Pericles’ Funeral Oration, By Philipp Foltz (c. 1805–1877)

In the illustration above, the German artist Philipp Foltz (c. 1805–1877) recreated a somber event that was said to have occurred in the ancient city of Athens in late 431 BCE or early 430 BCE. To set the scene, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) between Athens, Sparta, and their allies, had just begun—the two sides of the conflict spent the inaugural campaign of the war raiding the territory of the other before returning to their own respective cities for the winter. Once the Athenians were back in their territory, they held a public funeral in honor of the first warriors who died in the war. Thucydides, an Athenian general during the Peloponnesian War who later wrote a history about his times, described the funeral:

“In the same winter the Athenians, following their annual custom, gave a public funeral for those who had been the first to die in the war. These funerals are held in the following way: two days before the ceremony the bones of the fallen are brought and put in a tent which has been erected, and people make whatever offerings they wish to their own dead. Then there is a funeral procession in which coffins of cypress wood are carried on wagons. There is one coffin for each tribe, which contains the bones of members of that tribe. One empty bier is decorated and carried in the procession: this is for the missing, whose bodies could not be recovered. Everyone who wishes to, both citizens and foreigners, can join in the procession, and the women who are related to the dead are there to make their laments at the tomb. The bones are laid in the public burial-place, which is in the most beautiful quarter outside the city walls. Here the Athenians always bury those who have fallen in war” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book two, section 34).

After the burial, an honored speaker then addressed the crowd. That year, it was the Athenian leader, Pericles, who gave the speech. Such is the image that Philipp Foltz (c. 1805–1877) brought to life—that of Pericles delivering the funeral oration to the people of Athens. His speech, from what Thucydides remembered of it, was dominated by talk of Athenian virtue, honor, and their democratic form of government.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

 

Sources:

  • History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.
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