II.43: Context and Meaning

Introduction to the Funeral Oration

Understanding the Passage (Key Questions)

Understanding the Passage (Some Answers)

Further Reading

 

Introduction to the Funeral Oration

In 431 BCE, at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War, held their traditional public funeral for all those who had been killed.  After the dead had been buried in a public grave, one of the leading citizens, chosen by the city, would offer a suitable speech, and on this occasion Pericles was chosen.  The Funeral Oration has become one of the most famous and influential passages in Thucydides’ work; it offers a stirring tribute to the culture of Athens, to democracy and freedom, and it celebrates the men who are willing to die for their city.

How far Thucydides recorded Pericles’ exact words, and how far he offers rather paraphrase or even invention, is as always a matter of dispute.  Thucydides had to rely on memory, his own and others’, and said himself that the speeches in his work were not exact records of what was said but presented the speaker’s main points and what was appropriate to the situation (see I.22).  Thucydides used this opportunity to recreate the experience of listening to the greatest orator of his time, and at the same time to give his reader a sense of Pericles’ own ideas and of the ideals that inspired the Athenians; and, as always, he wanted his readers to think about those ideas and ideals, and to compare them to the reality of events.

The Funeral Oration was recognised as a rhetorical masterpiece, and so from the sixteenth century onwards it was often included in collections of ancient speeches that were used to teach students the principles of rhetoric.  Its content could be more problematic.  Before the nineteenth century, ‘democracy’ was regarded by most people as mob rule, and so a speech in praise of democracy was of little use; one French translation at the time of the Revolution used phrases like “our constitution is called ‘popular’” rather than “our constitution is called a democracy” to avoid the negative overtones of the word.  Thereafter, however, especially through the influence of the British historian George Grote and his friend the philosopher John Stuart Mill, democracy was seen as a good thing, and Pericles’ speech became its most powerful celebration.  In the First World War, for example, quotes from the speech were posted as advertisements in London buses, to inspire the reader with patriotic spirit.  In books of quotations, the Funeral Oration always provides most of the entries for Thucydides; these are the lines he is most famous for, and politicians – especially in the United States – regularly quote these lines in speeches.

Pericles’ speech has also played an important role, as you would expect, in commemorating those who have died in war.  It has been argued that Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address in 1863 was influenced by it; that is very uncertain, but the other speech on that occasion, a mammoth two-hour effort by one Edward Everett, constantly referred to it.  Special editions of the Funeral Oration were published in Britain in the First World War, and quotations from it appear on many war memorials and are used in memorial services.  A month after 9/11, Congressman Major Owens offered a rap eulogy: “Defiant orations of Pericles / Must now rise / Out of the ashes.”

The most important thing to remember about the Funeral Oration is that it is a speech, intended to persuade its listeners.  Pericles praises Athens so that people will keep fighting; he praises the sacrifices of the dead so that others will imitate them.  His words are a powerful expression of the duty of every citizen to fight to defend democracy and freedom – but if, like Thucydides, you have some doubts about the justice of the wisdom of the war, then this starts to look more like dangerous propaganda.  As always, Thucydides does not offer us clear lessons or instructions, but demands that we consider complicated questions.


Understanding the Passage: Key Questions

[1] Such was the end of these men; they were worthy of Athens, and the living need not desire to have a more heroic spirit, although they may pray for a less fatal issue. The value of such a spirit is not to be expressed in words. Any one can discourse to you for ever about the advantages of a brave defence, which you know already. But instead of listening to him I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it, who in the hour of conflict had the fear of dishonour always present to them, and who, if ever they failed in an enterprise, would not allow their virtues to be lost to their country, but freely gave their lives to her as the fairest offering which they could present at her feast.

[2] The sacrifice which they collectively made was individually repaid to them; for they received again each one for himself a praise which grows not old, and the noblest of all sepulchers—I speak not of that in which their remains are laid, but of that in which their glory survives, and is proclaimed always and on every fitting occasion both in word and deed.

[3] For the whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.

[4] Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war.

[5] The unfortunate who has no hope of a change for the better has less reason to throw away his life than the prosperous who, if he survive, is always liable to a change for the worse, and to whom any accidental fall makes the most serious difference.

[6] To a man of spirit, cowardice and disaster coming together are far more bitter than death striking him unperceived at a time when he is full of courage and animated by the general hope.

1. How does this passage lead on from earlier points in Pericles' Funeral Speech?

2. Why should citizens fight to defend their city, in Pericles' view?

3. How does Pericles depict the men who have died?

4. How should the good citizen feel about death?

5. How does this compare with other Greek views on the subject?


Further Reading

A.B. Bosworth, ‘The historical context of Thucydides’ Funeral Oration’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 120 (2000)

Nicole Loraux, The Invention of Athens: the funeral oration in the classical city (Cambridge MA, 1986)

Jennifer Talbot Roberts, ‘Mourning and democracy’, in Katherine Harloe & Neville Morley (eds.), Thucydides and the Modern World (Cambridge, 2012)

Hermann Strasburger, ‘Thucydides and the political self-portrait of the Athenians’, in Jeffrey S. Rusten (ed.), Thucydides (Oxford, 2009) – originally published in 1958.

Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg (New York, 1992)

John Ziolkowski, Thucydides and the Tradition of Funeral Speeches at Athens (New York, 1981)


Understanding the Passage: Some Answers

1. How does this passage lead on from earlier points in Pericles' Funeral Speech?

Pericles has spent most of his time so far praising Athens, to show that it was (and is) worth dying for. He is now talking (at last) about the men who have died, and how they should be taken as a model and inspiration for those who have survived.

2. Why should citizens fight to defend their city, in Pericles' view?

Pericles notes that there are practical advantages from fighting ("what is to be gained by beating the enemy back"), but he wants to stress more idealistic motives: citizens should fall in love with their city, so that they willingly sacrifice themselves it and thus receive eternal glory. Happiness depends on freedom, and freedom must be defended, so it's necessary to risk death for the happiness of all.

3. How does Pericles depict the men who have died?

The dead are idealised - these are men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it, who made the ultimate sacrifice to their city and fellow-citizens, and who would risk anything but dishonour. They now live on eternally in people's memories. There's no mention of any afterlife, just eternal glory.

4. How should the good citizen feel about death?

It's not nearly as bad as dishonour. Indeed, as Pericles argues in sections 5-6, if you're prosperous and successful you should be less afraid of death than someone who is poor and wretched; the unfortunate man hasn't got much honour or much hope of improving his situation, whereas the fortunate man runs the constant risk as long as he's alive that his fortunes will change and he'll suffer the abject humilation of losing everything. Much better to die when you're being courageous and patriotic.

5. How does this compare with other Greek views on the subject?

Tricky. Certainly citizens were expected to fight for their city, but actually falling in love with the city is Pericles' own idea. Lots of Greek writers stress the uncertainty of fortune (Herodotus 1.5: "human happiness never remains long in one place"; the closing lines of Sophocles' Oedipus Turannos are that no-one should be called happy until he is dead), but the idea that it's therefore better to get yourself killed early - in the right sort of way - to avoid the risk of misfortune is again unique to Pericles. As for the idea that a noble death means eternal glory, this contrasts with the depiction of the afterlife in Homer's Odyssey (Book XI), where Achilles declares he'd rather be a living wage-labourer than a dead hero.

 

 

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