The Peloponnesians commenced the war by an invasion of Attica, with a large army, under the command of the Spartan King Archidamus (B.C. 431). Pericles had instructed the inhabitants of Attica to secure themselves and their property within the walls of Athens. They obeyed his injunctions with reluctance, for the Attic population had from the earliest times been strongly attached to a rural life. But the circumstances admitted of no alternative. Archidamus advanced as far as Acharnae, a flourishing Attic borough situated only about seven miles from Athens. Here he encamped on a rising ground within sight of the metropolis, and began to lay waste the country around, expecting probably by that means to provoke the Athenians to battle. But in this he was disappointed. Notwithstanding the murmurs and clamours of the citizens Pericles remained firm, and steadily refused to venture an engagement in the open held. The Peloponnesians retired from Attica after still further ravaging the country; and the Athenians retaliated by making descents upon various parts of the coasts of Peloponnesus, and ravaging the territory of Megara.
Such were the results of the first campaign. From the method in which the war was conducted it had become pretty evident that it would prove of long duration; and the Athenians now proceeded to provide for this contingency. It was agreed that a reserve fund of 1000 talents should be set apart, which was not to be touched in any other case than an attack upon Athens by sea. Any citizen who proposed to make a different use of the fund incurred thereby the punishment of death. With the same view it was resolved to reserve every year 100 of their best triremes, fully manned and equipped.
Towards the winter Pericles delivered, from a lofty platform erected in the Ceramicus, the funeral oration of those who had fallen in the war. This speech, or at all events the substance of it, has been preserved by Thucydides, who may possibly have heard it pronounced. It is a valuable monument of eloquence and patriotism, and particularly interesting for the sketch which it contains of Athenian manners as well as of the Athenian constitution.
In the following year (B.C. 430) the Peloponnesians, under Archidamus, renewed their invasion of Attica. At the same time the Athenians were attacked by a more insidious and a more formidable enemy. The plague broke out in the crowded city. This terrible disorder, which was supposed to have originated in AEthiopia, had already desolated Asia and many of the countries around the Mediterranean. A great proportion of those who were seized perished in from seven to nine days. It frequently attacked the mental faculties, and left even those who recovered from it so entirely deprived of memory that they could recognise neither themselves nor others. The disorder being new, the physicians could find no remedy in the resources of their art. Despair now began to take possession of the Athenians. Some suspected that the Peloponnesians had poisoned the wells; others attributed the pestilence to the anger of Apollo. A dreadful state of moral dissolution followed. The sick were seized with unconquerable despondency; whilst a great part of the population who had hitherto escaped the disorder, expecting soon to be attacked in turn, abandoned themselves to all manner of excess, debauchery, and crime. The numbers carried off by the pestilence can hardly be estimated at less than a fourth of the whole population,
Oppressed at once by war and pestilence, their lands desolated, their homes filled with mourning, it is not surprising that the Athenians were seized with rage and despair, or that they vented their anger on Pericles, whom they deemed the author of their misfortunes. But that statesman still adhered to his plans with unshaken firmness. Though the Lacedaemonians were in Attica, though the plague had already seized on Athens, he was vigorously pushing his schemes of offensive operations. A foreign expedition might not only divert the popular mind but would prove beneficial by relieving the crowded city of part of its population; and accordingly a fleet was fitted out, of which Pericles himself took the command, and which committed devastations upon various parts of the Peloponnesian coast. But, upon returning from this expedition, Pericles found the public feeling more exasperated than before. Envoys had even been despatched to Sparta to sue for peace, but had been dismissed without a hearing; a disappointment which had rendered the populace still more furious. Pericles now found it necessary to call a public assembly in order to vindicate his conduct, and to encourage the desponding citizens to persevere. But though he succeeded in persuading them to prosecute the war with vigour; they still continued to nourish their feelings of hatred against the great statesman. His political enemies, of whom Cleon was the chief, took advantage of this state of the public mind to bring against him a charge of peculation. The main object of this accusation was to incapacitate him for the office of Strategus, or general. [The Strategi, or Generals, were ten in number, elected annually, and were intrusted not only with the command on military expeditions, but with the superintendence of all warlike preparations, and with the regulation of all matters in any way connected with the war department of the state.] He was brought before the dicastery on this charge, and sentenced to pay a considerable fine; but eventually a strong reaction occurred in his favour. He was re-elected general, and apparently regained all the influence he had ever possessed.
But he was not destined long to enjoy this return of popularity. His life was now closing in, and its end was clouded by a long train of domestic misfortunes. The epidemic deprived him not only of many personal and political friends, but also of several near relations, amongst whom were his sister and his two legitimate sons Xanthippus and Paralus. The death of the latter was a severe blow to him. During the funeral ceremonies, as he placed a garland on the body of this his favourite son, he was completely overpowered by his feelings and wept aloud. His ancient house was now left without an heir. By Aspasia, however, he had an illegitimate son who bore his own name, and whom the Athenians now legitimised and thus alleviated, as far as lay in their power, the misfortunes of their great leader.
After this period it was with difficulty that Pericles was persuaded by his friends to take any active part in public affairs; nor did he survive more than a twelvemonth. An attack of the prevailing epidemic was succeeded by a low and lingering fever, which undermined both his strength of body and vigour of intellect. As Pericles lay apparently unconscious on his death- bed, the friends who stood around it were engaged in recalling his exploits. The dying man interrupted them by remarking: "What you praise in me is partly the result of good fortune, and at all events common to me with many other commanders. What I chiefly pride myself upon you have not noticed--no Athenian ever wore mourning through me."
The enormous influence which Pericles exercised for so long a period over an ingenious but fickle people like the Athenians, is an unquestionable proof of his intellectual superiority. This hold on the public affection is to be attributed to a great extent to his extraordinary eloquence. Cicero regards him as the first example of an almost perfect orator, at once delighting the Athenians with his copiousness and grace, and overawing them by the force and cogency of his diction and arguments. He seems, indeed, to have singularly combined the power of persuasion with that more rapid and abrupt style of oratory which takes an audience by storm and defies all resistance. As the accomplished man of genius and the liberal patron of literature and art, Pericles is worthy of the highest admiration. By these qualities he has justly given name to the most brilliant intellectual epoch that the world has ever seen. But on this point we have already touched, and shall have occasion to refer hereafter in the sketch of Grecian literature.