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CAT 8. Engraved by George Cooke. Pericles. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 6. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1810. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Pericles (495? – 429 B.C.), Athenian statesman, orator, general. From HG 6: “Few men have so well served their country as Pericles. He was great in war, but still greater in peace. Placed in the first rank among the Athenians by his eloquence, his talents, and his virtues, an enlightened protector of the arts, ambitious of every species of glory, he well deserved that posterity should distinguish, by his name, the age to which he was so illustrious an ornament. . . . Pericles devoted himself to the study of philosophy from his earliest years . . . but the talent which [he] cultivated with the greatest care . . . was that of public speaking. . . . Incessantly occupied with the administration of public affairs, and devoting all his leisure hours to the study of those he intended to govern, Pericles, after having reflected on his conduct, judged it expedient to live in retirement, to avoid the applause of the people . . . . [He] covered Athens with temples and edifices. . . . The greater glory Pericles acquired the more envy he excited. Not daring, at first, to attack him in his private life, which was irreproachable, they attacked the persons of those he loved. In Anaxagoras, his master, in Phidias, his protégé, and in his wife Aspasia, the repository of all his projects, and his tenderest friend.” In his dying speech, having been criticized for excess caution in the conduct of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles declared that his “exploits were the work of fortune, and common to me with other generals:--the only encomiums I merit as a minister, a general, and as a man, is, that not a citizen in Athens has been obliged to put on mourning on my account” (n.p.).

That Pericles was for Melville a touchstone for a man and culture at their highest reach is obvious in several poems. In “Rolfe and Derwent” in Clarel, Rolfe uses the example of contemporary Greece to argue that physical evolution in “man and nation” can go hand in hand with spiritual degradation:

These Greeks indeed they wear the kilt
Bravely; they skim their lucid seas;
But, prithee, where is Pericles?
Plato is where? Simonides? (NN C 2.8.30-33)

In “The Parthenon” Pericles is back in his own time, receiving at the very moment of its completion, from one person at least, full appreciation for a surpassing human achievement:

When the last marble tile was laid
The winds died down on all the seas;
Hushed were the birds, and swooned the glad;
Ictinus sat; Aspasia said
“Hist!—Art’s meridian, Pericles!” (NN PP 303).