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.

The Seven Against Thebes and The Phoenician Women Considered

Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes is an odd, archaic play. The bulk of the play is a long reflection and recital of the blazonry on a champion’s shield, during the backdrop of an impending duel between Oedipus’s two sons, Polynices and Eteocles -with Eteocles playing the main role. As David Grene (the play’s translator) notes, the play is extremely difficult to translate due to its archaism and its heroic prose-style. It was likely part three of a trilogy performed during Aeschylus’s lifetime, though much of its imagery is lost on the modern mind.

The Seven Against Thebes is the only surviving play by Aeschylus that covers a portion of the Oedipus story – recall Sophocles’s famous portrayal of Oedipus in his only surviving cycle in the modern era. As the story goes, when Oedipus discovers the truth of his fate, he blinds himself and is locked away in the castle at Thebes while his two sons battle for the throne of Thebes. However, both eventually kill each other as Thebes falls further into disarray.

In Euripides’s version of the play, The Phoenician Women, Eteocles is portrayed as a power-hungry and slightly more villainous son. However, in Aeschylus’s version we are exposed to Eteocles’s inner psychology, and his desire to do what is best for the city of “Cadmus,” or Thebes. Eteocles is more a hero in Aeschylus, more a villain in Euripides. However this is the common perspective in Euripides, inverting a hero, indeed in his play the Chorus is composed of young women traveling (i.e. Phoenician Women, hence the title), while in Aeschylus’s version the Chorus is composed of primarily elder women of the city. If it is true that the Chorus is intended to be a reflection of a relatable segment of the Greek populace for the audience, then Aeschylus held the view that the Greeks would relate most to an older and wiser Chorus of people, while Euripides held that the Greeks found companionship in a younger and more care-free group.

Lytras_nikiforos_antigone_polynices
Polynices and Antigone by Nikiforos Lytras in 1846

At any rate, Aeschylus’s version of the Oedipus story is perhaps best understood as a kind of ritual – a reading of the traditional and religious imagery on the shield, as well as the daughters of Oedipus, Ismene and Antigone, mourning over the bodies of their brothers, Eteocles and Polynices. There is very little plot found in the play, aside from Eteocles decision to fight his brother, his death offstage, and the conclusion of the play in sorrow with the proper burial rites performed by his sisters (i.e. the conflict over whether or not one burial will be buried traditionally in the city or not). The Homeric obsession with right actions and appropriate burial ceremonies is ever-present in the play.

Unlike the graphic and tragic violence we see in Euripides, almost all of which is displayed onstage for the audience, in Aeschylus the point of the play is not to arouse excessive feelings of horror and tragic pity in the audience. Instead, the violence happens offstage, and the point of the play is to reflect on Greek traditions and showcase the psychology of a hero. To use a modern term there is no “shock-value” in an Aeschylean tragedy.


For this reading I used the remarkable translation by the late David Grene, a classical scholar from the University of Chicago who completed this series of translations of the complete surviving Greek tragedies with Richmond Lattimore.

The Failure of Orestes

While many other Greek tragedies tend to reiterate already established myths and customs, Euripides’s Orestes appears to be entirely his own invention. Chronologically, the plot of the play takes place after the events contained in Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers. It was first performed in 408 BC, near the close of the Peloponnesian War.

In Orestes, Electra recounts the story of her mother, Clytemnestra’s murder of her husband Agamemnon upon his return home from Troy, and her brother, Orestes’s subsequent murder of Clytemnestra at the behest of Apollo. As a result, Orestes lies unconscious for days on the floor. Meanwhile a band of citizens has begun calling for the death of Orestes for his crime of matricide. When Menelaus and Helen arrive from Sparta, Orestes suddenly awakens but he is in a tormented psychological state, haunted by the Furies (recall the plot of Aeschylus’s Eumenides). What are the Furies? Orestes tells us: “I call it conscience. The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime” (395-396). It is not unlike the psychological terror experienced by Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Orestes begs Menelaus to save him and Electra from certain death: a verdict of death by stoning from the people of Argos. Initially, Menelaus relents to Orestes, however his father-in-law Tyndareus (also Orestes’s grandfather) appears and is disgusted by Orestes. He persuades Menelaus not to help Orestes. Perhaps we can hear the words of Euripides in the mouth of the elder Tyndareus, defender of a sanitary and rational rule of law, as he criticizes Orestes’s act of murder rather than taking Clytemnestra to trial:

“When his father died-
killed I admit, by my own daughter’s hand,
an atrocious crime which I do not condone
and never shall-he should have haled his mother
into court, charged her formally with murder,
and made her pay the penalty prescribed,
expulsion from his house.

