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Pericles’ Funeral Oration
It is the close of the first year of the Peloponnesian war. Athens, no stranger to war, finds itself mourning
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History: A Factual Fiction
By Ben Potter Nero fiddling as Rome burns. The solidarity of dozens of men claiming ‘I’m Spartacus’. Caesar looking into
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Pericles’ Funeral Oration

by November 10, 2018

It is the close of the first year of the Peloponnesian war. Athens, no stranger to war, finds itself mourning those who had fallen on the field of battle, the sons and fathers lost. As was customary in Athens the bodies of the deceased had been collected and displayed under a tent for three days. During this time, various citizens paid tribute and the families were allowed to say goodbye to their loved ones. After the tree days, a funeral procession would be held where an esteemed citizen would make some small speech on behalf of the lost. And so it was around the year 430 BCE that Pericles would be selected to address Athens.
Statue of the Athenian General

Bust of Pericles

While Pericles’ funeral oration undoubtedly reflects the sentiments of the statesmen, we must remember that the text was not transcribed verbatim. Thucydides would have written the funeral oration some time after the actual speech, giving him ample time to reword and edit anything he pleased. However we can still be reasonably sure that the text by Thucydides is a faithful representation of the actual funeral oration.
As Pericles takes the stage, he makes clear his concerns about such a speech. While the funeral procession is surely a noble tribute for such courageous souls, Pericles believes that the words of any many will often fall short of accurately describing the deeds of the dead. Pericles believes he runs the difficult task of balancing a speech so as not to undercut the valor of the warriors while simultaneously not appearing to exaggerate. These concerns noted, he declares that it is tradition for words to be spoken on such an occasion, so he hesitantly obliges.
Painting of Pericles

Pericles Addressing the Crowd

“When men’s deeds have been brave, they should be honored in deed only, and with such an honor as this oration public funeral, which you are now witnessing.” – Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration
The speech that Pericles delivers is such a dramatic departure from the customary oration that it is often considered a eulogy of Athens itself. Pericles begins by mentioning the struggles of the Athenian ancestors whom “…after many a struggle transmitted to us their sons this great empire.” And what an empire it might appear to be. Pericles goes to great lengths to detail the glory and the esteem of the Athenian empire.
With a government that pursues liberty and gives power to the many and not the few, Athenian democracy has become a model for success for all the Greek city-states. A system of government where the weak are empowered and public office is achieved through merit and not a matter of privilege. Pericles describes that in Athens any man, no matter his station in life, can find a way to strive within society. Pericles explains…
“Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition.” –Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration
Peloponnesian War Depiction

Illustration of War

Pericles continues by recounting the several military conquests and how their army is considered to be far superior than any other the ancient world can produce. Even the Spartans who come upon their land often find themselves retreating from Athenian spears. And the brave Athenian soldiers, even when fighting on foreign soil, have little trouble overcoming their adversaries. Pericles continues by declaring that Athens also excels in times of peace, holding several games and sacrifices throughout the year. It would appear that the empire of Athens has found prosperity in all measures of life. Pericles says himself…
“To sum up: I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace. This is no passing and idle word, but truth and fact; and the assertion is verified by the position to which these qualities have raised the state.” -Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration
So why would Pericles go to such great lengths to paint his city as a thriving metropolis? Remember that this is not a political rally, but rather a funeral procession. It is likely the Pericles would have been thoughtful of Athenian moral at this time. On the precipice of a great war, Pericles would have done well to bolster the spirits of the living while commemorating the sacrifices of the departed. Pericles gives another explanation by explaining that the merits of the great city reflect the merits of the lost. And the greatness of Athens is only possible through bloody sacrifice and steeled determination.
Picture of Athens

Illustration of Ancient Athens

“I would have you day by day fix your eyes upon the greatness of Athens, until you become filled with the love of her; and when you are impressed by the spectacle of her glory, reflect that this empire has been acquired by men who knew their duty and had the courage to do it.” -Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration
When faced with war, these soldiers chose death over dishonor, glory over cowardice. Pericles considers this bravery to be the truest form of a mans worth. He spends ample time detailing the fear that must have raced through their minds, and how they swiftly abandoned that fear for courage and valor. A rather eloquent and concise summary of a warriors sacrifice, Pericles subtly mourns the lost men while taking note of their willingness to lay down their lives for the homeland.
This message has been repeated through the ages. ‘We mourn them yes, but their sacrifice is not in vain…’ is a timeless message reappearing throughout thousands of years of human history. Pericles’ funeral oration is often compared to the Gettysburg address, where in 1863 former US president Abraham Lincoln reflected on the greatness of a nation that owed much to the sacrifices of dead men.
Despite the words of Pericles, Athens would suffer greatly in the coming years. The Peloponnesian war would continue for several years. Untold numbers would die and Athens itself would suffer a great plague and an eventual defeat at the hands of the Spartans. It is fortunate however that the great city would allowed to live and eventually recover.
Pericles’ funeral oration remains a poignant reminder that all things come at a cost. And while we might enjoy several luxuries within our own lifetime, there are often those who suffer selflessly on our behalf; falling again and again under the blows of outrageous fortunes so that we might live contently, peacefully. And if nothing else, we would do well to remember them…
“And when the moment came they were minded to resist and suffer, rather than to fly and save their lives; they ran away from the word of dishonor, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory.”- Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration

History: A Factual Fiction

by April 10, 2014

By Ben Potter
Nero fiddling as Rome burns.
The solidarity of dozens of men claiming ‘I’m Spartacus’.

