The Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 B.C. between Athens and Sparta. Toward the end of the first year, Athenian politician Pericles delivered one of history’s greatest speeches. The speech glorified Athens, honored the dead, and rallied the troops. The speech influenced Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and remains deeply inspirational and studied to this day.
Athenian tradition held that citizens needed to honor war dead with a public funeral. The remains laid in state for three days and then a funeral procession followed. The mourning period ended with a speech by a prominent citizen. After a year of conflict with Sparta, Athens held a funeral with Pericles performing the oration.
Pericles began by praising the dead men and then departed from the typical Athenian funeral oration. He skipped over Athenian military history and delivered a lecture on democracy. Pericles extolled the virtues of a democratic society over the militaristic Spartans. Thus, he glorified the dead by glorifying the cause for which they fought. Although the war was over Athenian expansion, Pericles transformed it into a battle for democracy.
To Pericles and his fellow citizens, Athenian democracy meant justice. It is from this speech that western civilization learned the phrase “equal protection under the law.” That justice extended beyond Athens’ borders. Pericles boasted how “we throw open our city to the world” and provided an opportunity for even foreigners to succeed. On the other hand, Sparta oppressed its citizens under the yoke of a military dictatorship. There was no freedom or justice in Sparta. Athenian generosity, pursuit of justice, and opportunity represented the city state’s greatest strength. These traits strengthened Athens and made it stronger. As a result, Sparta should not have mistaken Athenian freedom for weakness.
Pericles redirected the speech from Athens and back onto the dead. He praised their “heroism” and honored their virtuous service. “None of these men allowed either their wealth with its prospect of future enjoyment to unnerve his spirit, or poverty with its hope of a day of freedom and riches to tempt him to shrink from danger.” They were true embodiments of Athens “choosing to die resisting, rather than live submitting.” Therefore, to live free, Athenians needed to avoid shying “away from the risks of war.”
The 2500-year-old funeral oration sounds amazingly modern. Pericles address sounds remarkably like speeches from Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, or Ronald Reagan. Clearly, these orators were rhetorically descended from Pericles. Perhaps no modern speech resembles this address as much as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. In two minutes, Lincoln summarized the meaning of the Civil War, democracy, and the sacrifice of men in uniform in the same manner as Pericles. The Gettysburg Address is even organized similarly. While crafting the speech, Lincoln had Pericles on the mind.
Certain themes resonate over several millennia. Pericles Funeral Oration during the Peloponnesian War is still studied and copied to this day. During that day in 430 B.C., Pericles defined the war while honoring the dead and democracy. World leaders have sought to follow his example ever since.