Legal action,
not murder. That was the course to take.
Under the circumstances, a hard choice,
true, but the course of self-control
and due respect for law, and the better choice
of two evils

But as things stand now,
what difference is there between him and his mother?”
(497-503).

Tyndareus believes the law trumps all. He criticizes Orestes for stooping to a petty act of vengeance when he could have taken his mother to court instead, despite Apollo’s wishes. Orestes’s pleas to Menelaus for help fall on deaf ears. He has come to Argos and returned from Troy a weakened man and he cannot help Orestes. He gives some prescient advice on the nature of the mob-mentality:

“Look at it this way my boy.
Mobs in their emotions are much like children,
subject to the same tantrums and fits of fury.
But this anger must be treated with patience
rather like a fire that gets out of control” 
(695-700).

However, the mob quickly declares a death sentence for Orestes and Electra so they both conspire to kill Helen and Hermione, Helen and Menelaus’s daughter. Just as Orestes holds a sword to Hermione’s throat and demands that Menelaus profess Orestes’s innocence to the people, the god Apollo appears – another deus ex machina. He commands that everyone stop: Orestes is to go to Athens to stand trial, and Menelaus is to return to Sparta. Also, Orestes is destined to marry Hermione, Menelaus’s daughter, and Electra is to marry Pylades, Orestes’s lifelong friend and companion. Thus truces are made and the possibility of justice is introduced, though curiously, yet again, Euripides introduces a deus ex machina. For Euripides the plot of the play is almost irrelevant, or is at least secondary, to the feelings of sorrow he arouses in his characters. It matters very little that a god should suddenly appear at the end and set things right. Euripides’s primary goal is to make Athenian audiences reflect on themselves and their activities, particularly pertaining to the war with Sparta, in the words of people like Menelaus and Tyndareus. His focus is on tragic character study, thus inverting the classical Aristotelian view of tragedy.


For this reading I used the William Arrowsmith translation.

Thoughts on The Suppliants

Not to be confused with Aeschylus’s The Suppliants, a story of the founding of Argos, Euripides’s The Suppliants (or also called The Suppliant Women) tells the story of the grieving women of Argos. Their sons have died in battle against Creon of Thebes, but he has denied their proper burial rights leaving their bodies to rot in the streets. The women have come to Athens to beg Theseus to intervene.

The story harkens back to the story of Oedipus: recall when Oedipus left Thebes in disgrace, his two brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, fought over the Thebes and ultimately killed each other leaving Creon, their brother-in-law, to rule the city. The bodies of the invading army of Polynices are the bodies in question in The Suppliants.

At the temple of Demeter, the elder Adrastus and women of the Argives have come to plead to Theseus and his mother Aethra. Theseus initially refuses but is persuaded by the tears of the women. He raises his army and marches on Thebes breaking through its walls, but halting his army and preventing them from looting and razing the city. They have only come for the bodies as promised. When the bodies are returned a curious character, Capaneus, dressed in her wedding gown decides to throw herself on her own husband’s funeral pyre. This is perhaps the most tragic part of the play. In the end, Athena appears, a dea ex machina, and she forges a friendship between Athens and Argos, but foreshadows vengeance upon Thebes for violating the funeral rights of the dead. Theseus pledges to follow the orders of Athena.

The play is an unusually patriotic play. In this way it stands nearly alone in the compendium of Euripides’s works. For example there is a section in the middle of the play in which Theseus furiously debates political philosophy with a herald of Thebes. Theseus, a the sole ruler of Athens, ironically defends democracy against autocracy. I close these brief notes with a passage from Theseus:

“Nothing is worse for a city than an absolute ruler.
In earliest days, before the laws are common,
One man has power and makes the law his own:
Equality is not yet. Written with laws,
People of small riches and the rich
Both have the same recourse to justice. Now
A man of means, if badly spoken of,
Will have no better standing than the weak;
And if the little man is right, he wins
Against the great. This is the call of freedom:
‘What man has good advice to give the city,
And wishes to make it know?’ He who responds
Gains glory; the reluctant hold their peace.
For the city, what can be more fair than that?
Again, when the people is master in the land,
It welcomes youthful townsmen as its subjects;
But when one man is king, he finds this hateful,
And if he thinks that any of the nobles
Are wise, he fears for his despotic power
And kills them. How can a city become strong
If someone takes away, cuts off new ventures
Like ears of corn in a spring field? What use
To build a fortune, if your work promotes
The despot’s welfare, not your family’s?
Why bring up girls as gentlewomen, fit
For marriage, if tyrants may take them for their joy?
A grief to parents? I would rather die
Than see my children forced to such a union.” (428-455)


For this reading I used the Frank William Jones translation.