In the History of the Peloponnesian War, the disgraced Athenian General, Thucydides, described Athens’ efforts to defend the honor and security of the empire. Athens, a democracy, manned an unparalleled naval force which dominated the island and coastal city-states along the Adriatic and Aegean Seas. As the hegemonic power, Athens became singularly focused on defending and expanding its empire. It demanded tribute and allegiance from all states within its realm, and was not afraid to resort to war to get them. Hence, the Athenian response to the Melians’ appeal for peace, “right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power…[and] of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by necessary law of nature they rule wherever they can.” This "might makes right" policy led to overextension and drain on resources and manpower, which led to its downfall.
To switch from a historical narrative, Thucydides account of these events is one of tragedy — both in form and style. Briefly, and for starters, was Athens’ total surrender to national glory. For example, when other leaders of the assembly voiced doubt on the prospects of a Sicilian invasion, an island city far way, while enemies were were present near by, the objections were dismissed by the majority. Even when the dissenting group began to list the impossible demands both in men and resources for a successful invasion, the more the conquest was blindly supported by the rest of the assembly.
When hubris leads to destruction and loss, what does the state do to console the mourners, play to honor, and make sure the dead may live for posterity? They turn to oratory and vague language of sacrifice. This method was used during the aftermath of Athenian defeat by the great orator Pericles in which Thucydides documented with a hint of sarcasm and tragedy. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.
Thucydides writes of the consequences after the downfall.
“Never before had so many cities been captured and then devastated, whether by foreign armies or by the Hellenic powers themselves (some of these cities, after capture, were resettled with new inhabitants); never had there been so many exiles; never such loss of life–both in the actual warfare and in internal revolutions” (Thucydides, Intro to The History of the Peloponnesian War).
In contrast, Pericles was documented as saying during his funeral oration, “Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it” and “the whole earth is the tomb of famous men.”
These famous saying led Neville Morley (author of the essay linked below) to write:
Pericles’ oration was a masterpiece of rhetoric, and has been quoted and imitated ever since. In praising those who gave their lives for the city and justifying their sacrifice, it has supplied posterity with appropriate words for all such occasions of public commemoration, especially in the 20th century.
At best, then, the funeral oration expresses ideals that are inevitably undermined by subsequent events. At worst, it represents the very qualities that led to Athenian defeat. Periclean patriotism is questioned and undercut at every turn, and the reader is encouraged to weigh it carefully — or look back at it critically — rather than adopt its powerful but simple-minded slogans.
What can be inferred from Thucydides writings on these events is the antidotes to hubris. Tragedy, and its emphasis on the limits of human understanding, the degree to which it can downplay risk and loss for the appeal to audacity and ambition, shapes the narrative of his writings.
Conversely, how reality is masked with rising and glorious appeals to honor and glory. And often with destructive outcomes to those who succumb to their own hubris.
The inclusion of highly polished speeches such as Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides’ history has often puzzled readers, especially since he claimed to disdain writing for entertainment’s sake. Some have treated them as literal transcriptions of what was actually said, although Thucydides himself contradicted this. Others have read them as statements of Thucydides’ own views. Thus, many political theorists have claimed that the famous line from the Melian dialogue, ‘the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must’, is a Thucydidean doctrine, although it is said by the Athenians.
Both approaches are wrong. The speeches allowed Thucydides to explore the motives of key actors at critical moments, and to develop one of his central themes: the awkward relationship between words and deeds, ideas and reality. By juxtaposing speeches and action in his narrative, he emphasised the constant mismatch between what people thought and claimed — and what actually happened, whether because of ignorance, miscalculation, deception or chance.
So it is with Thucydides’ account of Pericles’ Funeral Oration. There is interminable debate among specialists about whether Thucydides actually admired Pericles’ leadership. It is possible to read the speech as an endorsement of Periclean ideals, but one can also see it as a deliberate exposition of the dangers in Pericles’ conception of an all-powerful Athens, with its hidden agenda of imperial expansion and the enslavement of others.
In either case, the rest of the narrative demonstrates how unsuccessful the whole project was. Having confidently started a war against Sparta, Pericles succumbs to plague within a year. Athens becomes ever more corrupt in its pursuit of dominance; this is exemplified in the amorality of the Mytilenean debate and the Melian dialogue with its ‘might is right’ argument, and in the selfish ambition of figures such as Cleon and Alcibiades. Yet it is clear that its roots lie deeper. After the disastrous invasion of Sicily, the Athenians readily abandon the glories of democracy in favour of an oligarchy, in the hope of pay from the Persians. In any case, as Thucydides had noted, democracy under Pericles was already in reality the rule of one man.