Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Democracy at War: Athens and Pericles' Funeral Oration

"Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors', but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many (1) and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment. "--The Funeral Oration of Pericles, from Book Two of "The Peloponnesian War" by Thucydides  

   The Funeral Oration of Pericles is a eulogy given in the year we now call 430 BCE to honor the dead who fell in the first year of the long war (or rather series of wars) between Athens and Sparta, known to history as The Peloponnesian War. It was recorded for posterity by Thucydides, an Athenian general who lived during that time and resigned from service after suffering a major defeat. The eventual victors, in 404, were the Spartans and her allies. The latter city-state won after twenty long and insufferable years. The Athenians' empire melted away. Athens would become a center of learning and culture again, but never would it try to mix democracy with imperial ambitions.


     As in all wars, economic and political affairs overlapped. The purpose of Pericles' address was twofold--to honor the dead who perished in the cause of promoting Athenian power and to give the living an appreciation for how unique it was to be an Athenian citizen (i.e., if you were free and male). Athenians lived in a city of admirable public buildings--the greatest ones like the Parthenon and the Temple of Nike built on the Acropolis under the leadership of Pericles. Art and philosophy were vibrant; all males over eighteen in theory had a say in the affairs of state when they gathered in a direct assembly near the Acropolis at the "ecclesia", the popular assembly that met forty times a year and voted on resolutions brought to the assembly by the "Boule", a council of five hundred men over thirty years of age chosen by lot.


The other side of the coin was that Athens was a rapacious empire, which gathered and coerced other Greek cities for taxation and tributes to build her great temples and feed her people and pay for her fleet. None of the other city-states paying tribute to Athens had any hope of being represented in the Ecclesia or the Boule. Pericles in theory was only one of ten generals who were elected annually. In practice, he was a virtual dictator at least on matters of war and imperial expansion. But he was not a tyrant, he could not have stayed in power for the twenty odd years he did without getting genuine public support. He was said to be a great orator. He was also a patron of music and philosophy, and while he sent ships and men to add to the Delian Empire, he also made Athens the "school of Hellas" , an outward-looking center of commerce and learning and for the first time in Western society, an empire created by public acclimation (i.e., the rich wanted to get richer; the poor, in the main, wanted to gain more from trade and from service in the ships that brought the extracted goods from all over the Greek world to Athens.)


This video shows some selections of Pericles' Oration. A year after he made this address, he was dead. The great leader of Athens Golden Age was felled by the terrible plague that swept through the city after many from all of Attica crammed into the defensive walls of the city to escape the soldiers of Sparta, the martial land power celebrated today not for philosophy or literature but in popular movies and video game celebrating militarism without culture or dreams of human freedom. The Spartans imposed a rule of "Thirty Tyrants" on Athens, some of the new leaders being former followers of the philosopher Socrates. When Athens was restored to a democracy within less than two years, it wouldn't be long before Socrates, the most famous philosopher from that time, would be put to death by an ignoble jury of men looking for scapegoats for their civic humiliation.


  1. Sadly I have no sound on this old laptop so will have to pass on the vid. Very interesting historical perspective on more contemporary things Doug.

    By the way, the page size here is way odd!

  2. Excellent allegorical tale of the situation that faces us today Doug. Athens had a major economic meltdown around the mid-4th century BCE too
    Tom Paine, predicted that, “What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude.”
    Looks like he was right Doug. Great video, lovely song and images with the text that went quite quickly but obviously contained some gems. Thanks Doug.

  3. Bear with me, folks, as I try to fix the page size here.

  4. Yes, thanks Jim. The analogy to the past between America and Britain and our long, long wars of today has been on a lot of people's minds I susect.

    I hope the page looks better to you now. Some gremlins in the cyperspace woodworks must have got loose. :-)

  5. The quote from Tom Paine seems especially apt today; I wonder if he was thinking that America would one day match Athens in overreach, or would the USA be a nation destined to leave a great mark in Western History when freed from empire?

    Perhaps both?

    As Shelly said, "We are all Greeks." Gotta take the good with the bad on that I guess.

    The words on the video went too fast sadly. The music was indeed beautiful--it is listed in the You Tube video as by Pantelis Thalassinos and is called "Glykoparamythenia".

  6. Although he was one of ten generals Pericles was the preferred leader because his military record commanded such respect.

    He had his vulnerabilities, because he made it known he was always to be portrayed wearing a helmet to hide his bald head.

    How awful to have escaped death in so many battles and then to be struck down by the dreaded plague.

  7. I can relate to the bald head thing; I probably would have kept my helmet on a lot back in those days, too. Especially if those uncouth Spartans were chucking spears in my direction, or at the odd public-speaking engagement, whichever was worse :-)

    One of the things I found out was that one of Pericles' fellow top generals for a couple years was the playwright Sophocles. (Athens was a "small world"). My Greek history professor back at university was a firm believer that his play "Oedipus Rex" was in part an attack on Pericles' and his 'blindness' in failing to respect the ancient gods and other traditions of Athens. Pericles hung out with a few "freethinkers" it seems.

    I don't know if that's a generally accepted interpetation or not.

  8. Ah but people shave their hair off these days so you could say you're a dedicated follower of fashion.

    I hadn't heard that about the play, Oedipus Rex, but I wouldn't be surprised if your Professor was right.
    I know Pericles studied under the Sophist and master of Music Damon, also Zenon of Elea and the philosopher Anaxagoras.

    I believe Pericles was thought of as unbeatable in battle, so his enemies made trouble for him trying to ruin his excellent reputation. It seems to me no matter how popular you are, there is always someone waiting to knock you off your pedestal!