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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 3 - Classical Drama  


Pericles' Funeral Oration

"Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the history of the war between the Peloponnesus and the Athenians." Thus begins The Peloponnesian War, written by an Athenian general exiled in 424 B.C. for losing a battle in that war. His own experience in the field and subsequent enforced detachment from military action allowed Thucydides to compile a scrupulously observed record of verifiable events that differs significantly from oral, poetic, legendary accounts of the past. Thucydides was not the first historian; not only did several Greek writers of the fifth century, most notably Herodotus, precede him, but outside of Europe, historians of other cultures had recorded events centuries before, each seeing a different purpose in writing about the past. Chinese history, for example, focuses on didactic biographies, and biblical history on the providential hand of God in human events. These emphases are by no means limited to specific cultures, however, for historians may as a group be divided among those who use the past to teach moral lessons, those who use it to create mythic types, and those, like Thucydides, who emphasize the pains taken to test their data. Believing that history should provide a rigorous analysis of political motives and military strategies, and appeal to reason rather than faith, Thucydides exemplifies the third kind of historian.

While his attention focuses beyond the achievements of individual men, Thucydides nevertheless left an indelible portrait of Pericles, who rose to power in 461 B.C. and was re-elected year after year to lead the Athenian democracy until he died of the plague in 429 B.C. In the second book of The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides methodically describes the first campaigns of the war and contrasts the naval power of Athens with the military might of Sparta. He draws a personalized contrast between the two rival states by juxtaposing a brief speech of the king of Sparta, who urges his troops to be obedient and disciplined, with a longer speech by Pericles, a eulogy given in honor of the first to suffer death in the Athenian cause.

Like Herodotus, Thucydides offers creative reconstructions of orations he could not have heard personally; significantly, these historians, who lived in the first Greek era dominated by the written word, continued to affirm the crucial role of speech in human events. Today, with visual images dominating the culture, politicians have learned to present themselves skillfully by using television. In classical Greece, the equivalent skill was to deliver a good oration. Since Thucydides knew Pericles well, and was very likely a witness to the funeral oration, some scholars believe that here, in the best remembered section of The Peloponnesian War, some actual phrases of the Athenian leader are preserved. This translation by Richard Crawley was first published in 1876.

From The Peloponnesian War

"Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to save the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

'Further, we provide plenty of means for the mind to refresh itself from business. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our private establishments forms a daily source of pleasure and helps to banish the spleen; while the magnitude of our city draws the produce of the world into our harbour, so that to the Athenian the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of his own.

'If we turn to our military policy, there also we differ from our antagonists. We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, although the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality; trusting less in system and policy than to the native spirit of our citizens; while in education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after manliness, at Athens we live exactly as we please, and yet are just as ready to encounter every legitimate danger. In proof of this it may be noticed that the Lacedaemonians [Spartans] do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all their confederates; while we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbour, and fighting upon a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes.

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'Nor are these the only points in which our city is worthy of admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy; wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters; for, unlike any other nation, regarding him who takes no part in these duties not as unambitious but as useless, we Athenians are able to judge at all events if we cannot originate, and instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.

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'In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas; while I doubt if the world can produce a man, who where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves. For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule. Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us. Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died; and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause.

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'Comfort, therefore, not condolence, is what I have to offer to the parents of the dead who may be here. Numberless are the chances to which, as they know, the life of man is subject; but fortunate indeed are they who draw for their lot a death so glorious as that which has caused your mourning, and to whom life has been so exactly measured as to terminate in the happiness in which it has been passed. . . . if I must say anything on the subject of female excellence to those of you who will now be in widowhood, it will be all comprised in this brief exhortation. Great will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men whether for good or for bad."

Questions for Discussion

  1. Using the traditional methods of the philosopher-teachers of his age, Thucydides (or Pericles, if these are indeed his words) relies on argumentative techniques that we recognize as the mode of comparison and contrast. In how many ways and to what effect are Athens and Sparta set against each other in this analysis?
  2. What does Pericles means when he says that Athenians do not need "a Homer for our panegyrist"? Funerals, as readers of the Iliad know, are important events in Homer. Can you see evidence in this funeral oration that Homeric ideas persisted in Periclean Athens?
  3. Judging from this excerpt, would you say that Pericles was a good political leader? What evidence would you cite in answering this question?
  4. What is the role of women in Athens, according to the conclusion of Pericles' funeral oration? How does the tone of the speech change when he addresses the widows of the dead?


The Ages of Classical Antiquity
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Classical Drama

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