II.43: Text and Translation

To explore some key issues in the translation of this passage, click on the hyperlinks.

[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.

(Translation by Benjamin Jowett, 1881.)

 

Some Translation Issues

(1) Falling in Love with the City

 “I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her.” (Jowett)

Other translations use phrases like “fall in love with her” (Warner) or “till love of her fills your hearts” (Crawley).  Pericles is actually much blunter: “you should become her lovers”.  This was a radical idea even in fifth-century Greece; clearly it’s too much for modern sensibilities.

(2) Winning an Empire?

 “...reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it.” (Jowett)

“...you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honour in action that men were enabled to win all this.” (Crawley).

“...consider then, that the same was purchased by valiant men, and by men that knew their duty, and by men that were sensible of dishonour when they were in fight.”  (Hobbes)

A more literal version of what Thucydides says would be: “...considering that men who had courage, and knew what was necessary, and were conscious of honour when in action, achieved these things.”  “These things” means “the greatness and glory of Athens”; clearly that included Athens’ empire, but Jowett thinks that’s the whole point – this does seem to reflect the habit in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of comparing Athens with the British Empire.

(3) Self-Sacrifice

 “...freely gave their lives to her as the fairest offering which they could present at her feast.” (Jowett)

Most translations use the idea of sacrifice: “they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution that they could offer” (Crawley).  Thomas Hobbes’ “made unto it a most honourable contribution” is closer to the original Greek: Thucydides uses the word eranos, meaning an interest-free loan that one might give to a friend in an emergency – so, the idea is that the Athenians willingly lend their lives to the city when it’s in need, even though they may be paid back only in a glorious memory and in the sense that they’ve done the honourable thing.

(4) Happiness = Freedom = Courage

 “Make them your examples, and, esteeming courage to be freedom and freedom to be happiness, do not weigh too nicely the perils of war.” (Jowett)

This is one of those sentences where Thucydides becomes very terse, and leaves the reader to fill in the gaps: literally, “having judged happiness freedom, freedom courage”.  The sense is clear: happiness depends on freedom, and freedom depends on courage.  It’s a popular line on the internet, in many different forms, such as “The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom is courage” (not clear where the ‘secret’ comes from, unless it’s the influence of self-help books promising to reveal the secrets of a happy life).

There is also a very different version of the same passage, which appears on many war memorials and is regularly used at ANZAC Day ceremonies: “Take these men for your ensamples.  Like them remember that prosperity can be only for the free, that freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.”  The translation of eudaimon as ‘prosperity’ rather than ‘happiness’ is, one might say, rather limiting, making the war into a struggle for material wealth rather a way of life based on liberty (and the line, which appears on a war memorial at the University of Toronto, later appears in a newspaper in 1945 as “property can be only for the free”).

Often, the last part of the line (Thucydides: “do not shrink from the dangers of war” or "do not look about for the dangers of war", i.e. so that you hesitate) is left out, but sometimes – perhaps because Jowett’s translation is rather confusing in its archaic language – it gets changed into “do not take too lightly the perils of war”, the opposite of what Pericles said.

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