Background of the Funeral Oration:
Given in 431 BCE, 1 year into the Peloponnesian War.
Funeral orations were commonly given after battle to honor the dead.
Their bodies would be displayed in a large tent for 3 days, and then processed in 10 coffins to the kerameikos.
The last part of this hallowed ceremony was a speech given by a prominent Athenian, in this case Pericles.
This account of this oration comes from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Book 2.
34. The same winter the Athenians, according to their ancient custom, solemnized a public funeral of the first slain in this war in this manner. Having set up a tent, they put into it the bones of the dead three days before the funeral; and everyone bringeth whatsoever he thinks good to his own. When the day comes of carrying them to their burial, certain cypress coffins are carried along in carts, for every tribe one, in which are the bones of the men of every tribe by themselves. There is likewise borne an empty hearse covered over for such as appear not nor were found amongst the rest when they were taken up. The funeral is accompanied by any that will, whether citizen or stranger; and the women of their kindred are also by at the burial lamenting and mourning. Then they put them into a public monument which standeth in the fairest suburbs of the city, in which place they have ever interred all that died in the wars except those that were slain in the field of Marathon, who, because their virtue was thought extraordinary, were therefore buried there right. And when the earth is thrown over them, someone thought to exceed the rest in wisdom and dignity, chosen by the city, maketh an oration wherein he giveth them such praises as are fit; which done, the company depart. And this is the form of that burial; and for the whole time of the war, whensoever there was occasion, they observed the same. For these first the man chosen to make the oration was Pericles the son of Xantippus, who, when the time served, going out of the place of burial into a high pulpit to be heard the farther off by the multitude about him, spake unto them in this manner:
The Proemium (Prologue)
35. “Though most that have spoken formerly in this place have commended the man that added this oration to the law as honourable for those that die in the wars, yet to me it seemeth sufficient that they who have showed their valour by action should also by an action have their honour, as now you see they have, in this their sepulture performed by the state, and not to have the virtue of many hazarded on one to be believed as that one shall make a good or bad oration. For to speak of men in a just measure, is a hard matter; and though one do so, yet he shall hardly get the truth firmly believed. The favourable hearer and he that knows what was done will perhaps think what is spoken short of what he would have it and what it was; and he that is ignorant will find somewhat on the other side which he will think too much extolled, especially if he hear aught above the pitch of his own nature. For to hear another man praised finds patience so long only as each man shall think he could himself have done somewhat of that he hears. And if one exceed in their praises, the hearer presently through envy thinks it false. But since our ancestors have so thought good, I also, following the same ordinance, must endeavour to be answerable to the desires and opinions of everyone of you as far forth as I can.
Praise for the Dead
36. “I will begin at our ancestors; being a thing both just and honest that to them first be given the honour of remembrance in this kind. For they, having been always the inhabitants of this region, by their valour have delivered the same to succession of posterity hitherto in the state of liberty. For which they deserve commendation, but our fathers deserve yet more; for that besides what descended on them, not without great labour of their own they have purchased this our present dominion and delivered the same over to us that now are. Which in a great part also we ourselves that are yet in the strength of our age here present have enlarged and so furnished the city with everything, both for peace and war, as it is now all-sufficient in itself. The actions of war whereby all this was attained and the deeds of arms both of ourselves and our fathers in valiant opposition to the barbarians or Grecians in their wars against us, amongst you that are well acquainted with the sum, to avoid prolixity I will pass over. But by what institutions we arrived at this, by what form of government and by what means we have advanced the state to this greatness, when I shall have laid open this, I shall then descend to these men’s praises. For I think they are things both fit for the purpose in hand and profitable to the whole company, both of citizens and strangers, to hear related.
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