preferences to the domestic political system, the constituencies they are beholden to, and assume that their foreign policies are universally motivated by the desire to gain and remain in power. Although Pericles worked within the parameters of Athenian democracy and made Athens’ more democratic, his preternatural authority led Thucydides’ description of Athens as a democracy in name only, and effectively the rule of one man. Thucydides invites us to think about the nature of Pericles’ leadership and his political motivation. Did Pericles want to expand democracy out of principle or use the democratic base to attain political power? Was he loyal to his supporters, the laws of the city, divine laws, or to his own ideas and desires? What role did the Athenian empire play in his plans, and why did he pursue the international policies that he did?

I define Pericles’ political motivation as grander ambition that was expressed in the desire to achieve eternal Athenian glory. Pericles’ political goals were visionary and their implementation depended upon his statesmanship on both domestic and the international levels. Pericles’ tenure in office was long and his influence was unmatched. As such a rare and gifted politician, he could channel his political ambition beyond the desire to sustain his office. Although he maintained popular appeal throughout his rule by satisfying public demands and expectations, as modern theories would predict, what Pericles did most effectively was to actually modify the public’s opinions and political orientation. He made them agree to policies that did violence against their most ingrained habits and sentiments. Therefore, contrary to extant political science theories about politics and policy, Pericles shaped and changed citizens’ preferences, rather than mechanically respond to them.

The realization of Pericles’ Athenian ideal depended on attaining unrivaled political and moral superiority that was contingent on managing a growing empire. In peace, the expansion and management of the empire was an integral part of Pericles’ international statecraft. As circumstances between Sparta and Athens worsened Pericles shifted his imperial strategy toward a defense of Athens. Pericles’ grand strategy rested on the defense of the empire, because the empire itself was the mechanism that would enable Athens to endure the war. Using a radical defensive strategy, he holed up the Athenians inside the city walls. Pericles’ international decision put his domestic transformation of citizen psychology through two severe tests. First, he called on Athenians to jettison a heroic confrontation on the battlefield and become averse to losses with no prospect of gains, which was radical departure from the abundant benefactions that the empire bestowed on Athenians. Second, Pericles’ well crafted and rationalist defensive strategy was suddenly disrupted by the plague that decimated Athens and eventually struck down Pericles.

Suggested Citation

Menaldo, Mark, Pericles’ Statesmanship: Democratic Imperialism and Transformational Statecraft (September 10, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Mark Menaldo (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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