You are here

Themistocles, Pericles, and Anaxagoras' trial for studying astronomy

Richard Janko

University of Michigan

The biography of Anaxagoras (500–428), the greatest scientist of antiquity, has long been hotly contested, without any consensus being reached. There is doubt over (1) his link to Themistocles, (2) which thirty years he spent in Athens, and (3) the date of his trial for impiety after the decree of Diopeithes had outlawed astronomy. His biography is of extraordinary importance for the history of science, for Greek religion and for 5th-century Athenian politics in equal measure. I will argue that the tangle over it can be resolved by settling three points.

            1. Anaxagoras' original patron was Themistocles, but only after the latter had been exiled from Athens and gone to Asia Minor in c.464 as a "Medizer", ingratiating himself with the newly enthroned Artaxerxes I. Themistocles set Anaxagoras up in Lampsacus on the Hellespont, one of the towns that had been given him by the Great King, after Anaxagoras had famously "predicted" the fall of the meteor that landed at Aegospotami nearby in 466/5 bce (this meteor-shower was spun off from Halley's comet, and other rocks landed at Abydus and Potidaea). Anaxagoras acquired pupils there like Metrodorus of Lampsacus. This will explain why Pericles sent Anaxagoras to Lampsacus after his trial in 430 (did he still own a house there?), and why Anaxagoras was accused of Medism (D. L. 2. 12, citing Satyrus F 16 Schorn).

            2. After Themistocles' death, Anaxagoras went to Athens in 460/459, to become Pericles' mentor, and stayed there thirty years, i.e. until 430/429. The period of thirty years relies on D. L. 2. 7 and the determination below of the date when Anaxagoras was exiled from Athens.

            3. On August 3, 431, Pericles was a trierarch in an expedition against the Peloponnese led by Carcinus and others when the sun was totally eclipsed as the fleet was in the Piraeus. Plutarch relates that his helmsman was afraid to continue because of the evil omen, but Pericles tried to dispel his fear by holding his cloak in front of his face, relying on Anaxagoras' explanation of eclipses (Plut. Per. 35. 2–3). The expedition sailed and returned successfully. Pericles led a similar expedition against Epidaurus a year later, which failed badly; Plutarch has conflated the two expeditions (Stadter 1989). The troops' return coincided with the virulent outbreak of plague in Athens, with the results that Thucydides records. People recalled the incident with the helmsman, and there was religious hysteria against Pericles and his mentor. This movement was lent legitimacy by the seer Diopeithes; the latter's decree banning astronomy targeted Anaxagoras specifically, evoking him by its use of the Ionic term μετάρσια instead of μετέωρα (Plut. Per. 32. 1). Anaxagoras was flogged, jailed and half-starved in jail, presumably because the plague was going on. While he was in jail, Pericles personally brought him the news that his sons had died (D.L. 2. 13, citing Hermippus), again presumably of plague. He was prosecuted by both Thucydides son of Melesias (back in 433 from his ostracism of 443, as comedy attests) and by Cleon (D. L. 2. 12, quoting Satyrus and Sotion respectively); they worked together to undermine Pericles by pointing to his "atheistic" mentor, in the pattern of earlier trials of Pericles' friends, notably Pheidias, whose trial began only in 432/1 (Bakola 2011, relying on Philochorus FGrH 328 F 121). Late in 430 Pericles shipped his older friend back to Lampsacus, where, exhausted and depressed, the great scientist soon died. The fate of Galileo comes to mind.

            The argument will rely on close analysis of the sources for the Aegospotami meteor, for Anaxagoras' trial and imprisonment, for the eclipse of 431 and expeditions of 431–430, and for the decree of Diopeithes.  

Session/Panel Title

Science in Context

Session/Paper Number

57.2

Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy