Pericles' funeral oration is a speech written by Thucydides for his history of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles delivers the oration not only to bury the dead, but to praise democracy.
Pericles, a great supporter of democracy, was a Greek leader and statesman during the Peloponnesian War. He was so important for Athens that his name defines the age -- Periclean ("The Age of Pericles"), a period when Athens rebuilt what had been destroyed during the recent war with Persia (the Greco-Persian or Persian Wars).
The people of Athens, including those from the countryside whose land was being pillaged by their enemies, were kept in crowded conditions within the walls of Athens. Near the start of the Peloponnesian War, a plague swept the city. We don't know for sure what the plague disease was. A recent best guess is Typhoid Fever. At any rate, Pericles succumbed to and died from this plague. [Thucydides on the Plague]
Prior to the plague's devastation, Athenians were already dying as a result of the war. Pericles delivered a rousing speech lauding democracy on the occasion of funerals, shortly after the start of the war.
Thucydides fervently supported Pericles, but was less enthusiastic about the institution of democracy. Under the hands of Pericles, Thucydides thought democracy could be controlled, but without him, it could be dangerous. Despite Thucydides' attitude towards democracy, the speech he puts in Pericles' mouth supports the democratic form of government.
Thucydides, who wrote his Periclean speech for his History of the Peloponnesian War, readily admits his speeches are only loosely based on memory so shouldn't be taken as a verbatim report.
In the speech, Pericles says:
- Democracy allows men to advance because of merit instead of wealth or inherited class.
- In a democracy, citizens behave lawfully while doing what they like without fear of prying eyes.
- In a democracy, there is equal justice for all in private disputes.
"Our constitution does not copy the laws of neighbouring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves. Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life. There, far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes, or even to indulge in those injurious looks which cannot fail to be offensive, although they inflict no positive penalty. But all this ease in our private relations does not make us lawless as citizens. Against this fear is our chief safeguard, teaching us to obey the magistrates and the laws, particularly such as regard the protection of the injured, whether they are actually on the statute book, or belong to that code which, although unwritten, yet cannot be broken without acknowledged disgrace."Source:
Pericles Funeral Oration
Ancient Writers on Democracy