Athens, Pericles and the Birth of Democracy: Part 4: Eyewitness Report

About the history and biography ancient Greek political leader of Athens Pericles and the government which gave birth to democracy.


EYEWITNESS REPORT: In 431 B.C. Pericles delivered a famous funeral oration in honor of the Athenians who had died fighting Sparta during the 1st year of the Peloponnesian War. The version of Athenian democracy he presents is quoted by Thucydides:

"Our ancestors ... are worthy of our praises; and still more so are our fathers. For they enlarged the ancestral patrimony by the empire which we hold today and delivered it, not without labor, into the hands of our own generation; while it is we ourselves, those of us who are now in middle life, who consolidated our power throughout the greater part of the empire and secured the city's complete independence both in war and peace ...

"Our government is not copied from those of our neighbors; we are an example to them rather than they to us. Our constitution is named a democracy, because it is in the hands not of the few but of the many. But our laws secure equal justice for all in their private disputes, and our public opinion welcomes and honors talent in every branch of achievement, not for any sectional reason but on grounds of excellence alone ... Open and friendly in our private intercourse, in our public acts we keep strictly within the control of law. We acknowledge the restraint of reverence; we are obedient to whomsoever is set in authority, and to the laws, more especially to those which offer protection to the oppressed and those unwritten ordinances whose transgression brings shame.

"Yet ours is no workaday city only. No other provides so many recreations for the spirit--contests and sacrifices all the year round, and beauty in our public buildings to cheer the heart and delight the eye day by day. Moreover, the city is so large and powerful that all the wealth of all the world flows in to her, so that our own Attic products seem no more homelike to us than the fruits of the labors of other nations ...

"We are lovers of beauty without extravagance, and lovers of wisdom without unmanliness. Wealth to us is not mere material for vainglory but an opportunity for achievement. In doing good we are the exact opposite of the rest of mankind. We secure our friends not by accepting favors but by doing them. And so we are naturally more firm in our attachments; for we are anxious, as creditors, to cement by kind offices our relation toward our friends. If they do not respond with warmness, it is because they feel that their services will not be given spontaneously but only as the repayment of a debt. We are alone among mankind in doing men benefits, not on calculations of self-interest, but in the fearless confidence of freedom.

"Our pioneers have forced a way into every sea and every land, establishing among all mankind, in punishment or beneficence, external memorials of their settlement ... Such were the men who lie here and such the city that inspired them. We survivors may pray to be spared their bitter hour, but must disdain to meet the foe with a spirit less triumphant. Let us draw strength not merely from twice-told arguments--how fair and noble a thing it is to show courage in battle--but from the busy spectacle of our great city's life as we have it before us day by day, falling in love with her as we see her, and remembering that all this greatness she owes to men with the fighter's daring, the wise man's understanding of his duty, and the good man's self-discipline in its performance ....

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