Thucydides’ History Book 2: The Funeral Oration

Chapter 34

In the same winter, the Athenians, observing ancestral custom, conducted funerals at public expense for those who first died in this war, in such a manner as follows : The remains of the departed lay out in state for three days on a constructed stage, and everyone brings whatsoever they might wish for his kin ; when the funeral procession takes place, ox-drawn wagons lead the cypress-wood coffins, one from each tribe ; and the remains within each one are of the tribe. And one empty bier is borne, covered in blankets, for the missing, those who were not found in the aftermath. And any man who wishes may attend the funeral, whether townsman or foreigner, and there are women present, relations lamenting over the burial. Thus they lay them in a public cemetary, which lies upon the finest spot just outside of the city, and they always have burials in the same place for those fallen in war, except those in Marathon ; since they judged the virtue of those men eminent, they held the burial on the spot. And when they cover them in earth, a man chosen by the city, who in knowledge and esteem is not ignorant, and is foremost in reputation, speaks a fitting commendation for them ; and then they depart from that place. Thus they bury their dead ; and through the whole war, whenever it came to pass for them, they would observe the custom. Thus for these first men, Pericles son of Xanthippos was chosen to speak. And when the appropriate moment came, he stood forth before the bodies, upon a high step, set up so that he could be heard by as much of the crowd as possible, and he said the following.

Chapter 35

“Most of those already chosen to speak here commend him who established this speech as a custom, since it is itself a noble thing to be delivered over those buried from wars. It seems to me that it would have been sufficient for men made noble1 by deed to be also by deed shown honours, of the sort which you see even now concerning this burial, prepared at public expense, and that not by a single man are the virtues of many to be risked and neither are they to be entrusted to one speaking well or poorly. For it is difficult to speak temperately when even the appearance of truth is scarcely confirmed. For one who is a knowledgable and sympathetic listener may perhaps believe that something is rather insufficiently shown, with regard to what he wishes and understands, whereas one who is inexperienced, might believe that there are things that are exaggerated, due to jealousy, should he hear something beyond his own nature. For commendations about other men are sufferable to this man insofar as he believes that he is also capable to do some of what he hears ; but envying their excellence, they also soon mistrust. But since it was thusly approved by men long past that this is noble, I must also attempt, obeying the custom, to meet with the desire of each of you and also the expectation, as far as possible.”

1. ἄνδρα ἀγαθὸν γενέσθαι (“andra agathov genesthai”) : “to become a good man”, in Athenian funeral orations, a euphemism for “to die in battle”.

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