Death of Caesar
Caesar looking into the eyes of his surrogate son as the blade of betrayal sliced open his mortal flesh while he pathetically gasps, through a mouthful of blood and spittle, the words: “et tu Brute”.

The mnemonic power of these images of the Ancient world are well-known to us all. We shouldn’t, however, thank the likes of Plutarch or Tacitus for such vivid portrayals, but Mervyn LeRoy, Stanley Kubrick and William Shakespeare.
Modern artists like these are not responsible for the immortalization of well-documented facts, but rather for giving us a history which is undeniably more effective at infiltrating the collective-consciousness.
Rome burning
Just to set the record straight: the fiddle hadn’t yet been invented in the 1st century AD, and Tacitus, an eye-witness to the blaze, reports that Nero made considerable efforts to counter its deadly effects.
Moreover, we’ve no idea as to the exact dialogue from the revolting slaves during the Third Servile War (73-71 BC), and the famous ‘et tu’ was considered an anachronism within a century of the event itself.

So, what to make of all this? Is this important? Do we care? Does the truth get in the way of a good yarn?

Perhaps talk of this sort is enough to get you a little hot under the collar. Well… if so, let’s hope that this source-based approach to the value of authenticity takes some of that heat and uses it to shed a little light.

The words of the aptly named professor Donald Watt are a good place to start our investigation:
“The historian’s main concern is accuracy; the producer of film and television is concerned with entertainment. The unspoken premise of the first proposition is that to be accurate is to be dull. The unspoken premise of the opposed proposition is that to be entertaining it is necessary to distort or misrepresent”.

‘Balderdash!’ The purist in us screams.

Well… let’s compare notes. Livy and Polybius both wrote of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. However, whilst Polybius was in his late teens at the time of the Carthaginian general’s death, Livy would not even be a twinkle in his father’s eye for another 120 years.
Here’s the contemporary account:
“The summits of the Alps, and the parts near the tops of the passes, are all quite treeless and bare, owing to the snow lying there continuously both winter and summer. But parts halfway up both sides are wooded and generally inhabitable”.

And here’s Livy, writing 170 years after the fact:

“There were no tree trunks or roots by which a man could hoist himself up, only smooth ice and thawing snow, over which they were always rolling… Four days were spent at the cliff, and the animals nearly perished of starvation: for the mountaintops are all particularly bare and such grasses as do grow are buried beneath the snow. Lower down one comes to valleys, and slopes bathed in sunlight, and streams, and near them are woods, and places more suitable for human habitation”.

To put this plagiarized and embellished passage into a modern time-frame, it would be like one of us picking up a pen one lazy afternoon and writing with vivid veracity about the annexation of Texas in 1845.

Livy
And although we often give the ancients a pass when it comes to the art of historiography, Livy wasn’t writing during the pioneering days of Herodotus. Indeed, by his time the genre was already well-established. More to the point, the man he uses as his ‘inspiration’, Polybius, wrote a largely factual and, often, disinterested work.

In other words, Livy couldn’t say that he didn’t know any better viz-á-viz the presentation of the cold, hard facts.

That said, facts, no matter what the temperature, may not have been Livy’s raison d’etre; there’s no reason to think he was trying to pull a fast one. As a product of the Golden Age of Latin Literature, and a contemporary of men like Virgil, Horace and Ovid, he may have been much more concerned that his prose was purple than precise.

The underlying question that we’re left with then is: ‘Who is better, Polybius or Livy?

Despite my own personal love for Polybius, I cannot find any ammunition with which to argue that he is more entertaining or accessible than the text of Livy. Meanwhile it’s hard to deny the allure of Livy’s work.

Therefore, we have to ask yet another question: Do we ‘learn’ more with an entertaining tale?
Polybius

Well… possibly, though possibly not. To be accurate we should say we learn less, but learn more easily and swiftly.

So where does such thinking lead us? Shall we watch Braveheart to learn about British history? Or read Dan Brown to learn about Da Vinci?

The very notion repulses.
These two examples are perhaps perverse extremes. There are other, more moderate illustrations such as HBO’s Rome. It has all the main historical events in the right place and looks astonishingly good, but it too must be taken with a pinch of salt.
It seems that Professor Watt’s proclamation about the incompatibility of truth and entertainment is not without its supporting evidence… But, in our humble opinion, there is still a place for the trustworthy historian. It is because we have such confidence in his or her credibility that we are overawed by the truth they communicate… and so the long dead world comes alive on the page.
Take, for instance, Thucydides’ accounts of the Athenian plague or Polybius’ of the inadequacy and pomposity of Roman social climbers. They resound strongly, simply because they are believed.

So while I would always advocate reading the more accurate source, I feel it is still better to read something rather than nothing. People should enjoy history, not neglect it on the bedside cabinet.

Whatever the source and whatever the motivation, it is hard to argue with the words of a man who knew a thing or two about writing, William Faulkner:

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read!”