Review: The Trial of Pericles Examines Subversion of the Law in a Democracy

This week the Hellenic Museum presented its annual historic trial re-enactment. The Trial of Pericles: Hero or Tyrant? You Decide. was an imagined enactment of a trial for Pericles, the Athenian statesman and soldier. It was a lively—if long—2 and 1/2 hours, featuring local judges, attorneys, and politicians. Pericles was born circa 495 BCE into a wealthy family of politicians and nobles. His uncle Cleisthenes is credited with inventing democracy, and a half-century later, Pericles ruled Athens for 33 years as a democracy. Athens prospered under Pericles' leadership despite the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and the plotting by the leaders of Macedonia for a coup.

In 431, Pericles decided to change the Athenian constitution, mandating that only persons born to parents both of Athenian descent are true citizens with all the rights and privileges of that birthright. Therein lies the problem that sounds familiar time and again throughout the ages. The Citizenship Law disenfranchised 25% of the population. He then petitioned the assembly to make his son Pericles the Younger a full Athenian citizen. He sired that son with longtime companion, scholar, and philosopher Aspasia of Miletus. What the what? He banishes a chunk of the population. Husbands divorced their wives leaving them impoverished and their children illegitimate, and Pericles wanted to make his son begat out of wedlock with a foreign woman, an Athenian. This subversion of stated law was the crime that Athenians believed Pericles committed but he died from the Athenian plague before he could be prosecuted.

Judge Paul C. Lillios (seated) and Tinos Diamantatos. Photo by Elios Photography.

Three judges presided over The Trial of Pericles. The Honorable Anna H. Democopoulos (Ret) was the presiding judge flanked by the Honorable Anthony C. Kiriakopoulos and the Honorable Lindsay C. Jenkins. Emcee Andrea Darlas, a WGN radio personality, brought the court to order. The celebrity jurors included radio host Steve Cochran, 34th ward Alderman Bill Conway, and the Democratic nominee for Cook County State's Attorney, Eileen O'Neill Burke. The attorneys, jurors, Pericles, and witness Olympia were all portrayed by prominent attorneys.

Pericles was played by Judge Paul C. Lillios (Ret). He still practices law in addition to extensive theater training and feature film appearances. Lillios played a decent Pericles but should have made his argument more vociferous. Pericles was known as a great orator and even his enemy Thucydides transcribed his most famous speeches. I expected a bit more arrogance because of his status as a leader and victorious general. However, the lowkey manner was handy when the prosecution was grilling him.

Bust of Pericles, ca 430 BCE. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Judge Megan Goldish played Olympia, who lost her husband and dowry when her husband booted her out because she was born in Macedonia. Her children were also plunged into poverty. Her daughter now cleaned houses in Athens alongside her mother. Her son fought in the army against Sparta but was conscripted into poverty and shame. Goldish also has theater and music training. Her Olympia was hilarious using Greek slang and mannerisms including pretending to spit three times on the floor to show disgust for her ex-husband's new wife.

The prosecution and defense lawyers were great to watch. I wouldn't want to be on the bad side of prosecutor Tinos Diamantatos. As an imposing blend of bulldog lawyer and "Chicago Guy," Diamantos hammered away at Pericles in his closing argument. He had the best line of the evening, "Just because I roll up my pants leg doesn't make them shorts." He could easily play a prosecutor on any of the Dick Wolf TV series. Patrick Collins made a great opening statement explaining why subverting established law was a crime. Patrick Salvi as the defense lawyer was funny and almost convincing. However, Katerina Alexopoulos ground them under her cool red shoes. Alexopoulos is an assistant chief counsel for Homeland Security who successfully revoked the US naturalization of a war criminal who helped perpetuate the Srebrenica Massacre in Bosnia.

Pericles' defense argued that he did what he had to do to uplift the middle class and empower women. They claimed that the wealthier class took on young wives from noble families thereby opening Athens to threats from enemies with wealth and resources to overthrow Athens. He made Pericles the Younger a full Athenian because his two sons from his marriage perished in the plague. The most ridiculous argument was that he empowered the women of Athens because they would be the vessels of the new 100% Athenian population. Women had no other rights, and could not vote, run for office, or speak in public. Women served as brood mares, which went over like a lead balloon with the judges and the women in the audience.

The ushers passed out little bags containing white chips for innocent and blue chips for guilty. The scale of justice was brought to the stage and the blue chips outweighed the white chips. Pericles was found guilty. If this were 431 BCE, he might have been exiled. If this took place in current times, he may have gotten away with it. Even if it is total horse puckey, America is witnessing how rhetoric can mesmerize the masses. Almost every politician in our history has come from money or American "royalty." Most of the time, money talks despite whatever heinous actions take place.

It felt good to see the defeat of an elitist and possible plagiarist. Rumor has it that Aspasia wrote those great speeches that Pericles used. Maybe hush money was involved. Who knows. The Trial of Pericles: Hero or Tyrant? You Decide, was performed one night only, April 17, at the Harris Theater.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.