The Peloponnesian War, Book II: Proxy Wars and Pericles’s Funeral Oration

Book II of edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War examines the true origin of the war. The thirty year peace between Athens and Sparta ends when Thebes (allied with the Peloponnesus) attacks Plataea (allied with Athens) and the Thebans surrender. Both cities are located north of Athens in Boetia. Plataea executes its 180 captured prisoners in the country before Athenian emissaries have time to arrive and prevent the executions.

As a result of the violated treaty, Athens under Pericles prepares for war and likewise Sparta under King Archidamus also prepares for war. Sparta raises the signal to its allies, sending requests to Sicily and Persia. Thucydides notes that most young men of the day support Sparta which proclaims itself the liberator of Hellas for those who wish to escape the growing empire of Athens. King Archidamus rouses his troops by speaking of Athens’s excessively luxurious attitude and passion for conquest. He marches his army into Attica and Athens protects its city behind its walls.

The Athenians hurriedly abandon their country homes and make for “the city,” as Athens had become the central hub of several rural country towns over many years, and unified under Theseus many years prior. Archidamus proceeds with a slow pace, ravaging the countryside of Attica, hoping they will concede rather than see their property destroyed. The young men of Athens grow restless watching their property destroyed, but Pericles holds fast because he has sent a fleet of ships to (hopefully) bring destruction on the Peloponnesus. The Athenian navy raids many towns along the coast.

Pericles’s Funeral Oration Speech
In 431 BC, Pericles delivers a large public funeral and eulogy to those who had fallen early in the war at the end of the first year of the war, however he uses the eulogy to provide a glimpse into his political philosophy. He begins by lamenting praises of men, for it breeds envy and incredulity, however he ultimately submits to the customs of ancestors (though men are by nature envious). The laws of Athens are unique. They do not copy those of their neighbors and Athenians fear lawlessness. They have games and entertainment to distract from distress and are exceptionally worldly in their trade. Athenians are moderate: cultivating refinement without extravagance and intelligence without effeminacy. He calls Athens the “school of Hellas” (2.41). This is the Athens for which men nobly fought and died. This makes the fight for Athens special and superior. He praises the love of honor over the love of gain, and he concludes praising a woman’s silence so that she is never talked about by men, for good or ill. Here are some notable quotations from his most memorable speech:

“Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, left behind them not their fear, but their glory” (2.42).

“For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column of their epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no monument to preserve it, except that of the heart” (2.43).

“Numberless are the chances to which, as tey know, the life of man is subject; but fortunate indeed are they who draw for their lot a death so glorious…” (2.44).

A plague/disease then descends upon Athens, a pestilence from Ethiopia and Egypt, before it comes to the Piraeus and cripples Athens in the war. Its spread causes a degree of lawlessness as men enjoy their lives lavishly before death, and the law and the gods fall to the wayside.

The Peloponnesians again invade Athens but again Pericles holds fast while they raid Attica’s silver mines. Pericles justifies his decision to the Athenians – there is only a choice between war and submission – no compromise. Athens has become a “tyranny” (2.63) and to let it go is unsafe. Athens ultimately does not follow his advice to focus on marine warfare, take no new conquests, and not leave themselves exposed to the hazards of war. Despite all of this Thucydides comments on Pericles: he could take hold of the democratic population like none other. Thucydides suggests Pericles was the strong conservative military and political leader that Athens needed, as it was insecure about its own empire. Pericles was moderate and noble during peacetime, but reckless during warfare.

Meanwhile, Sparta gets to Plataea and offers an alliance, but the Plataeans decide to remain with Athens in alliance, so the Spartans besiege the city. The proxy wars continue between Athens and the Peloponnesus.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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