Pericles' funeral oration

(in this web):

Powers Title Page
subject index
site map & outline
readings & lessons

technical FAQ
copyright notice

from Thucydides,
 The Peloponnesian War ii. 34-46

Image of Pericles, from a contemporary bust by Cresilas, 430 BC.In the same winter the Athenians gave a funeral at the public cost to those who had first fallen in this war.

It was a custom of their ancestors. Three days before the ceremony, the bones of the dead are laid out in a tent, and their friends bring to their relatives such offerings as they please. In the funeral procession cypress coffins are borne in carts, one for each tribe; the bones of the deceased being placed in the coffin of their tribe. Among these is carried one empty bier for the missing, that is, for those whose bodies could not be recovered. Any citizen or stranger who pleases, joins in the procession, and the women relatives are there to wail at the burial. The dead are laid in the public sepulchre in the Beautiful Suburb of the city, in which those who fall in war are always buried. . .

After the bodies have been laid in the earth, a man chosen by the state, of approved wisdom and eminent reputation, pronounces an appropriate panegyric over them. Then all retire. This was the burial custom throughout the whole of the war.

For the first that had fallen, Pericles son of Xanthippus was chosen to speak their eulogy. When the time came, he advanced from the sepulchre to an elevated platform in order to be heard by as many of the crowd as possible, and he spoke as follows: 

"Most of my predecessors in this place have commended him who made this speech part of our law. It is right, they have said, that such a speech should be delivered at the burial of those who have fallen in battle. For myself, I should have thought it better to honor the dead with public deeds, such as you now see in this funeral prepared at the people's cost. I could have wished that the reputations of these brave men did not depend on the words of a single speaker, to stand or fall according as he spoke well or ill. For it is hard to speak well when your hearers may not believe you. On the one hand, the friend who is familiar with every fact of the story may think that some point has not been told as fully as it deserves; on the other hand, strangers to the story will suspect exaggeration if they hear of anything greater than themselves. Men can bear to hear others praised only so long as they think that their own ability equals the actions recounted. When that point is passed, envy comes in and with it disbelief. However, since our ancestors have given this custom their approval, and it is my duty to obey the law, I will try to satisfy your several wishes and opinions in what I have to say.

"Our ancestors deserve the first mention today. They lived in this land without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their courage. And if our more remote ancestors deserve praise, so much more do our own fathers, who added to their inheritance the empire that we now possess. Our present generation also has expanded our dominions, so that our mother country now is furnished with all of the resources necessary for war or for peace.

"The military achievements that gave us these possessions, and the ready courage with which we and our fathers have stemmed the tide of Hellenic and foreign aggression, are too familiar to discuss here today. But what was the road by which we reached our present position? What was the form of government under which our greatness grew? What were the national habits out of which it sprang? These are questions that I will try to answer before I proceed to my praise of these men. They are fitting subjects for the present occasion, and all assembled here, whether citizens or foreigners, may listen with advantage. 

"Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighboring states; it is rather a pattern for others. Its administration favors the many instead of the few. This is why it is called a democracy. Our laws afford equal justice to all in their private differences. Advancement in public life depends on reputation for capability, not social standing. Class does not interfere with merit, nor does poverty bar the way. If a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.

"The freedom that 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 neighbor for doing what he likes. Yet freedom in our private lives does not make us lawless as citizens. We fear and obey our magistrates and our laws, particularly those that protect the injured, whether these laws are actually on the statute books, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace.

"Our city also provides means for the mind to refresh itself from labor. We celebrate games and sacrifices all the year round, and the elegance of our homes and businesses forms a daily source of pleasure. Our city draws the produce of the world into our harbor, so that to Athenians the fruits of other countries are as familiar a luxury as those of their 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. In education, where our rivals from their very cradles by a painful discipline seek after military 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 Spartans do not invade our country alone, but bring with them all of their confederates, but we Athenians advance unsupported into the territory of a neighbor, and fighting upon a foreign soil usually vanquish with ease men who are defending their homes. Our united force was never yet encountered by any enemy, because our navies and armies must attend to a hundred different services at once. When the enemy engages with some such fraction of our strength, they magnify a success against one of our detachments into a victory over the whole nation, and a defeat into a reverse suffered at the hands of our entire people. Our habits are formed in freedom, and our courage comes naturally, and yet we encounter danger and hardships as willingly as our enemies, for all of their military training, personal deprivation and lack of freedom.

"There are many other points in which our city deserves admiration. We cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy. Wealth we employ for use, not for show, and we place the real disgrace of poverty not in admitting to it but in declining to struggle against it. Our public officials have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our private citizens, though occupied with their personal business, are still fair judges of public matters. Unlike people of other nations, Athenians regard those who take no part in civic duties not as unambitious but as useless. 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. In all of our enterprises we are both daring and deliberate. The truly courageous individual understands risks but does not shrink from danger.

"In generosity we are equally singular. We acquire friends by conferring favors, not by receiving them. The doer of a favor is the firmer member of any friendship; by continued kindness he keeps the recipient in his debt. It is only the Athenians who confer their benefits not from calculations of expediency, but in the confidence of liberality. 

