By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 1, 2011
Once a year in ancient Athens, the city came together to honor her sons who had fallen in battle. “The bones,” wrote Thucydides, “are laid in the public burial place, which is in the most beautiful quarter outside the city walls. [Then] a man chosen by the city for his intellectual gifts and for his general reputation makes an appropriate speech in praise of the dead.”
In 431 B.C., that duty fell to Pericles. Here are portions of his speech, taken from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner:
I have no wish to make a long speech on subjects familiar to you all … What I want to do is, in the first place, to discuss the spirit in which we faced our trials and also our constitution and the way of life which has made us great.
Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people … We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break … When our work is over, we are in a position to enjoy all kinds of recreation for our spirits … in our own homes we find a beauty and a good taste which delight us every day and drive away our cares. Then the greatness of our city brings it about that all the good things from all over the world flow in to us, so that to us it seems just as natural to enjoy foreign goods as our own local products.
Then there is a great difference between us and our opponents in our attitude toward military security. Our city is open to the world, and we have no periodic deportations in order to prevent people observing or finding out secrets which might be of military advantage to the enemy. This is because we rely, not on secret weapons, but on our own real courage and loyalty. There is a difference too in our educational systems. The Spartans, from their earliest boyhood, are submitted to the most laborious training in courage; we pass our lives without all these restrictions, and yet are just as ready to face the same dangers as they are.
This assembly, as all others at Athens, was outdoors. Thucydides describes Pericles as having come forward “from the tomb and, standing on a high platform, so that he might be heard by as many people as possible,” addressing the multitude:
Our love of what is beautiful does not lead us to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft … Here an individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well … this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all …
Again, in questions of general good feeling there is a great contrast between us and most other people. We make friends by doing good to others, not by receiving good from them. When we do kindnesses to others, we do not do them out of any calculations of profit or loss: we do them without afterthought, relying on our free liberality. Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare that in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility … Athens, alone of the states we know, comes to her testing time in a greatness that surpasses what has been imagined of her. In her case, and in her case alone, no invading enemy is ashamed at being defeated, and no subject can complain of being governed by people unfit for their responsibilities … Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now …
In the year in which Pericles offered this oration, the following Athenians were all alive and in full possession of their powers: Socrates, Plato, Thucydides, Agathon, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Phormio, Phidias. The Parthenon was brand-new, having been dedicated just seven years earlier. The war, which the oracle had declared would endure “thrice nine years,” was just entering its second season.
This, then, is the kind of city for which these men, who could not bear the thought of losing her, nobly fought and nobly died … To me it seems that the consummation which has overtaken these men shows us the meaning of manliness in its first revelation and in its final proof. Some of them, no doubt, had their faults; but what we ought to remember first is their gallant conduct against the enemy in defense of their native land. They have blotted out evil with good, and done more service to the commonwealth than they ever did harm in their private lives … As for success or failure, they left that in the doubtful hands of Hope, and when the reality of battle was before their faces, they put their trust in their own selves. In the fighting, they thought it more honorable to stand their ground and suffer death than to give in and save their lives. So they fled from the reproaches of men, abiding with life and limb the brunt of battle; and, in a small moment of time, the climax of their lives, a culmination of glory, not of fear, were swept away from us.
A case could be made that this speech marked the pinnacle of Athens’ Golden Age. The following year brought the Great Plague, which killed thousands including Pericles. More calamities followed as the war expanded to engulf the entire Hellenic world, producing such breakdowns of order and instances of barbarity as the civilized states had never known. The twenty-seven-year conflict wiped out two generations. In the end, Athens surrendered. Her enemies tore down her walls and forbore, only at the final hour, from massacring her entire populace.
Though the city recovered, she was never the same. The rule of the Thirty Oligarchs produced a reign of terror. Socrates was tried and condemned to death on charges that could only be described as travesties. Finally in 338 B.C., less than a century after Pericles’ oration, the Athenian and Theban armies were crushed at Chaeronea by Philip of Macedon (whose Companion Cavalry were commanded by Philip’s eighteen-year-old son, Alexander). The era of political autonomy for the Greek city-states was over, never to return.
… I could tell you a long story (and you know it as well as I do) about what is to be gained by beating the enemy back. What I would prefer is that you should fix your eyes every day on the greatness of Athens as she really is, and should fall in love with her. When you realize her greatness, then reflect that what made her great was men with a spirit of adventure, men who knew their duty, men who were ashamed to fall below a certain standard. If they ever failed in an enterprise, they made up their minds that at any rate the city should not find their courage lacking to her, and they gave to her the best contribution that they could. They gave her their lives, to her and to all of us, and for their own selves they won praises that never grow old, the most splendid of sepulchers—not the sepulcher in which their bodies are laid, but where their glory remains eternal in men’s minds, always there on the right occasion to stir others to speech or to action. For famous men have the whole earth as their memorial; it is not only the inscriptions on their own graves in their own country that mark them out; no, in foreign lands also, not in any visible form but in people’s hearts, their memory abides and grows … Where the rewards of valor are the greatest, there you will find also the best and bravest spirits among the people. And now, when you have mourned for your dear ones, you must depart.
[Another excellent edition is The Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert B. Strassler. It has literally hundreds of maps (some not much bigger than a postage stamp), distributed throughout the text. The maps really help.]