Upon viewing statues and paintings of Pericles (c. 495-429 BCE), a common feature can be quickly spotted; he almost always is depicted with a helmet precariously balanced atop his head. The great Greek-Roman biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), proposed a reason for Pericles’ helmet headwear. After browsing through the history, folklore and literature that was available to him, Plutarch came to the conclusion that Pericles was depicted with a helmet to minimize a physical abnormality that the great Athenian leader was born with—an elongated head.
Plutarch, in his Parallel Lives, described Pericles as having a head that was “somewhat longish and out of proportion” (Life of Pericles, 3.2). As the historian, Thucydides, and the sculptors and artists of Athens idolized Pericles, Plutarch had to turn elsewhere for evidence of Pericles’ cranial shape. For this purpose, he evidently turned to 5th-century BCE poets and playwrights who were political enemies of Pericles. As those authors were rivals of Pericles, they did not hold back from poking fun at their rival’s deformities. The insult of “squill-head” was apparently a frequent way Pericles’ enemies referred to him, but the most explicit piece of mockery that Plutarch dug up belonged to a comic poet from Athens named Teleclides (flourished 5th century BCE). According to Plutarch, Teleclides wrote of Pericles:
“Fainting underneath the load
Of his own head; and now abroad,
From his huge galley of a pate,
Sends forth trouble to the state.”
(Parallel Lives, Life of Pericles, 3.4)
Thankfully for Pericles, the writings and artworks of his supporters outnumbered and outshined the products of his detractors. Therefore, instead of knowing him as a bulbous-headed rabble-rouser, his image has been preserved as a champion of democracy who happened to always wear a stylish helmet.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of a bust of Pericles included in the World’s Greatest Orations Vol. 1, by William Jennings Bryan and Francis Whiting Halsey (c. 1906), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Plutarch’s Lives edited by Charles W. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909, 1937.