Ancient Greece – Pericles’ Funeral Oration

The source I chose for this week was Thucydides depiction of Pericles’ funeral oration.  I think this particular piece has a lot to say about Athenian life.  Even though the Athenians were in the midst of a long and costly war with Sparta that would ultimately mean their defeat, this beautiful oration sent a powerful message to the people of Athens that, even in the midst of tragedy, the Athenian spirit was strong, and Pericles was confident in Athenian superiority.

Thucydides begins by describing the funeral tradition that would have precipitated the oration delivery.  Then Pericles begins to deliver the oration itself.  Valor was a key theme in the address, and Pericles reminds the Athenian people of their achievements against both foreign and domestic powers.  He makes a point to mention that the Athenians do not copy their laws from neighboring city-states, but they create them and serve as an example to others instead.  He extolls the fact that Athenian law dictates justice for all and makes no distinction in social standing or class.  He compares Sparta to Athens in that Sparta maintains strict, military-like discipline, Athens enjoys a free society and that Sparta needs the help of their allegiance in order to attack Athens, while Athens is capable of standing on their own without needing assistance (this ultimately proved to be false).  Pericles sets Athens up as a tribute and an example to the entire Hellenized world, which all other Greek polis should learn from.

In his address, Pericles speaks to justice itself, mentioning that by behaving honorably in defense of your country can atone for an individual citizen’s wrongs.  He adds that the men who died in the initial stages of the Peloponnesian war did so out of a sense of duty, honor and courage and that they refused to betray their loyalty to Athens even in the face of death.  These ideas of justice, of honor and courage and duty were the cornerstones of Athenian society to which all citizens – soldiers of otherwise – should aspire.

In closing, Pericles urges those in mourning who are still capable of producing children to have more – not only so that they may move past their grief, but to provide future reinforcements for the Athenian military, and thus ensure the survival and superiority of Athens over Sparta – and indeed over the rest of Greece as their empire expanded from the end of the Persian war up through the onset of the Peloponnesian war.  This goes back to Greek values that were discussed in our first module – how the family was not an immediate focus for citizens, but rather the polis itself, and a constant sense of one’s duty and responsibility to the community over the needs and desires of the individual.

 

Refernce:

Thucydides.  “Pericles’ Funeral Oration from the Peloponnesian War Book 2.34-46” Ancient History Sourcebook, Fordham University. 2000, accessed June 20, 2016.  http://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/ancient/pericles-funeralspeech.asp

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