Thucydides offers one-hundred and forty-one speeches in his monumental history of the Peloponnesian War, yet the early eulogy offered by Pericles (in Book II) is surely the most famous.
The word “eulogy” comes down to us from the Greek word eulogia meaning to offer praise, or even high praise. Pericles delivers his famous eulogy, the “funeral oration speech” in the winter of 431 BC, after the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War in honor of the fallen Athenians. Thucydides explains ancient burial customs: he tells us that the bones of the dead were laid three days before the ceremony for their fellow tribesmen to honor, along with one empty bier to honor the bodies who could not be recovered (not unlike the American ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’). The ceremonies were open to both citizens and strangers, they were paid for by their families as was customary. After the bodies were laid into the earth a man was chosen by the state to deliver a eulogy, one of “approved wisdom” and “eminent reputation.” The man chosen at the end of the first year of the war was Pericles, son of Xanthippus, an Athenian soldier and politician who fought in the Persian Wars. It has been said that he delivered the speech in the Kerameikos cemetery (from which we derive our word “ceramic”).
At the appropriate time, Pericles proceeds from the sepulcher to an elevated platform to deliver his eulogy. Thucydides gives himself a certain degree of creative license: the following speech is “like” what Pericles delivered in the winter of 431.
He begins by addressing “most” of his predecessors who praise the practice of eulogy and funeral oration, while separating himself (Pericles) into the undemocratic minority. He wishes that the deeds of men are honored, rather than the words of one man. Some may hear inaccuracies while others may be filled with resentment and envy. Appropriately honoring the heroic dead is a difficult task. “For men can endure to hear others praised only so long as they can severally persuade themselves of their own ability to equal the actions recounted: when this point is passed, envy comes in and with it incredulity” (2.35). However, since the Athenian ancestors have stamped this custom with their approval, Pericles will reluctantly oblige.
Why should we eulogize the dead?
In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, he identifies three key parts of a successful speech: ethos, pathos, and logos. After appealing to his own Ethos, or his the appeal to his own bona fides, Pericles begins by honoring Athenian ancestors who laid the foundation for such a great city and empire. Pericles endeavors to find the ‘road by which’ the Athenians came their current status, what form of government their greatness grew, and what national habits out of which it sprang. Pericles will address these three questions before eulogizing the dead. This section might be said to be the logos of Pericles’s speech.
Pericles’s eulogy is unlike any other – it is a praise of Athenian greatness because in order to honor the valorous dead Pericles must first justify the Athenian empire and the cause of the war. He praises the unparalleled Athenian constitution, laws, and citizenry. Since there are both citizens and strangers present for the ceremony, Pericles feels it is necessary to justify the status of Athens by means of “proofs” (2.42). The city requires justification.
Now, proceeding to the eulogy at 2.42 Pericles says this established greatness is nothing without the deeds of the many unnamed dead Athenian heroes. And citizens who give their lives, despite their personal flaws, are nevertheless heroes:
“For there is justice in the claim that steadfastness in his country’s battles should be as a cloak to cover a man’s other imperfections; since the good action has blotted out the bad, and his merit as a citizen more than outweighed his demerits as an individual…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”
Once Pericles has established and praised the dead for their decision to serve country over self, he turns the patriotic lens back onto the audience, instructing them to see the greatness of Athens in the faces of those who Athens has now lost.
“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 monument to preserve it, except that of the heart” (2.42 ).
Therefore, Pericles offers comfort, not condolence, to the grieving families, for their children died for a most honorable and noble cause. Parents find joy in honor, especially in old age; brothers take pride in their fallen heroes, and widows Pericles instructs to find glory and excellence in being gossiped about infrequently, whether for good or for evil.
Pericles closes his famous eulogy by offering rewards paid for by the state to the families and children of the dead, though the true rewards are numerous for citizen-soldiers.
In closing, Pericles’s “funeral oration speech” bears certain remarkable similarities to the structure of President Abraham Lincoln’s brief but striking eulogy: “The Gettysburg Address.” Both begin with an ancestral praise, followed by an ode to national greatness, and an acknowledgement that mere speeches cannot fully honor the dead, however we, the living, may forever remember their deeds. The other great analog to Pericles’s “Funeral Oration Speech” is the Platonic dialogue, the Menexenus.
It should be noted that the “funeral oration speech” does not identify any fallen soldier by name, and instead we simply see Pericles standing in place of the city, turning the focus from the honored to the honored living (i.e. himself). Pericles becomes the city through his demagoguery, and also Pericles’s speech immediately precedes an outbreak of the plague which eventually kills Pericles. Thucydides, the author, survives the outbreak of the plague with his moderate disposition and constitution, while Pericles, an ambitious leader prone to swings of high hopes and low fears, catches the plague that is unleashed mainly in Athens, not in Sparta. This plague might be said to be the birth of the mania in Athens that eventually culminates in the ill-fated Sicilian Expedition and the decline of Athens.
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.