History for the Rest of Us

Pericles’ Funeral Oration

Pericles’ Funeral Oration

Oct 11, 2012

Pericles’s Funeral Oration is a famous speech from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles, an eminent Athenian politician, delivered the speech after the first year of the Peloponnesian War as a part of an annual public funeral held for those killed during the war. For three days offerings could be made for the dead, whose remains of the dead were left out in a tent. After this three day period, a funeral procession was held with one cypress coffin for each of ten Athenian tribes carrying the remains of the dead. The procession would end a a public grave where they were buried. To conclude the funeral, a prominent Athenian citizen would deliver a speech. While this is the account of the speech by Thucydides, and therefore it is doubtful to be a verbatim quotation, certainly an attempt was made to accurately record the key aspects of the speech. The speech consists of the following significant sections: The Proemium – Praise of the custom of a public funeral and criticism of the difficult task the orator has of magnifying the deeds of the dead to satisfy their associates without being suspected of exaggeration. Praise of the Dead – Pericles praises the war dead by paying tribute to and honoring the city for which they died. The Greatness of Athens – Pericles speaks to the greatness of Athens, its principle of ‘equal justice under the law’ and more, finally tying it back to those who died in its defense. ‘Having judged that to be happy means to be free, and to be free means to be brave, do not shy away from the risks of war’. Exhortation to the Living – Pericles exhorts the living to follow the example of those who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their country ‘though you may pray that it may have a happier outcome.’ Epilogue – Reminding those gathered of the difficulty of speaking under such circumstances, the audience is dismissed. Pericles’s Funeral Oration: Most of those who have spoken here before me have commended the lawgiver who added this oration to our other funeral customs. It seemed to them a worthy thing that such an...