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In his Funeral Oration, Pericles praises Athens more than he does those that have fallen in the war.  On first reading this seems strange; it is not until going over it carefully that you see that his commentary on Athens really has to do with the kind of citizens he is trying to create.  His entire speech lays out, piece by piece, what Athens is about and how its citizens should act in order to further that reputation.

The first thing we learn about Athens is that they “ gave a funeral at the public cost to those who had first fallen in the war. It was a custom of their ancestors…” ( 2.34.1). This tells us that the Athenians, at least early on, show reverence to those that died serving their city. This takes ritual takes on even more significance when you note that in 2.43.3 Pericles refers to these same men as heroes, saying that “heroes have the whole earth for their tomb.”  Historically,  heroes are semi-divine beings, like Heracles and Aeneas, but what is important here, is that cults often sprang up to honor these men.  This knowledge, coupled with the highly ritualized funerary rites given to these men, makes a case for Athenians being involved in state sanctioned hero worship.

It is also important to note how the funeral procession worked, “ in the funeral procession cypress coffins are borne in carts, one for each tribe; the bones of the deceased being placed in the coffin of their tribe” (2.34.3).  This again points to the Athenian hero worship idea, as each of the tribes honor a particular hero in history.  More importantly, this makes each of the fallen part of something other than Athens. This could have become problematic, if citizens began to identify more with their tribe or deme than they did with Athens, and that could be one reason that Pericles chooses to emphasize what Athens is about and what it expects of its citizens.  This could also be why “any citizen or stranger who pleases joins in the procession,”  and “ the dead are laid in the public sepulcher” (2.34.4).  The former because it is a show of Athenian power and expectations, and the latter to show that no matter how the fallen identify, they, first and foremost, belong to Athens.

If the tribe system has begun to cause internal dissent in Athens, there is no occasion better suited than this to make claims about what Athens is and what it means to be an Athenian because no one would risk being impious to the fallen.  It seems Pericles is aware of this when he says “ for it is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth” (2.35.2).  He goes on to say, “ On the one hand, the friend who is familiar with every fact of the story may think that some point has not been set forth with that fullness which he wishes to and knows it to deserve; on the other, he who is a stranger to the matter may be led by envy to suspect exaggeration if he hears anything above his own nature” (2.35.2).  Pericles recognizes that he is the physical representation of Athens at that moment, and he uses that power to try to convince the people that they share a common identity. The quoted sections are Pericles admitting that everyone will find a flaw in his account of the Athenian identity,but they should “realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then when all her greatness breaks upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty and a keen feeling of honor in action that men  were enabled to win all this, and that no personal failure in an enterprise could make them consent to deprive their valor” (2.43.1).

The thing that adds to this is that Pericles sets his oration up in such a way that it makes him seem like he is performing his civic duty rather than being slave personal motives.  He even says, “ it becomes my duty to obey the law and to try to satisfy your several wishes and opinions as best I may” (2.35.3).  If this weren’t enough, he appeals to the emotions of those in attendance that may be at odds with each other and/or the city, “ they dwelt in the country without break in succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valor,” and he seems to suggest that if the factions destroy Athens, everyone who has ever died in her name will have died in vain.  However, Pericles does seem to imply that Athens has not dealt with factions before, “ that part of our history which tells us of the military achievements which gave us our several possessions, or of the ready valor with which either we or our fathers stemmed the tide of Hellenic or foreign aggression” (2.36.4).  Despite this being a new challenge for Athens, it doesn’t seem that Pericles thinks it is a challenge they can’t overcome, nor does he suggest that participants in the oppositions should be killed or even punished if they defend Athens,  “ 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 the bad and his merit as a citizen more than outweigh his demerits as an individual” (2.42.3).

Pericles closes out his oration with several appeals to the masses.  He talks about the immense happiness the fallen must have gotten from knowing that they were being the best citizens they could be and all the glory that would come to them upon their death.  He also makes it a point to note that even without physical markers of the glory the fallen had won, “ there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no monument to preserve it except for that of the heart” (2.43.3). Pericles goes on to use the sacrifice the fallen made to try to cement the idea of a common Athenian identity in the hearts of those present, “ these take as your model, and judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom and freedom of valor, never decline the dangers of war” (2.43.4).  When he says this, Pericles doesn’t necessarily mean just the Peloponnesian War, but also the fight against faction within Athens.  In closing, Pericles seems to ask those in attendance to think about what life would be like if Athens no longer existed, “ for grief is felt not so much for the want of what we have never known, as for the loss of that to which we have long been accustomed” (2.44.2).

20 Responses to “Guilting the Tribes”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Lindsey,

    I think you are right to highlight the fact that Pericles is not speaking just about the war. There is always the problem of internal strife, as well–factions, as you note. Surely this is part of the reason for dismantling the old, tribal system. Blood ties had to be severed and a new type of patriotism established (you’ll take up this question in various ways this summer, when you read the Oresteia with Charlie).

    One thing that I can’t quite figure out is whether Pericles is trying to loosen the hold of the past. He thinks that Athens in some sense has surpassed its past achievements. And yet this is supposed to be a funeral oration for those who have fallen! It is a strange venue to be forging ahead so eagerly.

    We’ll visit the Keramikos, where he gave this speech, this summer. And we’ll be reminded of how it must have both inspired and haunted the Athenian imagination.

    KH

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