"In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas. No one in the world, having only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian. This is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact. The power of our state acquired by these habits is proof. Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation. 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. Far from needing a Homer to sing our praises, or any other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only to melt away at the touch of reality, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, we 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. Well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer likewise in her cause.

"I have spoken at some length upon the character of our country to show that our stake in the struggle is not the same as theirs who have no such blessings to lose. Yet this celebrated Athens is only what the heroism of these men and their like have made her, men whose fame, unlike that of so many of the Hellenes, is deserved. The worth of these men is to be found in their closing scene. It set the final seal upon their merit, even in those cases where little merit previously may have been seen. Steadfastness in his country's battles cloaks a man's other imperfections. Good action blots out the bad, and the merits of a citizen outweighs the demerits of an individual.

"None of these men allowed wealth, with its prospect of future enjoyment, to unnerve his spirit. None allowed poverty, with its hope of a day of freedom and riches, to tempt him to shrink from danger. No, they held vengeance upon their enemies to be more desirable than any personal blessings. Reckoning this to be the most glorious of hazards, they accepted the risk. To make sure of their vengeance, they made all other wishes wait. In the uncertainty before them, they committed their hopes to bold action and trust in themselves. They chose to die resisting, rather than to live submitting. They fled only from dishonor, and met danger face to face. At the summit of their fortune, they escaped only from their fear to their glory.

"So died these men as became Athenians. You, their survivors, must have as much resolve in the field, though you may pray for a happier issue. Do not be persuaded by speeches about the value of defending your country, though such speeches of course are proper and fitting. You personally must realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her every day until love of her fills your hearts. Then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, remember that it was by courage, duty, and a keen sense of honor in action that men were enabled to win all this. No personal failure could make them deprive their country of their valor, but they laid it at her feet as the most glorious contribution that they could offer.

"For this offering of their lives, each of them individually now receives that renown which never grows old, and for a sepulchre, not so much that in which their bones have been deposited, but that noblest of shrines wherein their glory is laid up to be remembered whenever deed or story shall call for its commemoration. For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb, and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. 

"Take these as your model and, judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom, and freedom of courage, never decline the dangers of war. It is not for the miserable to be most unsparing of their lives; they have nothing to hope for. It is rather for those who have the most to lose, those for whom a fall, if it came, would have the most terrible consequences. And surely, to a man of spirit, the degradation of cowardice must be immeasurably more grievous than an unfelt death striking him in the midst of his bravery and patriotism! 

"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 the life of man is subject, but fortunate indeed are they whose lot is a glorious death. Happy are they who die happy. I know that this is a hard saying. You will be reminded of your loss when you see in the homes of others blessings that your home had, once in the past. You who are still of an age to beget children must bear up in the hope of having others in their stead. Not only will they help you to replace those whom you have lost, but they will be to the public at once a reinforcement and a security. Fair and just policies are made only by the citizen who brings to each decision the interests and apprehensions of a father. Those of you who have passed your prime must remember that the best part of your life was fortunate, and that your remaining days will be cheered by the fame of the departed. For it is only the love of honor that never grows old. Honor it is, not gain, as some would have it, that rejoices the heart of age and helplessness. 

"Turning to the sons or brothers of the dead, I see an arduous struggle before you. When a man is gone, all will praise him. Should your merit be ever so great, you will still find it difficult to overtake, or even to approach, their renown. The living have envy to contend with, while those who are no longer in our path are honored with a goodwill into which rivalry does not enter.

"To those of you who are now in widowhood, let me say only this on the subject of female excellence. Great will be your glory in living up to your natural strength of character. Greatest will be hers who is least talked of among the men, whether for good or for bad. 

"My task is now finished to the best of my ability. The requirements of our law are satisfied. Those who are here interred have received part of their public honors already; for the rest, their children will be brought up until adulthood at public expense. The state thus offers a valuable prize, as the garland of victory in this race of valor, for the reward both of those who have fallen and their survivors. And where the rewards for merit are greatest, there are found the best citizens.

"Now that you have brought to a close your lamentations for your relatives, you may depart."

Return to Lesson 7

Powers of Literature home

Copyright  2001


READINGS for Powers of Literature
(with Lesson numbers):

1. Genesis 1
Creation Story

1. Genesis 11
Babel Story

2. Odyssey 8
Odysseus' voyage 1

3. Iliad 1-2
Achilles' anger

4. Iliad 9
Mission to Achilles

4. Peleus & Thetis
ancient sources

5. Iliad 15 ff
Death of Patroklos

6. Iliad 20 ff
Burial of Hektor

7. Odyssey 13-18
Return of Odysseus

8. Odyssey 20-24
City of Dreams

9. Life of Alexander
the Homeric king

10. Origins of writing
ancient sources

11. Plato, Euthyphro
Socrates gets busted

12. Plato, Apology
Socrates on trial

13. Plato, Crito
Socrates in jail

14. Plato, Phaedo
Socrates in heaven

15. Luke, Acts
Paul does Christ

16. Saint Francis
gospel without text

17. Chretien, The Knight of the Cart
Sire Lance's genes

18. Virgil, Aeneid
Aeneas & Dido