The golden age of Athenian culture is usually dated from 449 to 431 B.C., the years of relative peace between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars. After the second Persian invasion of Greece in 479, Athens and its allies throughout the Aegean formed the Delian League, a military alliance focused on the Persian threat. Following a failed Athenian attack on the Persians in Egypt in 454, Athens’ leaders pushed to transfer the League’s treasury from Delos to Athens. Three years later, a coinage decree imposed Athenian weights and measures throughout the league. By the time Pericles was elected strategos, the league was well on its way to becoming an Athenian empire.
During the 440s and 430s Pericles tapped the league’s treasury to fund vast cultural projects in Athens, most notably a series of structures on the city’s hilltop Acropolis: the temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheum and the towering Parthenon. Built to the highest standards of aesthetics, engineering and mathematics, these white marble structures were decorated with intricate statues and friezes carved by the era’s greatest sculptors.
Pericles’ social innovations were equally important to the era. He worked to democratize the fine arts by subsidizing theater admission for poorer citizens and enabled civic participation by offering pay for jury duty and other civil service. Pericles maintained close friendships with the leading intellects of his time. The playwright Sophocles and the sculptor Phidias were among his friends. Pericles’ consort Aspasia, one of the best-known women of ancient Greece, taught rhetoric to the young philosopher Socrates. Pericles himself was a master orator. His speeches and elegies (as recorded and possibly interpreted by Thucydides) celebrate the greatness of a democratic Athens at its peak.